The unlikely journey of an Indonesian PhD student to Bern

Adrianus Damanik is a geology PhD student at the Oeschger Centre - and because of his Indonesian origins, he is an important bridge builder in a project on climate reconstruction from lake sediments in his home country.

"Being a researcher," Adrianus explains with a mischievous smile, "is not just about spending your time in the lab." The view from the young geologist's office is of the wintry Länggasse district. There is snow in Bern, and an icy wind is blowing. The Indonesian doctoral student was confronted with the grueling sides of researcher life in tropical temperatures just a short time ago. He was part of a field campaign in his home country. One of his tasks: making sure the surveying instruments and heavy equipment for the field work gets through customs. A total of 1.1 tonnes of material.

Two months later, before returning to Switzerland, Adrianus again had to deal with officials in ministries and customs in Jakarta, this time for export permits for water samples and sediment cores. An ordeal that lasted several weeks, but today Adrianus knows: "I have the necessary administrative and social skills for such a task." Knowing how to strike the right note in delicate moments has surprised him less than the trust his superiors place in him: "As a doctoral student, I was responsible for equipment worth 300,000 francs - a huge responsibility."

The oil sector has lost its shine

The story of the Indonesian student who ended up at the Oeschger Centre begins in a small village in North Sumatra. His parents are civil servants, and his three older brothers are already studying - many hours away from home by bus. Adrianus has to travel by plane for the first time for his studies. He was admitted to the Institut Teknologi of Bandung, the most renowned technical college in the country. It is located on the main island of Java. The country boy decided to study geotechnical engineering, which suggests a career in Indonesia's oil sector. But after graduating with a bachelor's degree, he begins to have doubts. "I realised that oil consumption would decrease worldwide in the future, which could diminish the prospects for a job in this sector."

By chance, Adrianus then came into contact with a branch of research that relies on geological knowledge and coring technology, paleoceanography. The Indonesian Institute of Sciences, which conducts research in this field, offered him the opportunity to work on a sediment coring project in the Pacific Ocean. The examination of the recovered core eventually led to Adrianus' master's thesis: A multiproxy analysis of past climatic conditions in the waters of North Papua. "After being exposed to this research environment, I was eager to pursue a career in this field," Adrianus sums up his time as a Master’s student. But to do that, he realised, he had to write a doctoral thesis. Easier said than done in Indonesia in a highly specialised niche like paleoclimatology.

After months of job hunting, the newly graduated geologist came across a Swiss-Indonesian project looking for a locally rooted PhD student to study climate and environment of the past in a lake on Sulawesi. At the end of 2019, Adrianus spoke via Zoom with Hendrik Vogel, head of the OCCR Sedimentary Geochemistry Research Group, who also leads the project on Lake Poso in Indonesia. Both sides quickly agreed, and the PhD position was filled. "Finding another person with my background," Adrianus Damanik says succinctly, "is quite difficult in Indonesia." In order to take up his new position, he had to apply for a passport for the first time in his life. Since the summer of 2020, Adrianus Damanik has been living in Bern. It has not been easy to start a new life in a foreign country in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. But Adrianus was able to adjust and made new friends.

Field work with local boats

The PhD student's work at the Oeschger Centre is closely linked to his home country, revolving around Lake Poso, one of Indonesia’s largest and deepest lakes - and a promising site for palaeoclimatic studies. "The ultimate goal," he explains, "is a reconstruction of the past climate in the region." Not least with a view to short-term climate fluctuations, the so-called El Niño/Southern Oscillation phenomenon. But first, it is necessary to collect the basic information about Lake Poso, data on inflows and outflows, water quality, bathymetric, and basin fill conditions. That is why Adrianus and his team spent weeks on the lake with a multibeam and reflection seismic system during last autumn’s field campaign to carry out bathymetric and seismic surveys. The result now hangs on the wall of his Bern office, the first high-resolution bathymetry of an Indonesian lake. The map shows different shades of blue. It is coloured night blue in the middle of the lake, which is 395 meters deep.

The young researcher notes, somewhat thoughtfully, that so little is known about the lakes of his homeland. Let alone about their past, which can be read in the sediment layers of a drill core. To this end, the doctoral student in Bern works with state-of-the-art analytical technology, an infrastructure that no laboratory in Indonesia can afford. "It is a privilege to work with such sophisticated equipment, and I still have a lot to learn about it," he explains.

Adrianus goes on about how difficult it is sometimes to explain to his family in Sumatra what his work as a researcher is all about. Doing research just for the sake of generating new knowledge seems strange to most people. This was also the case for his parents. They wanted to know if he was looking for gold in Lake Poso. Adrianus then told them the story of a winding house with many different rooms and asked if they, as the owners, wouldn't also like to know what it looked like in all the rooms. Just out of curiosity – and, coming back to Lake Poso, to learn for the future from the climate of the past.


(February 2023)