“Doing a PhD in Germany can be a rich experience”

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Geochemist Eleanor Berryman is studying the origins of the mineral tourmaline, using it to track the development of specific rock types. In the doctoral degree she is taking at the Technische Universität (TU) Berlin and the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam, she is also exploring the Earth’s geological history . In 2015, the German Research Foundation (DFG) awarded her the Bernd Rendel Prize for her promising geoscientific research, which has international potential. In our interview, the British Canadian researcher explains exactly what she is researching and why she chose to do her doctorate in Germany.

Eleanor Berryman is working on the mineral tourmaline.

Ms Berryman, the subject of your research is the mineral tourmaline. Why did you chose this for your PhD?

I am interested in minerals because they host the majority of the elements that make up our planet in their organized crystal structures. Tourmaline is a particularly exciting mineral because its crystal chemistry is relatively complex. Whereas most minerals are made up of a handful of different elements, tourmaline can incorporate about half the periodic table of elements into its structure. Why it’s able to do this and what controls which elements it incorporates is a challenging and engaging puzzle. It is not a puzzle that can be solved in one PhD, but there are lots of things to be discovered, making it an exciting research topic.

Could you explain what makes your research so special and why the issue is so important?

Minerals are the building blocks of rocks and their properties determine the behaviour of their host rocks. Therefore, understanding their stability and crystal chemistry is fundamental to geologists. Tourmaline’s mineral properties result in its occurrence in many different rock types. More importantly, tourmaline has the potential to provide geologists with access to otherwise inaccessible information about a rock’s history, specifically in terms of pressure, temperature and interaction with fluids. Before we can access this history, we need to understand tourmaline’s crystal chemistry, or put more simply, how the conditions of its formation environment link to the composition of a tourmaline crystal. I try to understand tourmaline’s crystal chemistry by synthesizing my own tourmaline crystals in a controlled environment in the lab using high pressure and temperature equipment. I then use a variety of spectroscopic and analytical methods to characterize the tourmaline crystals in order to understand how changes to the system result in changes in the tourmaline’s chemistry.

You are British Canadian – but have chosen to do your PhD in Germany. Why?

I was born in England to English parents, but my family immigrated to Canada when I was a child. When I was considering my PhD, the only constraint on the location was that it should be somewhere interesting and pleasant to live. The PhD project itself was the most important decision-making factor for me. I wanted to pursue an engaging project in an environment that would foster my scientific development and would be sufficiently equipped to allow me to learn new scientific methods and pursue my ideas. Working at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam has offered me all these things.

What advice would you give other young researchers who are interested in doing a doctorate in Germany?

The time spent getting a PhD does not need to be limited to developing your career in research. Depending on your circumstances, it can be a great opportunity to experience a different culture or way of living. Germany has proven to be a wonderful place to live, rich in history, culture and innovation. Arriving in a country where I did not speak the native language was definitely a challenge, but resulted in my developing as a person in ways I could not have foreseen. Doing a PhD in Germany can provide a well-rounded, rich experience, both in terms of high quality research thanks to Germany’s well-funded research programmes, and in terms of your personal development through learning a new language, culture and world view.

Ms Berryman, thank you for the interview. We wish you every success with your research!

Helmholtz Centre Potsdam – GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences

The GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences is the national research centre for earth sciences in Germany. Its researchers work in close interdisciplinary collaboration with the related scientific disciplines of physics, mathematics, chemistry and biology as well as with the engineering science disciplines of rock mechanics, engineering hydrology and