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Alumni Stories: Ewa Burwicz-Galerne

Alumni Stories: Ewa Burwicz-Galerne

“It seems to me that the more we see what is outside, the better it will be after returning to Poland. In my opinion, you should not be afraid to leave home and contact people who are working on issues that really interest us, not ones that are currently fashionable or will give you a job for life. Nobody can guarantee that, we simply need to do whatever we like. (...)”

Name: Ewa Burwicz-Galerne

Place of residence: Kiel, Germany

Job position: PostDoc (Numerical Modeling of Geological Systems) at the GEOMAR Research Institute Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research Kiel, Germany; Owner of the GeoModelIt consulting company

Field of study: Geology

How do you remember your studies at the Jagiellonian University?

I studied 4 years at the Jagiellonian University and chose this university because I really wanted to study in Cracow. It was actually my dream because of the city. I knew that I couldn't start geological studies in Lodz, where I come from. Warsaw was on the table, but Cracow definitely tipped the scales. And I didn't regret it for a second, because the whole atmosphere of Cracow and the fact that the campus had not yet been built, and classes were in different places and in the Old Town, and in various other interesting locations. It was really, really nice and I have very good memories.

Was there any event that you remember in particular?

There were a lot of difficult exams, I must admit. On the other hand, I think that the best part of the studies was fieldwork because of the atmosphere and the experience of staying 24 hours a day with our professors and other students. It was really unforgettable and I do not mean only in terms of the knowledge that we could gain. I regret that I didn't pay much attention to this aspect, but practical work was always a phenomenal experience.

Zdjęcie portretowe absolwentki

Photo from the graduate's own collection

This unites the group?

There is a lot of independence and cooperation in the group. We were released out into the field for the whole day. Everything depended on us, e.g. how we would perform the tasks. There is a great resemblance to academic work, here also all projects are carried out in smaller or larger groups. In modern science, an individual – no matter how outstanding – does not mean much. You have to be able to cooperate.

Did you know what to do next when you chose your major?

No, absolutely not. And I highly recommend, if possible, following your heart in the choice of major. Graduating in geology, there are really many job opportunities, really, in various fields. In science and industry. However, I always knew that I want to do the job I like. I am not a person who can do tasks that are not satisfying, that don’t make me happy, but still I have to slog on day after day on something I have no interest in.

We had a lot of pressure after high school to figure out what employment opportunities would be available to us after we completed a given major. I would advise not to think this way, because after 5 years of study the labour market will have really changed a lot. You should simply follow the opportunities or opportunities that arise during your studies. Then you need to find yourself, not to be afraid to change direction if, for example, something interests you more. There was a time when I was studying three majors at the same time. At the Jagiellonian University I was enrolled in geology, I was still studying chemistry at AGH (Academy of Commerce) because I was very interested in crystallography and geophysics. This allowed me to find out, for example, what fascinates me the most in these areas, what I would like to combine. This work that I do today every day is just a combination of all the most interesting elements. Therefore, it is also a bit of a niche. And everything that is niche is valuable.

TIt's no mean achievement if you can bring all these things together and do what you really want to do in life.

Yes. The fact that I had an individual course of study from the second year onwards helped a lot, too. I highly recommend applying for such an opportunity because then you can choose your courses. Those that interest you the most. So – for example – I gave up courses on biology and paleontology very quickly. I dropped the study of living things and focused on mineralogy, petrography and geochemistry.

How did your professional career begin?

I defended my master’s thesis in a somewhat non-standard way. I decided to write an email to a professor from Germany who had just received a grant to set up his research group at the GEOMAR Research Institute, asking if I could be hired for a project in his group. I have a year of free time, I have an individual course of study (I wrote to him), so could I come over to work with him and then complete my degree in Cracow. He helped me a lot, we wrote a plan for the whole year. I had to apply to the dean of the Jagiellonian University for permission to write my MA thesis abroad. It was a bit of a problem because I was the first person to come up with such an idea and I didn't know how to handle it. But I got permission and there I was, in Germany for a year. I only came back for the final exam. I took the diploma exam at the Institute of Geological Sciences in Cracow, but immediately afterwards I was offered to start PhD studies in Germany, which I went for it. It was like a natural extension of the projects that I worked on as part of my Master’s thesis.

Was the doctorate a goal in itself or was the goal to find a job in Germany?

A PhD in Germany is a job. You are a researcher employed by a research institute, on a contract, you get a salary and it's just work. Nobody here thinks about another form of employment, because both there is no such need or possibility, either financially or time-wise. It is full-time work, i.e. 8 hours a day. If you take a job, e.g. in the industry, it is possible to write a dissertation which is a summary of professional experience (a so-called technical doctorate), which you write yourself, find a supervisor, and then simply defend it, i.e. describe what it is about. But this is a slightly different form of doctorate, very popular e.g. in oil concerns.

There is now also a rule in Germany that you cannot break your three-year doctorate to look for materials. So if someone takes a doctoral student, they need to provide him/her with work and a salary for at least three years and give him/her the opportunity to complete the degree. These are normal contracts.

Without a PhD, would you be able to take up your current job?

If you want to work in science and stay at a research institute, a PhD is absolutely necessary. You cannot be a researcher without a doctoral degree. If you have a Master's degree, you can apply for the position of lab technician.

Tell us about what you do.

Now I am working with numerical modelling of geological systems, i.e. I use data that is collected during drilling and sampling operations, i.e. seismic data, and I use them to build three-dimensional digital models of a given geological system.

We are trying to figure out what these systems looked like earlier, what they will look like in a hundred, a thousand, a million years. And we use software that is sometimes already delivered to us in specific packages, and sometimes we write the codes ourselves. I use, for example, the Matlab programming language, which allows me to make changes to the model very easily. This is my job now and it is demanding indeed. Each subsequent project, every new place in the world that we try to present in a digital way is completely different from the previous one. There are no two identical systems.

You also need IT knowledge then?

Yes, you need a lot of knowledge in programming, mathematics, physics, geochemistry. Because all these elements must be present in a good model. You have to understand a lot of processes from different fields. That is why I always advise my undergraduate and PhD students to focus on those aspects of their work in which they are the weakest. Because what you are good at, you already have, it is yours. But you need to devote more time to those things that seem more difficult. It is very important. There are no fields in science anymore that are defined in a restrictive way. It is all incredibly mixed up. You really need to know a lot of things to understand multi-faceted processes.

Geologia morska i naftowa - grafika udostępniona przez absolwentkę.

Source: Burwicz, E. and Haeckel, M. (2019) Basin-scale estimates on petroleum components generation in the Western Black Sea basin based on 3-D numerical modelling. Marine and Petroleum Geology, v.113. Graphical abstract.

What are the main challenges you are facing at this point?

Now such a challenge, which I am very happy about, is the possibility of using artificial intelligence in my work. Every day I try to reproduce geological systems in the best way possible, based on the data that I receive. However, there are many places that we would like to digitally reconstruct, and we don't have wells there, we don't have any samples. We don’t know what is under the seabed and then, for example, we use AI algorithms, which can give an idea as to what this environment most likely looks like, based on analogies with other environments that this algorithm already knows.

These are completely new things and we are one of the first groups in the world to do this kind of work. These are the so-called high risk / high gain projects but they are extremely rewarding. The results of these tests may at times deviate from reality, but if we manage to create something that is later confirmed, it brings enormous satisfaction and huge progress for science.

Who uses the results of your research?

Of course, the petroleum industry is very interested in numerical models. Oil companies have little time to try to analyze the environment in which drill surveys will be carried out. However, we spend months and years building models in high resolution, which are much more accurate. Having such a model and understanding of what is happening in a given region is extremely important for oil companies. They are very willing to cooperate and finance academic and scientific projects.

For example, I worked with Statoil for many years, I did numerical models of the Gulf of Mexico, where drilling was planned. I also worked with Total, with all the major players in the oil market. We are now in the middle of a project with a smaller Norwegian company – Aker BP. They are financing our project for a year or two, for which we can employ people who we think are the most capable and ready to understand what a given environment consists of, what processes occur there.

Also strictly academic cooperation is very well developed, there are few centres in the world which construct such 3D models. We know a lot about each other, everyone is specialized in a different region and in different processes. We also often meet during conferences and workshops.

I would like to ask how it feels to work at the institute where you now work.

It seems to me that in many respects, working in a research institute is much more difficult than working in a corporation. That means the GEOMAR institute itself, where I work, is really big. About one thousand employees are employed here, half of them are scientists, and the annual budget is about EUR 80 million. It is a marine research institute, so we have various specialists: geologists, microbiologists, atmosphere physicists, all fields of environmental or earth sciences. In such a huge group you have to develop your brand and be recognizable. You have to have something that nobody else has to keep you going, to be noticed, to get funding for projects. There is tremendous pressure to produce unique and groundbreaking scientific publications, of which we have several a year. You are as good as your last publication. It generates a lot of stress, because it is impossible to devote ourselves to a project that will take us, for example, 10-15 years and work out our findings gradually. The world of science now unfortunately requires very fast, high-quality groundbreaking results, preferably ones that can change policy and the perception of the environment in society and be used by the industry. Many people cannot function in this way. Not everyone is able to present groundbreaking data or discoveries every. Such a bad year in your career may mean that you need to find another job. Anyone who considers working in science would be well-advised to look at their character from a distance and wonder if you are strong, confident and stress-resistant enough, so that you will be able to withstand the criticism of reviewers of each publication and will be able to stay on the surface, be noticed all the time. Not an easy career path at all. I think for many reasons it is more difficult than in the private sector.

After you do your PhD, for a relatively long period, you have no access to permanent employment, you need to with post-doctoral contracts, which usually last for 2-3 years. There is a lot of pressure on mobility, i.e. people who are in the academic sector should change jobs every three years, change the laboratory to learn new work techniques. For people who have family and children, it is not a simple matter to move all the time. We are not talking here about moving within the same country or even a continent. Sometimes you need to move from Germany to New Zealand, then to Norway, then to the United States. So this kind of life is not easy.

 I would also like to ask for advice for young people who are just starting their careers. What do you think is most important at the beginning?

When it comes to academic work, it looks similar in many areas. I think recognition is absolutely the key element to success. To make a name for yourself in science, I would suggest leaving Poland. This is not about intellectual opportunities, which are very numerous at Polish universities, because there are really some great scientists in Poland. The problem is the financing of science: there is no comparison between Germany and Poland. If we want to understand how modern science works, then we must see it from the inside. And I highly recommend a trip, even for a short time, to countries that invest in science. There is a completely different work culture abroad. It seems to me that the more we see what is outside, the better it will be after returning to Poland. In my opinion, you should not be afraid to leave home and contact people who are working on issues that really interest us, not ones that are currently fashionable or will give you a job for life. Nobody can guarantee that, we simply need to do whatever we like. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Really, many people abroad have a lot of grant programs available, through which they can fund a placement for a Polish student, hire him for a year, or two or three years. There are a lot of these programs, and in Germany there is also a shortage of good students, there are no people who are ready to devote a lot of time and energy to areas they do not yet know.

I really like this exercise. It is good for anyone writing a Master's thesis. You need to find a person who you would like to be in 15-20 years, write to such a person and ask what to do to be where they are now: what work should be done, how to apply for such and such a position. I have never met a person who would not like to talk about it and share their experience.

What is your definition of success?

I will refer to what I said earlier. Looking back on the last five years of your development, to be where you wanted to be or even further. This is success. Because you have to remember that career development is a path. There will be no moment in our lives when we sit down and say: I’m done. No, you always have to look somewhere ahead, and in my opinion success is the realization that we are even further than we imagined a few years ago. And bear with me, this is another piece of advice, don’t be afraid to give yourself time to grow at your own pace. It means not participating in sprints, races, but understanding what kind of person you are and what personality you have so as to grow in harmony with your character

Finally, I would like to ask how, in your opinion, the University should cooperate with its graduates?

A good idea would be to send graduates invitations to various types of celebrations that give the opportunity to meet people who not only studied with us but who taught us. I think it is very important for us to keep in touch with our former mentors and if we feel, for example, that we have something to interesting to say, it is also a good moment to present ourselves. I think that many of us, I know such people with a degree in geology, would have a lot of interesting things to say about what happened later. But not among ourselves, because we already know it, but to young people, to students.

I also think that the Jagiellonian University could hold up some graduates as models and promote specific people to give young people role models to follow. I missed out on this, because when I was a student, we talked about very old graduates or even about those from previous centuries, but we had no contact with anyone 10-15 years older than us. I think this could be interesting.


Interviewer: Piotr Rapciak 

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