Veronika Zhiteneva, Technical University of Munich, will be taking part in Soapbox Science Munich on Saturday 7th July. She will give a talk entitled: “Your poop + bugs + machine learning = drinking water”
Left to Right: Prof. Dr.-Ing. Jörg E. Drewes, Sema Karakurt, Veronika Zhiteneva, Anastasia Ruf, Dr.-Ing. Uwe Hübner. Photo: Andreas Heddergott
SS: Why did you choose a scientific career?
VZ: In school, I really loved writing, poetry, and print media. Initially, I wanted to become a writer for Popular Science or Wired. A few doors opened during my first years at university that revealed how much more interesting being on the discovery side of science was in comparison to the communication side, so I switched. I figured the science itself and related technical skills should be learned in an academic setting, while communication skills could be learned outside of a 4 year degree. Now I’m appreciating how the two go hand in hand as I continue in my scientific career.
SS: How did you get your current position?
VZ: Persistence. My professor at TUM taught for many years at the same university I got my master’s degree from in the US. Though we didn’t overlap there, I wrote grant applications from abroad and made it clear I was willing to work for the position. After a year of correspondence, I came to Munich to start my PhD.
SS: What do you do in your everyday work life?
VZ: I run column experiments, troubleshoot, work with wastewater, do data analysis, troubleshoot, sometimes do sample prep, discuss problems and approaches with my colleagues and supervisors…and troubleshoot. Sometimes I teach as well.
SS: What is the most exciting aspect of your research?
VZ: I’d have to say two things: 1) when you finally make sense of your results and they tell a good story, regardless of whether or not it’s the one you initially theorized, and 2) when a colleague or student shares their/your enthusiasm/gratitude with you – science can sometimes feel lonely, but remembering that we’re all deeply invested in the success of the project is important.
SS: What challenges do you encounter in science?
VZ: Mainly funding. Getting scooped is often a problem when you’re trying to take an incremental step forward in research. Adapting your idealized experimental plan to your real life circumstances is a never ending process.
SS: What are your most promising findings in the field?
VZ: The technologies our chair researches for treating water will allow cities to close their water supply networks, making sure the water coming out of your tap has the same quality as before, but is less energy intensive. We’re developing wastewater treatment techniques that use natural processes and microbes, and ways to supply enough water for different uses (drinking, irrigation, recreation) as urban populations continue to grow.
SS: What motivates you to give a talk at Soapbox science?
VZ: Statistically, fewer women occupy academic and supervisory positions (CEOs, professors, etc) than men. I was fortunate to have had great female supervisors and professors early in my academic career, and have recently felt like it’s my turn to provide a similar kind of mentoring to the next generation. Talking about science in a casual setting reaches more people in a more understandable format, and maybe it’ll stick with you longer if you happen upon it randomly.
SS: Do you have a few words to inspire other female scientists? What can we do to attract more women to STEM fields?
VZ: I don’t know about you, but I learned about very few women scientists in school, I can’t think of many apart from Marie Curie. If we teach girls about women who contributed to the advancement of science, we show them that women already are (and have been!) in STEM fields, and provide role models for them, just like we currently do for boys. If we make it normal, the distribution imbalance can solve itself.
We should continue supporting one another and discussing our findings, issues, personal experiences, and successes. Women by nature are more social than men, but we can use this for our benefit, and support each other, both in and outside the lab – this especially includes encouraging each other to take chances and seize opportunities that we might be unsure about.