STEM for Britain competition success for Dr Zeynep Karatza

Dr Zeynep Karatza conducting research in the laboratory
Dr Zeynep Karatza conducting research in the laboratory

Dr Zeynep Karatza has reached the top 10 engineering finalists in STEM for Britain – a major scientific poster competition organised by the UK government’s Parliamentary & Scientific Committee.

The annual nationwide competition was set up to celebrate early-career scientists, engineers and technologists in Britain, and foster stronger dialogue between researchers and members of parliament. It is usually held at Parliament, but this year took place online during British Science Week.  

The idea

Dr Karatza, who is a Research Associate in the School of Engineering, was selected for a poster presenting her work on soil water repellence, a property which prevents soils from absorbing water. These so-called ‘hydrophobic soils’ can either be a hindrance – for example, where soils don’t absorb rainwater after a drought – or a benefit, in the case of preventing infiltration to waste.

Dr Karatza’s research project, which is supervised by Dr Chris Beckett and funded by an EPSRC New Investigator Award, focuses on understanding the complex science governing how water interacts with soil particles and developing special hydrophobic soils for use in the geotechnical design of waste cover systems.

It is hoped that this research will ultimately enable engineers to design better geotechnical structures for use in mining and municipal waste systems, in order to withstand extreme weather caused by climate change such as heat waves, flooding and heavy rain.

Underlying science

Dr Karatza explained, “In normal soils, water trapped between soil particles forms concave liquid bridges imposing a force, which attracts the soil particles connected via a bridge. Theory states that in hydrophobic soils, the shape of the liquid bridge will be the exact opposite, pushing the particles apart.  

“In this project we are focusing on how water passes through artificially ‘hydrophobised’ soils, studying images from a state-of-the-art microscope that allows us to control the amount of water in the soil.  

“We have found that the rough and irregular shape of real sand particles plays an important role in the formation of the liquid bridges, which is currently neglected in most engineering models and theories. We will also develop experimental methods to understand how the strength of water-repellent soils changes with the amount of water present in the soil, to allow engineers ultimately to design climate-resilient earthen structures using these new materials."

"Inspiring young educator"

Dr Karatza presented her poster to an audience including the other finalists and guests including Ian Murray, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and Labour MP for Edinburgh South.

Commenting on her selection, Dr Karatza said: "I am very grateful for this, especially in these difficult times it has been very encouraging to have my work being recognised."

Dr Antonis Giannopoulos, Director of Civil and Environmental Engineering Discipline said: "For the people who know Zeynep, this achievement does not come as a great surprise. But what is important also to highlight is that she is not just a great researcher but she is also an inspiring young educator with innovative ideas for enhancing learning and teaching.

"Zeynep has been one of our key contributors in developing our new approach to our geotechnical teaching under the challenging new conditions we found ourselves in due to Covid-19. In the Civil and Environmental Engineering Discipline we are very proud of her."

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