The Old Days
Why do I write this blog? It is to show that the path to where you want to go is not always easy.
I was trained as a metamorphic petrologist at the University of Kiel in Germany and as a petrologist/mineralogist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, Switzerland. In my undergraduate thesis I studied ‘proper ROCKS!: serpentinites, and carbonates associated with ophiolites – and I love it. I absolutely enjoyed the quest about how mountains form, how rocks in the deep ocean changed through chemical reactions, how small minerals could move even big mountains like the Alps etc. etc…
I know, a rather geeky thing to like, but that was what I wanted “Geology” to be.
I can envisage that when some of you read this, those of you who know me now – so many years later, will not believe that this is what I liked !
But indeed I like rocks and mountains even now, regardless of what I do research-wise currently. Nature still gives me the questions and searching for the unknown is still the only thing that makes sense to me.
My BSc and MSc days are long gone. They were in the early 90’ties (in the LAST century!!) – and for some of my students – that is very, very, long ago – i.e., practically ancient. Science – and by inference also I – have moved on but that is the way science goes; we reinvent ourselves all the time and that is more than fine with me – it is actually as far as I am concerned a pre-requisite of a scientist.
I am now a Professor in Experimental Biogeochemistry (sorry about the ‘posh’ title but it is a British thing!) at the University of Leeds and sort of lead the Cohen Geochemistry group in the School of Earth and Environment in Leeds, United Kingdom.
In the last months I saw several of my PhD students struggling either with experiments, or with analytical gear that did not want to behave, or with pesky data or just wrong numbers etc. You are not alone – that is normal and you will ultimately succeed – if you stick it out!
So I thought: let me write a story about my PhD experience and maybe this will help.
Here we go!
Some might say that my PhD topic was ‘sexy’. I was working with Gold. Not gold in rocks as you would expect but I changed fields and became an experimentalist. I studied how gold dissolves.
To the consternation of my ‘not-so-knowledgeable’ friends, I used to buy sheets and tubes of pure (and I mean pure – proper 24 carat) gold from Johnson Matthey. Using those I had to make my gold containers by welding them into a ‘bag’ shape and then do my experiments by filling the ‘bags’ with solution, heating them up in reactors and dissolving the gold – to ultimately figure out how soluble it was.
Well it is most likely not more strange than any of the projects you work on yourself.
When I started my PhD, my supervisor said: here is the key to the lab, lets do experiments!
So I went to the ‘lab’ and saw that it was an empty room that I had to fill with ‘stuff’.
He also said: go do experiments at high T and P!
Now that got me excited and I was thinking: great – now I can play with hot water under pressure – and that was challenge!! And I was in heaven!!
I started building my system. But first – because the lab was empty – I stared spending money. I had to buy anything from the first set of gloves – high T resistant that is – to screw drivers, pressure transducers, rocking ‘bombs’ (big reactors to you and me; – see my system below). I had to learn about strange US vs. imperial vs. metric units in threads and pipe dimensions etc., and naturally I had to learn how to weld with oxy-acetylene to make my gold foils and tubes into a nice ‘gold-bag’ shape for my high T and P reactors. Now the welding was scary yet fun – but only once I knew how. Much of my original, shiny, flat gold foil ended up in my first trials as a big molten blob, instead of a cylinder with a lid and with a nice seam – or a useful ‘bag’ shape. Anyhow, after many trials I got there and ultimately it was all fun.
To the dismay of some of my colleagues I was not just dissolving gold BUT I was dissolving gold in ‘stinky’ H2S solutions to better understand the formation of gold deposits on Earth.
BUT that needed experiments as there was very little data in the literature. Naturally the experiments failed initially more than succeeded. In addition, to sort the chemistry out I needed to get to grips with pesky equation, difficult maths, and computing and only with a lot of perseverance and patience did this ultimately work.
Just to expose some of my geeky-nes – I added a few equations below to scare you off. Although the task I had may sound easy, let me tell you – nothing was easy. On the surface all I had to manage was 2 small steps: (1) measure how much gold is in my ’gold-bag’ – in comes equation number 1:
and than use these numbers and (2) derive the equilibrium constants:. Ha, looks simple – no it was not.
I am sure such – or similar problems with equations, experiments etc – sound familiar to you and that maybe when you started you expected it maybe to be easier, yet it is not. Don’t despair – that is also normal.
Easy is not a word you should assume to be the norm in your PhD.
As you can imagine, because I had to have H2S in my experiments I was not the most ‘loved’ colleague in Zurich at the time. When things did not go to plan – and what experiments always do – the labs would be ‘perfumed’ by the ‘rotten eggs’ flavour.
What saved me was ultimately a great bunch of PhD and postdoc colleagues and a fantastic supervisor. Terry (my supervisor, now emeritus at The University of Victoria in Wellington, New Zealand) had to – many times -’save’ me from giving up and doing something else.
In the first 18 (YES 18!) months of my PhD, not much worked and I used to often go to his office exclaiming:
“I give up! I want my rocks back! Geology is more fun than messing with fluids and gold bags and transducers or Heise pressure gauges!”
Terry used to take his time, listen to me rant and then calm me down, encourage me to continue and send me on my way to solve the problem I came in with in the first place, yet always saying:
” Stick in there kiddo, it will work, the solution is just around the corner”
Well after 18 months my system finally functioned and I had my first trusted gold solubility number. I collected the my data in the following 18 months and wrote up my thesis in time. The rest is history.
I survived because it was hard but ultimately a great challenge and I had loads of fun. It taught me what science and research is about. Even after all these years I still like “strange” and hard experiments and very much still enjoy building new and strange ‘gizmos’ and learning new stuff and working out problems that nobody has before.
Now, many years later I try to instil this ethos into my students. Although they don’t always get it, why I like tinkering with experimental gear in the lab and why hard experiments are worth it or why I often try to ask them to solve hard problems – I hope they all persevere. They know me well enough now to remember that I always say “If it would be easy it would have been done already”.
About the author
Liane G. Benning is a Professor in Experimental Biogeochemistry at the University of Leeds and sort of lead the Cohen Geochemistry group in the School of Earth and Environment in Leeds, United Kingdom. She is currently the Vice President of the EAG and If you want to follow Liane’s blog – visit her very own WordPress site here and follow her on Twitter @lianegbenning