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.

Biology Semester Two Highlights

My exams are over. Second semester is over. Second year is over. So it’s about time I take a look at my personal highlights from this term’s modules, Research Methods, Biochemistry & Metabolism, and Biogeography.

Facilities
The Biosciences building at Edge Hill

Research Methods:

Oddly enough, one of the highlights of research methods for me was the stats portfolio. This coursework section of the module tasked us to analyse datasets using the program “R” and usually produce a graphical representation of the data, as well as an explanation of the results. This piece of coursework relied on knowledge acquired from the taught sessions on statistics throughout the year. Although coding in “R” was tedious at times, especially when one singular spelling mistake threw off the whole script, it was very rewarding to have a complete portfolio of work – particularly the graphs and charts.

Another highlight was definitely research week which, if you’re a regular here, you should know about – as I wrote a whole post dedicated to it.

Biochemistry and Metabolism:

This module was a complex one, being filled to the brim with technical knowledge but featuring a highly unusual assessment – a collaboration between animators and biologists to produce a short video on a metabolic process. As well as the bio-animation, there was also an exam. This was a challenging module, since it is very content heavy and also required you to work in a team with non-biologists – a vital skill however, that practically all scientists need. There were a number of experiments – some of them stretching across a good few hours – that introduced us to more lab techniques and the practical side of biochem. Bio-animation Evening, compete with food and wine, was a nice conclusion to the module; seeing everyone else’s hard work and the different animation styles was satisfying.

Biogeography:

As well as a typical examination, the assessment for biogeography was a ~15 minute presentation on a scientific paper – randomly assigned. This was challenging, as we had two weeks to read and digest our assigned paper, create a presentation, and memorise the script for our presentations. That said, it was also a very rewarding assignment. I was particularly proud of my presentation, and although delivering the talk was stressful, the creation of the presentation itself was enjoyable (on reflection, it seems I enjoy creating visual aids, maybe I should work on my illustration skills!)

Western Campus – Partially showing the GeoSciences building

To see highlights from my first semester, click here. Also, the other modules available for second semester biology can be found on the university website. Also of interest may be my outline of this year’s marine biology field trip.

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 – Second Year Decisions

With the summer term of second year approaching, many people have had to decide on a number of future ventures – third year modules, dissertation topics, and perhaps summer placements. So, in chronological order I present to you – the recent decisions of biosciences students.

Erasmus

Although not a particularly​ recent event, it does pertain to the summer activities of the biology students and affects their summer plan. Back in term one, details of the ERASMUS+ program were announced and applications were accepted. The ERASMUS+ program is a europe-wide student exchange of sorts. In the case of the biology department, there are two institutes that currently offer summer placements for students: The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), and The Cyprus University of Technology (CUT). I have been lucky enough to be offered a placement at SLU, where the department that our own biology department is currently in contact with is the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Environmental Studies. The kind of activities that occur during placements here consist of bird, fish, invert, forest, and fire ecology, as well as research into genetically modified trees. Since I am to be abroad during the summer, I cannot be present at our very own Edge Hill University (EHU) to take part in the internships hosted closer to home.

Internships

A more recent decision to be made regarding the summer break is whether or not you would like to work an internship. Currently, the university offers​ a number of summer internships for students to assist in research with the lecturers. Since I was already due to be away over summer, I have experienced this process as a third-party of sorts as my fellow students have applied. Numerous topics are available with various lecturers, for instance: microbial genetics, extremophile microbial genetics, vector biology, dermatogenetics, conservation, and forest ecology. After the long summer, students will head back as third years and begin their new modules.

Module Choices

Third year, currently weighted slightly more than second year, will consist of new modules to those studied in the second year. A full list of modules (and who came take them depending on course) can be found on the relevant course pages in the biology section of the EHU websiteSome modules may be available to choose in second or third year, which is a wonderful idea, as it allows further customisation of your course – allowing you to choose a full range of modules relevant to your degree focus. Of course, the big one – the dissertation module, is a module you must choose for third year.

Dissertation

With a wide range of courses and lecturers, comes a wide range of topics for dissertations. As tutors are limited to a select number of students per individual, they are allocated as fairly as possible to the topics you have expressed interest in. Since deciding on your dissertation topic may seem like a herculean task when presented with so many options, help had been provided in the form of suggested topics and questions, and the option to begin research in the summer. So far, the department have been very helpful in assisting in our decision – with lecturers coming to pitch their topics and inspire us.

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.

Biological Applicant Day

From February to April 1st, applicant days are occurring here at EHU and you may be wondering what it’s like and how it will benefit you. Since Edge Hill University is so far away from my hometown, I could only make it to an Open Day, and not the applicant day (plus, I was already certain Edge Hill was to be my firm choice). However, I had the opportunity to work on the recent Applicant Day, both for the Money Advice Team, and the Biology Department.

First up in the day was a talk by the Money Advice Team. This covered specifically the loans, grants, and budgeting involved with university. Personally, I spoke in the presentation about budgeting at university from a student perspective, but more information was given by another team member on the intricacies of the loan system and also how the university delivers its scholarships.

After the morning finance talk, we moved onto the biological section of the day. This portion was for prospective students only (bar the department tours) and took place in the biosciences building. It started with Paul Ashton, the department head, giving an introductory talk about the biology department, its research, and staff. Whilst prospective students go off to this section of the day, parents and caregivers can attend a talk aimed specifically at them, providing more details on finance, UCAS, and accommodation.

After this, the students were split into three, based on the type of degree they have applied for. The university currently offers five undergraduate biological science degrees: BSc Biology, BSc Ecology & Conservation, BSc Human Biology, BSc Genetics, BSc Biotechnology. Those who chose either Genetics or Biotechnology did a genetics based practical, those who chose Ecology & Conservation an ecological practical, and those who chose Human Biology a human based practical. For anyone who chose straight Biology, they could pick which they preferred.

Despite my degree being in Genetics, I also have an ecological focus, so assisted another current student in supervising the prospective ecologists along with Anne Oxbrough, Reader in Ecology. After a presentation detailing the degree a bit more, and what modules and trips were available, the practical began. The ecological practical was centred around invertebrate identification, using microscopes and keys to identify specimens down to the class, if not the order.

Once the practical was over, building tours were given to anyone interested in viewing the department’s facilities, including a demonstration of the scanning electron microscope (SEM) and insectary. Also, the new Tech Hub’s top floor was available to be toured, showing the new labs that might be used primarily for biotechnology in the coming years.


On a separate note, current students may have noticed the flags up in the Hub – this is because it is Edge Hill’s first ever Pride week! Events still to come are: pride social tonight; a trans-exclusive sexual health workshop on Thursday; and a pride march around the campus on Friday, along with the showing of Rent in the Arts Centre for Free Film (and food) Friday.

nice one edge hill 👌 #prideweek

A photo posted by james 🌙 (@clokkerfoot) on Feb 6, 2017 at 1:32pm PST

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.