Winner master’s thesis prize FSE: Sophie Koch
Sophie Koch (28) currently lives in Zürich, Switzerland. After completing her master’s thesis at Maastricht University last July, she began her PhD research at ETH Zürich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
She has got off to a flying start, which didn’t just come out of nowhere, laughs Koch. She was already familiar with ETH; she conducted research for her master’s degree in Biobased Materials (UM Faculty of Science and Engineering) at Swiss Wood Solutions (SWS), a spin-off of ETH. The Swiss university and the company are closely linked, she explains. The founders of SWS are also part of ETH’s Wood Materials Science research group. “I knew they had a vacancy coming up. I also looked at jobs in industry, but they usually don’t involve full-time research, which is what I love. I want to learn more, dive deep. That’s why doing a PhD is right for me.”
Her research resulted in her thesis Entirely bio-based composites: Improving wood properties by a novel two-step modification. In the lab, she studied how strong wood that is susceptible to, say, water damage can be improved with natural polymers to be much more durable. “The Biobased Materials programme really teaches students to think in terms of sustainability and to look at the whole process, from nature as a starting point – wood, in my case – all the way to the final product.” The first results were promising, says Koch, but then ETH was closed due to COVID-19. It marked the end of her lab research. Together with her supervisor, Koch came up with a way to continue working on her thesis online. She wrote a research proposal that fit well with her research and “was of interest to SWS”.
She learnt a lot from it, she says. “I worked at the intersection of academia and industry. I loved seeing how the focus changes when it comes to producing an innovation. That’s when you realise you have to keep the process as simple as possible if you want to implement it on a large scale.” Her thesis research hasn’t quite reached that state yet. SWS is currently building upon it.
Her research certainly did not go unnoticed. It was awarded with both the UM master’s thesis prize and the faculty’s Menno Knetsch Thesis Award. “I’m very honoured. Menno Knetsch was one of the founding fathers of UM’s master’s degree in Biobased Materials and the first programme director. He passed away unexpectedly a few years ago.”
One last question: why wood? She laughs. “Woodworking was my grandfather’s hobby. I was always with him in the shed. I just like wood. I love walking through the forest, among the trees. It gives me energy. And wood has a beautiful structure; natural materials are much better than man-made materials.”
Every year during the Dies Natalis, special attention is paid to the students who wrote the best bachelor’s and master’s theses. Although the event was cancelled due to COVID-19, 27 lucky students (18 bachelor’s theses and nine master’s theses) were awarded a cash prize of 500 euros and a certificate. Observant selected eight theses. Their stories will be published on this website in the coming weeks.