The REWATERGY EXPERIENCE (Part 4)
Marina Avena Maia
n October 2019, I joined the REWATERGY Marie Curie European Industrial Doctorate and it has been an extremely enriching experience so far. I am currently a 3rd year PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and am also gaining experience in the private R&D sector by working at Delft IMP – a start-up company in the Netherlands. One thing that I could have never foreseen is that I would be developing my PhD project during a world pandemic.
Shall we start at the beginning? Well, my first stop at the REWATERGY Programme was at Cambridge, in England. During my undergraduate studies, I lived for one year in Scotland and I still cherish the lovely memories that I have from that time. So naturally, I was looking forward to living again in the United Kingdom and joining this prestigious PhD Programme. Cambridge is a lovely city and I immediately felt at home. I easily became a fan of British humour and the local culture, so adjusting to England was a smooth ride. Regarding my PhD, I worked for one year and a half at the Catalysis and Process Integration group (CAPI). The group, which is led by Dr Laura Torrente-Murciano, is a diverse group of talented researchers from all over the world. The working atmosphere is collaborative and supportive, unless when we are trying to decide whose music playlist we are putting next (spoiler alert: rock solves all the conflicts). Abruptly, after only 4 months of working in the CAPI group the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The University closed for 5 months, so I could not do any experimental work. During that time, I focused on literature review research whilst working from home. After the University re-opened, I felt like I was on an iron-man marathon, but instead of swimming, cycling and running, I was doing experiments, analysis, and data interpretation against the clock. I was extremely worried about the time that I lost during the pandemic. I felt like I was constantly running against time to acquire the most amount of data I could. Pandemic or no pandemic, I guess the PhD is not for the faint-hearted, right?
After one year and a half in Cambridge, I moved to Delft in The Netherlands for my industrial placement at Delft-IMP. It was more challenging to readjust to a new country where I faced problems with immigration, finding accommodation and learning how to cycle on the right lane again. A good trade-off was to discover the delicious apple pie and the stroopwafels, which brought me comfort when I was missing Cambridge, my family and my friends. At Delft-IMP, I learned about the coating processes and deepened my materials science knowledge even more. In December 2022, I will move back to Cambridge and work on finishing my thesis manuscript. I still feel like I am participating in a long iron-man marathon, but this time, with 4 PhD research awards under my belt, I can see the finish line.
y early educational journey started in my hometown in the Hunza Valley, and I moved to Pakistan to attain higher education. I arrived in Madrid in October 2019 to join the REWATERGY Project as an early career researcher. Before my arrival, I was full of curiosity about the countries and people I will work with during the three years. I was more excited to start building the foundations of a career in research as an early-stage researcher. For me, it was a start of a life changing experience, in two scientifically advanced countries, Spain, and Ireland.
I completed my initial 18 months at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos Madrid. I started my work by re-learning all the research techniques. I found the research staff and fellows very friendly. Although I had travelled few places before, never had I imagined travelling alone. I took up the opportunity to fulfil my solo travelling dream. I visited new cities in Spain and shared my experience through social media with the online community. Each city inspired me differently, the various forms of art, the diverse culture, the layers of different history, and the taste of locals were reflected in each place I walked through. The coexistence of modern development and the preserved remains of the past was so visible. I was so glad I had the opportunity to learn things outside formal education and my research.
During the Covid period, I utilised my restriction period on learning the Spanish language through online courses. Although I learned the language for basic communication, it gave me great pleasure to be able to communicate and enjoy Spanish television programs. In this period, we received the impacts of the evolving uncertainties and heart-breaking news from all around the World. The moral support from our families, the REWATERGY project, and the professors, friends, and fellows helped a smooth transition to the post-Covid period. This was a realisation that we may live in different countries, with different ways of life, but the problems facing humanity are common. A disaster or a pandemic knows no boundaries. A single country prepared for a disaster is not sufficient to overcome the impacts. Our present and future demands more collective actions than ever before. Therefore, a period in the REWATERGY project taught me life-long lessons, about living in an entirely different country and situations.
With the arrival of Covid vaccine, new hopes were restored, and we were able to resume our laboratory experimental work after three months of closure. At the end of my academic placement, I further faced five months delay in fulfilling the legal procedures to work and travel to Ireland. It could have been difficult but with the regular technical support from the REWATERGY team and EURAXESS Ireland, I was able to continue my industrial placement in Ireland. At the end of my stay in Spain, I got a chance to play in a theatre show, my first performance in Madrid. It was an outstanding opportunity for me to play together with amazing actors from six different countries. In summary, in Spain, I received more support than I expected, made more friends than I anticipated, and learned things beyond the project activities.
I started my industrial placement at ProPhotonix Limited Ireland. Being part of a company was a whole different experience than academia. Although previously, I had only read about laser and UV-LEDs based technologies, at the company I worked around people involved in manufacturing, testing, and delivery of the products to customers from various application areas. This was where I saw the translation of research-generated data into real applications.
The natural beauty of Ireland is breathtaking. The Irish people´s sense of humour is on another level. With a low population, diverse communities, smaller cities, and cozy towns, it took very less time to integrate into the country. During my travel through the country, I explored a whole new world, history, and culture. I realised how limited my knowledge of other cultures had been, this program gave me the opportunity to expand my understanding of diverse social systems. I continue sharing my research findings through international conferences and publications with the research community. Moreover, the nature and beauty of Ireland motivate me to post frequent stories on social media. My work is in progress in Ireland, but I could see I am continuously growing in many ways. The REWATERGY project provided me with an opportunity to grow professionally and personally.