Post-pandemic Secondments: Changes, Adaptations, and Difficulties Convoyed by Joy

Barbara Topolovec (ESR5) & Nikoletta Tsiarta (ESR14)


Hello dear readers. We are Nikoletta (ESR14) and Barbara (ESR5). Our PhD journey started a year and a half ago by working together at the ICRA institute in Girona. It didn’t take us long to find out that we have more than “two girls from the Mediterranean” in common and soon, we became very good friends 😊. On top of that, we found ourselves going on our long-awaited secondment trips at almost the same time (finally,) leaving our beloved Girona (and roommates :D). So, we decided to share our experiences and thoughts with you about our journey.


Q1: What do you do during your secondment?

Nikoletta: My second-host institute is the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Naval Architecture (FSB) of the University of Zagreb in Croatia. As you might know, my project focuses on the design of a hybrid system that combines ozonation with microfiltration using ceramic membranes with the aim to degrade micropollutants found in wastewater, like pharmaceuticals and antibiotics. Since FSB is specialized in materials, during my stay I’ll modify a few commercial ceramic membranes by developing and depositing a very thin layer (only a few nm thick) of a material with catalytic properties, on their surface. That’s how we aim to increase the degradation of these harmful substances from the wastewater effluent.

Barbara: During my stay at one of my secondments at the Institute of Physics in Belgrade (Serbia) I am performing experiments using plasma technology for the degradation of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). In terms of wastewater treatment processes, many studies had shown that most PFAS are highly recalcitrant not just to conventional wastewater treatment, but also to many advanced oxidation processes (AOP). Plasma-based technology showed one of the most promising results and can be suitable for PFAS degradation so my job is to investigate what would be optimal conditions for a promising degradation of those compounds.


Q2: Was it easy to reach your destination?

Nikoletta: In terms of organization, I had plenty of support from my host institute (ICRA), to make all the arrangements required for the trip. Even though, I didn’t have an exact day in mind because of some experiments I wanted to finish before my departure, in three days I had all I needed: tickets, a PCR test, and accommodation! In terms of traveling now, the truth is that it was not that straightforward like it used to be before the beginning of the pandemic. It takes more time to reach your final destination because of the lack of direct flights and you get more exhausted by the use of a mask and all the controls. However, when arriving in Zagreb I had my Croatian friends waiting for me at the airport, and that made me immediately forget all the tiredness.

Barbara: At the beginning of the PhD, Serbia was not that far away (direct flights of 2 hours were possible). But now, in these not so normal times, it was a bit of a challenge to find flights with a good connection, hoping without cancelation. Plus checking all these regulations, they like to change all the time. Luckily, with the support from my supervisors, I managed to arrange everything on time, flights, and accommodation.


Q3: What do you like the most about the country (city) you are in now?

Nikoletta: Well..Mediterranean meets Mediterranean! Croatia is a country where you can combine trips to mountains with trips to beautiful beaches and not only. You can also visit one of its 718 islands! Yes… Croatia has the largest archipelago in the Adriatic Sea with beautiful landscapes and a lot to discover. I’m currently in Zagreb which is the capital and largest city of Croatia and what I like the most is the chill-out vibe of the city. People are enjoying every second of their life here. The city is very safe, the food is amazing, the weather is nice, and trying pelinkovac, a typical drink is a must. Živjeli! 🙂

Barbara: Croatian girl in Belgrade, it almost feels like I went home :D. No language barriers, familiar culture, food, people, and their habits. Belgrade is a big, beautiful city with many places to visit. When in Belgrade, you will never get hungry because you can easily find a nice restaurant with amazing food and the view either in the city center or next to the river. There are also many parks, especially near the Sava and Danube rivers where you can walk or sit and relax. But what I like the most are the people who will greet you with a warm welcome. And with “domaća kafa” :).


Q4: Is it a good idea to have a joint doctorate and split your work into two or three different places?

Nikoletta: Hmm, “Joint PhD”; it means that doctoral research is conducted “jointly” between two Universities, with two supervisors from each one. Before starting my PhD under the NOWELTIES project I could never think that I would refer to it so many times. In the beginning, you don’t realize what that means until it comes the moment to face the bureaucracy from both universities. At this point, good communication and supervisors’ help play a vital role. It can be frustrating, but I see it as a journey of learning how to be adaptable, organized, collaborative, and responsive. If you ever get the chance just go for it!

Barbara: Moving to another country during PhD gives us a good chance to work in a different environment, to improve our knowledge, and meet new people with different experiences. However, splitting work while moving more than one time is quite a challenge. You have to “surround” yourself with patience and very good organizational skills in order to do your tasks on time. But, at the end of the day, I like the idea of a joint doctorate. I think it will bring me more opportunities and I will learn more about myself and my management skills.


Q5: How easy was it to adjust your initial research plan after the pandemic?

Nikoletta: Making good plans is crucial when it comes to research that needs to be accomplished in a short period. Following the initial plan may be ideal, however, plans never go as we wish! No one was expecting that a pandemic would bring so many changes to our lives. And that’s why it’s good when project plans are responsive to any unexpected events. Together with my supervisors, we tried to adapt my plan twice without changing the objectives by reducing my secondment to FSB and I believe it works pretty well so far. Even though it was difficult with the right guidance you can achieve more than you think!

Barbara: That was not an easy task. Most of my work was canceled because I was not able to travel, and the initial plan had to be adjusted a lot. And yes, in one moment, I did feel lost. But the “beauty” of this work is that you are not alone. With guidance and lots of support from supervisors, colleagues, and friends, I have found my path again. It is a sprint, to be honest, but it is a good one 🙂


Q6: What is your advice to the PhD students who need to change their plans due to the pandemic?

Nikoletta: Of course, after the pandemic, a lot of PhD students are concerned about the completion and quality of their work. It’s normal that most of us felt anxious because we got out of our schedule. From my own experience, I would recommend you consider a different research route for your project and reassess the priorities of your study together with your supervisors. And of course, to get some help from colleagues and friends to get your confidence back! Just move forward and do it smart!

Barbara: The sooner you accept the situation, the better, especially because you can’t influence it. What you can do is think about the time that is given to you and how to use it. Changes are always difficult, but they can also bring something even better. Find your focus. What I have learned during this period is that health is important! Both mental and physical. And we should never forget that. The second thing is, you can always ask for help. Colleagues, friends, supervisors, family. Even a small advice can mean a lot 🙂