#NotJustALabCoat — An interview with Ana Lanham

Posted in: Community, Interviews

Ana Lanham is an early career academic who proudly carries the flag for team-work and collaboration and works at the Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Bath. After getting her PhD and working in policy for environmental technologies, Ana was lured back into the world of academia, established her research group in Bath and started to explore her ideas around sustainable solutions to treat wastewater.

Ana's enthusiasm is not limited to her work, and she is ready to take her hobbies into the lab or the office too (H&S permitting), to share them with the people who are lucky enough to work with her. 

Can you give us an overview of your work?

I work on wastewater treatment for the most part. Over the past decade, this field has slowly been changing its way of thinking. It’s now less about treating wastewater in treatment plants using chemicals and lots of energy, and more about a circular strategy that allows recovering resources (including energy and materials) from 'used water' in 'water resource recovery facilities'.

Specifically, my team looks at technologies that use micro-organisms to treat wastewater. We are interested in understanding how these micro-organisms work, so we can design processes that allow them to perform the best they possibly can. We focus on micro-organisms that treat wastewater and at the same time recover useful chemicals and resources such as phosphorus, bioplastics and high-value chemicals.

For comic effect, I sometimes describe myself as a 'shit engineer' and when I was working in Denmark they used to call me 'the sludge queen'.

How did you end up in your role at Bath?

I did my PhD at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal. It involved the characterisation of the performance and microbial community within full-scale wastewater treatment plants both in Portugal and in Denmark. I got to work very closely with wastewater treatment plants. That connection let me see the real-world application of my PhD and get a better understanding of industry versus academia — how different these worlds could be but also how much they could benefit from one another.

After finishing my PhD, I worked for the European Commission, which allowed me to experience big-picture thinking, science linked to policy (aka. evidence-based policy) and also to focus on real-world technology applications. Even though that was an immensely gratifying experience, I missed the freedom to pursue ideas and be creative — something that academia allows you to do.

Getting the job at the University of Bath was completely serendipitous; I stumbled across the academic position at the University and thought it was perfect for me, so I applied and got the job!

What is your favourite thing about being part of the CSCT?

I think the CSCT is an amazing centre dedicated to a broad range of expertise, all of which underpins the notion that chemistry and chemical engineering MUST be sustainable and can actually present solutions to some of the current world problems.

I have found in the CSCT a very dynamic team of both staff and students with the right mix of enthusiasm and rigour, where I have always felt I could both fit in and learn from. I have also gained a very fruitful interaction with quite a few of the doctoral students being trained at the Centre, which has played a central part in building my team and group.

What have you found most rewarding about the academic world?

My team! All the PhD, MRes, MSc, MEng and undergraduate students. I love seeing a group of different personalities sharing interests and motivations, and working together to overcome difficulties.

What do you feel are the specific challenges of being a young academic?

The job can be very intense and take a toll on our personal life as work-life balance can sometimes be neglected if we are not careful. There are also increasing expectations for academics to be not only excellent researchers but also excellent lecturers, communicators, entrepreneurs, policy influencers, networkers, leaders, mentors, etc.

I believe it's rare to find people who can excel at everything and there could be more potential for looking at departments and centres as a team, where people can complement each other and collaborate within their identified strengths.

The other challenge is assessing performance. Universities and research councils must obviously asses our outputs in a way that is as fair as possible. However, no system is perfect and evaluating people by any quantitative metric can sometimes conflict with the freedom and creativity that should lie within academia to challenge the status quo, take risks and innovate. Plus, there are a number of skills that are often not quantifiable or even recognisable, but that matter enormously to the work within a department or university – skills related to being generous and supportive, or enabling and motivating others. I personally believe these are still very underlooked and undervalued, even though they constitute a different form of leadership.

Finally, I would say the biggest challenge for me and other young academics is finding the time for reflection on research. I consider this a very creative process that often results from having time to talk about different problems to colleagues, stakeholders or even laypeople. It also requires some 'inefficient' and 'unstructured' time spent brainstorming and wondering 'what if'? I don’t think it’s something we can do in 15-minute intervals between two meetings to then tick it off our to-do list.

What tip would you give your PhD self if you could go back in time?

Keep calm! It will sort itself out. (This is easier said than done…)

Also, don’t take yourself so seriously — let it be. I think, by nature, PhD students are perfectionists and can be too hard on themselves.

What are the best memories of your PhD?

The people! I joined a research group as it was transitioning from a 'small' (20 people) to a bigger (50 people) group. The fact that I worked in such a big group meant that there was a lot of critical mass in my specific area of interest. This allowed me to have really rewarding 'mind-mapping' sessions and it really moulded me as a scientist.

We also organised a lot of team-building activities and social events, which gave me the great experience to see how teams develop and how much of a beneficial effect this can have on your own work.

Who are your mentors, or who are you inspired by?

I have different mentors or idols depending on the situation. My parents have always inspired me for their values and idealism, as well as for their tremendous strength and perseverance. My PhD supervisor, Professor Maria Reis, was extraordinarily encouraging, as well as someone with enormous kindness, energy and enthusiasm. Finally, Hans Rosling, who died two years ago — a true thinker with a cause! I had the privilege to listen to him speak at the Lisbon World Water Congress in 2014.

What would you do if you had an unlimited amount of funding to do research?

When I was finishing my thesis, I left some of the writing to the very last minute and ended up frantically writing my Future Work section. When I handed it to my supervisor, she said:

“This isn’t you, Ana! The Future Work is the only section in your thesis where you can reflect your personality!”

I remember sitting on a fire escape and making mind-maps about all the things I would do in an ideal world. Based on the famous video by Hans Rosling “200 years, 200 countries, 4 minutes” I dreamt up an augmented reality application where you could look at a wastewater treatment plant and see all the different types of microorganisms responding to different stimuli (e.g. nutrients) and interacting in real time. We are slowly starting to have the technology to achieve this, but there is still so much to be discovered about how communities of microorganisms interact!

During ‘moments of darkness’, what makes you smile?

Again — my team! I always feel better when I have met with them. It always amazes me how they can take your ideas, values and aspirations and interpret them in their own ways to make something even better.

I also love the combination of taking random walks and finding new spots to eat! Back in Portugal, I used to love a city walk around Lisbon and then ending up in some unexpected rustic old restaurant or café. I used to have a teacher at school who would call these walks 'psycho-dérive' — what I guess in English means 'drifting of the mind'.

What three things would you take to a desert island?

  • My pillow (I need perfect sleeping conditions!)
  • A notebook for noting down ideas and observations
  • Music — something by Ben Howard, Pink Martini and Bon Jovi (but nothing post-90s!)

What other things do you enjoy doing when you’re not at work?

Outside of work, I’ve learnt that I need quiet and 'manual' activities to decompress, despite being an extrovert (some might even say talkative!).

My current favourite hobbies (or the ones I can still practice) are mostly gardening and baking bread. In terms of gardening, it’s something I’ve always loved, but have developed my skills applied to pot terrace gardens. I have over 60 different sized pots and plant varieties in my garden currently, including an olive, apple and fig trees. My office has also been called a little jungle as it has quite a few pots, something that brings me a little serenity.

I started baking bread when I left Portugal, as I missed Alentejo bread (a sourdough-type bread named after the Portuguese southern region where it comes from), and just generally a more dense and rustic type of bread I couldn’t find in Holland (where I lived prior to the UK) or here. My PhD students have told me that I can not only supervise them, but I am also their personal baker — which I guess is a plus!

But there are also many other things I wish I could still do or return to. I used to be a gymnast and also actively practice yoga, both of which I still occasionally practice.  I miss the beach terribly (all year round). There are also a number of sports I wish I could take up again, such as horse-riding, sailing and kayaking.

I miss some of the cultural variety that living in a capital such as Lisbon offers, since I also love cinema and theatre. Back in Holland, we used to organise a small 'European cinema film-club' together with some colleagues. Now, I’m a member of the Little Theatre in Bath.

Fun facts about you?

I have worm farms. It’s great — you take food waste and they turn it into high-quality soil. The worms do love to escape, though! Back in Holland, I used to keep them in the bicycle shed and they got everywhere, which freaked out the neighbours as they thought we had some sort of worm infestation.

Posted in: Community, Interviews


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