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!

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.

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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!

Fieldwork season – Finished!

On November 2nd, I experienced a very important, personal life event. Something that was not on my American Bucket List, but my actual bucket list. I saw a tardigrade. Tardigrades are otherwise known as water bears or moss piglets, and are one of the hardiest animals known to exist. Although not true extremophiles, they can survive the harshest of conditions including extreme temperatures, pressures, and radiation, mainly by entering a state of cryptobiosis where they decrease their water volume to 3%. Some individuals have even survived being in outer space. Marvin, a Research Assistant here, discovered a few on a piece of moss from the arboretum grounds, and plated them up for us to look at under a microscope. It was a good day.

Whilst in the field, collecting biomass, I’ve spotted a few more deer and also some other native wildlife – sandhill cranes and a possum! I was very excited to see a possum, honestly, it was also on my American Bucket list. Another item to tick off was going to my first potluck! It was a bit of an impromptu event for me so I didn’t take anything myself, next time I shall be more prepared!

I’ve made a couple of trips into the city in the past few weeks, once to check out a shopping mall (American Bucket list – check) and again to revisit the Field Museum and check out Brain Scoopin’ LIVE, a demonstration of a specimen preparation – in this case, a beaver. I also stumbled upon a charming used bookstore – I waited out the time until my train, reading on my Kindle (I did feel slightly guilty reading my own material there, I figure I’ll go back and contribute to the store another time). It’s a real shame I didn’t bring my camera over here because the fog and snow I’ve witnessed in Chicago has been breathtaking at points.

Another breathtaking event coming up is Illumination, an event focussed on lights and trees and the arboretum. I’m volunteering for the event and recently went to the training evening, where we got a quick tour. It really is spectacular and can’t wait to experience it properly, soon.

Back to biomass, we reached a huge milestone yesterday – all the collecting is done! Biomass from all the monocultures and treatment plots has been successfully collected. Unfortunately, yesterday was also the last day we had access to the large cooler, meaning half the remaining biomass is being stored in the office and half at my house! Space really is an issue, but the dryers are the true bottleneck. Slowly, the material is all being processed, and hopefully, we will have all the data written up by the end of December!

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!

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.

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.