A week in the life of a new PhD fellow

Hello everyone!

My name is Elena Stachew and as of January 2017, I am the Biomimicry PhD Fellow for Biohabitats, Cleveland Water Alliance (CWA) and Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). Check out my biography here. Although every fellow’s schedule is unique, we each have to balance our time between sponsor(s), research and other program responsibilities. Though I am still learning the ins and outs, I thought I would give a better sense of what that balance can look like by describing my typical week as a new fellow:

  • Mondays & Tuesdays – Biohabitats office

Living in Cleveland, I love the start of the week as my commute is just to the opposite side of town, in Little Italy – University Circle. I haven’t started taking Cleveland’s rail line (RTA) yet, but I plan to soon in order to cut down on driving. Biohabitats Great Lakes Regional Office is housed in Murray Hill Galleries, an old school building converted into a hodgepodge of art galleries, boutique shops, law & architect firms, music studios and a yoga studio. I also enjoy being close to my alma mater, Case Western Reserve University, as I am able to meet former professors and colleagues for lunch on occasion!

On Mondays, Biohabitats has morning weekly staff meetings and in the afternoons, I have a weekly check in with Chris Streb, an ecological engineer and Bioworks team lead based in the Baltimore office, by phone. Bioworks is Biohabitats’ research, development and innovation arm, learn more here.

Only just shy of two months in, I take the days in the office to:

  • Review literature on ecosystem services and metrics,
  • Learn the Biohabitats consulting practice areas of ecological restoration, landscape architecture and regenerative design,
  • Talk with interested employees about their level of knowledge in biomimicry and active projects,
  • Explore Biohabitats Technical Resources library,
  • And read through my RSS feeds and Google alerts on biomimicry and other relevant topics.

If I find an article on biomimicry interesting and/or relevant, I post on Yammer – a Microsoft social network collaborative platform that Biohabitats uses.

My days involve a lot of reading and asking questions, and the first month involved several meetings with my three sponsors, but eventually, I’ll try my hand at applying biomimicry thinking to an active restoration, urban design or stormwater management project, post exploratory topics on Biohabitats Rhizome Blog or Leaf Litter quarterly newsletter, and host Brain Gardens and Walkabouts (Biohabitats terms for ‘lunch n’ learns’ and ‘end of the day brainstorming’ respectively).

I am also learning Biohabitats entire project process from client proposal submission to post-project monitoring in order to better understand how to add biomimicry as a value-added service. I was recently able to participate in an interview for the City of Cuyahoga Falls of Biohabitats design proposal for an ecological restoration project on Kelsey Creek.

I have also traveled some, to ODNR’s Office of Coastal Management in Sandusky and Biohabitats’ corporate headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland.

Biohabitats HQI snapped a few photos of their beautiful headquarters during my visit. One is shown here. There were so many plants; I immediately felt as if I walked into a botanical garden!

  • Wednesdays– Environmental Engineering Design & Biohabitats

Wednesday mornings, I have a class in Environmental Engineering Design at the University of Akron. The commute is 45 minutes to an hour. The class is about drinking water and wastewater treatment systems, and last week, I completed a group design project on a proposal for a groundwater treatment system of chlorinated solvents. I generally give myself an hour after class for any meetings scheduled with professors as I am still figuring out my adviser and advisory committee, then I drive back to Biohabitats to finish out the remainder of the work day. The last two weeks were an exception (hence the word – ‘typical’), as I needed more time on campus during the week to meet with my fellow classmates to work on this design project.

  • Thursdays & Fridays – University of Akron

Thursday afternoons, I have a class in Biomimicry Design & Application, where we are exploring bio-inspired ways to improve exercise equipment on long-term spaceflight missions in partnership with NASA Glenn Research Center’s Human Research Program. I come in late Thursday mornings to spend time on class readings and homework, meet with students in my classes for our design projects, as well as professors re: advisory committee and potential thesis topics.

Fridays, I have Environmental Engineering Design in the morning, followed by our afternoon Integrated Biosciences (IB) guest lecture series. I’ve heard interesting presentations on swarm intelligence, fish locomotion, architectural production using robotics and applied biomimicry. We are also able to participate in student lunches with our guest speakers before their lecture.

This past week, I helped organize the schedule of guest lecturer Julian Vincent, a retired professor from the University of Oxford active in the ontologies of biomimicry. See the following recent article for an overview of the topic: The trade-off- a central concept in biomimetics – published in 2016 by Bioinspired, Biomimetic
and Nanobiomaterials. I helped with the logistics of an all-day ontologies workshop followed by dinner, and a visit to Cleveland Institute of Art and discussion with Doug Paige, an industrial design professor and faculty partner in the Biomimicry Fellowship Program at the University of Akron.

As my schedule allows (which isn’t much!) and per my graduate student contract, I also serve as a QA/QC Contract Technician for the nuclear division of Five Star Products – a vestige of my former working life. The company manufactures safety-related concrete & grout products in Chardon, OH for nuclear power plants, for use in the construction of reactor bases, secondary containment and cooling towers.

I hope this gives you, the readers, a sense of how crazy yet exciting the life of a Biomimicry PhD Fellow can be! I am looking forward to the summer, in which I’ll have more time to spend with my three sponsors. The plan is to continue to explore potential thesis topics and learn how to connect my eventual thesis with my sponsor work program in the form of applied and practical research.

Look for more updates on this blog in the future, and feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. Cheers and I look forward to the journey ahead!

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