In the beginning of a PhD student employment, an introductory meeting takes place where the student is introduced to the director of studies, the PhD administrator, and the HR team. During this meeting, I felt overwhelmed by all the information I was receiving but also excited about my new start. The concept of the “half-time review seminar” was explained to me back then and it seemed to be so far in the future. Two quick years later, the moment to have my seminar has come and it feels that my introductory meeting was only a few days ago.
The half-time review seminar is a requirement for doctoral students employed at KTH. The student presents an overview of the research so far, participation at conferences, courses completed, workshops attended, and so on. An important part of the seminar is the plan for future work. The evaluators and director of studies need to see that the student not only has been making progress in the first years but also that the progress will continue in the following years of the doctoral studies. Furthermore, the seminar is a great opportunity to evaluate if the workload of the student is bearable and if adaptations to the plan are required.
And just like that I realized that I am now half-way through my doctoral studies. That realization shocked me, as it means that two years from now I will give up the title “student”. This title followed me for about 22 years and soon I will no longer be associated with it. No more ECTS will be required of me, and my continuous learning will be driven solely by my own curiosity. Until now I always had a plan and knew what lay ahead. At least I had a pretty good idea. However, this next chapter of my life comes closer every day, as the defence of my PhD will signify the end of my current path of being a student. In front of me there is a sea of endless possibilities. Should I continue with a career in the academy? This work environment is very demanding but somehow also familiar. A researcher’s position in industry sounds intriguing too. Or should I start something of my own? After all I live in Sweden, an ideal country to found a start-up. The fact that I have so many options is proof of the great teachers and mentors I had all these years and especially during the past six months since I joined the CAZyme group. The support and bonding in this group is the perfect ground to grow, be creative, and dare to develop as a researcher.
A couple of weeks ago I faced my first public evaluation, during my half-time review seminar. I started my presentation nervously, with an introduction to the subject of my doctoral studies: native (i.e. natural, unmodified) lignin. Native lignin is an intriguing material, absolutely ideal to fuel my curiosity as a soon-to-be independent researcher. I initially decided to apply for this particular PhD project mainly because I was fascinated by the fact that gaps in fundamental knowledge still exist for the second most abundant biopolymer on Earth! Lignin is a major component of plants and yet so far, we have failed to quite grasp its native structure and many aspects of its biosynthesis. There are several factors that affect the structure of lignin, summarised in the image below. The plant species, cell type, and plant age are only a few. From my point of view, the complexity of the biomolecule’s nature is linked to one of its biological roles as a response to stress. By definition, trying to perform reproducible research on a molecule that can be provoked as the defence mechanism of a living organism cannot be an easy task! Sometimes I like to think of native lignin like a property in quantum mechanics; when we take a measurement the wavefunction collapses at the resulting value. The measurement method we choose to use has a specific influence on what is observed, and the two are inextricably linked. Similarly, as an example, an extraction protocol that is optimized to obtain high amounts of a specific bond within the lignin polymer might fail to give high overall lignin yields, meaning that only a fraction of total lignin is studied. This irony is inherent in classical methods of lignin analysis. We cannot avoid affecting the structure and chemical properties of a molecule that forms via radical polymerization, especially one that can rearrange its bond structure to defend the plant. The different extraction methods one can use have different yields and show variations in relative amounts of the lignin interunit linkages. The classical methods that are typically used to produce standard lignins are simply no longer good enough to answer the remaining fundamental biological questions about lignin. This is what motivates me in my doctoral work.
Lots of different factors can affect the structure and properties of lignin, including all of the natural phenomena mentioned here as well as the method we use to extract it for analysis. This last factor is the focus of much of my current research – I want to understand how we change lignin when we decide to study it! Figure made by Ioanna Sapouna using stock image photos.
After my presentation at the half-time meeting, the evaluators asked questions about my studies in general and about my research in specifics. My two evaluators were not from the same field, which gave me the opportunity to discuss lignin from different perspectives. The first one was an expert in extraction and valorisation of technical lignins. The discussion with her was focused on the experimental part of our previous work on extracting lignin, details like the yields and standards used for comparing our results to previous work. I was relieved to be able to easily answer these questions, and felt secure and confident because I performed the experimental work myself. The second evaluator was an expert in biotechnology. Being a chemist myself, I was nervous about being challenged on the biotech implications of lignin. However, during the discussion with him I had the opportunity and pleasure to express my thoughts about the versatility of lignin in the cell wall and the effect that has on its extractability. I couldn’t help but notice my personal development during these past two years. Before I started my studies I only had some basic knowledge about this molecule and here I am, two years later, developing my own ideas and hypotheses on its native aspects.
To be able to defend these thoughts and ideas is really a privilege gained by working with Lauren. It takes a Teacher to build a student’s confidence and help her move towards being an independent researcher, and Lauren surely is. Unfortunately, women in academia are still underrepresented and the importance of having strong female role models is greater than ever. I consider myself lucky to work in such an environment and to be inspired by strong women who thrive in science. After my half-time seminar I feel a stronger connection to my work and its significance to society. I aspire to complete my studies and be of service to the scientific community as a researcher and as a person.