Behind the PhD degree – Xiaoxia Liu

Who hasn’t led their mind to wonder about the miraculous claims ascribed to the most unintuitive concepts? Daydreaming of magically improving your own and countless lives with the shamanistic rituals of olden times or modern hearsay. One scientist attracted to these mysteries tackled whether magnets could prevent limescale. And she is hardly done exploring the untouched corners of our library of knowledge.

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

“Who would do such research?”

“Controversial topics are the most fun research topics,” exclaims defending PhD student Xiaoxia Liu. The mysterious bits that few dare to venture into due to criticism from all sides have always attracted the researcher. “I’ve always liked to contribute to our human knowledge. It is my main drive,” she says.

But Xiaoxia’s challenge entails a much more adventurous story. It was up to her to find water treatment ways that don’t use chemicals to keep drinking water safe after treatment. The idea – maybe with the help of magnets, they could influence such effects as calcium scaling. Wild claims of that have already been made for a while now. But it’s a path few dare to venture. Xiaoxia: “One reviewer once claimed: ‘Who does this research? Scientists will criticize you if it works, and sponsoring companies will criticize you if it doesn’t!'” But it never held her back; it only motivated her.

“Ever since my bachelor’s, I imagined working on a topic regarding microbiological ecology. At the time, it was a hot topic. A new paradigm formed by taking the principles of ecology to microbiology. It brought this big unknown that is so attractive to me. And when I found a position at Wetsus that was controversial, high-risk, and included microbiological ecology, I knew I wanted to face that challenge.”

Microbes, minerals, and magnetic fields

A proof of principle that could yield, or not yield, the correlation between magnetism and limescale. “Given that calcium precipitation is known to be caused by bacteria and that every living thing on this planet is built to withstand a fluctuation in the Earth’s magnetic field, we thought that magnetism could influence bacterial behaviors in drinking water. And it looks like it does so.”

“When studying the effects of the magnet on even one species, already show a decrease in calcium. But take a broader microbiological ecosystem into account, and you can see significant reductions in the size of these lime crystals – up to 18%.” Though, which exact enzyme  causes the critters to do so, is unknown yet.

It seems that microbes and minerals are affected by magnetic fields in a positive way for tiny bacteria – usually thriving in poor environments – while negatively impacting bigger cells that are more often responsible for disease – and that thrive in richer waters. Therefore, a system like this could be helpful in more than one way.

Battle-proof, open-minded, and full of optimism

“I’m very happy to do the research. Mostly the results because the measurements are less fun taking repeatedly,” she says smilingly. “Of course, in science, you repeat research many times, but as this is a controversial topic, you must do so many more.”

The publications are almost in, laying the groundwork for further research she will still be a part of as a postdoc. The mechanism with which everything works remains a mystery, and a more applicable setting is yet to be tested. And Xiaoxia will also oversee new research regarding the water’s effect on the human gut.

“I want to extend the multidisciplinary research further, and as we face global challenges, global cooperation is of great importance; especially between China and the Netherlands on water technology. We started with a social sciences theme exploring the opportunities, and once again, many were skeptical before we started.”

And it looks like fighting criticism will remain a familiar sight for this scientist who has already shown battle-proof, open-minded, and full of optimism.

You can read more about her research here:

Xiaoxia Liu, Gernot Zarfel, Renata van der Weijden, Willibald Loiskandl, Brigitte Bitschnau, Inez J.T. Dinkla, Elmar C. Fuchs, Astrid H. Paulitsch-Fuchs, Density-dependent microbial calcium carbonate precipitation by drinking water bacteria via amino acid metabolism and biosorption, Water Research, Volume 202, 2021.

Xiaoxia Liu, Bernhard Pollner, Astrid H. Paulitsch-Fuchs, Elmar C. Fuchs, Nigel P. Dyer, Willibald Loiskandl, Cornelia Lass-Flörl, Investigation of the effect of sustainable magnetic treatment on the microbiological communities in drinking water, Environmental Research, Volume 213, 2022.