End Of My Sandwich Placement

On May 10th, I officially finished my sandwich placement here at The Morton Arboretum. Although the official “end date” of my placement (and the deadline of my two assignments: a reflection piece and an essay on how to solve an issue in my field), I am staying in the US for roughly another month. This is the “grace period” and for my J1 visa is 3 days where I am essentially a US tourist. During this time, you aren’t allowed to work or study so if you plan on staying through the grace period then you must have a break – it’s mandatory! It’s worth noting here that you do have to leave the USA before your grace period ends, that’s 30 days under a J1 visa at the time of writing.

Dodecatheon meadia (shooting star or prairie shooting star)

Whilst I won’t be working for the arboretum or field museum during this time, I have volunteered my time to help in the field and continue to work on the paper with Andrew Hipp and Lane Scher – since two thirds of us have finished our term at the arboretum, it’s more like a personal project right now! Back in the field, I got to see the prairie one last time as I volunteered a week after I finished work; I was helping others with staking new colour-coded plastic pegs at the corners of each plot. It was particularly difficult to find the metal stakes – a metal detector was used – since the previous pegs had faded from a year’s worth of weather and some had even melted from the burn last month. The new growth has really shot up since the fire, with even a few plants flowering. I’m sure more have sprung to life since I was down there.

Phlox pilosa (downy phlox or prairie phlox)

Before the end of my placement, I also guest starred on a podcast for the arboretum! Called “Planted”, this podcast is yet to launch but follows the careers of scientists in plant-related careers and is hosted by Meghan Wiesbrock and Jessica Turner-Skoff. As I am yet to finish my degree, I’m featured in an episode centred around choosing your direction, specifically choosing your direction guided by your interests. I was fairly anxious about the whole ordeal – even about doing the practice run a few days before – but of course it was fine. Although I possibly talked about Pokemon just a tad too often!

A Fund for Student Opportunities

If you follow my blog posts here on Inside Edge, you know that I’m currently in the United States of America, on a sandwich placement at the Morton Arboretum. I was fortunate when arranging up this work placement that Edge Hill University had just set up its Student Opportunity Fund (SOF) – a fund that students can apply for to help them make the most of career enhancing opportunities. The fund’s goal is to make sure that no student at EHU passes up a potentially life-changing experience because of the financial burden it might impose.

When I was in the midst of applying for my placement as a Research Affiliate at the Morton Arboretum, I realised quickly that costs would add up. An updated passport, a visa, flights and insurance would quickly put a hefty dent in my finances, leaving my maintenance loan severely lacking for the year abroad. Thankfully, my personal tutor, Paul Ashton, and the Money Advice Team (for whom I was working for at the time as a Money Buddy) informed me about the Student Opportunity Fund and that I could potentially be successful in acquiring additional funding.

Any student on an undergraduate or PGCE course attending EHU can apply for the fund, which will supply them with up to £2000 to support the proposed activity. The projects can be near or far, large or small, requiring the maximum amount available or a portion. Applications could cover travel and accommodation expenses, for example, for unpaid work experience or volunteering; interviews or assessments not covered by the employer; or conferences, festivals, or events where you’re showcasing your work. The fund could also cover costs of developing and making creative material.

Many students have already made use of this amazing fund to enable them to experience some wonderful opportunities that improve both their transferable and career-focused skills:

Applications are judged by a panel and must be submitted over ten working days before the panel convenes. For this academic year, 2017-2018, the remaining dates of convention are:

  • Friday 13th April 2018
  • Thursday 3rd May 2018
  • Wednesday 6th June 2018

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!

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!

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.