Dr Zeynep Karatza, Postdoctoral Research Associate

“I enjoy it when a student asks me a question I can’t answer, as it shows me that I’ve got much more to learn. After all, thought-provoking questions are what made me love research in the first place.”

Dr Zeynep Karatza is a Research Associate in the School’s Institute for Infrastructure and Environment, where she studies the geotechnical behaviour of hydrophobic sands. Having gained an MEng in Mining and Metallurgical Engineering from the National Technical University of Athens and an MSc in Geo-mechanics at the Université Joseph Fourier – Grenoble 1, both with Distinction, she came to the University of Edinburgh in 2013 to study for a PhD. Following the completion of her doctorate, and a year of lecturing in geotechnical engineering and soil mechanics, Zeynep progressed to her current position of Research Associate.

Outside academia, Zeynep volunteers as a STEM ambassador in schools where she teaches children about science and engineering through interactive sessions and games.

Here, Zeynep shares her engineering inspiration, insights into her career journey, and advice for aspiring female engineers.

What inspired you to get into engineering; is it the same thing that inspires you today?

I have always enjoyed problem solving and challenging myself, so I knew that mathematics, physics or engineering would suit me best. I picked engineering out of the three because I felt it was slightly more creative, practical and versatile, and I was right!

I am a rationalist, and the fact that almost everything in engineering can ultimately be explained is my main motivation. I still have that inherent curiosity that drives me to do research and the need to be creative which makes me a decent experimentalist.

Tell us about your career and studies in engineering up to this point; what have you enjoyed and what have you found most challenging?

I decided to do an MEng at the National Technical University of Athens, simply because it was the best polytechnic institute in Greece, where I am from, and I studied mining engineering because I had a slight interest in geology and therefore thought that my studies would be stimulating. There were a number of modules that I did not enjoy and I found it particularly challenging to motivate myself and study them.

That’s when I started thinking about gaining an MSc, where I could focus only on the topics that fascinated me, and put a lot more effort into studying them. I wanted to gain deeper understanding of the basic principles and any underlying mechanisms. The topic that interested me the most was geomechanics, which I studied at the Université Joseph Fourier – Grenoble 1 in France.

The degree was massively research-oriented and I was given the opportunity to carry out state-of-the-art experiments supervised by world-leading researchers as part of my MSc thesis. This gave me an undeniable advantage when I applied for a PhD position at the University of Edinburgh.

After being accepted as a PhD candidate by the School of Engineering, everything fell into place! I realised how much I enjoy research and working with my colleagues here in Edinburgh. I was offered a temporary teaching position after my PhD - a rare opportunity, as usually those who want to continue in research either start a postdoc or an industrial research career. This gave me enough time to carefully consider all of my options before deciding to pursue an academic research career.

What attracted you to a career in research and academia?

My interest in research came organically. I realised while doing my MEng that I enjoy asking questions and trying to find the answers myself, and it did not bother me that I had to spend more time studying. Around this time, one of my professors told me to consider doing research, as I “fit the profile”. I guess I just followed his advice, and I am still grateful for it.

What do you enjoy most about research and academia at the School of Engineering?

I have been at the School of Engineering since I started my PhD in 2013. I am currently a Research Associate within the School’s Research Institute for Infrastructure and Environment.

As a PhD candidate, I enjoyed discussing my ideas and engaging with other PhD students as well as leading my research project, as opposed to being guided and supervised during my MEng and MSc theses. I presented my work at conferences around the world and received great feedback from my peers, which gave me the confidence to keep on going.

Overall, it has been a very creative time for me, both demanding and satisfying, albeit with the occasional frustration, crying and disappointment. However, that does not get me down – in fact, the more emotional I get the better results I produce in the end!

To my surprise, I have also enjoyed teaching. I think this is because explaining the subject to someone else helps me to better understand it myself. I particularly enjoy it when a student asks me a question I can’t answer, as it shows me that I’ve got much more to learn. After all, thought-provoking questions are what made me love research in the first place. I suppose it is also because of my secret love of theatre, because to teach well, you need to give some sort of a performance – I am still learning though!

Can you explain your research “in a nutshell”?

Since my MSc, I have been studying geomechanics. To describe “geomechanics” I often use the description - “it is the offspring of a physicist and a geologist”. I study the behaviour of geo-materials (mainly sands).

During my PhD I wanted to understand the fundamentals of particle breakage in dry sand samples. Some of the questions I had to answer where: Why, when an assembly of grains is compressed, do only some of the particles break? What governs this response? What are the different breakage patterns for different loading scenarios?

Answering these questions can help us better understand a number of natural phenomena such as landslides, as well as use this knowledge to improve some industrial applications in pharmaceuticals and so on.

For the current research that am carrying out as a research associate, I’ve taken breakage out of the equation, and replaced it with water! Specifically, I’m interested in hydrophobic sands and their interaction with water. Hydrophobic sands form naturally under various conditions, a common one being exposure to high temperatures as happens during forest fires. What happens to the pressure exerted by water in soil after it turns hydrophobic is one of my current investigations. Can we use these materials, for instance, to protect mining or municipal waste storage sites from flooding?

How would you like your career to develop in the future?

I consider myself to be successful according to my own personal standards. This is because I do not set specific goals for my future; I go with the flow and mainly focus on being good at what I do for the job at hand. I cannot handle the pressure of having to pursue something that I decided say, five years ago. To me it is unnatural; as we grow older we evolve, we constantly experience new things, and are influenced by other peoples’ stories. This can lead to the discovery of new and exciting opportunities.

Currently I would love to stay in academia, however change is good, it is what makes us happy and successful and makes life unpredictable and exciting!

What career advice would you give for young girls and women in STEM wishing to pursue a career in research and academia?

Go for it! There is no need to defend your choices – it is completely normal for a woman to want to be an engineer, why wouldn’t it be?

The advice I would give to anyone wanting to pursue a career in research and academia in STEM is that it is a tough job, it needs persistence, determination and discipline, so you must really enjoy it to pursue it. In the end though, it can be very rewarding.

Dr Zeynep Karatza
Dr Zeynep Karatza