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!

East Side Story: Big Rock

Since Mary-Claire had her last day on the 13th October, I’ve been working independently on the prairie restoration project. This was a little rocky at first, as I got used to the method of identifying and collecting the plants – but after a little advice from Andrew and practice with another research (and herbarium) assistant, Lindsey, I got the hang of it. It’s still a time-consuming process however, especially when the plot has monsters such as Helianthus pauciflorus, where the plant easily fills two of our large brown bags. Also, as expected, we have been collecting biomass at a quicker pace than we can dry the material. With limited oven space available, fresh biomass must be stored in the coolers until it can be dried. But space in the cooler quickly gets used! The weather has also been a factor we’ve sometimes had to fight against since we cannot collect biomass if the plants are wet from the rain.

On the days when it has been too damp to collect material, I have been assisting Mira with some lab work, preparing me for the work I will be doing after my time on the prairie restoration project has come to a close. I helped with a DNA extraction and also a gel run, both techniques I have done before albeit only a handful of times. This also got me accustomed to working in the lab and biohazard room.

Towards the end of October, the trees finally realised it was autumn, and started showing their rusty, scarlet hues. I saw an equally vibrant cardinal flitting about the trees near the visitor one day after collecting in the morning. On the evening of the 26th, after work, I cycled around the East Woods. Having been here around a month and a half, it was about time I saw the larger side of the Arboretum, having only really seen the West side until then. There were some beautiful lone trees and the woods as a whole were lovely. Sadly, by the time I reached the far side of the East Woods, by the Big Rock visitor station, it was already dusk and I didn’t have time to actually take the trail out to see Big Rock. I got home before dark with the lure of Big Rock still calling to me. Another day, Big Rock. Another day.

Autumn Fieldwork in Illinois

Dried biomass in pre-weighed bags.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been given more responsibilities in the field and more exciting work to do! Whereas before I was helping with the vital job of weeding, and watering, the time has come for us to collect data from our prairie restoration project. To assess how well different plots of mixed species are performing, we need to collect, then dry and weigh, biomass. Since the project leader has now taken maternity leave, I have been left in charge of this next phase of the project.

I’ve taken to cycling down west to the prairie in the mornings, but this becomes an issue when returning biomass to the lab – I currently have to rely on the cars of others. Outside the arboretum, I’ve noticed that a car seems like a necessity in the United States, since public transport is not widespread, yet everything here is spread wide apart! The country seems scaled up compared to the European ones I’ve visited, everything is just somehow further away…

Map of the West side of The Morton Arboretum, showing rough location of A: My house and B: Prairie Restoration Project

In the week following my last American entry, I moved house, since I had accidentally been placed in the wrong one for my first few weeks – it’s smaller, but I am the only one currently living there, plus, the WiFi is stronger!

The lab meetings on Thursdays have also become a book club, we’ve been reading Improbable Destinies by Jonathan B. Losos, and we’re now about four chapters in. So far it’s been very engaging and has included some interesting ideas about the commonality of convergent evolution yet also the randomness of evolution, with compelling arguments on either side.

On the weekend before last, I took the train down to see Molly again, and this time visited her home in “The Boonies,” to check out the Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive. Although most food along the drive wasn’t vegan, I did manage to eat an obscene amount of popcorn and a delicious apple cider slushie. I also had a “lemon shakeup” a still, sugary lemon drink. Still on my American Bucket List is trying American lemonade, which is different from the lemonade back across the bond that is synonymous with Sprite or 7-Up. After driving back to Molly’s home, we cooked up some funnel cake made with soy milk, which was enough to induce a food coma combined with everything else from that morning. We also visited the Wildlife Prairie Park – it harbours rescued animals and plants native to the area, as well as telling the history of the area. It was a bit windy that day, as the night before we had been under a tornado warning – exciting times!

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!

The Field Museum and American Life

I’ve been in the US for just over two weeks and when I think about it, I’ve packed a fair bit into that time – lots of new experiences. One such experience was my first visit to The Field Museum of Natural History! After walking through the city, alongside the huge mass of water that is Lake Michigan, I received my own lanyard and ID, along with a set of keys for the Arboretums office space. It’s official. I’m a research affiliate at one of the largest natural history museums in the world, with roughly 30 million specimens! As I walked the corridors behind the scenes of the public museum, the sheer number of resources available began to sink in. Admittedly, I got lost walking back to the office.

“Sue,” the largest, best-preserved, and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found.

During the rest of the weekday mornings, I was back out in the prairie doing the necessary work of weeding plots that had seen undesirable species encroach, as well as sowing some eco-grass along the walkways to held guard off against the more nasty weeds and to prevent soil erosion. Wednesday and Thursday afternoon held a training session on R and a lunchtime meeting. The R training lecture was largely things I already knew, however, there were a couple of techniques which I was unfamiliar with. Also, different ways to achieve the same results – just goes to show how people have their own solutions to situations. The lunch meeting was helpful in further orienting me with the work being completed at the Arboretum and who by. Listening to people talk about their research is a wonderful thing, and I’m very excited to help out with more projects, specifically the work relating to the hybridisation of the Quercus genus. Another fun thing we established that meeting was the book that we’re going to read, hopefully before Christmas. I’ve read the introduction already, and if the rest is anything like it then I think I can say that I will enjoy it.

“Root beer,” a non-alcoholic soft drink.

I read the introduction on the train, Friday night, as I was going to Macomb to see my friend, Molly, who was studying abroad at Edge Hill last year. Fortune has it that she lives in the same state that I am currently working in, so it’s almost easy to meet up! The time it takes me to get the train over to see her, across half the state, is roughly the amount of time it takes me to travel from my hometown to Edge Hill University – that’s roughly half the country. Since I arrived quite late, we had a meal, went shopping, and then hit the hay. But not before I tried both root beer and spiced apple cider (both non-alcoholic, despite their names) for the first time. The cider was truly delicious, especially when warm.

Molly (right) and I (left).

Another reason for visiting Molly when I did, was that is was her homecoming. Along with trying various soft drinks, going to the homecoming parade and football game were valuable entries on my American Bucket List. Although I’m not all too familiar with the rules of American football, it was fun to watch, especially for the halftime show – the band sounded wonderful and the baton twirling was a sight to behold as well. Molly had even altered a bear mascot head to represent Rocky, the bulldog mascot of Western Illinois University.

I finished off that busy week with walking three and a half miles to the shops, bumping into an exceedingly complimentary man whilst waiting for my Uber back to the arboretum. Once again, I have to wonder if the next week will be quite as packed with activities as these first two.

First Week In The USA

So I’ve been in the US for a week now! That’s four days of work down at the prairie – weeding, digging and planting – as well as two-three days exploring the city. It’s been hard graft in the field, especially after the flight; jet lag is a real pain. But really just getting back into the fieldwork mentality and adjusting to the heat is the main issue.

During my first week here at the arboretum, I’ve been shown around the research building and introduced to many new people – colleagues, you could say, because i’m actually working here! (I’m still absorbing it all.) Everyone has been very friendly and welcoming, and I’m told that’s partially a midwest thing, but also that the arboretum staff really work together, so there’s almost a familial sense about it. I’m excited to start doing work with more members of the team.

Before I arrived, I knew I was to be doing work relating to the prairie (and how phylogenetic diversity affected the restoration of it) as well as work relating to the phylogeny of oaks. Now that I’ve got here, I know the immediate plans and some of the specifics of what I’m to be doing. I know that I’m going to be focusing on the prairie up until roughly January, and that when the current project leader goes on maternity leave, I’ll be filling her shoes to keep things running. Also on my agenda is to help figure out how to measure the biomass we’re to collect from the prairie to assess the level of restoration – and from that, if there’s a way to incorporate data from drones as part of a method.

Despite only being here for a week, I’ve managed to get into the city and attend VeganFest with a colleague, as well as get the train into (and the loop around) Chicago to see a film at the Reeling Film Festival (the film was Cat Skin, which was filmed in the UK so was a nice reminder of home). More locally, I walked down into Lisle, visited a 7-11, to get a slushie (something to check off my “American Bucket List”), and the local Aldi – again, a reminder of home.

It’s been a busy week and I am thoroughly exhausted. At this rate, I should be able to give a nice update on my activities in another week! Then again, perhaps this week has been so packed because it was the first.

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.

Biosciences Cyprus Residential

About 8 weeks into my first year at university, then studying straight biology and not genetics, the year-group attended a week long residential in Cyprus. This was part of the module ‘Biology In Practice’ and included two assessed oral presentations. Although first year didn’t count towards my final degree mark, it was a vital time to adjust to university life and the type of work and assessments that we would face in the years to come.

We stayed in the village of Kritou Terra, in the Paphos province, and actually visited Paphos (which has been named one of the European Capitals of Culture 2017) during one of the days – we had free reign to explore the ruins, seafront, restaurants and shops. I also took this time to flex my novice photography muscles.

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We explored various aspects of the island’s ecology during the trip, primarily the variation between Cistus plants; as well as fire ecology – how forest fires influence the species composition of forests during years after a burn; invertebrate diversity (and how to use a key to identify them); and reptiles – particularly their thermoregulatory behaviour. The work we completed in assigned groups at Akamas Peninsula National Park on the Cistus genus was the topic of our first presentation and was our first rough look at what a scientific report should be composed of (we’d get a more detailed look later on in the module back home). The specific aspect of Cistus variation was also assigned to us.

After experiencing these topics, we then had the opportunity to choose our own groups and work on whichever topic we wished. This would be the subject of our second presentation, to be presented at the end of the trip. The group I was part of chose to head back to the mountainous slopes of Akamas Peninsula National Park and test the variation of Cistus some more.

Spending a week abroad, so soon after moving to uni and with a whole host of new people, was certainly daunting. But it was incredible. Not only did the experience give me insight into the years ahead, but what I think was more valuable was getting to know my coursemates (and lecturers). Working with them really helped cement friendships and put everyone at ease in the lab back in the UK. Overall, it was a wonderful trip; there was plenty of partying working, but that didn’t stop us having a great time.

(End note: Do not go out to social the night before the trip. You’re gonna have a bad time on the flight.)

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.

Employability in Biology

The biological sciences degrees at Edge Hill University – Biology, Ecology & Conservation, Genetics, Human Biology and Biotechnology (and soon to include Plant Science and Food Science) – offer a number of ways to increase your employability. Within your modules, many aspects enhance skills that will no doubt increase your employability – there are additional opportunities however that will further your employability by showing determination and experience.

Within Modules

Undoubtedly, all modules enhance your employability by virtue of their contents, however, some give you more experience than others, and some are designed specifically to increase your employability. For example: Laboratory Masterclass is a module that develops your lab skills through experiments; Research Methods, as you would suspect, develops your research skills, from experimental planning to statistical analysis – all enhancing your employability via experience.

Placement Module

During second year, you have the option to choose a placement module, and undertake work alongside your studies. It goes unsaid how this enhances your employability – real life experience is invaluable when it comes to employment. With Edge Hill having numerous links, there are options to what field of work you wish to do a placement in, although sourcing the work for yourselves is also highly encouraged.

ERASMUS+

ERASMUS+ is a European placement program for students that funds them to work abroad. The current Erasmus programs at EHU for biosciences take place across the summer between second and third year, lasting a minimum of 6 weeks. I myself am taking part in an Erasmus placement, with a coursemate, in Sweden – specifically at SLU in Umeå. The other current option is work in Cyprus (a country most Edge Hill biologists will be familiar with thanks to the first year residential field trip) with more options hopefully being available in the future.

Sandwich Years

The option also exists to take place in a sandwich year – spending a year at a foreign university or on a work placement. Studying abroad shows a great deal of adaptivity and resilience, each boosting your employability. Working for a year in between your studies is also good experience and may even give you some inspiration for your dissertation the following year.