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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.

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