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!

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.)

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 Lecture Structure

When I was deciding on my degree, I pretty much knew I wanted to do one in biological sciences (where I wanted to study on the other hand was something that took me a while to figure out). One thing I didn’t know until I actually started classes, was how they would be run, and what structure they would have.

So during my first and second year studying Biology at Edge Hill, all my classes have had the same overlying structure – a roughly four hour long session with a half hour break in the middle. Most of theses sessions have been lectures, so that’s what we call them. But they aren’t just one lecturer standing and speaking at you for three and a half hours straight, there is interaction, there are questions and answers and activities.

Probably around two thirds of the lectures were a typical “lecture,” with it mainly being note-taking, PowerPoints and small discussion. The remaining lectures were comprised of other activities and lab & fieldwork – which were scheduled in the same time slot for my sessions. The practicals didn’t have a separate name and time slot on my timetable, neither did field trips, also I’ve never had a seminar during my time here.

Lab work may be scheduled around the typical four hour (including a break – usually coinciding with the Hub breakfast), but fieldwork cannot be chained down to such timeframes. Transporting all the students to and from a particular area, whilst having enough time to actually carry out some work takes time – these trips were usually scheduled over the course of the whole day, from around 9am to sometime around afternoon/evening. Unless we were going across the road to Ruff Wood, that is the length of time we would spend on fieldwork. A good thing about spending the whole day on fieldwork and traveling, is that sometimes we managed to stop somewhere along the journey for food, or to enjoy the view, as some of the places we managed to go last year were quite remote.

For more information on the Department of Biology, from students’ perspective, look through the Biology category on the Inside Edge blog, or the uni’s biology page on their website.

Semester One Biology Highlights

Since semester one has essentially finished (bar a few exams and reports being due), I thought I’d take this time to look back on my favourite parts of the modules I’ve experiences on the second year of my undergrad Biology degree.

Life On The Edge

Tech Hub

Life On The Edge (LOTE) is the new and improved version of the Environmental Physiology module from previous years, it deals primarily in microbe, plant, and animal extremophiles. The largest addition to the module was Life On The Edge Evening, a series of short presentations, by the students, on a chosen extremophile. This was hosted in the lecture theatre of the new Tech Hub. One of the purposes of the event is to test the students’ research and presentation skills – which counted towards our grade. Although public speaking isn’t my strong suit, it did give me the chance to bust out my PowerPoint skills – as lame as it sounds, I’m quite fond of designing the slides. However anxious it made me, I’m sure the experience improved my public speaking abilities and got me used to presenting in a professional environment.

Another point of interest for this module was the field-trip to Anderton Nature Park, where we sampled the salt springs for microbes and isolated them from the water back at the lab.

Molecular Biology

This module featured quite an insight into the techniques and points of interest in the field of molecular biology. My personal highlight was learning about epigenetics, as I already knew a little about it and was interested in it before knowing it was featured in the module. Google defines epigenetics as, “The study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.” This module was quite technical but very rewarding, in that the subject matter is complex but also very cutting edge.

Laboratory Masterclass

The highlight of Lab Masterclass has got to be using the scanning electron microscope (SEM). It’s an expensive piece of kit, so it’s incredible that the department to trust all the second year undergraduates to use it for our practical coursework. The assignment in question had to contain two images from the SEM which both had to be scientifically relevant, as well as a short report on the subject matter of the images. This practical was weighted quite heavily for the module, so it was imperative we used our time wisely on the microscope to get some impressive images. We could’ve chosen any sample with biological relevance to look at under the SEM, and being a fan of plants, I chose leaves. I won’t go into the details, but here are some of the images I didn’t use, that I think are still pretty impressive:

The course page for biology has a tab that gives an overview of the modules.