What a year! For some of our ESRs it was a year on the way to their PhD program. For others, who started later, this year was very tight. We would like to document and share how this trip went for all of us in our new countries and how the research trip has developed. In this blog post “The Journey So far” we will publish 4 blogs with the experiences of ESRs, dedicated to the thematic topics of the project. In the first part, Xingyu Liu (ESR1), Victoria Barcala (ESR3) and Oleksandr Bolielyi (ESR 4) talk about the first 12 months of their doctoral trip. These 3 ESRs work within the framework of the P-TRAP project on the subject of “Phosphorus deposition in drained agricultural areas”. Enjoy reading!

Xingyu Liu

When I was young, I always dreamed of being a scientist. Of course, at that time I had no idea about PhD, research, experiments, etc. After twenty years, this dream comes closer. Having my old apartment in Zürich canceled and moved to my new home with all my belongings in a carrier, I finally arrived in Bayreuth to start work on my PhD in the Hydrology group of the University of Bayreuth, one week before the corona lockdown. Beyond doing research in traditional academic institutions, one of the greatest things about the Marie Skłodowska-Curie PhD fellowship is: I’m not alone. I’m part of 11 PhD students, who are facing the same situation as I am. I can still remember the first time when I joined the ESR meeting, I was warmly welcomed, although the meeting was held online, my fear and worries disappeared immediately. Thanks to my long stay in Switzerland, living abroad is not a problem anymore and I enjoy this casual and relaxed atmosphere here. So, the new life just started with some minor difficulties but became more smoothly every single day. In the first few months, I spent most of my time reading and improving my programming skills. Then, I was able to do some field sampling, combined with lab work. 

Figure 1: Looking for somewhere to enjoy sunshine? Sea and beach, or fieldwork?

After spending nine months on my PhD in P-TRAP, I must say that I love it! I love confronting challenges. I have seen that not all experiments will end up with success. But even the results are not as expected, one can learn a lot from them. Since July, I have started monitoring phosphorus and iron concentrations in groundwater in our field site. The weekly sampling was also a challenge for me, when it was so hot in summer and become ice cold now. When interpreting the measured parameters, it seems also difficult because a lack of control in the natural environment brings problem of extraneous variables.

Figure 2: My trick to get over afternoon slump: ice cream from “Opera” ice shop.

I love having a diversity of tasks, short and long-term goals. Mentoring a master thesis is something absolutely new for me, and I worried a lot at the beginning if I can do that. Imagine that you just finished your own thesis one year ago but have a master student now. But it’s indeed a great experience and accelerates my work a lot. I love being just myself and manage my tasks with flexibility. I’m allowed to choose my way of solving a problem and how I will spend time on it. After having a long day of sampling in the field, I can take one morning off and do some reading at home. When I get tired in the afternoon, I can leave earlier to grab an ice cream to beat my brain fog. 

There are still many things I want to experience in the next two years: presenting my project at conferences and seeing how interested other researchers are. Or having a paper accepted, later seeing someone citing “Liu et al.” and thinking “wow! That’s me!”

Xingyu Liu



Victoria Barcala
Hi there! ESR 3 Victoria here, thanks for reading our blogs! It has been without a doubt an unforgettable year! I am very grateful for the opportunity of being part of P-TRAP, I enjoy being part of the group of ESRs and I get a lot of support and encouragement from my supervisors Leonard and Thilo. In this blog, I will tell you a bit about what I have been working on this first year and the experience of living in a new country.

My research focuses on improving the management practices of surface waters draining agricultural areas to optimize the retention and recovery of Iron – associated Phosphorus. So far, we have closely monitored a farm and followed how the phosphorus is transported from its application (as manure or fertilizer) to the surface water. The farm location makes it very interesting to study iron-phosphorus interactions as it is on iron-rich sandy soils. Iron plays an important role in phosphorus transport and retention. The iron oxides present in the soil adsorb the phosphate in the soil solution, reducing the amount of phosphate seeping from groundwater decreases. In the surface water, the largest phosphorus transport is through the resuspension of particles rich in iron and phosphorus. In the second year, we are planning to investigate the transport of this type of sediment. This knowledge would be very valuable to design phosphorus traps!

Figure 3: Fieldwork, measuring phosphorus in groundwater in the outlet of drains covered with iron coated sand

Now, together with Arcadis, we are looking into iron-coated sand, a by-product of the drinking water industry. The iron-coated sand can adsorb the phosphate in groundwater and surface water, improving water quality. We are trying to understand better how this material behaves under different field conditions performing laboratory experiments. In Figure 3, I am measuring the phosphate after a tile drain covered with iron-coated sand in the tulip bulb area. This region has little iron in the soil, the addition of iron coated sand can help to adsorb the phosphate present in the groundwater, improving the surface water quality.

Figure 4: Deventer and the IJssel river, the Netherlands

The Ph.D. work requires a lot of time management and dedication, personally, I find being part of a group very inspiring as it is motivating to hear about the experiences of the other Ph.D. candidates, and it gives you a sense of belonging and teamwork. With “corona”, traveling is limited, and I get homesick from time to time, however, I had the opportunity to go around the Netherlands and visited places outside the mainstream touristic spots and visited places like Texel, Groningen, and Maastricht. There are many interesting places to check out and I enjoy knowing more about Dutch life, history, and culture. I have also moved houses from Gouda to Deventer (Figure 4).

Although I have been in the Netherlands for one year now, everything feels new again and I still have a lot of new places to discover! One of my objectives for next year is to learn a bit more about their language. 

Tot volgende blog!




Oleksandr Bolielyi

Hello everyone!

Figure 5: At the main entrance to GEOS.

As a part of the blog series on ESR’s yearly impression, I wanted to share my experience on the activities done in the P-TRAP project from my side. My P-TRAP story starts with the shared vacancy of P-TRAP project by a colleague from NMBU (Norwegian University of Life Sciences) at the time, when I was trying to find a researcher position preferably connected to water treatment or inorganic chemistry. The ideas of P-TRAP were close to what I would like to do in order to start working on my PhD. What was also intriguing is the practical approach, which P-TRAP suggests as well as mobility, which can be found as a good opportunity to explore various countries and to create a connection with scientists in different universities and companies. The feeling of being a part of something bigger is important for me, so I was very happy to hear that I have passed the competition for the P-TRAP project position and will be working in GEOS company (Germany).

Starting work is never easy. It always starts with administrative procedures, which might seem to be annoying, but indeed important. Please do not forget to get yourself an insurance for accidents, if you stay in Germany for a long period of time . One of the struggles, when going abroad, is that you probably won’t know the local language. I am not an exception and therefore I visited courses in TU Bergakademie Freiberg until the courses were cancelled and I had to keep learning German on my own and it feels good making progress. 

People tend to claim, that PhD research depends a lot on your supervisors. I could not agree more. Me and my supervisor, Dr. Susan Reichel from GEOS are keeping in close touch and always discuss the progress made and upcoming plans of the P-TRAP project. Under her guidance I have all the faith I need, that my PhD will be carried out successful  

Year 2020 is coming to an end soon and it is not surprising that it was challenging for everyone more or less. In comparison to my colleagues from P-TRAP consortium, I had rather more opportunities to work in the lab and the only affected thing was secondment in Aquaminerals, which was postponed to spring 2021. 

So far, we were collecting a lot of data to characterize raw materials and newly produced agglomerates to be used as adsorbents for the P-TRAP system. Even though it includes a lot of basic measurements and experiments, it is always a thrill for a scientist to get more data and see, what it says. In times of corona, we are trying to get as much data as we can, in case of extreme lockdown measures. So far, we were able to get enough information for characterization of filter-stable agglomerates to finalize the Milestone 11, which is going to be shared at the end of November 2020.

Figure 6:  Preparing samples for photometric measurements.

P-TRAP project involves a lot of mobility and cooperation within consortium. Thus, cooperation is not only recommended but it is an essential part of the project. Here, I would like to acknowledge the high organizational level of P-TRAP consortium, where everyone plays their important roles towards given objectives. I really enjoyed being an ESR head in summer 2020, as this position gives you an opportunity to improve your communicational and leadership skills.

Figure 7: ESR1, Xingyu is taking groundwater samples from the field site (Voitsumra)

Nowadays, GEOS maintains contact with consortium members, especially with our close partners from Bayreuth University. Particularly, it is decided to establish P-TRAP system at Voitsumra’s field site. Bayreuth University is the closest location to this field site. I keep in touch with Dr. Prof. Stefan Pfeiffer, who is my co-supervisor in Bayreuth University as well as ESR1 – Xingyu Liu, who collects the required data on the site, and we continue working together towards the implementation of the P-TRAP system. The design of the P-TRAP system is already in progress and I have high expectations for it to be operating on the field site for phosphorus removal from groundwater. 

To sum up, being a part of P-TRAP family is a great pleasure, which requires you to be responsible, well-organized and communicable. This project has high expectations and we are looking forward to proceeding with our goals, meeting the new challenges and coming up with solutions despite nowadays global issues. Keep yourself motivated, stay healthy and don’t give up on your work .

Wish you all the best,


We hope you enjoyed reading our first blogpost series on “The Journey so far”, thanks for reading and see you on our next blogpost series where Rouven (ESR10), Ville (ESR7) and Mingkai (ESR6) will tell us more about their experiences in their first year.