I stumbled into science: meet Stephanie Zihms

Zihms (2)Stephanie Zihms is currently working as a postdoc in Carbonate Geomechanics in the Institute of Petroleum Engineering at Heriot-Watt University. Her research tries to understand why rocks deform the way they do and what controls this deformation – grain size, grain shape, pore size or pore shape? Or is it the mineralogy or how the rocks formed in the first place? By deforming different rocks under different conditions in the lab she is trying to find some answers. This research and the findings are relevant for a range of subsurface processes like hydrocarbon extraction, geothermal energy production or Carbon Capture & Storage applications. Basically anytime a liquid or gas is put into the subsurface or extracted from the subsurface the conditions change and the rocks will response to this change – by understanding what controls this response within the rocks (grains , pores) we can predict the behaviour in the subsurface. Want to know more? Catch Stephanie on the 24th of July in Edinburgh!


SS: Stephanie, how did you get to your current position?

SZ: I guess you can say that it took me a little while to realise that academia was it for me. After my undergraduate (Earth Sciences) I worked in the geotechnical industry for 2 years. During these 2 years some of my friends did PhD research and that’s when I also got into interested in doing more research. I started my PhD in Civil & Environmental Engineering in 2009 at University of Strathclyde. After completing my PhD in 2013 I worked for the British Geological Survey as an Experimental Fluid Processes Geoscientist in the Transport Property Research Lab. However I did starting to miss some of the freedoms that come with academia and I left that position after 15 months. I didn’t see any long-term research posts that I liked so I did a 4 month postdoc in Mechanical Engineering at Heriot-Watt University. It was during that postdoc that I found and applied for my current post. I am now 1 year into as 3 year postdoc position at Heriot-Watt University.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

SZ: I think I stumbled into science – in school I did enjoy physics and when I had the right teacher even maths but I also did music and history. I went to school in Germany where we can do a range of subjects for A-Levels or GSCEs rather than picking from a selection narrowing the choices afterwards. My mum suggested the Earth Science degree and I liked the amount of fieldwork that was included in the degree. While growing up my parents encouraged me and my sister to ask questions and if we didn’t know the answer we would find out together – pre-google that was not always easy but we normally managed. We had a vast selection of encyclopaedia or lexica, specialist subject books – some specifically written for children. My parents still have our collection of ‘Was ist was’ books – a German book series that covers one topic per book written for children – I loved collecting those and we would get them for birthdays or Christmas. My dad also has a great collection of books on dog breeds and snakes – and sometimes I would just pick a book and look through it. On top of being encouraged to ask questions and find answers my parents also always encouraged us to pursue what we enjoyed without any pressure. There was never “You need to become this” or “You can’t do that” – which I think was just as important.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

SZ: I get really excited when I find something or see something that no one else has ever seen before – and then sharing this discovery with other people. For example – we recently tested some rocks in the lab and then sent them to a colleague for x-ray scanning. This allows us to see what had happened inside the rock during testing. We were able to show the fractures that had formed as well as some trace fossils that were present in the rock and have not been imaged like this before. Sharing those images with other researchers and at outreach events is exciting.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

SZ: I love outreach and I have done a lot of different formats – like Bright Club or show-and-tell events. What I like about Soapbox Science is the promotion of female scientists and science to a random audience that might not attend an event – so with Soapbox Science the event comes to the people. It’s just as scary as it is exciting since you don’t know who will listen, stop or ask questions on that day.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

SZ: Surprises
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

I would love to see people realise that science or academia is not life for everyone some people see it as a job they love and enjoy but have other interests outside science – hobbies, families, and friends. And that pursuing a balance in life should be encouraged and supported whatever that balance looks like for people.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

SZ: Build yourself some support networks – family and friends, other researchers, people interested in outreach, twitter connections – because sharing issues, successes, decisions with others helps a lot and will make the experience even better.


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