Curiosity as a motivator

Johanna Elam is not taken aback by different opinions. On the contrary, she feels right at home with different points of view. With great curiosity and interest in interdisciplinary science, she is investigating what is happening with the wood foundations of buildings in Gothenburg as the infrastructure is changing.

“It’s a fun project because it is so concrete and so many people are involved”, says Johanna Elam. “Everyone I talk to has an opinion, feeling or insight, different approaches that could be of use. I take all good advice into account and am not likely to run out of ideas.”

As a doctoral student in an interdisciplinary research project, she is working on identifying the extent to which wood pilings in Gothenburg’s clay soil may become infested by mould fungus and bacteria when the surrounding conditions change. The doctoral project is a continuation of a preliminary investigation that Johanna’s supervisor, Charlotte Björdal, conducted as a commission of Västlänken (West Link).

Because there are a lot of opinions and emotions among Gothenburg residents surrounding the West Link, Johanna often gets questions and comments relating to it and whether the city standing on clay will hold up.
“As soon as I tell them what I’m working on, the West Link comes up, and I have nothing against that. But I wish people didn’t think that I have all the solutions. I try to remain neutral and really emphasise that I’m not working on the West Link. My research is my research, and the West Link is the West Link.”

Since she started last autumn, she has learnt a lot about wood, and she proudly displays a diploma from Svenskt Trä (Swedish Wood). Recently Johanna has set out wood samples in various places in Gothenburg that will be in the ground for two years before they are retrieved and analysed.

“We have also placed metres that give us an indication of pore pressure in the clay. We want to try to understand the relationship between the environment and decomposition.”

So far the researchers have seen that it is usually the outermost centimetres of the wooden pilings that are affected. The preliminary investigation project has provided a zero reference point – what things looked like in 2017. It’s hoped that the new tests will provide answers to how long it takes before the wood is affected by bacteria and how severe the infestation becomes as time goes on.

One of the reasons that Johanna has taken on this project is her great interest in interdisciplinary science. She has a master’s in physical oceanography, and during her studies, she expanded her knowledge by studying chemistry, biology and geology.
“I like learning new things and applying the knowledge I have in new areas. I feel that you find good things when you look at the intersection of different subjects.”

The doctoral project, which is under the Department of Marine Sciences, is environmental science with elements of geology, hydrology and chemistry as well as aspects of cultural preservation. The doctoral position also includes teaching, something she likes and wants to do more of. The desire to teach had a lot to do with her decision to work towards a doctorate.
“The moment when I see that they understand something that they didn’t understand before is wonderful. I might have tried different approaches, and when understanding comes, right then, it’s like a completely solved Sudoku. It’s something special when things fall neatly into place like that.”

The project will continue for four to five years. Eventually she hopes to have a more permanent type of teaching position, perhaps as a senior lecturer.
“But there will probably be a postdoc first.”

Johanna Elam

Age: 29
Title: Oceanographer, interdisciplinary doctoral student
Place of residence: Flat in Linnestaden
Family: Partner
Leisure interests: Snowboarding (recent interest, having switched from skis), hiking, sailing – everything that involves being outdoors is enjoyable
Happiest when: At, on and in the sea
Unexpected talent: Mould! I'm good at mould and can make anything at all get mouldy. That’s probably a nice euphemism for being a little sloppy with what I have in the fridge.