Women in STEM: Vakare

The amazing chemist Vakare

This is the second episode of my interviews with Women in STEM.

Today my guest is my dear friend and amazing colleague Vakare Merkyte.

Hi Vakare! First of all would you like to tell us something about you?

Ciao, Martina! Thank you for having me on your blog.
I am 28 years old, 3rd year PhD student at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano. For around 24 years I lived in Vilnius, Lithuania. I have gained my BSc and MSc in Chemistry while studying at the Vilnius University. During my Master I have done few international internships related to Chemistry and Material Science at the University of Iceland and Empa (Dübendorf, Switzerland). During my stay in Switzerland, I visited Bolzano and felt in love with South Tyrol. I found out that the most suitable field for me that is offered by the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano is Food Science. So, I started to work there as an Erasmus intern and ended up as a PhD student of Food Engineering and Biotechnology. I am working at the Oenolab that is dedicated to the analysis of wine and other alcoholic beverages.

When did you start your Instagram account? How did you get the idea?

In Lithuania Instagram is not very popular among people of my age. Most of my friends don’t have it or use it only to follow other people. But when I went abroad I started to think about it. At first it looked quite unnecessary, I was still using Facebook to share my thoughts and pictures. Then more and more people started telling me that I should do it, since I lived in such gorgeous places. Finally, I have created it in 2016 and step by step learnt its benefits. My pictures are definitely for the nature lovers and travelers. While my stories are more personal.

Can you tell us something about how you balance work and private life? 

On the internet you can find plenty of jokes that you don’t have your private life while doing your PhD. For some fields it is definitely true, but it is also strongly depending on the person. My attitude is that PhD is like any other job. So, it should last not more than 8 hours per day and your working week should have not more than 5 days, unless there are some “emergencies” (e.g. paper submission, preparations of abstracts, posters or presentations, analyses that last longer). Your mental and physical health should always come first.

During your studies how many women were in course? Why in your opinion?

During my Bachelor’s and Master’s studies there were around 70% of women and 30% of men. In Lithuania, there are more women studying at the University compared to men. Usually there are more women in the course, unless it’s Geology, Engineering, Physics, Mathematics or IT. So, I was quite surprised that in my PhD course and cycle we have more man. Only when I moved abroad I have started noticing this trend.

Have you ever felt harassed or being kept apart as a scholar because you are a woman?

There were some professors during my Bachelor who were thinking that women are not capable to understand the subject (physics, physical chemistry) and did some jokes during the lectures. 

How did you become passionate about science? 

Well, I always adored science. During my childhood I loved books about nature and astronomy. My parents liked explaining things to me (e.g. how digestion works when I was 3 years old). But I didn’t know what I like to study until I was 17. I remember on the 10th grade (we have 12th grades in total, in Lithuania) our Chemistry teacher did an experiment on our class and instead of teaching Inorganic Chemistry course, she did Organic Chemistry. I loved it. Then I signed to the Non-formal School of Young Chemists “Pažinimas”, where I learnt some information only taught in the University. I don’t have an exciting story, I just had a very nice teacher.

Would you like to talk briefly about your job?

As I mentioned before, I work at Oenolab that is in the Technology park in Bolzano called NOI. The aim of my PhD is to study novel chemical markers for the wine quality assessment that are called cyclic proanthocyanidins. They are recently discovered compounds that could be found in grapes and cranberries. If you want to know more about them, you can visit my LinkedIn and see my papers.
For our analysis, we use already bottled wines or we get samples during the harvest and different stages of winemaking. Also, we investigate various parts of the grape. Then, different extraction and sample preparation techniques are applied for the chromatographic separation. I mainly work with the liquid chromatography technique. Later, we take the data and make statistical treatments in order to understand the influence of winemaking to the phenolic profile.
Besides working for my projects and writing scientific papers, I also do some teaching assistance for some courses. I help students at the laboratory, I make seminars and go on the field trips to the wineries. These teaching activities are one of my favorites!!

Thank you so much for your time. Lastly, can you give any advice to girls interested in stem?

Just follow your heart and do that makes you the happiest!! Don’t listen to people who thinks they know what is best for you. Working in STEM could bring a lot of different activities, traveling and – most important – knowledge about the things around us.

You can find Vakare on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/io.nospheric/ and on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/vakaremerkyte/

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