Last weeks in the USA

During the last few weeks of my time in the United States of America, I had a rapid tour of Washington, D.C.; New York City; and Chicago (although I lived there for around 9 months, there is always more to see – especially since the sun was finally out again)! The day after checking out the National Mall and the Burning Man sculptures (exhibit named “No Spectators”), Diana, who was accompanying me on this whirlwind tour, took me around Georgetown, a really pretty neighbourhood next to the Potomac River that also features a historic canal that is currently being restored. Since there had been a lot of rain before my visit, the Potomac was almost bursting its banks with rapids having formed along its length. From one of the bridges that crossed a sidestream, I was able to see rocks with tiny patches of vegetation hanging on for dear life – even a tiny tree struggling to stand its ground! One person was even kayaking in the main river, not for the fainthearted!

The next day we got a train to New York. Unfortunately, it was raining when we arrived and I, lacking a raincoat, got to ‘jellyfish up’ in a lovely yellow rain mac. The rain let off by the time we had eaten lunch, allowing us to see Times Square without being drenched. If you’ve ever been to London, think Piccadilly Circus but bigger – like most things in the US!

On the following day, we explored many squares in NYC, as well as some parks and Lady Liberty from a distance. NYC has some lovely areas to see, although it’s very compact and pretty busy too. I ate a traditional New York bagel (again, huge) with some vegan garlic and herb cream cheese, which was pretty damn good. Later on, we saw the 9/11 memorial fountains which were quite a sight to see. After seeing the sights, it was time for the flight back to Chicago and catching an Uber to the airport was an absolute nightmare!

To make the most of the sunny weather in Chicago, Diana and I took a trip up to the Chicago Botanic Gardens (CBG), I was particularly interested in seeing the bonsai trees. It’s a huge garden so there was no way for us to see all of it in the time we had, plus, it was far too hot to stay for long. On another sunny day, we visited the beach and I got to play some volleyball – a sport I’ve missed playing a bunch whilst in the states.

In the final few weeks before I left the US, I got to spend some time with some of the wonderful people I met whilst living in Chicago. We played games, went to the Lincoln zoo, had a boozy brunch, took an architectural boat tour, even went out to a club for a drag show. I’m very sad to leave them and my life in Chicago behind, but of course am excited for what the future holds back in the UK, including a summer internship with the Biology department at Edge Hill!

Setting Up a Sandwich Year

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog posts for the past eight months, you’ll know that I’ve been on a work placement in the USA. In this blog post, I’ll cover some of the intricacies of setting up a sandwich placement, particularly a work placement.

My sandwich year (a term that the Americans find very funny) took place between the 2nd and 3rd years of my BSc Genetics degree – this is the period of time that most people choose to complete their sandwich year in. If your course offers the option of a sandwich year and you choose to take one on, you may be able to find a link from one of the lecturers in your department. If not, then you can find one yourself! There’s a fair bit of paperwork to do before your placement year can be approved. For example, if you’re on a sandwich work placement, Erasmus year abroad, or study abroad year then you need to fill in a transfer form. As well as this, there’s a health and safety risk assessment that must be filled out prior to approval and a form for “approval for paid/unpaid leave of absence for external travel”. If all this paperwork is putting you off, fear not! Edge Hill has a placement officer that will help you through all this and make sure you understand what needs to be done before you go.

Another thing that is a key concern when undertaking a sandwich placement is cost. You can still take out your regular student finance whilst on your year out. Edge Hill charges a small fraction of your regular tuition fees that cover admin costs whilst you are away, and your student finance will cover it. You may also take out an additional maintenance loan to help cover living costs if you want – this is your primary funding and should be taken out before you apply for any additional support from the university, such as the Student Opportunity Fund, which I have blogged about previously. The Student Opportunity Fund also requires paperwork, but your personal tutor or placement head of the department should be able to help you – it requires things like a breakdown of costs and summary of the activity you are taking on.

A Visit From Home and A Paper In The Works

Around mid-April, I was visited by a friend from home – Hollie, who went to the same sixth form as I. Fortunately enough, I had a few days off to show Hollie around the city and make the most of their time over here. Having come over in early Spring, Hollie got to experience Midwestern weather at its most capricious – with the weather nice enough for shorts bookended by light snow and heavy rain. Whilst the sun blessed us with heat, we trekked around the city, visiting The Bean and shopping in some indie “thrift” stores that didn’t seem to be entirely secondhand. I also took another trip to the Neo-Futurists to see The Infinite Wrench. As per the nature of the show, in the time between my two viewings, the individual plays had changed entirely. Although I preferred the shows during my first viewing, I did get to go up on stage this time, which makes two for two on ‘member of my party being directly involved in the show’!

On the rainy days of Hollie’s stay, we still braved the cold outdoors to visit the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium. Honestly, a highlight of the day we went to the planetarium was Pokemon Go Community Day – we both caught some gems including our first shinies of the game and the North American regional exclusive Tauros. On the last full day, I showed Hollie some of the best and worst that Chicago has to offer – the Impossible Burger and Malort – one being a delicious vegan meal, the other a harsh drink that has a lasting bitter flavour.

During my days back at the Arboretum, I’ve been making progress on the work that’s going into the upcoming paper I’m working on with Lane and Andrew. I’ve already managed to create a few nice boxplots and we’re starting to see some interesting results from our analyses – time to get it written up into a suitable format! Working inside at the arboretum whilst it’s sunny and fairly warm outside makes a change from last Autumn when I was working in the prairie. Over at the Museum, I’ve assisted on the bait capture stage of the experiment, a stage that is similar to using the Bioanalyzer in that although it’s a simple procedure, the pressure is on with timing and expensive reagents.

Board-Games and Field-Work

Towards the start of April, I went to not one, but two board game parties – both for the birthdays of some Chicagoans. Sarah from the Arboretum and Katie who is Arb-adjacent, the housemate of someone who works at the Morton. I finally got to play Settlers of Catan, a game I’ve wanted to play for about a year but never found the opportunity to – although simple in its basic rules, a lot of strategy can be implemented. Lately, I’ve come to realise that I enjoy these kinds of events much more than going out to a crowded club or bar, something that I certainly enjoyed during the previous two years at university. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m in a new place with new people that has pushed me to enjoy a more quiet setting over a high energy one.

I enjoyed my first Seder at the start of Passover, complete with vegan Matzah ball soup and many cups of wine. There was a condensed reading which was very informational and interactive – a piece of Matzah, the afikoman, was hidden before the service and since there were no children present to look for it, we did. Also, being the youngest at this dinner meant that I read a specific part of the text.

Over the at the Field Museum, I used the Bioanalyzer for the first time, which was slightly daunting if only for the fact that each individual chip costs around $60. I also attended another talk, this one by Nathan Lord on jewel beetles, their incandescence, and how and what they see. Fascinating stuff, stretching over a broad range of disciplines from biochemistry to taxonomy. Another Super Speaker, Meg Staton, was at the Morton Arboretum in early April also, presenting on a citizen science app, TreeSnap, which aims to help affiliated scientists gather data on specific trees such as the American Chestnut or Ash trees.

Back in the field, I was put to work outside as the prairie restoration project is coming alive again after Winter. The prairie needed to be burnt to rid the site of last year’s dead growth, and I assisted Mary-Claire in readying the plots so that they were in the best condition for ignition. Sadly, I missed the actual fire, as the conditions were so good that the burn team completed their work in a flash.

Spring in Chicago

 

The new logo and slogan on the north facing entrance of The Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois.

Whilst I spend most of my time in the city now, since I work in the Pritzker Lab at the Field Museum labs instead of at the Arboretum, I do work at the Arb on Thursdays. During this time I’ve been analysing the data gathered from biomass and vegetation indices in R, working on a potential paper. I’m quite proud of the various graphs I’ve made, utilising the “ggplot” package. Since this is a group effort, we’ve taken to using GitHub to streamline our workflow. Although I’ve used GitHub to access other people’s data before, I’ve never used it to upload my own data and collaborate with others. The process has been largely straightforward and we’re making good use of the system.

I made an exception to my usual schedule the other week when I worked at the arboretum on Monday. This was because there wasn’t just any Tree Talk happening, there was a Super Tree Talk. Presented by Nathan Swenson from the University of Maryland, this talk was on the structure and dynamics of tree assemblages, from traits and phylogenies to transcriptomes and functional phylogenomics. Back at the Field Museum, I’ve recently also attended talks on indigenous archaeology and the root microbiome.

Just down the road from the Field Museum is Adler Planetarium. I’d never been to a planetarium before until a few weeks ago when I went to “Adler After Dark” with Diana. As you might suspect, the event was in the evening, at a time when the planetarium would usually be closed. Although there was a theme (game-night), we’d never been to the standard exhibits or shows, so those were the priorities of the evening. The two shows we saw were on the “Cosmic Wonders” of the observable universe and of the sky as seen from Chicago on that night. The first showed the many deep sky objects humanity has observed, including the incredible photo of 5,550 galaxies from Hubble’s eXtreme Deep Field, featuring galaxies formed just 450 million years after the big bang, and a photo of gravitational lensing on a galactic scale. The second pointed out the many asterisms and constellations visible in the night sky. We also were given a tour of the telescope and got to turn the roof – very fun. That night also marked the second time I’ve held a piece of the moon and Mars!

Back on Earth, I had a Skype meeting with the Tree Charter’s Student Council – a group I was chosen and have been volunteering for since early 2016. The organisation, which is affiliated with the Woodland Trust, are partnering with NUS to engage Students’ Unions around the country. I’m very excited to continue working with them in the future.

Plants, Shows, and Skates

Shortly after returning from Boston, I took a trip to Garfield Park Conservatory. The conservatory hosts a number of rooms, each with a different theme – the front room is home to palms, the centre room to ferns, and another to aroids. The show room at the time of my visit was featuring the Spring Flower Show, “Hashtag No Filter”. Next up on the list is the Chicago Botanic Garden, hopefully, I’ll make it up there in time for their orchid show.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Also towards the end of February, I saw a reading for a play called Eleanor Absolute, which is based on true events and tells the story of a journalist, Lorena Hickok, and her romantic relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt – whilst questioning who gets to decide on a person’s legacy. The play was written by someone I met earlier this year, Hannah Verdon.

In early March, I went to another show, this one with Molly, who drove up for the weekend. This show was called The Infinite Wrench and was by a group called the Neo-Futurists. The show is an hour long and the aim is to perform 30 short plays, with interrupting “wrenches” that add a new dimension or obstruction to the performance. Some plays were silly and short, others were longer and heartfelt, Molly was even chosen to dance in one of the shows. It was worth enduring the cold for as we queue to get in (we arrived far too early).

The following day, Diana and I made it down to Maggie Daley Park on the final day of ice-skating on their rink. Having not skated in years, and never being proficient at it anyway, I think I faired fairly well by simply not falling over. Diana pointed out that it was easier to skate with speed and, although far more nerve-wracking, she was right – we picked up a decent pace as we made a few loops around the ribbon. Our time on the rink was cut short by the Zamboni, but it was a nice day out and the park was nice to walk around.

I mentioned in a previous post about the Student Union elections that I was running for a part-time officer position. Sadly, I did not win the election, but the elected officer has a good team to work with and I’m sure the position is in capable hands. I did, however, win the Sandwich Placement award at Edge Hill University Careers Award Evening! Although I couldn’t make it to the Evening itself, my personal tutor, Paul Ashton, collected the award on my behalf and a video of the announcement was sent to me, very kindly, by the Careers Team.

New England Thoughts

Although I’m working at the Field Museum most days, I still work at the arboretum on Thursdays. The main purpose of this is for the individual and group lab meetings, but it’s also a good time for me to focus on analysing the data from the prairie restoration project, this includes the biomass data I collected in autumn, as well as NDVI and soil data collected previously by Lane and other researchers. Towards the start of the month, Andrew and I sat down and worked through the data, analysing the NDVI readings from one section of the experiment, with particularly deep soil, to their replicates in other sections. Later in February, I cleaned up the code and set aside what worked, making use of RStudios notebooks that use markdown – I’m finding them very handy. Next up is checking to see if the results observed from the NDVI data are reflected in the biomass data.

Working in R again got me thinking back to second year, when myself and Heather tackled a small research project during our Research Methods module. Our study was on leaf morphometrics and involved ~80 samples from 6 sites. This, of course, pales in comparison to a full dissertation but was a very useful intro to the world of research. My dissertation next year is still something I need to be thinking about, as are my module choices for third year. Currently, BSc Genetics students only have one optional module in their final years, making this decision particularly difficult – I’m considering at least 4 modules right now.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the middle of February, I took a trip over to New England, specifically Mount Holyoke College, to visit some friends. Although I didn’t get to see much of Boston, Massachusetts seems like a beautiful state and reminded me more of home than anywhere else in the US so far. Mt Holyoke College is also remarkable, being a fairly old women’s college that features grand brick buildings and a variety of trees, such that they form the Talcott arboretum, which accompanies the Mt Holyoke College Botanical Garden (which has a corpse flower!). It was nice to hear that they’re also a progressive women’s college, accepting trans and non-binary students – perhaps unsurprising considering the college’s LGBT history. The nearby town of Northampton (or ‘Noho’) even features a rainbow zebra crossing. Everyone I met was friendly and welcoming, letting me join them in some interesting lectures and also indoor rock climbing – something I’ve missed doing whilst being over here.

Life at The Field Museum

One perk of working at The Morton Arboretum are the Monday lunchtime Tree Talks – short lectures presented either by a member of staff or a visiting scientist. Although I spend most of my time at The Field Museum now, it’s nice that the perk has seemingly carried over. Although not on a regular schedule, there have been numerous interesting talks over the past few weeks. From Dr. Tyrone Lavery and the “Tree-Dwelling, Coconut-Cracking Giant Rat” to Dr. John Novembre’s work on the human genetics mirroring geography. Another great talk was presented by Dr. Corine Vriesendorp’s, for the Women in Science’s February meeting, on the creation of a new national park in Peru – Yaguas National Park – which took 15 years to be recognised! Dr. Robert Hart also spoke on the topic of ethnobotany and the value of local knowledge when assessing change in biodiversity. Yet another perk – the dollar-beer happy hour on Fridays isn’t bad either!

The Field Museum’s mascot, SUE the T. rex, has now been dismantled and is being moved out of public display until Spring 2019. Taking up their mantle is a titanosaur, Patagotitan mayorum, which, according to The Field Museum’s website, is “25 Danny DeVitos in length.” Whilst I’ll miss walking past SUE at work, their twitter account, @SUEtheTrex (Specimen FMNH PR 2081), will keep their legacy alive hopefully for years to come – even whilst they’re out of the public eye.

Earlier this month was of course the Super Bowl. Despite having seen half a game of American football last year, I still didn’t really understand the rules – Molly and I were mainly there for the halftime show – but now, after watching most of the Super Bowl, I have a better idea. We had a little beer tasting whilst the game was on, with one beer from the Lagunitas Brewery, which I actually visited towards the end of January! It was pretty huge – although it is the only brewery I’ve had a tour of, so maybe I don’t have a good standard of measurement.

Also, after six months in the US, I’ve finally had my first repeat Uber driver, a zoology-major who remembered me as “The Botanist” which I can only assume means that I’ve made it as a plant scientist, coupled with the fact that I used “carex” in a game of Words With Friends the other week.

New Year, New Work, New Adventures

During my time not in the prairie, or at the Field Museum, I’ve been working on a project with another research assistant, Lane, comparing data from the prairie that she collected with her drone’s multispectral imaging camera with the biomass data I collected last semester. Processing both datasets and importing them into “R”, the software we use for analysis, was quite challenging, but in the end, we succeeded. The results seem promising so far but more analysis is needed, although it’s no groundbreaking research it’s very exciting! I even got to fly the drone the other day, something I’ve never done before. They’re amazing pieces of technology, although hearing one up close (it sounds like a swarm of bees), I can understand why some people might be wary of them.

Despite being all the way over in the United States, I’m still technically on four modules at Edge Hill University, placement modules. These modules cover personal reflections and activities, as well as two assignments on the placement organisation – specifically an issue with the organisation, and the solution to this issue. Although I would’ve much rather just carried on with the work at the arboretum and museum, they’re important assessments that show that you’ve gained something from your time in industry.

 

Halfway through the month of January, I took a trip over to Utah to visit a friend, Avery. We had originally planned to drive down to California, visiting more friends in Los Angeles but unfortunately that plan fell through. Instead, we’ve been based around central Utah, a couple hours south of Salt Lake City. So far we’ve watched many films, including The Last Jedi and Mary and The Witch’s Flower in the cinema; driven around the local mountains, specifically the Skyline Drive near the Manti-LaSal National Forest; and visited the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium and Natural History Museum of Utah. Although it was sunny and almost warm when I arrived, snow has now hit along with sub-zero temperatures. Seems like I brought the Chicagoan winter with me! It’s been a nice break from work, but I must say that I miss Chicago – the city must’ve really grown on me in the past few months.

 

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!