Stephanie G Zihms

Multi-disciplinary Geoscientist & Geological Engineer

About me

My career so far has been very multi-disciplinary and I enjoy working with researchers from different fields. I have a BSc Hon in Earth Sciences from University of Glasgow and a PhD in Civil & Environmental Engineering from University of Strathclyde. Between these two degrees I worked as a geologist for a geotechnical contractor. This was a great way to get some hands-on experience through site work. In my second year with the company I started a MSc in Geotechnical Engineering part-time, as I wanted to continue my education and specialise more towards this field. However, I didn’t enjoy feeling torn between work and studying and looked into going back to university full-time. At the same time the economic downturn affected the company I was working for and I was made redundant in 2009. This turned out to be quite good for me because it forced me to look properly at what I wanted to do with my career and if geotechnical engineering and industry really was the place for me.

When I found a PhD in Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Strathclyde I was very excited about staying in the field of geotechnics as well as going back to university and doing research – and I haven’t looked back since. My PhD looked at the impact of very high temperatures (up to 1200°C) on soils and their behaviour after exposure to these temperatures. This research was linked to a new remediation technique used for coal tar contaminated soils. I liked the applied approach and that I was working on something slightly related to my undergraduate degree. I managed to investigate the mineralogy of silica sand with exposure to different temperatures with thin sections and some other mineralogical techniques. In addition to the mechanical behaviour – how does the soil behave under load – I also investigated effects on water moving through soil after exposure to elevated temperatures. This helped to understand if groundwater or rainwater would move through these soil differently. I designed different pieces of equipment and experimental set-up – which was great fun and I really enjoyed this aspect of my PhD.

With my funding finished and working part-time to support the writing up phase of my PhD I started to look for postdocs and research positions in the UK as well as other European countries. The first thing that became obvious was that a lot of positions required modelling skills and very few looked for experimental researchers. Eventually I found a research post with the British Geological Survey and their Radioactive Waste Team based in Nottingham. The post suited my skills and was based in a world-leading laboratory. I applied and was offered the position. I started in September 2013 – 5 weeks after submitting my thesis and 3 weeks before my viva. The research focus was on temperature effects on bentonite and its buffer characteristics for geological disposal of radioactive waste. I enjoyed the lab work, the approach of BGS to be very open about their research and sharing information with the public. This was also when I got really involved in outreach activities, since this a great way to share research with a lot of different people. However, due to a couple of different factors I decided to leave BGS in December 2014 and moved back to Scotland. I didn’t have anything lined up when I handed in my notice that November but I was optimistic that I would find something for January.

Here I was again at another cross-roads deciding what I wanted to do and not quite sure what path to take next. I decided to look for some short-term posts to tie me over until I would find the answer. So I accepted a 4 months postdoc at Heriot-Watt University looking at CO2 bubble behaviour in flow conditions. Designing, building and running an experiment in 4 months is crazy but I was up to the challenge. Somehow I did manage to do it and I (hopefully) get a paper out of it too. Anyway, about 3 weeks into the postdoc I saw another postdoc advertised at Heriot-Watt looking at geomechanics of carbonate rocks. This sounded like something interesting, especially since it was an experimental approach and working with real rocks. After enquiring a bit more about the research and the post itself I applied for it and was offered the post. Until April 2018 I am looking at the mechanical behaviour of carbonate rocks and how it is similar or different to clastic rocks.


MAY 2015  PDRA in Geomechanics Institute of Petroleum Engineering Heriot Watt University

JAN 2015 – APR 2015  PDRA in CO2 bubble behaviour Institute of Mechanical, Process & Energy Engineering heriot Watt University

SEP 2013 – DEC 2014  Fluid Processes Geoscientist in Temperature effects on Bentonite buffer performance at British Geological Survey

OCT 2009 – SEP 2013  PhD Smouldering and Thermal Remediation Effects on Properties and Behaviour of Porous Media Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering University of Strathclyde

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