Changes at EHU in a Year

It’s been over a year since I was last properly on Edge Hills Ormskirk campus – with an ERASMUS+ internship occupying my summer and a sandwich year in Chicago from then onwards, I haven’t been able to observe the changes happening day to day. Now that I’m back, the changes really stand out!

Although I saw the Tech Hub being erected throughout my second year, it was not fully completed by the time I left last May. The lab on the top floor dedicated to biosciences wasn’t in full working order. Now that I am back and working an internship for Dr Paul Ashton over the summer, I’ve got to see first-hand what the new biosciences lab is like. I knew it was going to be big, but it’s also comfortably sized and open plan. Benches are neatly arranged in groups of four, two seats on each side. I’m looking forward to working there more as my internship progresses, and as I undertake my dissertation in the coming year.

Another addition to campus is Woodland Court, a new set of accommodation solely for 3rd year (senior undergraduate) students. I’ve heard it’s some of the best value for money accommodation in Ormskirk, as there is currently no summer retainer, costs £119-£124 per week for 40 weeks, includes utility bills, features en-suite accommodation, and has a washing machine in each cluster’s shared area. I’ll have the opportunity to check them out next year, as I’ll be moving back on campus! Woodland Court is set into townhouses from A-R and has 182 rooms. They match the aesthetic of the other newest halls: Chancellors, Founders, Graduates, and Palatine.

Very soon to be completed is the new Catalyst building. The Catalyst will house the new library on campus as well as Careers and Student Services. It’s situated right next to Woodland Court and also will provide 30 bookable rooms for students to use, 50% more than previously! In preparation for its completion, 502 books were passed from the old library to the new in a human book chain.

Last weeks in the USA

During the last few weeks of my time in the United States of America, I had a rapid tour of Washington, D.C.; New York City; and Chicago (although I lived there for around 9 months, there is always more to see – especially since the sun was finally out again)! The day after checking out the National Mall and the Burning Man sculptures (exhibit named “No Spectators”), Diana, who was accompanying me on this whirlwind tour, took me around Georgetown, a really pretty neighbourhood next to the Potomac River that also features a historic canal that is currently being restored. Since there had been a lot of rain before my visit, the Potomac was almost bursting its banks with rapids having formed along its length. From one of the bridges that crossed a sidestream, I was able to see rocks with tiny patches of vegetation hanging on for dear life – even a tiny tree struggling to stand its ground! One person was even kayaking in the main river, not for the fainthearted!

The next day we got a train to New York. Unfortunately, it was raining when we arrived and I, lacking a raincoat, got to ‘jellyfish up’ in a lovely yellow rain mac. The rain let off by the time we had eaten lunch, allowing us to see Times Square without being drenched. If you’ve ever been to London, think Piccadilly Circus but bigger – like most things in the US!

On the following day, we explored many squares in NYC, as well as some parks and Lady Liberty from a distance. NYC has some lovely areas to see, although it’s very compact and pretty busy too. I ate a traditional New York bagel (again, huge) with some vegan garlic and herb cream cheese, which was pretty damn good. Later on, we saw the 9/11 memorial fountains which were quite a sight to see. After seeing the sights, it was time for the flight back to Chicago and catching an Uber to the airport was an absolute nightmare!

To make the most of the sunny weather in Chicago, Diana and I took a trip up to the Chicago Botanic Gardens (CBG), I was particularly interested in seeing the bonsai trees. It’s a huge garden so there was no way for us to see all of it in the time we had, plus, it was far too hot to stay for long. On another sunny day, we visited the beach and I got to play some volleyball – a sport I’ve missed playing a bunch whilst in the states.

In the final few weeks before I left the US, I got to spend some time with some of the wonderful people I met whilst living in Chicago. We played games, went to the Lincoln zoo, had a boozy brunch, took an architectural boat tour, even went out to a club for a drag show. I’m very sad to leave them and my life in Chicago behind, but of course am excited for what the future holds back in the UK, including a summer internship with the Biology department at Edge Hill!

Importance Of Attending An Open Day

I’ve blogged before about open days and briefly mentioned how it cemented my decision to come and study at Edge Hill University. Now that open days are coming around again, with the first one of the year occurring on June 16th, I thought it time to delve into that a little bit more.

Before I even thought about attending open days, I first had to narrow my choice of university down from All Of Them to just Some Of Them. So, when I was first looking at universities, my process was to start at the top of the university league tables for my course, biology, at thecompleteuniversityguide (other league tables are available) and work my way down, pulling out the universities that were high on the list yet had entry requirements within my predicted range. Next, I looked at the courses in my field offered by these universities and selected the universities that had courses with modules that interested me. This narrowed down my pool of options down from A Lot to A Few – Edge Hill being on that list.

Edge Hill was already fairly high on my list, ranking definitely in the top five based on module options, general location, and rankings alone. What really pushed me to commit to choosing Edge Hill University as my firm choice was attending an open day. If you’re capable of visiting Edge Hill for an open day (or an applicant day if you’re already committed to applying to Edge Hill), then I’d highly recommend it.

Visiting Edge Hill University for an open day allowed me to interact with the department and students first-hand, both of which filled me with hope about the university. The department talk about the course and facilities really showed that they cared about the subject and the people working and studying in their school.

What also comforted me about Edge Hill was Ormskirk, it felt familiar to me despite being a new town far from home. With a direct line to Liverpool, just 30 minutes away, Ormskirk is situated so that it’s its own microcosm but still has access to the wider world via public transport – something that resonated with me upon visiting.

Final Exploration of the US Capital

In the latter half of May, after my official “intern-like” sandwich placement at The Morton Arboretum had ended, I was lucky enough to spend a long weekend in Washington DC and New York City. Washington DC has many galleries and museums that are part of The Smithsonian Institution – nineteen total, plus the National Zoo. I managed to visit six of these over two days: National Museum of Natural History, Portrait Gallery, Hirshhorn, Freer Gallery Of Art, Sackler Gallery, and Renwick Gallery.

The National History Museum was the first museum on the agenda. Instead of being greeted by the fossil of a beloved Tyrannosaurus rex, as I am at The Field Museum in Chicago, an African elephant stands guard at the entrance. Named the Fénykövi elephant, it was the largest land mammal on display in a museum at the time of its unveiling in 1959. This history museum is not without bones, however. There is a whole hall dedicated to bones and osteology and even has an augmented reality app that fleshes out and brings to life the specimens. After the museum, the Portrait Gallery was next, mainly to see Former-President Barack Obama’s portrait. Sadly, Michelle Obama’s portrait had been moved so wasn’t easily found. On the same day, I also visited the Hirshhorn, Freer Gallery Of Art, and Sackler Gallery. At the Freer-Sackler Gallery, I was particularly fond of the Peacock Room and Monkeys Grasp for the Moon.

The following day, a day far hotter and drier than the previous one, I explored the National Mall – a large strip of land that features monuments and memorials. I particularly enjoyed the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, it’s large like the Lincoln Memorial but more empowering than it is imposing. Before that, however, I checked out the Burning Man exhibit at the Renwick Gallery. Burning Man is known for its large burning effigy, but what I didn’t know is that many artists exhibit other works, such as sculptures, at the event. The Renwick exhibit houses sculptures that draw inspiration from Burning Man as well as pieces by artists who have previously showcased their work at the event. I particularly liked the giant sculptures of crows, Untitled by Jack Champion. They just look cool!

I may never have visited these places, and definitely would’ve missed some of the exhibits I found interesting if it wasn’t for already being in the country due to my sandwich placement. I couldn’t recommend an experience like this abroad enough!

End Of My Sandwich Placement

On May 10th, I officially finished my sandwich placement here at The Morton Arboretum. Although the official “end date” of my placement (and the deadline of my two assignments: a reflection piece and an essay on how to solve an issue in my field), I am staying in the US for roughly another month. This is the “grace period” and for my J1 visa is 3 days where I am essentially a US tourist. During this time, you aren’t allowed to work or study so if you plan on staying through the grace period then you must have a break – it’s mandatory! It’s worth noting here that you do have to leave the USA before your grace period ends, that’s 30 days under a J1 visa at the time of writing.

Dodecatheon meadia (shooting star or prairie shooting star)

Whilst I won’t be working for the arboretum or field museum during this time, I have volunteered my time to help in the field and continue to work on the paper with Andrew Hipp and Lane Scher – since two thirds of us have finished our term at the arboretum, it’s more like a personal project right now! Back in the field, I got to see the prairie one last time as I volunteered a week after I finished work; I was helping others with staking new colour-coded plastic pegs at the corners of each plot. It was particularly difficult to find the metal stakes – a metal detector was used – since the previous pegs had faded from a year’s worth of weather and some had even melted from the burn last month. The new growth has really shot up since the fire, with even a few plants flowering. I’m sure more have sprung to life since I was down there.

Phlox pilosa (downy phlox or prairie phlox)

Before the end of my placement, I also guest starred on a podcast for the arboretum! Called “Planted”, this podcast is yet to launch but follows the careers of scientists in plant-related careers and is hosted by Meghan Wiesbrock and Jessica Turner-Skoff. As I am yet to finish my degree, I’m featured in an episode centred around choosing your direction, specifically choosing your direction guided by your interests. I was fairly anxious about the whole ordeal – even about doing the practice run a few days before – but of course it was fine. Although I possibly talked about Pokemon just a tad too often!

Setting Up a Sandwich Year

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog posts for the past eight months, you’ll know that I’ve been on a work placement in the USA. In this blog post, I’ll cover some of the intricacies of setting up a sandwich placement, particularly a work placement.

My sandwich year (a term that the Americans find very funny) took place between the 2nd and 3rd years of my BSc Genetics degree – this is the period of time that most people choose to complete their sandwich year in. If your course offers the option of a sandwich year and you choose to take one on, you may be able to find a link from one of the lecturers in your department. If not, then you can find one yourself! There’s a fair bit of paperwork to do before your placement year can be approved. For example, if you’re on a sandwich work placement, Erasmus year abroad, or study abroad year then you need to fill in a transfer form. As well as this, there’s a health and safety risk assessment that must be filled out prior to approval and a form for “approval for paid/unpaid leave of absence for external travel”. If all this paperwork is putting you off, fear not! Edge Hill has a placement officer that will help you through all this and make sure you understand what needs to be done before you go.

Another thing that is a key concern when undertaking a sandwich placement is cost. You can still take out your regular student finance whilst on your year out. Edge Hill charges a small fraction of your regular tuition fees that cover admin costs whilst you are away, and your student finance will cover it. You may also take out an additional maintenance loan to help cover living costs if you want – this is your primary funding and should be taken out before you apply for any additional support from the university, such as the Student Opportunity Fund, which I have blogged about previously. The Student Opportunity Fund also requires paperwork, but your personal tutor or placement head of the department should be able to help you – it requires things like a breakdown of costs and summary of the activity you are taking on.

Biology Dissertation Topics

Dissertations are a big undertaking. Not only is the dissertation module worth double the credits of a regular module, it is meant to take up 200 hours. For the biological sciences degrees, you must perform a series of experiments or scientific techniques to answer a research question. Depending on your specific degree ie Human Biology, Ecology & Conservation, etc. your dissertation must be on different topics – relating to your discipline, obviously.

To provide guidance and support to you during your dissertation, through advice and feedback to your proposal, you are assigned a supervisor. Since there are only so many lecturers, and they can only have so many dissertation pupils, not everyone will get their first choice of dissertation supervisor (and therefore dissertation topic). Even if you don’t end up with your first or second choice, the topic you choose to work on with your supervisor can involve transferable skills, for example, molecular techniques that can be applied to many different organisms.

For the year of 2018, there are two new lecturers in the department, and one established lecturer who was not a dissertation supervisor last year that is this year: Dr. Sven Batke, Dr. Aristides Tagalakis, and Dr. Rajeev Shrivastava.

Sven’s topics this year are related to plant ecology and physiology, specifically plant-water relations and epiphytes. An example of one of the topics this year is: “Quantifying the contribution of different epiphyte growth-forms to water interception and storage in
forest canopies.”

Aris has joined Edge Hill as a Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor in Human Biology, his research involves the treatment of diseases such as solid tumours and cystic fibrosis, particularly the delivery mechanism of treatments to diseases such as these. One of his dissertation topics this year is: “mRNA (commercial and in house) vs traditional plasmid: compare the different transfection efficiencies.”

Raj started at Edge Hill in 2008 as a Senior Lecturer in Chemistry and is offer dissertation questions this year related to environmental chemistry (in particular, water pollution), food analysis, and pharmacology.

Facilities
The Biosciences building for Biology at Edge Hill

These are but a few of the lecturers and only a sample of the broad range of topics that researchers at Edge Hill University study. Further topics for study include antibiotics, biodiversity and conservation, phylogeny, population genetics, mycology, nanoparticles, cloning, cancer, microbes, bioinformatics.

A Visit From Home and A Paper In The Works

Around mid-April, I was visited by a friend from home – Hollie, who went to the same sixth form as I. Fortunately enough, I had a few days off to show Hollie around the city and make the most of their time over here. Having come over in early Spring, Hollie got to experience Midwestern weather at its most capricious – with the weather nice enough for shorts bookended by light snow and heavy rain. Whilst the sun blessed us with heat, we trekked around the city, visiting The Bean and shopping in some indie “thrift” stores that didn’t seem to be entirely secondhand. I also took another trip to the Neo-Futurists to see The Infinite Wrench. As per the nature of the show, in the time between my two viewings, the individual plays had changed entirely. Although I preferred the shows during my first viewing, I did get to go up on stage this time, which makes two for two on ‘member of my party being directly involved in the show’!

On the rainy days of Hollie’s stay, we still braved the cold outdoors to visit the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium. Honestly, a highlight of the day we went to the planetarium was Pokemon Go Community Day – we both caught some gems including our first shinies of the game and the North American regional exclusive Tauros. On the last full day, I showed Hollie some of the best and worst that Chicago has to offer – the Impossible Burger and Malort – one being a delicious vegan meal, the other a harsh drink that has a lasting bitter flavour.

During my days back at the Arboretum, I’ve been making progress on the work that’s going into the upcoming paper I’m working on with Lane and Andrew. I’ve already managed to create a few nice boxplots and we’re starting to see some interesting results from our analyses – time to get it written up into a suitable format! Working inside at the arboretum whilst it’s sunny and fairly warm outside makes a change from last Autumn when I was working in the prairie. Over at the Museum, I’ve assisted on the bait capture stage of the experiment, a stage that is similar to using the Bioanalyzer in that although it’s a simple procedure, the pressure is on with timing and expensive reagents.

Board-Games and Field-Work

Towards the start of April, I went to not one, but two board game parties – both for the birthdays of some Chicagoans. Sarah from the Arboretum and Katie who is Arb-adjacent, the housemate of someone who works at the Morton. I finally got to play Settlers of Catan, a game I’ve wanted to play for about a year but never found the opportunity to – although simple in its basic rules, a lot of strategy can be implemented. Lately, I’ve come to realise that I enjoy these kinds of events much more than going out to a crowded club or bar, something that I certainly enjoyed during the previous two years at university. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m in a new place with new people that has pushed me to enjoy a more quiet setting over a high energy one.

I enjoyed my first Seder at the start of Passover, complete with vegan Matzah ball soup and many cups of wine. There was a condensed reading which was very informational and interactive – a piece of Matzah, the afikoman, was hidden before the service and since there were no children present to look for it, we did. Also, being the youngest at this dinner meant that I read a specific part of the text.

Over the at the Field Museum, I used the Bioanalyzer for the first time, which was slightly daunting if only for the fact that each individual chip costs around $60. I also attended another talk, this one by Nathan Lord on jewel beetles, their incandescence, and how and what they see. Fascinating stuff, stretching over a broad range of disciplines from biochemistry to taxonomy. Another Super Speaker, Meg Staton, was at the Morton Arboretum in early April also, presenting on a citizen science app, TreeSnap, which aims to help affiliated scientists gather data on specific trees such as the American Chestnut or Ash trees.

Back in the field, I was put to work outside as the prairie restoration project is coming alive again after Winter. The prairie needed to be burnt to rid the site of last year’s dead growth, and I assisted Mary-Claire in readying the plots so that they were in the best condition for ignition. Sadly, I missed the actual fire, as the conditions were so good that the burn team completed their work in a flash.

A Fund for Student Opportunities

If you follow my blog posts here on Inside Edge, you know that I’m currently in the United States of America, on a sandwich placement at the Morton Arboretum. I was fortunate when arranging up this work placement that Edge Hill University had just set up its Student Opportunity Fund (SOF) – a fund that students can apply for to help them make the most of career enhancing opportunities. The fund’s goal is to make sure that no student at EHU passes up a potentially life-changing experience because of the financial burden it might impose.

When I was in the midst of applying for my placement as a Research Affiliate at the Morton Arboretum, I realised quickly that costs would add up. An updated passport, a visa, flights and insurance would quickly put a hefty dent in my finances, leaving my maintenance loan severely lacking for the year abroad. Thankfully, my personal tutor, Paul Ashton, and the Money Advice Team (for whom I was working for at the time as a Money Buddy) informed me about the Student Opportunity Fund and that I could potentially be successful in acquiring additional funding.

Any student on an undergraduate or PGCE course attending EHU can apply for the fund, which will supply them with up to £2000 to support the proposed activity. The projects can be near or far, large or small, requiring the maximum amount available or a portion. Applications could cover travel and accommodation expenses, for example, for unpaid work experience or volunteering; interviews or assessments not covered by the employer; or conferences, festivals, or events where you’re showcasing your work. The fund could also cover costs of developing and making creative material.

Many students have already made use of this amazing fund to enable them to experience some wonderful opportunities that improve both their transferable and career-focused skills:

Applications are judged by a panel and must be submitted over ten working days before the panel convenes. For this academic year, 2017-2018, the remaining dates of convention are:

  • Friday 13th April 2018
  • Thursday 3rd May 2018
  • Wednesday 6th June 2018