Behind the PhD degree: Shuyana A. Heredia Deba

Doing a PhD can lead to unexpected results in many ways. Not always positive. But if there is one person that knows how to handle that, it’s PhD candidate Shuyana A. Heredia Deba. This is how she figured out how to work with photocatalytic membranes.

The person behind the science, and the science behind the person.

Change of research goals, figuring out last moment how you can finish up your PhD, and COVID. Not every moment was a great one in Shuyana’s four-year Wetsus experience. “My PhD was emotionally tough, but I managed. With unfortunate events, I did not always like to research, but I did enjoy the freedom. And I especially enjoyed the people. If I was to make the choice again, I would still do it, just for the people that I was surrounded by.”

A welcome surprise

From an interview at the train station to a remote presentation on the phone in a crowded bus – Shuyana’s impression on the PhD position interviewers must have been quite different from the others. “The day I arrived in Leeuwarden, I was greeted by a big rain shower coming in a bit late, and the professor who was to interview me was worried that he wouldn’t catch the train. So we had a bit of a talk walking there and in the train station. But he asked nothing about me, so I had already given up hope. Someone else seemed a lot more qualified, I felt like.

“They kept us waiting after the ‘Water Seed’ challenge until I was finally asked to give a presentation about my master’s thesis. I had to do my presentation on the phone while traveling in a bus due to a delay from a plane. I had done the presentation before and thought there was no time to reschedule, so I tried to relax and do my best.” Being the chosen candidate, in the end, was a welcome surprise. “I guess the way I came across might have helped there.”

And she fit in at Wetsus too. A driven person that is always curious and loves to interact with the ones around her. “By that time, the only other PhD that researched photocatalytic water purification at Wetsus was gone. So I would have to figure out a lot on my own.”

A PhD is about me

Initially, Shuyana would investigate the deactivation of viruses using UV and metallic membranes, but not all went according to plan. “As my research was about photocatalytic membranes, we agreed it would be best for me to work for a month in Twente on a set-up already built and “working.” In short – nothing worked, one month became nine, and I ended up making my own membrane from scratch and a completely new set-up at Wetsus. It was tough. It all led to me not really having anything by year two, halfway through my PhD.” And then COVID hit too.

But as the results were not up to her expectations, she had something else to live up to – Wetsus’s social life. “With all these people from all over the world, you really find each other at Wetsus. Sports, walks, events, and therapy. I was in the personnel committee to happily help and organize too. That gave me a lot of energy. Together with writing for the personnel magazine.” Wherein Shuyana was eager to contribute, tell about others’ perspectives and interact.

And she kicked her research back up to speed by focusing on understanding the fundamentals of photocatalytic membrane functionality. “My supervisor, Doekle, was of great help too. He gave me the perspective that my PhD is not always about my research, but about me becoming an independent researcher. And I managed in the end to get the experiments going and contribute to the knowledge on the topic.”

“I would do it all again, just because of everyone around me here. Though having a cat to come home to was a great help too,” Shuyana says happily. “And I still like water technology, but I like to be a bit more involved with people, less with research. My new job at Procter and Gamble is perfect for that. Still about water purification, and with an active community like that in Wetsus but a role that involves communication with different areas.”