Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Stephanie Zihms – an inventive experimenter... by Hazel Gibson

Hi, I’m Hazel Gibson, a PhD researcher from PlymouthUniversity, who is interested in what people think about geology and how that affects how we as geoscientists communicate it. For the last two weeks I have been up at the British Geological Survey speaking to the scientists about their work, what makes them passionate about it and why they think it’s important to us. The following is a series of short 'people posts' about the real faces behind the BGS.

Stephanie likes to be patriotic!
At the moment, Stephanie Zihms has more on her mind than just her usual interest in how fluids move through rocks. Stephanie, who has spent most of her life in Germany, has a serious stake in Sunday night’s game. Anyone walking into the office where Stephanie’s desk is has no problems finding her; “It’s the desk with the German colours on it” were my directions and she wasn’t kidding! But besides being an enthusiastic German football supporter, Stephanie is also a Fluid Processes Geoscientist and investigates how fluids (aka liquids and gases) move through different kinds of rock. Now this might seem pretty obscure to most of us, but what Stephanie is researching right now is really important to one of our biggest problems – our energy future. She is looking at the difference in fluid movement between natural and man-made systems, so Carbon Capture and Storage (natural) and Radioactive Waste Disposal(man-made).  She is also, for the first time at BGS, investigating the effect that heat has on these processes.

In order to do this Stephanie has to design an experiment from scratch and follow it all the way through to its conclusion. She does everything from designing and helping to construct the massive experiment equipment called constant volume cells, to collecting and interpreting the data. This is no easy task; Stephanie’s last experiment ran for 200 days. The longest experiment of this kind has been going for 15 YEARS! But Stephanie really likes the control that it gives her over her experiments “It means that if anything leaks, it’s down to me, but also I think of the question – what do I want to find out, and design accordingly to find the answer” she told me. This means Stephanie is always testing her ideas – recently she had to stop using the traditional stainless steel canisters, because using heat was causing them to expand and affect her experiments. She also really likes the transparent nature of working at the British Geological Survey, in that whatever she finds out, she has a responsibility to tell people about it – her work is unbiased. 
What working in the lab is like..
Stephanie takes communicating her work very seriously. She goes to communication conferences and is interested in running tours around her lab, but also she told me about a brilliant science demo that she uses to talk about Carbon Capture and Storage – Angel Cake Storage! By ‘drilling’ a straw down through the layers of angel cake, Stephanie ‘injects’ coloured fluids into the cake, which then spread through that layer until they reach the icing. The cake is porous – like the soft rocks that the CO2 would be stored in, but the icing is impermeable – like the cap-rocks. As such, you can demonstrate how the carbon would not go into other layers. Stephanie understands the importance of talking with young people as she remembers her aunt giving her a rock and mineral collection when she was 6 that sparked her interest in Earth Sciences and the environment.
Mmmm...angel cake!
You may be wondering how Stephanie got from Germany to Nottingham, but she came to the UK during her degree, for a year’s exchange placement in Scotland and liked it so much she never left! After working for a geotechnical company and completing a PhD with Glasgow University, Stephanie finally moved to the BGS in September last year. Although she enjoys the applied nature of working here, she has found it a challenge to change her working style from the complete academic style of the PhD, where you control every aspect of your day, to the more flexible working needed in a big, multi-disciplinary team like this one. She has, however, taken on a big role in representing the Athena SWAN award here at the BGS, which encourages organisations to raise their diversity and promote equal opportunities for women. It’s a great symbol of how much at home Stephanie feels here after only a few months that she is not just challenging herself by designing experiments from scratch, but also challenging the BGS as a whole to improve opportunities for all women. 

To see Stephanie in action discussing her favourite science, don’t miss her speaking at PubHD on Wed 16th July.

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