Over the next several months, we’ll be introducing a number of DAAD’s new alumni to give a sense of the sort of scholars and academic activity DAAD supports. For the first in this series, we introduce Ms. Somi Doja, a PhD candidate from the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus.

DAAD Canada: Can you tell us about your academic affiliation and activities?

Somi Doja: I am a student at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus in Kelowna. I started my PhD in Mechanical Engineering in 2017 and plan to finish in about four years. The topic of my PhD is very interesting. I am working on recycled materials which will eventually become electrodes in lithium ion batteries. My work is to basically fabricate these materials, do different treatments to them and come up with novel, new electrode materials which have been recycled waste materials.

DAAD Canada: That does sound interesting. What sort of recycled materials do you use in this work?

SD: One set of materials that I am working with are end-of-life tires. Conventionally these tires are dumped in landfills or burned, in a process which produces pretty harmful gases as well. In some places these tires are buried underground, however, using that method means that the tires would not be decomposed naturally, and the chemicals they contain remain intact for many years. Recycling these tires, to get the carbon out of them, is the topic of my thesis.

DAAD Canada: You have just returned from a stay in Germany through DAAD’s Short-Term Research Grant program. How did that come about?

SD: Professor Heinz Voggenreiter, the Director of the Institute for Materials Research at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) visited us here at UBCO last year, along with a few of his colleagues. They came to see my professor here, Dr. Lukas Bichler, about setting up a collaborative project looking into aerogels, an ultra-light, carbon-based material, for use in batteries of the kind I am researching.

This is how I ended up applying to DAAD to go to the DLR Center in Cologne for four months to work on this project. They have been working with these materials there for over twenty years, so the primary goal of my visit was to learn more about these materials and how to incorporate them into lithium ion batteries.

Somi with Dr.i-ng. Marina Schwan in the lab at the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne.

DAAD Canada: What expectations did you have going there? Had you been to Germany before?

SD: No, this was my first time in Europe and it was a completely new environment for me, but I was really excited to meet everyone there, learn more about these aerogels and do some other chemical characterizations based on work I’d been doing at UBCO.

DAAD Canada: And were your expectations met?

SD: Definitely, I think my experiences really exceeded my expectations. I was actually allowed to use most of the equipment there myself, after training of course, so that helped make it a really successful trip.

DAAD Canada: How did you do your work in the lab there? Were you integrated into a working group, or liaising with one of these as you needed to?

SD: While I was there, I worked with the group researching on aerogels. I learned a bit about their projects as well, which was fascinating, but I was mainly trying to study how the recycled materials at the heart of my research could be incorporated into aerogels as well. The idea was to fabricate aerogels using our recycled carbon materials so that I, and other members of our team at UBCO and DLR, could test them for application in Lithium ion batteries.

DAAD Canada: Looking at your experience more broadly, what was the best aspect of your research experience and what was the best thing outside of the lab?

SD: On campus, the best thing was being allowed to use the equipment as I was. Usually, when you come from outside into a research lab, especially a national facility like this one is, you are not allowed to do that sort of a thing and someone else would carry out the work for you, but instead I did most of this and that was really fun! Some of the equipment there are things that we do not have at UBCO, so it was a learning experience as well.

Off campus, I’d have to say that it was experiencing Karneval, (ed. note: a festive period, usually in February, that is a time of festivity and merry making, particularly in Germany’s Rhineland region) something that was totally new to me and very interesting. We don’t have anything like that here in Canada, so that was fascinating.

DAAD Canada: Where did you live while you were there? Were your host able to put you up?

SD: No, they don’t have their own Guest House or anything like that, so I had to find my own accommodation. That was a bit challenging, because, in order to get my visa, I had to demonstrate a place of residence for the entire stay at the time I applied. That was a bit tricky, but I did find something so everything worked out.

DAAD Canada: I’m assuming you don’t speak German; how much of a problem was navigating your way through everyday life there without those language skills?

SD: I didn’t know any German before I went there, so it was certainly a little bit challenging when I first arrived. Having said that, I’d been told that people in Cologne and the Rhineland region were really friendly and helpful, and that was my experience too. People at my work were always ready to help, translating for me and things like that. I was also using several apps on my phone and they were a big help as well.

At the Christmas market in Cologne.

DAAD Canada: Would you recommend a research stay in Germany to your peers?

SD: Definitely. I think everyone should have an experience like this. Going to a national lab, doing research there, learning their ways of doing research was a fun experience and I would recommend it to everyone.

DAAD Canada: Did your stay advance your research?

SD: Certainly. I was able to fabricate new materials at the DLR lab in Cologne and I had them shipped to UBCO. Now I am going to use them to make the button cellbatteries that we are all familiar with and then test them to see how they perform.

DAAD Canada: That’s really exciting. Do you have any advice you would give to your peers in terms of how to prepare themselves for a stay in Germany?

SD: I would say, first of all, don’t be scared about not knowing German. I was a bit nervous about this, but the people there were really nice and helpful so I don’t think it’s a requirement to know German to go there for a short-term research stay.

Another tip would be to look for accommodation in advance, because that can take a bit of time, depending on where you are going.

DAAD Canada: Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with us and best of luck with your research.