Surfing Waves Even in Shallow Waters

Sabrina De Boer (ESR9)


Dubrovnik, Croatia, the city which became famous as a fictious stage of the series Game of Thrones, would become the very real and presential venue for the NOWELTIES final conference. It has been almost three years since our introductory training course when we first met our 13 fellow PhD students (sadly with two exceptions) and most of the other important heads of the project. It was a quite emotional moment to see them again (sadly with one exception), excited, and definitively all changed.

The first day of the conference was introduced by an interesting talk by Christa McArdell about the Swiss legislation to protect surface waters from pollution by implementing additional treatments for wastewater treatment plants. A perfect match to our central aim which is the exploration of new technical solutions for wastewater treatment. The day was divided in two enriching sessions, the first focusing on the understanding and improvement of biological systems introduced by Alette Langenhoff from the University of Wageningen. After a stomach enriching refreshment offered by the representants of the Dubrovnik Inter University Centre, which hosted our conference, and a subsequent lunch on top, we started with the second round of presentations focusing on advanced oxidation processes including photocatalysis and plasma treatment. Compared to big conferences like the Micropol conference which will take place in Santiago de Compostela next month, the number of participants was small. However, we soon realized how many insights you can get outside of the conference room when talking to people from your field and beyond. We concluded the day with a guided tour around the old city, whose pragmatic citizens managed to stay true to their premise to never sell their freedom but finding ways to buy peace. Their pragmatism is also reflected in their water management system, collecting almost every drop of rainfall, installing a sewage water system as early as in the 14th century and constructing a widespread water distribution system.

In the morning of the second day the talks were focused on advanced materials for wastewater treatment, comprising several inorganic and organic composites based on graphene oxide, enzymes, or zeolites, to name only some. While the exploration of these novel materials is normally a rather empiric approach, we also got a glimpse on the possibility to predict interactions between pollutants and adsorption matrices based on ab initio molecular dynamics calculations. After lunch we changed our scope to hybrid wastewater treatment technologies. Regarding the widespread and variable pollution of wastewaters, tailored multibarrier treatment systems are indispensable to prevent pollution of water resources. At the end of the day everybody felt exhausted, but the most motivated people still took the opportunity to dip into the transparent, calm sea and to explore the night life of Dubrovnik.

After a short night (for some more than for others), we created a roundtable (without table) to discuss on our progress and time plans to submit our thesis considering the unforeseeable obstacles we had to overcome including the pandemic, seismic as well as personal earthquakes. We then continued with a multifocal workshop on opportunities we could take after the end of the project. While at this point in our PhD projects, opinions are swaying between thriving in and fleeing from academia, all of us could learn about the most important postdoctoral grants available on a European level and exemplarily on a Spanish level by Mira Petrovic. We certainly learned that the road to permanent positions is not an easy one, and therefore the advice given by Laura Bertolini to write successful research proposals might help many of us in the future. After a short break, we plunged outside the academic ivory tower into the rough seas of the water management sector, when Lucia Gusmaroli told us her personal story about what it takes to become an efficient, but also happy project manager and how her PhD experience contributed to keep her afloat during the stressful days approaching project deadlines. Tomislaw Bolanca then took over, talking about his experience in the water sector from an entrepreneur point of view.  Resilience to stress and failure was definitively one of the key qualities all of them pointed out to be important for our future journeys, regardless of where we are heading. We shall stay afloat, promote our ideas without selling our ideals and keep having fun doing what we are doing.