Behind the PhD degree: Vania Scarlet Chavez Rico

A PhD is a journey, says about-to-defend PhD candidate Vania Scarlet Chavez Rico. An exploration that your prepare for; you never know where it takes you along the road, but it has a satisfying goal to achieve. She tells her story of mapping the figurative seven seas with her exploration vessel as one of the first Wetsus soil scientists.

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

Learning on steroids

“I’ve always liked learning,” Vania begins, “reading books, encyclopedias when I was little and the interest for environmental problems and nature motivated me to study environmental engineering and biology in university. “

“In my country Bolivia, the lecturers in the universities are closer to the students. That does not mean that it help with our marks. In fact, failing was more shameful.” she says laughingly. “Some of them always showed passion about science and had several historical references according to the topic that we were learning at the time. One of my calculus lecturers once compared the beauty of Euler’s identity with the Mona Lisa. I looked up to these people and wanted to do a PhD for myself. After all, a PhD is like learning on steroids, and that’s a lot of fun to me.”

As she progressed in her studies, learning a wide range of disciplines, she experienced what life was like for some remote villages in her home country Bolivia while volunteering – no clean water, no electricity, and people dying young. It inspired her to dedicate her master’s degree to environmental sanitation in Gent, Belgium.

Hay and dog food

Vania: “I learned about Wetsus in a job fair in Belgium, and it sounded like a perfect match. Applicable research, lots of contact with industry. And they were looking for someone with experience in soil science and bioreactors, something I both had.” To make additives from organic waste to increase organic matter in agricultural soils.

It was the early beginning of this research theme, and little infrastructure for the scientific field was in place. Everything had to be built from scratch. “Sometimes, I had to do assumptions that were not always right while waiting for equipment to come. To have a proper soil lab we would need another building with special installations. It was a struggle to get all the analysis techniques ready. . Luckily, I have great supervisors who were happy to help so I could learn some techniques and send samples to other research institute  And I got support from all my co-authors.”

And her quest to compare soil additives – or organic amendments – was not an easy breakdown either. The grounds and additives are so variable and complex that every little parameter you can imagine must be tested and controlled.

Starting with a hundred kilograms of farmland dirt, she had to prepare by burning them clean to create the perfect model soil. And finding materials to make the steady organic amendments isn’t self-evident either. Normally, they are made from waste materials that, of course, change all the time and per season. But, after deliberation with her supervisors, Vania found a way to do this too, funnily after complex analysis landing on simple straw and dog food (as model domestic food waste) as source materials.

An exploration vessel

In the end, she did manage to find trends and correlation between organic amendment production conditions and the effects on soil characteristics and what is better to use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This was represented in a scheme that could be seen as a first trial to develop a comprehensive model to engineer organic amendments. The set-up used in this project, has been useful to analyze the complex soil environment. Its effect over time, And, importantly, a consistent way to make and measure both the soil and organic amendments.

“I am very happy to have been able to stick to the original topic and complete the journey. We built a ship preparing for the exploration, hoping for the best but prepared for the worst, and it survived the storm while we were mapping our surroundings. A bumpy challenging ride, lots of work, but with so many people willing to help.”

It hasn’t decreased her love for learning and researching, though. “R&D or a Post-doc is still something I’m looking for, but maybe this time with a little less writing,” she adds smilingly.