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

Firm & Insurance Decision Deadline

For many, making the final decision on UCAS of which universities are going to be your firm and insurance places is a difficult task. For some, it’s easy peasy. Others fall somewhere in between.

When I first began to look at my options for university, course content was one of the biggest aspects – I wanted to find just the right course that featured just the right modules. The BSc biology course had exactly what I was looking for – a mix of genetics and conservation – instantly making it one of a few in my shortlist. Looking back, I might’ve put less importance on the individual modules, and more on the general areas of the course – modules can change and so can your own interests and career aspirations. I switched from Biology over to Ecology & Conservation, before quickly changing to Genetics before 2nd year began.

There was another reason why Edge Hill was my firm choice, however. After attending an open day, I fell in love with the campus and felt a sense of familiarity from Ormskirk. After already strongly considering Edge Hill University, the open day cemented it in my mind that Edge Hill would be one of my two choices. Not only did the campus feel right, but the biosciences department also fulfilled my expectations – the facilities were clean and modern, and the welcome talk was… well, welcoming! Maybe you didn’t attend an open day but instead made it along to an applicant visit day? Although I didn’t make it to an applicant visit day when I was applying, I did help the biology department during one last year, so know that they are worth going to if you’re unsure in this decision.

Facilities
The Biosciences building at Edge Hill University, Ormskirk campus.

These factors combined with the realistic entry requirements pulled me towards choosing Edge Hill University as my firm place. If you have received all your offers by the 31st March, then May 4th will be the date that you need to make this decision by.

New England Thoughts

Although I’m working at the Field Museum most days, I still work at the arboretum on Thursdays. The main purpose of this is for the individual and group lab meetings, but it’s also a good time for me to focus on analysing the data from the prairie restoration project, this includes the biomass data I collected in autumn, as well as NDVI and soil data collected previously by Lane and other researchers. Towards the start of the month, Andrew and I sat down and worked through the data, analysing the NDVI readings from one section of the experiment, with particularly deep soil, to their replicates in other sections. Later in February, I cleaned up the code and set aside what worked, making use of RStudios notebooks that use markdown – I’m finding them very handy. Next up is checking to see if the results observed from the NDVI data are reflected in the biomass data.

Working in R again got me thinking back to second year, when myself and Heather tackled a small research project during our Research Methods module. Our study was on leaf morphometrics and involved ~80 samples from 6 sites. This, of course, pales in comparison to a full dissertation but was a very useful intro to the world of research. My dissertation next year is still something I need to be thinking about, as are my module choices for third year. Currently, BSc Genetics students only have one optional module in their final years, making this decision particularly difficult – I’m considering at least 4 modules right now.

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In the middle of February, I took a trip over to New England, specifically Mount Holyoke College, to visit some friends. Although I didn’t get to see much of Boston, Massachusetts seems like a beautiful state and reminded me more of home than anywhere else in the US so far. Mt Holyoke College is also remarkable, being a fairly old women’s college that features grand brick buildings and a variety of trees, such that they form the Talcott arboretum, which accompanies the Mt Holyoke College Botanical Garden (which has a corpse flower!). It was nice to hear that they’re also a progressive women’s college, accepting trans and non-binary students – perhaps unsurprising considering the college’s LGBT history. The nearby town of Northampton (or ‘Noho’) even features a rainbow zebra crossing. Everyone I met was friendly and welcoming, letting me join them in some interesting lectures and also indoor rock climbing – something I’ve missed doing whilst being over here.

Life at The Field Museum

One perk of working at The Morton Arboretum are the Monday lunchtime Tree Talks – short lectures presented either by a member of staff or a visiting scientist. Although I spend most of my time at The Field Museum now, it’s nice that the perk has seemingly carried over. Although not on a regular schedule, there have been numerous interesting talks over the past few weeks. From Dr. Tyrone Lavery and the “Tree-Dwelling, Coconut-Cracking Giant Rat” to Dr. John Novembre’s work on the human genetics mirroring geography. Another great talk was presented by Dr. Corine Vriesendorp’s, for the Women in Science’s February meeting, on the creation of a new national park in Peru – Yaguas National Park – which took 15 years to be recognised! Dr. Robert Hart also spoke on the topic of ethnobotany and the value of local knowledge when assessing change in biodiversity. Yet another perk – the dollar-beer happy hour on Fridays isn’t bad either!

The Field Museum’s mascot, SUE the T. rex, has now been dismantled and is being moved out of public display until Spring 2019. Taking up their mantle is a titanosaur, Patagotitan mayorum, which, according to The Field Museum’s website, is “25 Danny DeVitos in length.” Whilst I’ll miss walking past SUE at work, their twitter account, @SUEtheTrex (Specimen FMNH PR 2081), will keep their legacy alive hopefully for years to come – even whilst they’re out of the public eye.

Earlier this month was of course the Super Bowl. Despite having seen half a game of American football last year, I still didn’t really understand the rules – Molly and I were mainly there for the halftime show – but now, after watching most of the Super Bowl, I have a better idea. We had a little beer tasting whilst the game was on, with one beer from the Lagunitas Brewery, which I actually visited towards the end of January! It was pretty huge – although it is the only brewery I’ve had a tour of, so maybe I don’t have a good standard of measurement.

Also, after six months in the US, I’ve finally had my first repeat Uber driver, a zoology-major who remembered me as “The Botanist” which I can only assume means that I’ve made it as a plant scientist, coupled with the fact that I used “carex” in a game of Words With Friends the other week.

Applicant Visit Days Ahoy!

With the beginning of February comes the Applicant Visit Days, typically held between now and March/April, non-interviewing applicants will soon receive notice of these wonderful days – maybe you already have! Although I personally did not attend an applicant visit day for Biology, I have worked for the Biology Department as an Applicant Visit Day Helper, therefore I know a little something about what goes down on one of these visit days.

The Edge Hill University Biology Department is home to many sub-disciplines, from ecology to human biology – despite this, students from different courses will certainly overlap both in the common first year and in shared modules. In account of this, the Applicant Visit Day has an introductory talk given to the cohort as a whole, as well as area specific activities with a focus on either ecology, human biology, or genetics, for example. When I worked the Applicant Visit Day last year, I supervised the ecology taster session – and introduction to invertebrate ecology and identification, using keys and microscopes. Also part of the Biology section on Applicant Visit Days is the building tour, where you get a better look at the labs and equipment available to use once you begin studying with us. With the opening of the Tech Hub and the top floor lab, there’s even more space and equipment to use!

Facilities
The Biosciences building for Biology at Edge Hill

I have also worked for the Money Advice Team on applicant visit days, as a Money Buddy, positioned in The Hub. The Money Advice Team hold presentations on student finance, as well as budgeting – particularly from a student’s point of view (hence the Money Buddies). My role was to speak to potential future students about financial help offered by EHU as well as budgeting advice.

The Tech Hub

One of the pros of attending an Applicant Visit day (other than getting a better feel for your course and department) is getting to meet other students. If you’re worried about meeting new people at university, your course is the best place to start, and Applicant Visit days give you a head start. I hope you’re able to attend one and take advantage of this opportunity!

New Year, New Work, New Adventures

During my time not in the prairie, or at the Field Museum, I’ve been working on a project with another research assistant, Lane, comparing data from the prairie that she collected with her drone’s multispectral imaging camera with the biomass data I collected last semester. Processing both datasets and importing them into “R”, the software we use for analysis, was quite challenging, but in the end, we succeeded. The results seem promising so far but more analysis is needed, although it’s no groundbreaking research it’s very exciting! I even got to fly the drone the other day, something I’ve never done before. They’re amazing pieces of technology, although hearing one up close (it sounds like a swarm of bees), I can understand why some people might be wary of them.

Despite being all the way over in the United States, I’m still technically on four modules at Edge Hill University, placement modules. These modules cover personal reflections and activities, as well as two assignments on the placement organisation – specifically an issue with the organisation, and the solution to this issue. Although I would’ve much rather just carried on with the work at the arboretum and museum, they’re important assessments that show that you’ve gained something from your time in industry.

 

Halfway through the month of January, I took a trip over to Utah to visit a friend, Avery. We had originally planned to drive down to California, visiting more friends in Los Angeles but unfortunately that plan fell through. Instead, we’ve been based around central Utah, a couple hours south of Salt Lake City. So far we’ve watched many films, including The Last Jedi and Mary and The Witch’s Flower in the cinema; driven around the local mountains, specifically the Skyline Drive near the Manti-LaSal National Forest; and visited the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium and Natural History Museum of Utah. Although it was sunny and almost warm when I arrived, snow has now hit along with sub-zero temperatures. Seems like I brought the Chicagoan winter with me! It’s been a nice break from work, but I must say that I miss Chicago – the city must’ve really grown on me in the past few months.

 

Holidays in Chicago/New Field & Lab Work

If it feels like a long time since my last blog, that’s because it has! It has been just over of a month since my last Chicago post, and with Christmas and New Year’s sitting right in the middle, that’s only made it seem like longer. I’ve had a variety of tasks at work as the prairie project has been finishing up for the winter, and my other duties have just started taking off.

My celebrations over the fieldwork being done were slightly premature, as I still had bags of biomass that needed to be distributed back to various plots in the prairie (and still do have remaining bags). This was back on December 20th-21st, when the Illinois landscape didn’t resemble an arctic tundra. Although cold, it was still possible to get the biomass dumped – unlike now, where snow has covered the tags indicating the ID number of the plots! A one-off task I assisted in was sonic tomography. Marvin needed a little help one day so I got some experience knocking on wood. To measure the density of trees in fairly non-invasive way, sensors are hooked up to some permanent nail fixtures in the trees, then are tapped with a hammer. The sensors record the vibrations around ring and calculate the internal structure.

On the eve of Christmas Eve, I volunteered for Illumination again, this time as a fire pit monitor! Counter to my initial thoughts, this was colder than the Illu-medallion distribution, as that was in a heated marquee and this was obviously out in the cold. Christmas away from home was a strange and new experience, however, it was nice to see my family over a video call after their Christmas dinner (and just after I woke up). I spent the actual holiday with two friends from work, we went to the cinema, got a meal, and had some drinks, so a good day was still had.

In the strange not-quite-holiday days between Christmas and New Year’s, I made an attempt at dumping the final portion of biomass, but the plot numbers were completely disguised underneath snow and soil. Without the map, which was back at the office, it wasn’t productive. Instead, I worked that week on DNA quantification, using a Qubit fluorometer. This was a good exercise into getting back into the lab practice.

Soon, I’ll be moving over to The Field Museum to assist my colleague Mira on some more lab work, but not before I take a brief respite in Utah, where I’m visiting a friend!

Public Lectures, Research Seminars and More!

Throughout the year, Edge Hill University hosts a number of public lectures. These are can be in subjects such as my own, Biological Sciences, or others, such as Education or History.

Banded archerfish (Toxotes jaculatrix). Lithograph, published in 1884.

Recently, my personal tutor and department head of biology, Dr Paul Ashton, gave his inaugural lecture titled “Contemplate an Entangled Bank” after the opening to the final paragraph of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Paul’s lecture was on the culmination of his work to date, from lime trees to sedges.

The Biosciences Department also hosts research seminars typically at lunchtime, as well as public lectures in the evening. Previous research seminars from this term were on biogeography (the origin of the Lusitanian flora), a rare genetic disease (Fanconi Anaemia), and how plant-atmosphere interactions shine a light on the origin of flowering plants. Although the schedule for 2018’s public lectures is not yet released, check back HERE for details! I attended Dr André Antunes’ talk, “Living on the Edge: Life in high salinity environments” last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Also of note for the department is “ENTO’18: The Good The Bad and the Ugly” – an annual entomological conference which this year is being hosted at Edge Hill University during the 29th to the 31st of August.

The Geography department also holds public lectures in the Geosciences building, the most recent two being a lecture on coastal vulnerability to climate change and rising sea-levels, and perceptions of “Globalisation, Sustainability and Culture” in regard to “the Identities of old/new Empires and their colonies.”

Conferences and talks are held by the Faculty of Health and Social Care in their own building, as well as the Tech Hub and the Manchester campus – particularly for open days, where the Operating Department Practice programme is held. Conferences are also held by the faculty, such as the Digital Ecosystem event.

Education students have an interesting research seminar scheduled for early 2018 on January 11th – The Teaching and Learning of Britishness and Fundamental British Values, by Dr Sadia Habib, who has also published a book on the topic. Past seminars and lectures have included teaching in South Africa, lesson study, and educational responses for the future.

The Department of Performing Arts also has had many events throughout the year, two workshops of which were on Mindfulness and Butoh in Dance Movement Therapy. Another inaugural lecture was held by Professor Stephen Davismoon earlier this month.

Finally, students of English, History and Creative Writing have enjoyed lectures on The Politics of the Neo-Victorian Freak Show, how the illustrations of Sherlock Holmes affected the success of Doyle’s success, and “what it meant to be a girl in the late Victorian period and how women editors played a role in shaping the modern girl,” in a paper reading by Dr Beth Rodgers.

As you can see, Edge Hill University offers numerous lectures across the board of courses! I’ve found that attending these talks for my subject has allowed me to get an idea of which topics I find enjoyable both inside and outside the curriculum.

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.

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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!