In the beginning…

Welcome to the first of what will be many blogs from all of us early stage researchers (ESRs) here in the FoodSmartphone project! My name is Vincent O’Brien and I am working on the FoodSmartphone project “Confirmatory analysis through FoodSmartphone-Mass Spectrometry coupling” which is a mouthful of a title. I won’t be going into too much detail as to what my specific project is about in this blog as that’s a story for another day. No, in this first blog I’ll be taking you through my first few months in the Netherlands, my brief secondment to Spain and lastly my first introduction to the other 10 ESRs working on this project. Bear with me as I try to cram four months worth of experiences into a single blog!

My story begins on the 1st of February where after an early 4 am start to catch a plane to  the Netherlands I was put through an intensive interview for my PhD position. Either by the luck of the Irish or through my years of experience in the analytical lab I was offered the position! As you can see below I could barely contain my excitement.

It didn’t take me long to share the good news with my friends!

Fast forward two months and I was standing in the Netherlands again, except this time my stay was going to be a little more permanent. This wasn’t my first time in the Netherlands however. During my masters I had spent six months working at TU Delft in conjunction with the Netherlands Forensic Institute. That gave me a small head start on adapting to Dutch life. Moving from an English speaking country to a non-English speaking country sounds scary at first until you realize 90% of the people you meet during day to day life here speaks almost fluent English. In fact in the nine months total I have spent here between my masters and PhD I have yet to find a single Dutch person who couldn’t at least understand what I was trying to say (when I spoke slowly at least!). It can’t be overstated how easy this makes adapting as English is so common that learning Dutch is more of a personal choice rather than a necessity. I mention this now as I also got to spend two weeks in Spain as part of my PhD and while my colleagues had a good grasp on what I was saying the locals were not impressed with my attempts to speak to them in English! So, with the language barrier not being a problem what other differences did I come across in my switch from Ireland to the Netherlands? Well first off there’s the obvious things like the switch from everyone walking and driving to the situation where the bike is king of the road. More impressive to me however was how punctual things like public transport are. I’m used to the bus schedule being more of a suggestion in Ireland rather than the concrete set of time it is over here. The more I try to think about the differences the harder it is for me to find anything more than surface details. The Irish and the Dutch are not worlds apart and adapting to life over here is not something anybody coming from European country should be worried about! You may be asked to try some dutch delicacies like “Bitterballen” or “Dutch croquettes” but be warned that they may not be for everybody (like me). The one Dutch food that I can recommend to everybody though are stroopwaffels. I’m not even going to spoil the surprise of how delicious they are but you are not allowed to come to the Netherlands and not eat the worlds best sweet! I personally recommend the handmade ones available at the Saturday market in Delft but even store bought ones have the capacity the overwhelm your taste buds.

This photo doesn’t even do them justice. 

So, now that we’re settled in to Dutch life what is it that I actually do from day to day?

The stunning work of art that is VITAE, home of RIKILT

Above you can feast your eyes on the beauty that is RIKILT. Not only is it a beautiful building on the outside it’s filled with state of the art equipment and world leading experts on food analysis. You could not ask for more as a researcher and this is where I’m lucky enough to get to spend my days. You may or may not be aware what the day to day life of a analytical researcher is like but it usually involves either a lot of reading, a lot or writing or if you’re lucky some time working on your machine of interest. My machine of interest is the mass spectrometer. In another post I will walk you through what it does and how it does it but for now just imagine a large very expensive box to which you introduce you unknown sample and after just a few minutes you can tell what it is exactly you have. A vast oversimplification but this is a blog not a lecture! 🙂 So far my days have been very busy, as I try to not only take in but process a large amount of information. I’ve been lucky in that the machine I am using for my initial work is free most days for me to book which means I get to spend a lot of time behind the drivers seat trying out new methods of analyzing my samples. An exciting prospect for any young researcher!

Just some of the wonderful people I got to work with at ZEULAB

One of the bonuses of doing a Marie Curie PhD is that you will get to travel all across the world as part of your work. Now I must admit I wasn’t too sold on the opportunity to visit Spain as being Irish I’m usually only exposed to temperatures higher than 25°C once every decade or two. During my stay in Spain the thermometer never dipped below 30°C ! While this did restrict my day to day exploration, the lab I worked in was thankfully air conditioned so at the very least I could work in peace without the threat of passing out due to heat exposure. The lab I was working at, ZEULAB, was an absolutely amazing place packed full of some of the best people I have been lucky enough to work with in recent years. From day one I was a member of the ZEULAB family, playing table football with the CEO, complaining about the heatwave with the marketing department and eating lunch with the researchers. There wasn’t a person in the company I didn’t meet during my two week stay. My daily supervisor during this time, the wonderful Patricia Galan, even brought me to what I can only describe as an oasis in the Spanish desert. Monasterio de Piedra is perhaps the most beautiful piece of nature I have ever laid eyes upon. A multitude of waterfalls and little parks tucked away in the center of Spain combined with a monastery make this a must see for any visitors. The video below shows just one of the dozen or so waterfalls this area has to show!

Once my Spanish trip was complete It was back to the home of the stroopwaffel for my first summer school on smartphone based food analysis. While I was excited to attend the summer school I was more excited to finally meet the other ESRs on the FoodSmartphone project. Unfortunately only ten of the eleven could make it but those that did make it made the most of the brief time we had together. Below is a photo of us after just finishing an escape room. Unfortunately neither of our teams finished the rooms in time (although we were both very close!) but it was a great bonding experience none the less.

A group photo post escape room

Below you can see us all together at our first annual ESR business meeting. At this table are 10 different ESRs from 10 different nationalities. To me that is an fantastic achievement as I get to work with an amazing and varied group of people. We discussed our past and present projects and shared ideas for what sort of collaborations we can do in the coming years. We also elected a representative for our group (me!) to make sure that our voice is heard by the project managers of FoodSmartphone. While this was a fantastic experience it was also a very bittersweet moment. We 11 PhD’s are based in 6 different countries so apart from our yearly meetings we won’t get to see each other in person very often. Thankfully through the magic of whatsapp we can still stay in touch and share updates on our work!

The dinner that followed (I may have eaten a lot of ribs…)

So with that I bring this inaugural blog to a close. I could talk for a lot longer about my project and the work I’m doing but I have another ten of these blogs to write in the coming years so that can wait for another day. Tune in next week where you will get to hear from my buddy here in RIKILT Gina talk about coming to the Netherlands from the UK. Until next time, slán leat!

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