THE JOURNEY SO FAR – Part 3
Thank you for reading our blogpost series on “The Journey So Far”. In this third part, Rochelle Saracanlao (ESR2), Lordina Eshun (ESR5) and Tolulope Ayeyemi (ESR8) will share their experiences on the 1st year of their PhD program. Tolulope and Rochelle are focused on “Suitability of P containing Fe phases as fertilizers”, and Lordina works on “Formation of vivianite in bioreactors”. Within the context of P-TRAP, their projects are mainly focused on closing the phosphorus cycle in agriculture by using recycled phosphorus products. Enjoy reading!
My PhD journey started from the desire to deepen my understanding of soil chemistry. I was not particularly interested in a specific topic as long as it is about the chemical processes in soil and the same principle I applied in choosing a university where to get my PhD. I can settle in a not very well-known school given that my adviser will supervise me well and that the working environment is nurturing. Thus, it was definitely a blessing that I got into a good university along with a prestigious scholarship and supervised by a well-experienced environmental chemist and venerable Prof. Smolders (plus he is very cheerful and enthusiastic, too). The topic of using recycled iron phosphate products as fertilizer itself sparked a keen interest in me because it is something that I have a good enough background of but at the same time a topic I can further explore with novel techniques (e.g. isotope techniques, diffusive gradient in films technique (DGT)) and an actual work on instrumentation (i.e. ICP).
I have been in and out of Europe for the last five years either for a vacation, research work, and short courses. So, I feel quite comfortable working in a European environment. It is not news that majority of Filipinos dream (I guess) to work/visit Europe. It is not hot here whereas in our country it is 28 degree Celsius on the average. The streets are clean and there is less traffic. Travelling is easy within Europe so for travel enthusiasts, this is the dream.
Looking back to my first day which is exactly a year ago as of writing, I admit that it was overwhelming. There were certain things that the Belgians do differently that took me a lot of time of adapting (and it is still true to this day). I was also juggling two courses from my supervisor so there was a tremendous pressure to do well. There were times that I work 10 hours a day (plus additional work on weekends) just to catch up but I don’t feel like it is enough. I have experienced having a bad day before but during the first few months of my PhD, I got a taste of what it is like to go through a continuity of bad weeks. It was difficult to be back on your feet and boost yourself to go to work and face another day. I have never experienced this feeling of failure constantly following you. Even when I try to distract myself, I always get reminded of the mistakes I made (worst if witnessed by your supervisors). I did my best to put on a brave face, clad myself in best clothes, and remind myself that today is another chance to have a go at it again, but such efforts were futile. The realization that I am highly dependent on my colleagues to move forward sunk in. Days passed and still I can’t make a sense anymore of what I am doing. Self-doubt, insecurity, and intimidation set in that no ice cream and walks in the park can cure.
So I gave up, stayed at home and cried. (For one whole day).
I wallowed with my struggles in my experiment and my courses and summer school. It was just too much and spiraled whether I deserve to be in such a prestigious scholarship (maybe they made a mistake during the selection process), and if i can still make it when everyone around you is smart and confident to argue and speak out their mind.
Then, I realized failure will always be there. I can never escape it. I learned to accept it as part of my PhD life. I realized that there are still so many things for me to learn (even after I finish my PhD). I have refused for failure to belittle me; instead I am using it as a leverage to be more critical and to work harder and more carefully.
This comics adapted from Grant Snider best captures the struggles I went through a certain time during my first year of Phd.
But right after that storm of work came peace. I passed my courses and now on right track again with my research. My direct supervisor helped a lot in pulling me up and putting me back in the game. She acknowledged my shortcomings and told me that what I am going through is normal. That this too shall pass. Indeed, it passed!
Just a year ago, I was just a wide-eyed girl out on a new adventure coming here to Belgium but now I am again embarking on a new journey of seeking answers about fertilizer efficiency of Fe-P products. Yes, still in Belgium (and other European countries) but with greater resolve and beaming with positivity.
|Beaming with joy after learning I have to be trained how to operate ICP-OES.||Finally, harvest time! All the hard work came to an end (at least for this experiment)|
|All in a day’s work during the corona pandemic.|
The desire to find solutions to problems has been my driving force and that ignited my passion for a Ph.D. position (ESR 5) in the P-TRAP project. I still remember the joy and fulfillment in my heart as I read the congratulatory email. Aside from the excitement, I was also curious about how my new life in the UK (specifically Manchester, England) was going to be like; was I going to meet wonderful people as I did in the Netherlands during my master’s degree? How will I cope with combining stress from my Ph.D. and life in the UK in general? These and many more are the questions that lingered on my mind as I proceeded with the visa application processes. In all this, I had an inner feeling that everything will work out smoothly because this Ph.D. topic (development of a microbial-based process for the conversion of Phosphate-containing Fe(III) oxides into agricultural fertilizers) is similar to what I worked on during my master’s Thesis (Recovering Vivianite, an Iron Phosphate mineral from wastewater).
I arrived in the UK in January 2020 instead of September 2019 due to delays in the visa processes. After completing all registrations, I gave an introductory talk in the Geomicrobiology group of the Earth and Environmental Sciences department at the University of Manchester. I went through all the necessary training needed to work in the Geomicrobiology lab during February and March. My first trial experiments in the laboratory started in March 2020 but this was not completed as the Covid 19 pandemic resulted in a lockdown in the UK. This gave me the time to focus more on the reading of literature and the writing of my first-year transfer report. It was, indeed, the best time for writing that report. I also worked on my EU Milestone 10 report. I must say, the lockdown was not all that bad, aside from the fact that my laboratory work was delayed. The good news is that I was able to resume laboratory work in late August and therefore, despite the limited access to the lab, some Fe(III) bioreduction experiments have been conducted.
This 10 months Ph.D. journey has been a period of learning. I have learned that challenges and failures are inevitable in life, and for that matter, in research. However, a lot depends on how one can tackle the challenge and learn from it. Surrounding yourself with positive people also helps. Apart from obtaining advice and help from my Supervisor (Prof. Jon Lloyd), I also ask a few colleagues questions regarding my experiments and these have been very resourceful. Being a part of the EU H2020 P-TRAP project has also contributed to my learning (both personal development and team working skills). The regular meetings among the ESR’s (we are a total of 11) and the PIs give us (ESR’s) the opportunity to learn from each other’s work and also create an avenue for internal collaborations. I also enjoyed working together with other ESR groups for developing an E-learning module. This was a great experience for me as it was my first time working on an online module.
I am looking forward to a productive, successful, and insightful second year. I have the hope that I can start experiments using industrial waste materials and obtain reproducible results. I am also hoping that the Covid situation will subside so that I can travel to Spain for my 1st secondment.
I hope you enjoyed reading this piece. Do watch this space as I will bring you more updates about my Ph.D.
|Lordina in her lab|
The 1st of August 2019 ended with so much excitement for me. After going through two rounds of interview for the P-TRAP ESR 8 position, I finally got a congratulatory message of my selection for the position. Having conducted my master thesis in the same research area (one that I fell in love with) as what the position is, I was very excited to continue my research journey looking for alternative sources of phosphorus aside phosphate rock (PR) for the sustenance of crop production. This also meant that I was going to leave the beautiful, cool and international city of Bonn, Germany where I had my Msc. Program and move to the city of Seville where my host university is located. However, that didn’t happen until Feb 2nd, 2020 after finally obtaining my visa to Spain: that was a long story on it’s own.
From February to the middle of March, I tried settling down in my new city, learnt a little bit of Spanish as less than 10% of people in Seville speak English; and more importantly, started a first phase of a preliminary plant experiment and laboratory training to get used to the working environment and condition in the Department of Agroforestry Sciences at the University of Seville. Unfortunately, this was short-lived, no thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic that forced the whole of Spain to be placed on a compulsory lockdown. The beauty of it however was that it was still possible to complete the preliminary plant experiment with the support of my colleagues, the plant samples were harvested and oven dried. I returned to the University after two months of lockdown to analyze the Fe and P contents of the plant samples and surprisingly, this had been the only experiment I have finished so far in the 9 months of my PhD Program. I will tell you more as you read further.
During my MSc master thesis, I often said “research is unpredictable”, I definitely didn’t know I will see and say more of this on my PhD journey. It’s been a journey of learning, unlearning, encouraging myself, seeking encouraging from others and just hopefully looking forward to that “exciting result” that I will eventually come out with from my research project. My greatest motivation on this journey is that I am absolutely in love with my research project and quite passionate about it. In the last three months, I have sadly been on a spot because a certain analytic procedure was giving me problems. My research group does not have all the equipment required for the “preferred” methodology of hot acid digestion of the vivianite fertilizer samples for my plant experiment; and this meant seeking and waiting for approval from the department that has it in the institute. Sadly, even after several replications of the analysis, the data collected didn’t show good reproducibility. This also meant several repeated digestions and analysis, several meetings with my supervisor to understand where the problem was. And just when it looked like everything was under control and a last digestion was all I needed; it all fell apart on a Monday afternoon as the cover of my tubes melted inside the acid solution. I had to throw out all my 18 samples.
Oh, I cried like a baby! It was very sad and frustrating for me to have been on a spot for 3 months considering that I had lost so much time while trying to obtain my visa to Spain and the lockdown, but then I came to the realization that this is often what a PhD journey is about. Now I know failure in some experiments is part of this research journey. If we knew how everything will play out, if we knew the end from the beginning, if we have all the answers, we most likely won’t need to do a PhD.
As I look forward to my 2nd year, I am optimistic that my plant experiments will come out well. I finally transplanted my first “main” plant experiment this week on the 1st of December after many delays. I have my other experiments lined ahead: testing vivianite products from Waste-Water Treatment Plants for Fe and P in pot experiments; and the impact of organic substances on the release of P and Fe from it. I am also excitedly looking forward to two secondments planned for my 2nd year in Austria and Belgium. This is one of the things that makes being a part of PTRAP/Marie Curie fellowship exciting along with its beautiful collaboration with both PIs and the other 10 ESRs.
In another 1 year, I hope to write many success stories from my PhD Journey, till then, I will continue to be passionate about looking for alternative sources for Phosphorus aside PR and Vivianite in particular in the course of my PhD.
|That Monday afternoon just when I thought this was going to be the last digestion, but I was wrong, half of the covered bottles melted inside the acid solution.||Making the soils ready for transplanting and mixing with vivianite products from WWTPs.|
We hope you enjoyed reading this piece about “Our Journey So Far”. Do watch this space as we continue to bring you more updates about our Ph.D.