Spotlight: Maike Wilschnack, PhD Student in Environmental Chemistry, Robert Gordon University

Tell us a fun fact about yourself.

I enjoy walking the hills of Scotland looking for septic tanks.

Tell us about your career journey so far.

I went to school and university in Germany. Chemistry was my favourite subject, but I didn’t think that I would be good enough to study it. That’s why I chose to study teaching for chemistry and math instead (university is a little bit different in Germany).

Being in the laboratory and learning more about the different fields of chemistry made me happy. So, I listened to my heart and switched subjects. It was one of the best decisions of my life. After I got my master degree, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. I decided to work in the industry for a while and see how it feels – not great. I applied for a PhD position in Scotland, got accepted, quit my job, and moved here. And I love it!

What was your favourite subject in school and why?

I liked a lot of different subjects in school, and my favourites changed over the years. For a long time, I liked French and history the most. In both fields, you learn a lot about different cultures and backgrounds., and I enjoyed the discussion with my classmates. During my last years of school, I enjoyed chemistry more and more, and it ended up becoming favourite subject. For me science got more exciting when we could do experiments, and our topics were related to the world outside of school.

What subjects/qualifications/skills are useful for your role?

By far the most important subject is of course chemistry. But I also use math every day to calculate concentration of drugs in the environment. Understanding biology is helpful, too, because drugs in natural water can influence the animals or bacteria living there. We always work together in a team, so good communication skills are essential. I also write reports or do presentations about my research results, so good English skills are important, too.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

I work in environmental chemistry, which means that with my work I can directly have a positive impact on the protection of our environment.

What is a normal day in your role like?

Every day is very different, that is one of the things that I love about doing a PhD. Sometimes, I spend my day looking at the computer screen. I write a report, prepare a presentation or do calculations. On other days, I am out at a real river, and take samples from it. Then, I spend days in the laboratory, working with the samples. For example, I need to filter every sample, so that all the solids are removed.

And what does your job title mean?

After you complete your undergraduate and postgraduate degree at university, you can become a PhD student. That means, you stay at university to do research. Most PhD students have funding and they get paid a studentship.

Can you suggest an activity that could be done at home that illustrates an aspect of your work?

Science Sparks have collected many amazing chemistry experiments. My favourite one is the paper chromatography experiment, because I still use this to explain people of all ages what I do. Try it with different black pens!

And of course the famous coca-cola fountain.