PhD Experiences in Solvenia
By Athira John, University of Maribor, Slovenia
ARRIVING IN SLOVENIA
For me, Slovenia was not just a new country but even a new continent. Flying across oceans for the first time was so exciting. However, the jet lag and finding accommodation caused some problems initially. The public transportation facilities were a bit poor, and I couldn’t manage until I owned a bike. Literally, everything about the country was new for me, right from the culture, cuisine, and weather. The cuisine and weather were extremely the opposite to that of my home country of India but were not so hard for me to cope with. Straight from a crowded city to a calm and quite place.
Yes, time flies; Now I have experienced here all the seasons once, I've been in Maribor for around a year already. I’ve never stopped admiring Maribor's beauty, the city and the places’ vicinity using my bike.
As I had some issues with my visa, I couldn’t join the faculty on time. After arriving at Maribor, the initial days were packed with quite some formalities at the upravna enota and student obligations at the University of Maribor and the phase of lab work was going slow. I had four courses at for the first year which were manageable. Speaking of my lab and my lab mates, I must say that my professor, Dr. Lidija Fraz, and lab mates have been nothing short of amazing. They were considerate and accommodating in every manner, helped me catch up with the academic calendar even though I joined the faculty late. As language was always a barrier, cooperation of colleagues was really important, and I was lucky with that. Now, I am officially enrolled in my second year of PhD.
My topic is "Functional Coatings for Active Packaging Development" and I am a member of FoodTraNet Work Package 3. My work focuses on the development of new active packaging materials. Nowadays, new packaging solutions aim to reduce the environmental footprint (both in terms of biodegradability and the origin of packaging raw materials). Even more, there is a recognised need for so-called eco-innovative functional food packaging that directly benefits consumers by improving shelf life, monitoring food quality, and ensuring food safety, while having a lower environmental footprint than traditional food packaging. As a result, these packaging materials must not only be biodegradable, but also have active functionality.
Therefore, I focus on developing new biodegradable PLA copolymers as base matrix packaging materials with the integration of fillers such as nanolignin. PLA on its own is a very attractive material, but it has some drawbacks, such as the long time it takes to biodegrade and it is compostable, but not fast enough. For industrial composters, the speed of composting is not fast enough. The residue is not compost and does not improve soil quality; no nutrients. It changes the pH of the soil and makes the soil more acidic. In addition, PLA has a higher permeability where moisture and oxygen can penetrate more easily than other plastics. This causes food to spoil more quickly, which is why PLA is not recommended for long-term food storage use. There are also some limitations in terms of mechanical properties: PLA is very fragile, less durable, crystalline and heat resistant than petroleum-based plastic. By synthesising new PLA copolymers and adding nano-lignin to the melt, better PLA-based bioplastics will be developed to help overcome these drawbacks. In addition, active systems are being incorporated into this novel material to extend the shelf life of processed foods. A useful strategy is to incorporate active ingredients into the matrix of the packaging materials used or to apply coatings with appropriate functionality through surface modification, which is my role according to Foodtranet.
This option offers the advantage that the properties of the packaging material remain virtually unchanged. Thus, I will be developing coatings with polyphenols alone or in combination with polysaccharides, such as chitosan and its derivatives or pullulan (colloidal formulations) and apply it to the novel PLA-based packaging materials. The detailed physicochemical and structural properties will be analysed, with particular attention to understanding the surface properties and parameters for final bioactivity (antimicrobial, antiviral and antioxidant properties). The copolymer development part of the work is intended to be done at The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece with Prof. Dimitrios Bikiaris who is my co-supervisor. And I will be soon moving to Thessaloniki for new experiences and knowledge.
Slovenia, in my opinion, is an underrated place for its natural beauty. I would say it can compete with other well-known touristic attractions in Europe. Destinations like Lake Bohinj and Postojna caves are great suggestions. An additional perk of Slovenia is, its relatively low cost of living, especially in Maribor. It shares boundaries with the countries Italy, Hungary, Croatia, and Austria, all these countries have easy accessibility from Maribor via trains and flixbus, which made it possible for me to visit these countries too. And I haven’t yet made any decision regarding whether to continue in this country or not, but this place is so beautiful, offers a suitable setting for research and development and people here hosted me with love, for which I would never deny a chance!