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!

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.

IMG_20171215_134438
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!

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.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.)