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!

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+ 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.

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!

 

 

Biological Research Week

In my second year of BSc Genetics (but also in other biological sciences degrees such as biology, human biology, ecology and conservation, biotechnology) during the core module of research methods, research week occurred. The largest assessed portion of research methods is centered around this week of research – specifically the proposal and poster part of the week, but we’ll get to them.

Research week starts before it actually begins. Once a partner has been found, someone you’re willing to potentially spend a lot of time with and definitely spend a lot of time working with, you must decide upon your topic of research. Since the project is only meant to span a week, it’s not going to be groundbreaking research. Hopefully, you and your partner have similar academic interests, or one of you is going to be more interested in the project than the other. Thankfully, our lecturers are not short of ideas for research if you’re struggling to pin down a research question that’ll fit your timeframe. Since myself and my partner are interested in ecology, we ended up doing a project on morphometrics – “the quantitative measurement of the form especially of living systems or their parts.” Specifically, we measured morphometric variation across urban populations. Other groups studied the calorific content of food, micromineral production of microbes, and squirrel behaviour, to name a few.

The first assessed section of research week is the proposal (no, not the 2009 People’s Choice Award rom-com nominee). The proposal is a document you must submit before your research begins, detailing your topic and research question, ethical considerations, health & safety, as well as any requirements such as lab time, transport, or equipment. Also to be included is a timescale, which can be neatly presented in a Gantt chart.

The actual research portion of my project went fairly well. At times the sheer amount of work ahead of us was pretty daunting – particularly in actually finding the species of plant we were sampling – but in the end, everything worked out fine. There’s something oddly satisfying about measuring the various aspects of a leaf’s shape… eighty times…

If there’s anything I garnered from the week, it’s that things never go according to plan. Because of the mild winter, our initial species wasn’t flowering during the week of our research, forcing us to rethink our topic and ultimately change species. Also, when analysing our data, we also found that our hypothesis was actually the complete opposite of what we found to be the truth. This wasn’t a problem, however, as the prime goal of research week is to get you accustomed to proper scientific technique and give you the experience of completing your own research.

Another key learning point of research week was the conference experience – producing your own poster from your research and presenting it amongst your peers. If you have a passion for graphic design, then you will enjoy formatting your poster in the most efficient and aesthetically pleasing way – I certainly enjoyed the challenge of organising our research to highlight the key points and figures in the best way I could.

 

First Year Biology Modules

Although it seems like an eon ago, it was only last year that I was a first year. Back then, I was undertaking BSc Biology rather than BSc Genetics. I thought I wanted to keep my options open and get a degree in straight biology, but after getting a feel for the course and seeing what modules were available to me for second and third year, I opted to specialise.

Currently, the Biology department run a common first year – meaning that no matter what branch of biology your degree is in, you will be doing the same stuff in first year as everyone else. This was very helpful for me, as it gave me the time I needed to test the waters and decide upon my specialisation.

Ecology in my first year involved a lot of plant-based fieldwork, we visited Limestone pavements and Ruff wood to take quadrat readings and other observations such as with invertebrates. The assessments for this module for me were a data retrieval exam, and an assignment to produce a dichotomous key for the woody species of Ruff wood – which has been one of my favourite assignments so far.

Biodiversity was probably my favourite year one module, getting to learn about the wide range of organisms on the planet, and how they’re classified in taxonomy. From animals we’re widely aware of, like chordates such as birds, fish and mammals, to ones you may know less about, like cnidarians like jellyfish and corals. Also covered was the complex evolutionary history of plants, the origin of life itself, and the diversity of fungus. This modules was assessed by form of examination and presentation.

Biology in Practice was the module that hosted the trip to Cyprus which featured many fieldwork activities. All this fieldwork ended with two presentations that gave a good insight to the kind of presentations I’ve been doing in second year and will do in third year. The whole trip was incredible, and deserves a blog post of its own. Another aspect of this module was the idea of self-evaluation, as we had to write a reflective report on our time studying in first year. As well as this, we completed our first scientific report.

Cellular Form and Function was tested by means of a laboratory practical (in my case, a fluorescent gene transfer) and examination. This module focuses on the processes that occur within cells that make life possible, as well as the factors that can effect the biology of cells, and laboratory techniques used surrounding them.

Human Body Systems focuses on developing your knowledge of the structure and function of the human body and builds your understanding of the inter-relationship between the systems of the body in the context of human health and disease.” – EHU

This module’s examinations were of the open book/data retrieval kind, and also a regular closed book kind. This was the second ever data retrieval exam I had attempted and I was glad for it – it helped me improve how I handled these exams. Although not a human biologist myself, this module was certainly interesting in that it covered such a broad range of aspects of the human body and really gave a good insight into how our bodies systems come together to work and protect us from disease.

Variation, Evolution and Heredity‘s title is pretty self explanatory – we studied how variation in organisms comes to be, and how this is passed to further generations. For the assessment of this module – we wrote an essay on Darwin’s The Origin of Species, but were also tested in a regular examination also.

Overall, first year was a beneficial experience, helping me learn about the type of study I would undertake in my following year, as well as giving an insight into the topics I would study too. Of course first year (especially the cyprus trip) certainly also helped the whole year group to bond and become more familiar with one another.

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.