Winter Approaching In Chicago

In my last blog post, I was excited to have all the biomass collected and waiting to be dried – hopefully before the end of December. Well, that was certainly a low bar, since all the biomass was weighed by the 13th December! My house is now empty of plant matter – and looking slightly empty for it. Looking back, it’s almost unfathomable how many bags I ended up weighing, I’m incredibly grateful to Lindsey and the volunteers for helping out in the field, collecting just wouldn’t have been possible without them. Now all that’s left to do is empty the remaining weighed bags of biomass back onto their original plots.

IMG_20171215_134438
It may not be visible, but it was snowing when this photo was taken.

In addition to collecting all the biomass from the prairie, it has also been winterized – the hoses, sprinklers and electric fence removed, as well as data from the weather station downloaded. It certainly feels like winter has arrived, to me at least, with light snow every other week, temperatures regularly dropping below freezing, and winds that often cause my phone to flash a “Weather Warning” alert at me, however, I get the impression that the worst is yet to come! I’ve received numerous sets of thermals from family as presents for my birthday, however, so I feel suitably prepared.

The past few weeks have seen Thanksgiving – which I spent with my supervisor, Andrew Hipp, and his family – and my 21st birthday, which I spent with my dad, doing various touristy things over the weekend, such as visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, Field Museum, Shedd aquarium and Skydeck. For my birthday (observed) the following weekend, I went out for drinks and a meal with many of the other research assistants (RAs) at the Arboretum, since I am now legally allowed to drink (odd since I have been able to drink since 18 back in the UK). Since it was also the third night of Chanukah, menorahs were lit and dreidels were spun.

 

I also got to see Molly again, as she visited to see Illumination (which I have started volunteering for). Finally, after my last attempt was left incomplete by the threat of the setting sun, we took the trip over to Big Rock – it was conquered. We also baked pie and visited a mall, where I saw my first Hot Topic – an unexpected American Bucket List item.

During Molly’s visit, I was disappointed by a store-bought vegan pizza. Thankfully, my faith in fake cheese was restored the following weekend when I visited the city with Diana, one of the RAs. We saw some local theatre and a drag show – I think the first I have been to. Both shows were great, but Lizzie, the punk, feminist, musical preceding the drag show, blew me away.

Aside from the prairie work and social activities, I’ve got a university assignment to focus on, which is proving harder than I thought! Identifying problems at the Arboretum that can be discussed and solutions proposed is challenging when the place is pretty shipshape!

Fieldwork season – Finished!

On November 2nd, I experienced a very important, personal life event. Something that was not on my American Bucket List, but my actual bucket list. I saw a tardigrade. Tardigrades are otherwise known as water bears or moss piglets, and are one of the hardiest animals known to exist. Although not true extremophiles, they can survive the harshest of conditions including extreme temperatures, pressures, and radiation, mainly by entering a state of cryptobiosis where they decrease their water volume to 3%. Some individuals have even survived being in outer space. Marvin, a Research Assistant here, discovered a few on a piece of moss from the arboretum grounds, and plated them up for us to look at under a microscope. It was a good day.

Whilst in the field, collecting biomass, I’ve spotted a few more deer and also some other native wildlife – sandhill cranes and a possum! I was very excited to see a possum, honestly, it was also on my American Bucket list. Another item to tick off was going to my first potluck! It was a bit of an impromptu event for me so I didn’t take anything myself, next time I shall be more prepared!

I’ve made a couple of trips into the city in the past few weeks, once to check out a shopping mall (American Bucket list – check) and again to revisit the Field Museum and check out Brain Scoopin’ LIVE, a demonstration of a specimen preparation – in this case, a beaver. I also stumbled upon a charming used bookstore – I waited out the time until my train, reading on my Kindle (I did feel slightly guilty reading my own material there, I figure I’ll go back and contribute to the store another time). It’s a real shame I didn’t bring my camera over here because the fog and snow I’ve witnessed in Chicago has been breathtaking at points.

Another breathtaking event coming up is Illumination, an event focussed on lights and trees and the arboretum. I’m volunteering for the event and recently went to the training evening, where we got a quick tour. It really is spectacular and can’t wait to experience it properly, soon.

Back to biomass, we reached a huge milestone yesterday – all the collecting is done! Biomass from all the monocultures and treatment plots has been successfully collected. Unfortunately, yesterday was also the last day we had access to the large cooler, meaning half the remaining biomass is being stored in the office and half at my house! Space really is an issue, but the dryers are the true bottleneck. Slowly, the material is all being processed, and hopefully, we will have all the data written up by the end of December!

Open Days and UCAS Decisions

If you’re thinking about going to an open day at Edge Hill but aren’t sure, I’d really suggest going! It might be a bit of a long way for some (as it was for me), but I can’t recommend the experience enough. Going to an open day was what made me decide to choose Edge Hill as my firm choice.

Before I went to the EHU open day, I already knew the course was a good option for me – it was definitely going to be one of my top five. Having looked at the undergraduate courses available on the Edge Hill website, I knew the modules in the biological sciences degrees were practically catered to my interests. Another factor of the biosciences courses that I found particularly useful was that of the common first year – all the biosciences degrees have the same modules in first year, meaning all first year students in the department get to know each other and share classes. More importantly, I could change my degree within the department at the end of first year, which I did… Twice!

Realising at the end of first year that I wanted to specialise rather than continue with straight biology (I’m not a fan of the human body stuff), I switched to the BSc Ecology and Conservation course. Then, after further consideration, I switched to BSc Genetics before my second year began. It was lucky that I managed to fit into the modules I wanted after switching course again so late, but the fact that I was allowed at all was extremely helpful for me.

However, what really sold Edge Hill to me, was coming here in person. Seeing the campus, meeting the students, listening to the lecturers. Experiencing Edge Hill (and Ormskirk) in person gave me all the insight I needed to rank it higher than the other universities I visited. The campus felt safe, looked beautiful, and was situated close to town, which in turn was close enough via train to the city. For me, that was perfect. Students I met were friendly and spoke highly of the university. Finally, the talks given by the department showed me just how much the lecturers cared for their discipline and wanted to share that knowledge, whilst making sure the students would prosper.

If you haven’t booked an open day place yet, find information on the available dates coming up in November and December here!

Erasmus Reflection

Roughly two months ago, I wrote a post about my experience with the ERASMUS+ program at Edge Hill University – both how I go onto the program, and my first week abroad. Since I have now completed my internship at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Umeå, here is a rundown of the main scientific events.

A window trap successfully hung in a forest in Gällivare

For roughly a week, I got to spend time up in Gällivare, a town in the far north of Sweden. The purpose of this was to set up a whole load of window traps, used to collect insects over the spring, thus gaining an idea of the ecosystem and biodiversity of the area. Since Spring came late this year, there was plenty of snow still on the ground, especially in the forested areas we were trekking through.

As well as the far-flung Gällivare, there were some sites closer to Umeå that I got to explore. They helped me get an idea of the kind of places where ecological work takes place, and also helped me visualise some of the specific work that SLU are undertaking. Two sites were to do with the “fish people” of SLU, a river a the coast, where fish were captured, tagged, and released. Another example was a plantation forest where some of the work required it to be partially cleared in a specific way. From one of these sites, we collected beetles.

The beetles, ah the beetles. The last month of my internship was spent almost exclusively with the phratora. The beetles were used to test whether a certain species of wild plant would “smell” different to its genetically modified counterpart, and the beetles collected are known to graze on that species of plant. This was a great look into real ecological work, from collecting and caring for the species to running and collecting data from an actual experiment.

Another experiment I helped out on was part of a global study. This study set out to test how fast logs would decompose around the world. I assisted in collecting the logs from the mosquito-ridden site where they were being kept, and then regularly checking the weight of the logs over a number of weeks whilst they were being dried. Unfortunately, the logs had not finished drying by the time my internship was up, so I didn’t get to carry out any further tests on the logs.

Edge Hill Is Chill

Most people experience pre-uni jitters, I know I did – a new place where I didn’t know anyone, living on my own and being the sole person responsible for myself. A step in the direction of adulthood! Something I know about myself is that I like feeling safe, and Edge Hill (and Ormskirk in general) definitely provide that feeling. The campus is a wonderful place with lights all around to keep the darkness at bay at night, as well as security that patrols and are reachable by phone as well.

In addition to actually being very safe, it feels safe too. Safe and comfortable. Once you get to know the campus, it’s small enough for you to be very familiar with the whole place. If you are a member of societies and clubs, you have a good chance of running into people from them or from your course when you pop down to McColl’s or SU Bar.

Living in halls may also bring about a sense of solidarity – almost like a second family. This becomes particularly apparent in second year, after you’ve chosen who to live with. The people who I’ve lived with throughout second year were a mixture of course mates, previous flatmates, and society members from the year above. Not everyone always saw eye to eye, but that’s to be expected when living with numerous people in close proximity. We always managed to resolve issues, however, and I think living in a student house is a very valuable experience.

In regards to the actual learning part of university (an important part), I can only speak of my experience with the biology department. All the lecturers are very approachable and provide an excellent environment to learn in – one that is very comfortable. We are treated as adults and as such are on first name basis, something I feel makes it a lot easier to speak to them when you have an issue or require assistance. Having a personal tutor who you can go to for support is also a wonderful thing that eases anxiety.

On the note of anxiety, the university provides excellent student support for numerous issues from anxiety to bereavement. All counselling services are provided at Milton House. I have used the services myself and can confirm how the staff make you feel at ease, despite it being a daunting experience for me.

I chose Edge Hill University as my first choice because it felt right. It felt comfortable and safe (as well as providing the course and teaching I required), and it has lived up to those feelings.

ERASMUS+ Procedure and My Experience So Far

As I’ve mentioned before, the biosciences department currently have links to a few other universities in Europe with which the ERASMUS+ program is available. They exist in Sweden, Cyprus as well as potentially Germany. I have so far completed my first week of placement at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Umeå, with a fellow coursemate.

There was a fairly substantial interest in the program across my year group, so after applications were processed, interviews were held. The Erasmus Program Leader from the department, as well as the International Office, were both present to ask a few questions. After that, if you are selected, it’s a matter of waiting and filling in the relevant paperwork when the time comes. Make sure you fill this in as quickly as possible! The sooner you do this, the sooner you get approval to book flights and finalise accommodation. Which is an issue if you are staying in Umeå.

SLU, Umeå, Sweden,

Housing is hard to come by in Umeå, and can be expensive. The two options that might be best are either: staying in a current researcher’s residence with them or in their place if they are away during the summer; or staying in a student’s accommodation after they have moved out for the summer. For our Erasmus placement this year, we’ve had to stay in a hostel for a week, although will be staying in a current researcher’s apartment while they are away for the rest of the summer.

Despite the hostel, it’s been a good first week – I’ve got to know the city as well as fellow colleagues and have even managed to go clubbing and meet some new people here! If you’re so inclined, I’d recommend the pub/restaurant Droskan and the Take Queer event. Also if you are around for the end of semester, the festival Brännbollsyran which hosts music and a rounders-like tournament should be something you look into before going. Now that the introductory week is over, we’re off up to Gällivare to get stuck in with some real hands-on research!


If you want to stay updated with my adventures in Sweden with SLU, then you can check out my blog dedicated to it.

Biology Semester Two Highlights

My exams are over. Second semester is over. Second year is over. So it’s about time I take a look at my personal highlights from this term’s modules, Research Methods, Biochemistry & Metabolism, and Biogeography.

Facilities
The Biosciences building at Edge Hill

Research Methods:

Oddly enough, one of the highlights of research methods for me was the stats portfolio. This coursework section of the module tasked us to analyse datasets using the program “R” and usually produce a graphical representation of the data, as well as an explanation of the results. This piece of coursework relied on knowledge acquired from the taught sessions on statistics throughout the year. Although coding in “R” was tedious at times, especially when one singular spelling mistake threw off the whole script, it was very rewarding to have a complete portfolio of work – particularly the graphs and charts.

Another highlight was definitely research week which, if you’re a regular here, you should know about – as I wrote a whole post dedicated to it.

Biochemistry and Metabolism:

This module was a complex one, being filled to the brim with technical knowledge but featuring a highly unusual assessment – a collaboration between animators and biologists to produce a short video on a metabolic process. As well as the bio-animation, there was also an exam. This was a challenging module, since it is very content heavy and also required you to work in a team with non-biologists – a vital skill however, that practically all scientists need. There were a number of experiments – some of them stretching across a good few hours – that introduced us to more lab techniques and the practical side of biochem. Bio-animation Evening, compete with food and wine, was a nice conclusion to the module; seeing everyone else’s hard work and the different animation styles was satisfying.

Biogeography:

As well as a typical examination, the assessment for biogeography was a ~15 minute presentation on a scientific paper – randomly assigned. This was challenging, as we had two weeks to read and digest our assigned paper, create a presentation, and memorise the script for our presentations. That said, it was also a very rewarding assignment. I was particularly proud of my presentation, and although delivering the talk was stressful, the creation of the presentation itself was enjoyable (on reflection, it seems I enjoy creating visual aids, maybe I should work on my illustration skills!)

Western Campus – Partially showing the GeoSciences building

To see highlights from my first semester, click here. Also, the other modules available for second semester biology can be found on the university website. Also of interest may be my outline of this year’s marine biology field trip.

Marine Biology Part 2

Jumping in where we left off, I’ll get back to the rundown of the week and also explain how the module will be assessed this year!

@BiologyEHU marine bio module students out on the boat this morning @FSCMillport — anne oxbrough‏ (@aoxbrough) April 4, 2017

Day Four – April 4th

The agenda for the fourth day consisted of a trawling sample in The Firth of Clyde. We went out in two groups to sample from both a rocky- and muddy-bottomed area of the Firth, using a trawling net and a grab. Many crustaceans, brittle stars and starfish, as well as a few fish were caught and later released after identification. Also sampled were the zooplankton, who form a vital part of the marine food chain.

@BiologyEHU students carry out beach plastic survey at Kames Bay @FSCMillport — anne oxbrough‏ (@aoxbrough) April 5, 2017

Day Five – April 5th

Back at Kames Bay, we surveyed the plastics present on the beach. Many of it sits near the top of the beach, and once you start looking you realise it’s everywhere, and could have been washed up from anywhere – we saw a few shotgun shell casings. If you take a closer look, you can see vast amounts of nurdles: small plastic beads that make up the raw material of many many products. These, along with regular plastic items, have become a huge problem in aquatic ecosystems, and this surveying was a real hands-on eye opener to the dangers of unsustainable living.

@BiologyEHU Otter spotted off Farland Point #marinebio — Charlotte Pink‏ (@ehupink) April 6, 2017

Day Six – April 6th

Again, the weather challenged us with wind and rain, but we cycled anyway. Turning from sun to storm and back again every twenty minutes, we surveyed the shores from the coastal road, tallying the numbers of birds and aquatic mammals for ten minutes at each location. After a lap of the island, my group stopped off in town for some food and to get some typically touristy photos of ourselves with the Crocodile Rock, before an evening in the pub!

Crocodile Rock, Millport

Day Seven – April 7th

After the usual delicious early breakfast, the journey home began. Thankfully, there were far fewer mishaps than on the journey up. Personally, I really enjoyed the week. It was a lot of work, with sampling in the day and ID’ing into the evenings, but it was worthwhile. The experience was one I will never forget.

Assessments

What I didn’t mention above, is that on the final full day – after the surveying but before the pub – we had a mock ID test. This consisted of many specimens being presented to us and being tested on identifying it outright or being asked to match two species’ names to each individual. The actual ID test this year will require the identification of species from memory and others using a key. Alongside this, there will be an hour long data retrieval test, that will assess the “keeping of records of the extensive practical and field-based investigations, and the associated data collection and analyses.”

Marine Biology Part 1

An amazing module that was available to me in my second year was Marine Biology. This module was a week-long residential field trip to the island of Greater Cumbrae, Scotland, where we stayed at the Millport Field Centre, operated by the Field Studies Council (FSC). The Field Centre staff were fantastically accommodating, and the accommodation was fantastic – the Centre even has a biomass boiler for maximum sustainability.

Day Zero – 31st March

The journey up to the Millport Field Centre took around six hours and involved three trains, a ferry, and a bus. An exciting journey up from Ormskirk. Many of the students who took the module travelled up together in groups, and while there were a few mishaps on the way up North we all got there in the end. The highlight of the day was ‘The Bread and Butter Pudding Crisis’ – there was not enough to go around, and so our evening lecture was delayed 15 minutes whilst more was cooked up.

Ian Ashley and Heather looking for marine biology treasure at White Bay Cumbrae Island  — Biology (@BiologyEHU) April 1, 2017

Day One – April 1st

On the first full day, we sampled organisms from the sheltered shore of White Bay during the day – flexing our cycling muscles as we rode our rented bikes to the top of the island. For many of us, this was our first real and up-close look at marine life on the shore. We collected organisms from on top of rocks and from more hidden locations, such as under rocks in pools. We sampled three heights along the bay: lower shore, mid-shore, and upper shore. Later that day we also had our first try at identifying our samples under microscopes, using keys for marine life of the British Isles.

Day Two – April 2nd

The second day saw us sampling an exposed rocky shore, this time using quantifiable methods rather than just the presence-absence method used the previous day. Using quadrats, we sampled percentage cover and individual count data up the shore, this time at around ten vertical points, not just three general zones. The weather really treated us well that day, presenting us with lovely blue skies and cold that was only skin-deep and not bone-deep cold!

Shore sampling can be pretty when the weather’s nice 💙 — ash 🌱 (@tuffinash) April 2, 2017
The weather for the Sandy shore survey not so nice, slight breeze!! @BiologyEHU — UK Carrion Beetles (@SilphidaeUk) April 3, 2017

Day Three – April 3rd

The weather, of course, had to take a turn for the worse. The wind grew stronger and the rain fell. Taking samples from the exposed sandy shore of Kames Bay in this weather was challenging, but somehow ended up becoming quite enjoyable as my team and I settled into a rhythm: digging, sieving, and bagging up our sandy samples. With the help of the two post-grads joining us on this module we all successfully collected samples – but not without almost losing a plastic bag or two to the wind! We encountered many polychaetes when ID’ing the specimens collected from the sandy shore, many of which were also paddle worms, who sometimes have incredible dragon-like heads.

A polychaete worm

Next week, I’ll continue the overview of the week as well as the assessment methods for this module!

 

 

Biology – Second Year Decisions

With the summer term of second year approaching, many people have had to decide on a number of future ventures – third year modules, dissertation topics, and perhaps summer placements. So, in chronological order I present to you – the recent decisions of biosciences students.

Erasmus

Although not a particularly​ recent event, it does pertain to the summer activities of the biology students and affects their summer plan. Back in term one, details of the ERASMUS+ program were announced and applications were accepted. The ERASMUS+ program is a europe-wide student exchange of sorts. In the case of the biology department, there are two institutes that currently offer summer placements for students: The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), and The Cyprus University of Technology (CUT). I have been lucky enough to be offered a placement at SLU, where the department that our own biology department is currently in contact with is the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Environmental Studies. The kind of activities that occur during placements here consist of bird, fish, invert, forest, and fire ecology, as well as research into genetically modified trees. Since I am to be abroad during the summer, I cannot be present at our very own Edge Hill University (EHU) to take part in the internships hosted closer to home.

Internships

A more recent decision to be made regarding the summer break is whether or not you would like to work an internship. Currently, the university offers​ a number of summer internships for students to assist in research with the lecturers. Since I was already due to be away over summer, I have experienced this process as a third-party of sorts as my fellow students have applied. Numerous topics are available with various lecturers, for instance: microbial genetics, extremophile microbial genetics, vector biology, dermatogenetics, conservation, and forest ecology. After the long summer, students will head back as third years and begin their new modules.

Module Choices

Third year, currently weighted slightly more than second year, will consist of new modules to those studied in the second year. A full list of modules (and who came take them depending on course) can be found on the relevant course pages in the biology section of the EHU websiteSome modules may be available to choose in second or third year, which is a wonderful idea, as it allows further customisation of your course – allowing you to choose a full range of modules relevant to your degree focus. Of course, the big one – the dissertation module, is a module you must choose for third year.

Dissertation

With a wide range of courses and lecturers, comes a wide range of topics for dissertations. As tutors are limited to a select number of students per individual, they are allocated as fairly as possible to the topics you have expressed interest in. Since deciding on your dissertation topic may seem like a herculean task when presented with so many options, help had been provided in the form of suggested topics and questions, and the option to begin research in the summer. So far, the department have been very helpful in assisting in our decision – with lecturers coming to pitch their topics and inspire us.