Thursday, November 16, 2017

Determination of loading protocol and stop criteria for proof loading with beam tests

At the fib symposium 2017, I presented a paper titled "Determination of loading protocol and stop criteria for proof loading with beam tests". The abstract of the paper is as follows:

Proof loading of existing bridges is an interesting option when insufficient information about a bridge is available. To safely carry out a proof loading test, high loads are placed on the bridge. To avoid permanent damage to the structure, a controlled loading protocol needs to be described, and the measurements need to be closely monitored to identify the onset of distress. The criteria from existing codes and guidelines to evaluate the measurements, called stop criteria, are not universally applicable. To develop recommendations for proof loading of reinforced concrete solid slab bridges, beam experiments were analysed. The beams were heavily instrumented to evaluate the existing stop criteria, and possibly develop new stop criteria. The result of these experiments is the development of a standard loading protocol for the proof loading of reinforced concrete slab bridges. Recommendations for the use of the stop criteria are also formulated. These insights are used to develop a new guideline for the proof loading of reinforced concrete slab bridges in the Netherlands.


Here you can find the slides of the presentation:

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Extended Strip Model for slabs subjected to a combination of loads

I recently presented a paper titled "Extended Strip Model for slabs subjected to a combination of loads " at the fib symposium in Maastricht.

The abstract of the paper is:

Reinforced concrete slab bridges are assessed for a combination of loads that include self-weight, superimposed loads, and distributed and concentrated live loads. The shear capacity of reinforced concrete slabs subjected to a combination of loads is thus an important topic for the assessment of existing bridges. Currently, a plastic model exists for the assessment of reinforced concrete solid slabs subjected to a concentrated load: the Extended Strip Model, based on the Strip Model for concentric punching shear. To apply this model to slabs subjected to a combination of loads, the model needs to be adapted based on theoretical principles. The results are then compared with the results from experiments on half-scale slab bridges subjected to a combination of a concentrated load close to the support and a line load. The result of this comparison is that the proposed method is suitable to find a safe estimate of the maximum concentrated load on the slab. The implication of this development is that an improved tool is available to estimate the maximum load of a truck that can be placed on a reinforced concrete bridge, thus improving the current assessment.

Here you can find the slides of the presentation:

Thursday, November 9, 2017

I am Stephanie Zihms, and This is How I Work

Today, I am interviewing Dr. Stephanie Zihms in the "How I Work" series. Stephanie is currently working as a postdoc in Carbonate Geomechanics in the Institute of Petroleum Engineering at Heriot-Watt University. Her research tries to understand why rocks deform the way they do and what controls this deformation – crystal size, crystal shape, pore size or pore shape? Or is it the mineralogy or how the rocks formed in the first place? By deforming different rocks under different conditions in the lab she is trying to find some answers. This research and the findings are relevant for a range of subsurface processes like hydrocarbon extraction, geothermal energy production or Carbon Capture & Storage applications. Basically anytime a liquid or gas is put into the subsurface or extracted from the subsurface the conditions change and the rocks will response to this change – by understanding what controls this response within the rocks (crystals, grains or pores) we can better predict the behaviour in the subsurface. To read more about her life as a postdoc also check out her blog

Current Job: Postdoctoral Research Associate
Current Location: UFPE (Brazil) until August – then back to Heriot-Watt University (Scotland)
Current mobile device: iPhone 6s + iPad Air
Current computer: HP EliteBook (laptop) + Dell desktop at the (UFPE) office + HP desktop at Heriot-Watt University

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I’m the last year of a 3 year postdoc and currently a visiting researcher at UFPE (Brazil) thanks to the Royal Academy of Engineering Newton Fund Research Collaboration Programme grant I won last year. My research focuses on the behaviour of rocks – I want to understand why they deform the way they do and what rock properties control this response. I work mostly in the lab but I’m currently in Brazil for some field work and to work with the modelling group at UFPE to see if/how my lab work relates to the field and to provide some data to validate the groups models. More info here.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
I would be lost without my (adapted) bullet journal, EndNote, MS office and ImageJ – I’m also currently trying to teach myself Python. I also heavily rely on OneDrive, Dropbox and my external hard drive. I also use a Penguin mouse to help with some wrist issues and I can highly recommend it. To keep me right I need my synced calendar – if it’s not in there I will forget and for planning I use my bullet journal.

What does your workspace setup look like?
I’m quite lucky that I get to work in lots of different spaces – at Heriot-Watt University I work mostly at my desk. Since my MS diagnosis I arranged to be able to work one day a week from home. I also do lab work but this happens in stretches of experiments. While I’m visiting UFPE I have an office space there and I try not to work from home since I'm here for collaboration. But I get to go on field work and I love that I get to work outside. Since I travel a lot I got used to working anywhere – I mostly do this with my iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard.



What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Find a system that works for you & don’t shy away from stealing from others – I found some great advice through blogs, Twitter and talking to colleagues. I’m a morning person but I also want to reduce travelling during rush hour (this is due my health) so I work from home for 1 to 2 hours in the morning before heading to the office. I also recommend trying a writing group to help with regular writing and accountability.
Since I arrived in Brazil I started running again in the mornings followed by 10 minutes of stretching – this has helped me a lot with concentration and energy levels – I plan to keep this up when I’m back in Scotland.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
I use my bullet journal to plan my week – I don’t like to-do lists since they never seem to end. Planning a week at a time (with a monthly schedule in the background) I increased my productivity so much. Every Saturday or Sunday I plan the following week – first I add meetings, talks, appointments to my calendar and I then plan my tasks to make sure I use each day to its full potential – when I have a whole day free that’s a good time for some writing or data analysis – when I only have small gaps between meetings I use this for admin or to edit, reply to emails. I also downloaded the research pipeline template from Ellie Mackin’s blog and included it in my bullet journal – I also added a small project overview page. If you’re interested in the bullet journal I wrote a post about how I use here.


My set up for June – the week before it’s being populated with meetings etc (it’s in Portuguese because I’m trying to learn it while I’m here in Brazil)



Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?

I use an iPad – the EndNote app is great to be able to read research papers on the go I also use a Bluetooth keyboard so I don’t have to carry my heavy laptop everywhere I go. I’m planning to buy to wireless hard drive so I can connect between Laptop and iPad more easily rather than relying on cloud systems.

I also have a TomTom sports watch to keep track of my steps and exercise – I try to walk 10000 steps a day. Depending how my MS progresses I might have to start thinking about assistive technologies like speech-to-text and I’m planning on getting a standing desk (not sure if that counts as tech though).

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
I think it’s my multi-disciplinary background – this helps when talking to researchers from different backgrounds and “translate” between different research fields. I’m also engaged when it comes to early career researchers – e.g. I started a postdoc forum at Heriot-Watt University and I’m on a related working group as well. – not sure how beneficial that is to my career since some people see this as distractions. I’m also open and active in regards to disability and chronic conditions – especially since my own MS diagnosis in Nov 2016.

What do you listen to when you work?
Depends what I’m doing – when I’m reading I like to listen to Hans Zimmer movie soundtracks, when I’m writing I like repetitive music like Adele: Set fire to the rain (Thomas Gold remix) or I recently discovered Systema Solar: Yo voy ganao – I pick a song and have it on repeat – when I don’t hear the song anymore I know I’m in my writing zone. In the lab I just listen to my standard playlists which are random mixes of songs I like.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
I’m German and I like to read German books in my spare time – I absolutely love crime stories. I just finished the 7th book in a series from Eva Almstädt called Düsterbruch and I’m starting the 8th book tonight – this is called Ostseesühne. I really like the strong female lead. Sometimes I break this up with other books and I can highly recommend The Silo Effect (Gillian Tett) and MadGirl (Bryony Gordon). I also bought the first Harry Potter book in Portuguese to help with my language learning. I usually read before bed – since I turn off all electronic devices around 9pm.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
I would probably say that I’m quite extrovert (but know when not to be) – so at conferences or field trips I love to talk to people and make new connections. I have built quite a good network this way. The downside can be that I don’t like it when things don’t happen or aren’t in place – which is how I started the postdoc forum and this can take time away from research. This also lead to me being asked to be part of working groups etc… I’m learning to say No and delegate more. As I mentioned above I’m also quite outspoken about having MS and being an academic with a chronic condition. Another area where I’m not sure how people see this – I’m currently looking for my next position so decided quite quickly to be open and upfront – if this a reason for someone not to hire me I don’t want to work with them anyway.

What's your sleep routine like?
Last year I started a new routine where I switch off all electronics by 9pm and then either go to bed to read or do some non-electronic things like colouring in, preparing breakfast. On a week night I tend to be asleep by 10pm and get up between 5 and 6am. A good 7 hours sleep make a huge difference to me. If I have a bad fatigue or overall bad MS day I can end up in bed all day or I need to have naps throughout the day.

What's your work routine like?

On a normal day I work from home from 6.30am until 8.00am I then have breakfast and head to the office to be there between 9.30/10.00am – I then have lunch at 12.00 or 12.30 (depending which lunch group I join) I usually leave the office by 4pm to avoid rush hour traffic – if I have things to attend after 4pm I wait until 6pm to leave the office. If I have deadlines then I sometimes work from home in the evenings but this depends on my energy levels and what my partner is doing.
On Wednesdays I work from home – the routine doesn’t change much except that I try and go for a walk at lunch or do a pre-work cycle in the summer.
Since I started running I hope to keep this up and go running before work 3 times a week – not sure how easy that is going to be during a Scottish winter…

What's the best advice you ever received?
Find your strengths and make your career fit those.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

PhD Defenses around the world: a Defense from Russia

Today, I have invited Dr. Alexandra Voronina to explain us how a PhD defense in Russia takes place. Alexandra is 32 and lives in a small town near Saint-Petersburg. She has a PhD in sociology, which she defended in September 2009 at Saint-Petersburg State University. Nowadays she works as an assistant professor at Admiral Makarov State University of Maritime and Inland Shipping at the History, Sociology and Political Science Department. She has two little children. Officially, she is on parental leave now but she has a cash-in-hand job as a tutor helping schoolchildren prepare for their State Uniform Leaving Certificate Examinations. In her free time she is writing a monograph, which she recently submitted to a publisher, and teaching aids. Her plan for the near future is to begin writing her habilitation thesis. She also blogs about social anthropology. You can find her on Instagram.


When I studied for a PhD there were three ways to get the PhD in Russia: a full-time postgraduate course, a part-time doctoral program, or you can do your PhD not as a part of a structured doctoral program (it’s standard in Russia for PhD students to be treated as fairly independent scholars who also teach). As for me, I was a full-time postgraduate student. This course involves 3 years of study (with a strict deadline), a compulsory attendance, and a teaching practice, passing exams, a scholarship and only scientific activities. So I couldn’t work anywhere as an employee, but I could take part in research grants as a postgraduate student. Nowadays as far as I know, the postgraduate course and the rules for the PhD defense have been changed. But I defended my PhD in September 2009, and, of course, I describe my experience!

There is a two-step PhD defense in Russia: a trial viva and a viva. The trial viva is held when you have passed all examinations, two special exams with test questions related to your thesis, published the necessary number of articles and, of course, written your dissertation paper. The head of the department appoints two reviewers for the PhD thesis (internal and external). An internal reviewer is a member of the department. An external reviewer can be a member of a neighboring department or of another university. Approximately one month ahead of the trial viva, the manuscript and extended abstract of the dissertation must be sent to the reviewers. The trial viva takes place at the department. It is not public. It is attended by all members of the department and reviewers. The task of the members of the department is to ask as many questions as possible. Thus they prepare a postgraduate student for the upcoming viva. The task of the reviewers is to evaluate the thesis and give feedback to the postgraduate student on how to improve its quality. In theory, the reviewers can also reject the thesis if they feel it is not strong enough for the viva, but in practice the postgraduate student is allowed to take the trial viva when a supervisor considers that the thesis is ready. Both reviewers approve the thesis, and the student gets a permission to defend the dissertation paper.

When the supervisor agreed with my last corrections, my second-step challenge to reach the viva began. First of all I had to prepare documents for the preliminary examination of the thesis in the dissertational defense board. The dissertational defense board in its turn appointed a committee from among its members for acquaintance with the dissertation paper. The task of the committee is to prepare a conclusion for the dissertational defense board. In case of its positive decision, the committee prepares a draft conclusion on the thesis, after which the dissertational defense board accepts the dissertation paper for the viva, appoints the official opponents, the lead organization (which is the examiner too), and the date of viva, allows to print the extended abstract of the dissertation. I had the positive decision and my next step was to go to the publishing house to print the extended abstract of my dissertation in the amount of 100 copies (to send through the post to all the members of the dissertation defense board) and to print my manuscript in 4 copies (one copy for the library and the others for the three opponents). Do not think that the dissertation defense board includes 100 members. About 20 synopsis of the thesis should be brought to the PhD defense. It’s also considered good style if you present your dissertation extended abstract to each collaborators of your department. In addition, I should receive feedback from different people on my dissertation extended abstract.

Two weeks before the viva, I received the reviews from my opponents. Usually an opponent review is a brief overview of the dissertation research, its conformity or non-compliance with the rules for writing papers of this kind, and indicates the shortcomings of the thesis. The reviews must be transferred to the dissertational defense board by the candidate. When I got opponents’ feedback I began to prepare the answers to the comments of official opponents. My supervisor helped me in it. He also told me about the whole procedure of PhD defense, asked me all sorts of tricky questions about my dissertation research, so I was ready to defend!

The viva is public and lasts 2 hours
. Usually friends and family are invited in addition to colleagues and collaborators. The head of the dissertational defense board opens the viva. Further, the scientist secretary reports that all documents of the candidate are here. After that, the candidate briefly talks about his/her dissertation research and its results. Then, the dissertational defense board members ask any questions about the thesis, to which the candidate must give exhaustive answers. When the questions are finished, the promoter makes a short speech, and then the scientist secretary reads out the conclusion of the organization in which the theses was done, the review of the leading organization and reviews on extended abstract of the dissertation. Further, the candidate answers the comments contained in the reviews and then the official opponents read their feedback and the candidate replies to the comments of the opponents. Finally the thesis is discussed by the members of the dissertational defense board, and the candidate is given the final word to thank everyone who helped him or her. After this, a secret ballot is held. A positive decision on awarding an academic degree is accepted if at least two-thirds of the members of the dissertational defense board voted in favor. After the approval of the protocol on the results of voting, the draft conclusion of the dissertational defense board is discussed. It has to highlight the main points of the thesis and its compliance with the requirements of the highest attestation committee. The conclusion is made by open voting and is declared to the candidate. Then the candidate invites all present to a party.

Although the viva is considered to be held, however, this is not all. Within 30 days from the date of it, the candidate must prepare and send his documents to the highest attestation. And only after this you can say that your viva is really finished.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to select which conference to attend

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


When you start your PhD, outline where (at which conferences) you would like to present your work. Don’t wait until you feel “ready” to present something – it is not uncommon for conferences to require abstract submission 1.5 years before the actual conference. Talk to your fellow PhD students to learn where your supervisor usually takes his/her students, and talk with your supervisor about wanting to present your work at conferences as early as possible. Certainly, your plans can change as you move through your PhD, but have an idea of where you would want to present early on, and work towards the realization of that plan.

Ideally, you have been able to discuss travel funding prior to taking your PhD position, but if you are unsure about what to expect, then bring the topic up as soon as possible. The funding of the project you are working on is crucial here: it could allow you to present at a number of conferences each year, or it could limit you to one single conference per year. If your funding does not include a travel budget, look for other options. Many universities and professional associations provide scholarships for students to travel to conferences. You can also consider participating in student competitions, essay contents, and other competitions which can award you with travel funding.

Now that you know that there are many ways to find funding to travel to conferences, and that you should start building your conference wishlist early on, let’s focus on selecting the right conference. There are different types of conferences:

  • Meetings of international associations: The largest conferences tend to be the meetings of international associations. These associations can meet annually, or less frequently. A good place to start looking for information would be on the websites of international associations that you are involved with or that are important in your field. If you are not a member of any international association, start looking for the important players in your field. A good starting point would be the associations that publish the journals you read, for those journals that are not owned by large publishing houses. Keep in mind that many international associations offer free or very cheap student memberships. Once you’ve identified the important international associations, look on their websites for information about their events. Many international associations also mention events they cosponsor, so you can be informed about meetings you would not hear about otherwise.
  • National meetings: If you want to test the waters before you take your research abroad, and keep your travel costs lower, looking into national meetings is a good starting point. While not all national meetings require you to write a conference paper, presenting your work to a smaller audience and perhaps in your native language may be a more comfortable first step. These national meetings can be organized by national member groups of the international associations that you follow. Another type of events is organized by research groups of universities that study the same topic, giving PhD students an opportunity to share their research with researchers in the same field. Sometimes, young member groups of international organizations or student chapters of international organizations organize events in which you may want to present your research.
  • Industry events: There’s a whole array of different industry events that can be particularly interesting towards the end of your PhD trajectory, when you may want to explore opportunities outside academia. Some industry events are gatherings of academics and practitioners in a certain branch of the industry. These events typically have lectern sessions, in which you could present your work. Inquire if there is a possibility, but keep in mind that in some fields these lectures feature senior professors who give a more general overview of the current state of the art. Other industry events are career fairs, and trade shows, which you may want to attend to learn about your opportunities after your graduation, but which do not offer you the ability to present your work.
  • Specialized workshops: Workshops on specialized topics can be organized by international associations, or on the initiative of a few senior professors. Whereas these events typically tend to gather a small but focused group of researchers, it is more difficult for you during your PhD to learn about these events. Sometimes, these events are announced on the website of the overbearing international association. The presentations can be by invitation only, but if you are interested in participating and presenting your work, talk to your supervisor and see if he/she can get you a spot in the workshop.

Most information about upcoming conferences can be found online, and the internet (including the websites of the most important international associations) can provide you with a great amount of information. Sign up for newsletters of international associations to stay informed about the events they organize or co-sponsor. Tell your fellow PhD students and supervisor that you are looking for information about interesting conferences; they will forward you calls for abstracts when something interesting for you comes up. Ask your fellow PhD students and supervisor to bring flyers announcing future conferences when they travel to conferences.

Before finishing this topic, I need to give you a word of caution. If you receive an email with an invitation to submit an abstract for a conference, and it looks interesting, make sure you check if the conference is legit. Check their website, and see if the event is endorsed by any international association that you know. Check the organizing committee and scientific committee, and see if there are reputable scientists involved. If you are doubting whether the conference is legit, write one of the members of the scientific committee to ask about the scope of the conference. Some predatory conferences unfortunately just slap some names on a website without asking these scholars for permission. You wouldn’t expect it, but some companies have decided to make easy money with the organization of “academic” conferences: they ask high registration fees, and use no academic rigor in the peer review process (or use no peer review whatsoever) to organize conferences with the sole objective of making some quick money. Red flags for these predatory conferences are: poor English in the email, a promise for fast publication or publication in a journal, or you being invited as plenary speaker or session chair (by someone you don’t know at all). If you are doubting whether a call for abstracts is legit, google the name of the conference with “bogus conference”, “fake conference”, “predatory conference” or “scam conference” added to it to see if others have been fooled by the same organization.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The hardest stage of the PhD

I recently ran a poll on Twitter, asking people for their experience on what they considered the hardest stage of the PhD. The results, and personal stories, are quite interesting. For 45%, the end of the PhD and the writing stage are the most difficult phase - I had expected this percentage to be higher (say 67%), based on my perception.

For myself, the hardest stage was at the end - not the actual writing, but the patience I needed until my promotor had time to read my draft. Patience is a virtue, but unfortunately not one that I possess...

Thursday, October 26, 2017

PhD Defenses around the world: a Defense (without a defense) in biology from UC Berkeley

Today, I am hosting Dr. Maureen Berg in the "Defenses around the World" series. Maureen is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and received a BS in Biology at the University of Dayton. Maureen recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a PhD in Integrative Biology, and is currently applying for and interviewing for non-academic research positions in the Bay Area. You can follow her on twitter @MaureenBug.

The majority of PhD programs in the US require a written dissertation, as well as an oral defense. However, the various biology departments at Berkeley do not require a formal defense. Most do require some sort of “finishing talk,” which is essentially a seminar where you present your all of the work in your dissertation. For my department, we form our dissertation committee after passing our qualifying exams (taken at the end of year 2), and meet with that committee at least once per year until graduation. To submit your completed dissertation, all you need to do is have each of your committee members sign off on it. Then you’re done.

For me, I initially had trouble dealing with not knowing what to expect from my committee because of the lack of any formal defense date. I contacted my committee members a few months before the university deadline to ask for clarification and to get an idea of when I should send them my dissertation. One committee member requested the final version no later than two weeks before the deadline (in May), so I set my own deadline of five weeks prior to the university deadline (in April).

In the month or so before my April deadline, I received a few rounds of feedback from my committee chair/primary advisor. However, the lack of any sort of “rubric” or strong reassurance from my primary advisor that my dissertation was ready or acceptable took a toll on my anxiety. Once I was able to embrace the subjective-ness of the entire process and start to truly view my dissertation as my own (and not my advisor’s or any other collaborators’), it was much easier to feel confident about my final version, and I actually had some fun writing it up!

Once I sent off my final version to my committee, the waiting game started. I waited two weeks before sending a reminder/check-in email. Some members didn’t respond, and one told me that they will read it “soon.” As the days/weeks went by, it became harder to focus on any final experiments or presentations, as all I could think about is how I was “running out of time.” I sent another reminder after three weeks, same responses (or lack there of). I sent another reminder one week before the university deadline, and received a mix of responses:

1) (Nothing)
2) “I will finish it in the next few days”
3) “Oh, I didn’t see your earlier reminders and haven’t read it. I’ll skim it now, and then we can meet next week to talk about it?”

Now I’m in the final week, and the deadline is Friday. On Monday, I received comments/corrections back from #1. I met with #3 on Wednesday, which was a very pleasant and very helpful meeting; it was like an informal, hour-long defense where we just talked about the main results and the implications for my work (#3 requested no corrections to the actual text). I was unsuccessful in tracking down #2, so by Thursday I camped out at the desk outside their office. Once I found #2, they told me that my last two chapters would need to be developed more/polished for publication, but everything was fine for my dissertation (no corrections to the text). #2 signed my form, shook my hand, and congratulated me. Once I got all the signatures, I submitted it to the university’s graduate office, they gave me a lollipop, and I was officially done.

My department was the one that doesn’t require a finishing talk (although, this is likely to become a requirement soon), but I was scheduled to present at a joint lab meeting on the last day of the semester, so I used that opportunity to give a finishing-type talk. There wasn’t any sort of big, singular “hurrah!” at the end, but there were many smaller celebrations as I said goodbye to various students and faculty (and more once my parents flew into town for commencement the following week). The somewhat drawn out, low-key celebrations are more my style, so I didn’t feel like I missed out on any big finish!
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