Talk with Amalie Vang Høst (PhD Researcher)

This week we got a chance to interview Amalie Vang Høst, or as known by her friends as “Amy”. She is a graduate of the double-MSc. Chemical and Biochemical Engineering from Technical University of Denmark (DTU) and Sino-Danish Centre (SDC) Beijing. During her MSc.Eng, she has specialised within Biomass Based Energy and is something she has also written her research. Given her research and engineering background, she has now decided to start her career within academia by starting her PhD in DTU Chemical Engineering from April 2021 at Technical University of Denmark.

During her university years, she worked within multiple roles, including as a tutor, and now will soon be starting as a PhD Researcher. She is a recent graduate and soon to be a PhD researcher, therefore we were lucky to get a chance to talk to her. Many students do not know how to do the proper planning for their PhD, therefore we have interviewed her regarding her education and about her PhD and about how future students can prepare as per her experience. Therefore, read her answers below, especially if you are planning on studying towards a PhD to better plan your career.

Education

As mentioned, Amalie is a graduate of double-MSc.Eng in Chemical and Biochemical Engineering from DTU and SDC.

How was the workload of your degree? What did you spend most time on?

Studying for a master's degree is a full-time job. Some course has a higher workload than others, but in all courses, I spend the most time working on reports and exercises.

Was there a lot of chemistry in your curriculum?

No, not a lot. Studying Chemical Engineering focuses more on chemical processes, which includes process design, mathematical models, simulations, and sustainability, to optimise industrial chemical processes.

ChemE is a tough degree, so what topics did you find the most difficult during your degree?

It has been a struggle for me to learn to use the programming language MATLAB, and to fully understand how to define mathematical models to describe a chemical process.

Did you get your degree from your home country or did you go abroad? if yes, from where to where? How was your experience of doing a double degree from two different universities? Was there a cultural difference, which you experienced?

I did a double degree at SDC, where two semesters were supposed to be in Beijing, and two semesters were in Denmark, but the stay was cut short due to COVID-19, and we continued with online lectures.

The double degree programme was very intense, as most of the courses are taught by professors from the Technical University of Denmark who travel to China. Hence the courses follow a block structure where a 5 ECTS course is taught over three weeks, giving the students only one course to focus on at a time. In addition to the intense courses, I had to attend Chinese language and culture classes, which was very challenging but very useful when living in Beijing.

Doing a double degree comes with challenges regarding cultural differences, teaching you to be patient and communicating effectively. The relationship between the professors and the students are very different in Denmark and China. Chinese students are much more respectful towards the professors and address them as "Professor". Danish students are more casual and call the professors by their first name. Chinese students tend to be less outgoing during group work, encouraging Danish students to take the role of the leader. This, among other things, resulted in personal development.

Work Experience

As mentioned, Amalie will be starting as a PhD Researcher in April 2021 at Technical University of Denmark. Therefore, we have asked her question regarding the PhD and how one can qualify oneself for it.

Where and when will you be starting your PhD?

I will start as a PhD student at the Technical University of Denmark in April. I will then have a contract of three years, where I will get to do research and perform academic duties, while learning from some of the best in the field.

What will you be working with in your PhD? What will be the research area, if you could summarise a little?

I will be working with biocatalysis, focusing on cell-free stability studies for bioconversion. The project aims to understand the stability of enzymes in industrial operating conditions, to reduce the energy cost and thus improve the overall process economy.

What hard and soft skills do you think will be important for your PhD?

I have not started the PhD yet, but I know from my master's that working in a laboratory, requires a lot of planning and organising skills. A big part of research is conveying the work by writing articles and attending conferences and workshops. Hence presentations skills are required but will also be improved.

Why did you choose to continue with PhD? Do you wish to continue working into academia or wish to enter the industry as well?

I have always had a dream to save the world. I want to help improve chemical processes to become more sustainable. I decided to apply for a PhD because I like working in a laboratory and doing research. I love the feeling you get after solving a problem that has caused frustration and doubt over an extended period.

The PhD degree allows me to work with research and development in the industry, which I aim to do after the three years at DTU. But maybe I will continue to work in academia, depending on the next three years.

How did you get the PhD position? Did you apply for it externally or did you work as a research assistant during your MSc years? Did you work with the same research area before?

The PhD position is a result of my master's degree. I met my supervisors during my stay in China. As the professors are in China only to teach the courses, they spend most of their time together with you, which allow you to get to know the professors. I asked my supervisor very casually if we should research together, which resulted in my master thesis. After my master thesis, I applied for the PhD position with the same supervisor in the same research area.

For students, who wish to continue into Phd, what would you suggest, they should be doing during their MSc years in order to improve their chances of getting into Phd programme or preparing themselves for a good Phd tenure?

Besides the academic requirements, which vary between the universities, my suggestion is to find a great supervisor who you know will prioritise you and your project. Find out the requirements, e.g. The master's grade average should be at least 8 (7-point grading scale) in addition to having received a high grade on the master's thesis (10 or 12) to obtain academic approval for a PhD position at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU).

From your experience, how can some students build up their research skills?

To improve your research skills, you have to be curious and eager to learn new things and techniques. You have to be persistent and want to keep working, even when it all seems hopeless. Albert Einstein had a quote, which I find very suitable: If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

Phd is a very demanding academic position and you will probably be using a lot of critical engineering knowledge from your education. Which topics from your degree do you think you will use the most in the next three years?

Problem solving, laboratory work, and my knowledge regarding chemical processes

Any suggestions for future graduates? Something they should be doing while they are still in university getting their degree. What skills should they focus on during university years?

I would suggest every student to remember to prioritize your personal life. Furthermore, in terms of skills, you should focus on report writing and presentation skills. It is very important that you can present your work properly and effectively. Do not give up even if you have some limitations; I have dyslexia, so I spend most of my time and energy focusing on schoolwork. Use your fellow students and ask for help if you need it.

In terms of skills, you should focus on report writing and presentation skills. It is very important that you can present your work properly and effectively.
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