Behind the PhD degree: Olga Bernadet

Even though she still tries to reach for the stars, nearly defending PhD student Olga never truly was destined to become an astronaut. But exploring the realms of chemistry and biology seems to have wholeheartedly taken that place. Her desire brought her to discover life on asteroid-looking carbon granules and above that earned her the award for most samples analyzed.

The people behind the science, and the science behind the people

From dreaming of the stars to grey skies

That Olga would become a scientist was evident from a young age, though her dream was to be one in outer space. “Knowing that I could not be wearing glasses, I tried to hide my need for this thing,” Bernadet says while laughingly pointing to her spectacles. “It did not take long for my parents to discover that though. And actually, they pointed out that I can become another scientist too.”

So, once she got to study, Olga went for a more tangible route – chemistry and biology. She meant initially to get into a more medicinal field, but in her drive to learn all sorts of experimental sciences, she ended up in biochemistry and biotechnology. “I first thought of going to Japan, but quickly learned that the Netherlands is also one of the great countries when it comes to the field.”

She liked the honesty of the people, and that students are taught much responsibility here. Though Olga was still in for a little culture shock. “Oh, the grey skies. Back in Indonesia, such skies meant quickly following terrible rains; here, they are sort of normal and – just not always – inconsequential.”

Most-samples-analyzed award

But it was not enough to scare her off. Driven by an insatiable desire for research and the freedom to be curious and creative, she found a place at Wetsus instead. In Biological Oxygen-dosed Activated Carbon (BODAC) Technology – Exploring the potential of a bioprocess for the simultaneous removal of micropollutants in wastewater reclamation practice project.

She was to research the carbon granules that float in the BODAC water treatment system. At that time, it was not quite clear why the system worked so well, why the little floating balls had not needed to be replaced yet. There was a question whether the system worked chemically or was biologically active. For that, Olga started monitoring it closely.

“Since I did not know which processes were relevant, I had to hand in many samples for different analyses. I felt sorry for the lab team, especially Mieke, but those analyses were needed.” It were so many that in 2022, they decided to craft a special award for her – a joke award for most samples analyzed. “Luckily, the monitoring results provided a very nice basis for the following thesis chapters, and everything fell into place.”

“We discovered that the microbes are essential for nitrification and manganese removal in BODAC filters, and these microbes resisted the relatively frequent backwashing procedure. We also found indirect evidence for the regeneration of BODAC granules. And, we showed that various processes contributed to organic micropollutant removal in BODAC filters differently.”

A Way of Life

Doing multidisciplinary research is not always easy. But the openness here and knowledge sharing is an excellent feature of this way of investigating, and according to her it does take a lot of time for the researcher to become skilled at so many things. “It is rare, however, to have so much technical and analytical support. I would have never completed this research in under four years; it would have been more like ten years if we did not have them at Wetsus.

And maybe the time would not have even mattered to Olga. Research is her way of life, in what way, shape, or form in the future might not be clear yet. “As long as it shares some of the same Wetsus values, it has to be innovative and spark joy.”