Endings and Beginnings: Starting University

Three fingers as friends

So, first of all, before you move into Edge Hill halls, you need to know what to bring! Here’s a short guide on “What To Bring To Halls”. After moving in it’s time to be “Starting University and Making Friends”, so here is a piece on doing just that! Since I was in first-year, the Facebook groups for halls have changed slightly – now, there is a group for the whole cluster of halls you’re in eg. Back Halls, Palatine Court, not for the single building. Also, instead of it being managed by Student Advisors, they’re managed by a Campus Communicator – which for half the halls groups, is me! Of course, your old friends don’t just disappear after starting and moving to university so here’s my take on “Maintaining Old Friendships in New Places”.

Three fingers as friends

If you’re not someone who enjoys the packed atmosphere of going out, then you might prefer “A Night In On Campus”, board games, movie drinking games, or perhaps an Open Mic Night! During the first few days on campus, you might notice our the lovely “Birds On Campus” – I’m pretty sure there’s now the occasional heron by the North-West lake too! (Don’t forget to say hi to the cats and corvids as well, those witch-y familiars deserve love too).

After settling in during Welcome Week, the biology students amongst you might be wondering what’s next in store. Well, the “First Year Biology Modules” are the same across all biological sciences courses… or were a couple of years ago at least! Plus, the “Biosciences Cyprus Residential” field trip should be just around the corner, with fun and science aplenty.

Additionally, it’s never too early to start thinking about extracurricular activities you could get involved with that will help you develop your CV and yourself as you prepare for postgraduate life. So have a go at “Improving Your CV at EHU” and take a look at the “Fund for Student Opportunities” to see what you could get stuck into. Don’t let this all freak you out though, I know that adjusting to university can be a big step and know you’re not alone in “Coping With University Stress”. Take a breather; watch the birds. 😉

What to expect from final year?

As my third and final year of university as an undergraduate draws closer, I’m wondering how different it will be to second year. You might also be wondering what modules are available to you in your final year of a biological sciences degree. As I’m doing a Genetics BSc, I have four compulsory modules: Applications of Genetics, Genomics and Bioinformatics, Ecological Genetics, and Dissertation – Genetics. This leaves me with one optional module. Optional modules for Genetics and other biological sciences degrees for third-year include:

  • SCI3309 Biodiversity and Conservation
  • SCI3310 Tropical Ecology
  • SCI3312 Environmental Change
  • SCI3314 Current Issues in Biology
  • SCI3316 Pathology
  • SCI3318 Invertebrate Ecology
  • SCI3321 Pharmacology
  • SCI3324 Epidemiology
  • SCI3325 Ecological Interactions
  • SCI3326 Conservation Issues
  • SCI3329 Field Botany
  • SCI3322 Laboratory Masterclass
  • SCI3017 Nerves, Brain and Behaviour

Some of these modules are available in second-year, and some are even mandatory, such as Laboratory Masterclass being a compulsory module for second-year geneticists. Some of my compulsory genetics modules can also be taken as optional modules for other biological sciences degrees. More information can be found here!


Entering third year can be a daunting or scary prospect, it’s weighted heavier than second year (60:40) and in some cases holds the compulsory dissertation module. If you’ve been away for a year for whatever reason, be it for personal or educational reasons, going into a new year group may also be quite nerve-wracking. I was away last year on a sandwich placement and am nervous myself about entering classes potentially knowing no-one there. But if we could do it in first-year, we can do it again! There may be a bit of added pressure this year but it’s essentially the same, classes and studying, maybe less partying, and a more long-term project in the form of a dissertation.

The future is a vast and uncharted ocean, but it seems looks like smooth sailing ahead… Godspeed!

Biology Dissertation Fieldwork

Large-leaved lime leaf with numerous lime nail galls protruding from the upper surface

Since I’m entering my third and final year of my BSc Genetics degree very, very soon, I need to be thinking about my genetics dissertation. I have chosen to centre my research project on plant genetics and ecology – both in the field and in the lab. The organism of interest for my studies is the large-leaved lime, Tilia platyphyllos. Specifically, the large-leaved lime growing on its own (by which I mean, away from its close relative small-leaved lime or Tilia cordata, and the hybrid of the two, common lime or Tilia x europaea) in the South Downs.

Before setting off on the 4-5 hour drive down to the South East, I needed to request the equipment necessary for 5 days of fieldwork! After delivering an equipment list to a Technician, they will get it all ready in time for your trip – provided you deliver the list in advance, two days usually isn’t enough time! For my fieldwork, I needed a fair number of plastic bags, to safely secure leaves and soil; a handheld GPS unit, to record positions of trees; a laser distance measure, to measure the distance between trees; a measuring tape, to work out the diameter at breast height (DBH) from circumference; and a clipboard and pens, for recording measurements and marking bags.

After making it to the South Downs with Mark, the technician who would be accompanying me on this fieldwork – driving and taking samples and measurements with me, we set off into the wilds and tried to find our quarry.

Close-up of large-leaved lime tree bark

Our first day didn’t prove very successful.

After scouring databases for records of recorded large-leaved lime, I came up a little short but was still determined to sample from the area. On the first day, I decided to follow my hunches and check the sites that had shown very few or no records of lime but appeared to be the right kind of environment. Unfortunately, this was slow going and fairly unsuccessful, yielding us only three trees that day.

Fortunately, after shifting tactics to explore the sites further East that had more markers recorded for Tilia platyphyllos, we had a lot more success. Averaging around 30 trees from 2-3 sites per day, it was a pretty successful trip in the end. There were snags and hiccups, and my project may have changed slightly because of this- but that’s science! Nothing ever goes exactly according to plan, and that’s what keeps it interesting!

For more pictures of the trip, check this twitter thread, since they’re too large to upload here!

Happy Graduation, Class of ’18!

On the 17th July, the Biology class of 2018 (as well as other 2018 classes such as drama) graduated. This class was the one that I had spent first year and second year with – getting to know and studying alongside. However, because I chose to complete a sandwich year on a work placement in the USA, I effectively delayed my graduation. Whilst I was away, my friends were undergoing their third and final year! I may still have one year to go, but they’re all done and dusted–and graduated!

Facilities
The Biosciences building for Biology at Edge Hill

Since I’m doing a summer internship up at Edge Hill in the biosciences department, it was easy for me to pop down and see my former classmates. I didn’t attend the physical graduation or watch from the SU bar on the projector, but I did manage to see most of the class afterwards, even getting a few pictures with them all in their robes and hats. Just because I didn’t graduate at the same time, doesn’t make me feel like any less of their classmate!

Having not seen some of them in over a year, it was lovely to speak to them again. The day wasn’t without its troubles though – the university being filled to the brim with people and families was a little anxiety-inducing–and it wasn’t even my graduation!

Despite the fact that I should’ve graduated this year, according to the original plan, it still feels wild that I will (if all goes well!) have graduated a year from now… From then on, it’s a mystery where I’ll be! Although with masters courses on offer here at Edge Hill and casual work being offered over the summer like the summer internship I’m currently undertaking, maybe I won’t be far away in a year’s time–only time will tell!

A Biology Dissertation Proposal

One of the compulsory modules in third year on any biological sciences undergraduate degree is the dissertation. This module is worth twice the amount of a single third-year module – and with third-year being weighed more than second, this amounts to a hefty percentage overall!

Perhaps some books from the new library in The Catalyst will help with your references!

The first part of the dissertation that is currently due in late June is the proposal. Worth 15% of the overall dissertation grade, this piece of work is focused on designing a scientific project that suitably addresses an identified knowledge gap within a field, whether it be ecology, human biology, or microbiology. The proposal for the biology dissertations is very similar to the proposal made for the research projects in the second year module Research Methods.

Part A of the proposal is an overview including context – does this project build on previous works; why is it important; how does it fit into our current understanding? Included in this section must be the project aims and a list of references used in Part A. It’s very similar to an introduction of a scientific paper, which starts out broad then narrows its focus until it is focused on a concise issue.

The Gantt chart I used in my second-year Research Methods proposal

The following part of the dissertation proposal, Part B, is all about the implementation of the project. This includes a clear indication of the research questions being asked; the methodology; timescale; and data analysis. Things to think about for the methodology include the basic experimental design – what kind of sampling and measurements are being taken, how many replicates, etc – sampling strategy, and sites. The timescale is an obvious one, but it might be an idea to include a Gantt chart to illustrate this clearly. Data analysis and management cover the statistical tests that will feature in the project and the tables used to record the data. This section should also feature difficulties that might be faced along the way, for example, the problems I think I might face are identifying sampling sites with my target organism and learning new programs related to genetic analysis.

 

The final parts, D and E, are all about health, safety, and ethics. As well as completing these parts in the proposal, it’s vital that the separate ethics form is filled in to be assessed by the Biology Department Research Ethics Committee (BDREC)! Other additional forms that need to be attached to the proposal are, for example, an equipment list, lone working, and risk assessment.

There are a fair few documents that need submitting, but they’re all important and make sure you’re ready to really begin work on this big project. You need to be prepared for a module that makes up a third of your final year grade after all!

Summer Biology Internship

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, it’s been over 12 months since I’ve been properly on campus – with an ERASMUS+ internship in Sweden and a placement year in the USA, it’s weird to be back! However, there’s no rest for the wicked so I’m back on another internship, this time a lot closer to home. The biosciences department offer a number of summer internships aimed at second years who are progressing into third year. This year, 6 lecturers offered internships, in disciplines such as genetics, ecology, microbiology, covering organisms including plants, invertebrates and humans. I was lucky enough to receive a place on Paul Ashton’s internship, after applying for two of them (you can apply for two internships maximum) with a CV and cover letter. Being abroad at the time of application, I participated in a Skype interview – a strange experience!

The subject area of my internship is titled, “Does meadow restoration conserve genetic variation?”, although I haven’t actually got to that part of the work yet! Before I start on that project (being worked on by a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) and PhD student, Elizabeth Sullivan), I’m assisting on a different project to do with lime trees. This project is Carl Baker’s (a Postdoc Researcher). Right now I’ve been assisting in the final steps of DNA extraction, cleaning up the extracted DNA to try and get rid of any impurities in the samples. This process involves inverting and emptying a tube of liquid whilst keeping a pellet of DNA precariously stuck to the bottom – quite nerve-wracking to see your sample hanging by a thread!

Another unexpected aspect of this internship was setting up and running a session for the 2018 Edge Hill Biology Olympiad. The Olympiad is a series of challenges completed by teams from various sixth forms and colleges that come to Edge Hill University for the day. Each activity is graded and the scores released in a ceremony at the end of the day. I didn’t expect to be doing this kind of work but thoroughly embraced it – it was a great opportunity to push myself and see what it felt like to run a teaching exercise of sorts.

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.

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.