Saturday 28 September 2013

Back to school

So, after my epic weekend of exploration, I remembered that I was actually here for a reason (doh), and that I had better get some reading done in readiness for 'school', as they call it over here, on Monday. I was a little nervous - having swapped numerous emails I was about to meet my collaborators.

I needn't have worried. Professor Greenwood (Spencer), is the nicest guy on the planet! He met me in the foyer of the Atlantic Veterinary College (part of the University of Prince Edward Island, or UPEI for short), I was bound to get lost if I tried to find his office myself. After a brief tour of the AVC, and the biomedical sciences department, where he is based, I finally got to see the The Lobster Science Centre.. it is made up of 2 labs, and I was given an office space so I could store my stuff. 

We Skyped Andrew (my supervisor), to set some aims for my time here, and agreed that I would be shadowing his lab technician Adam Acorn for the most part, starting with some RNA extractions, and setting up a qPCR (basically, ways of amplifying DNA so that you can use it to detect pathogens or certain genes, which may be expressed in conjunction with a disease). Their labs are amazing, they are so high tech and I'm in awe, just staring at everything, they have several different grants and projects going on at once, from lobster pathogens such as Gaffkaemia, Bumper Car Disease and White Spot Syndrome Virus, to crab diseases such as Bitter Crab Disease (caused by Hematodinium spp.). To my non-crustacea loving friends, this will all be total jibberish, so apologies! They also work on none-crustacea diseases, such as Crypto, which causes stomach bugs.. details of which can be found here

In the labs they have 'robots', which I've never seen before - basically machines that do everything, from pipetting out a mastermix for a qPCR, to adding in the samples. This is mind blowing (and expensive!), great for speeding up extractions, PCR and other analysis of high volume samples, and at the same time, eliminating human error. This is excellent for the hundreds of samples they receive to test for other institutions, however, as a student, despite my admiration, I can't help but feel that you lose the 'science' of some things, ie. the breakdown of reactions, and exactly what goes into a PCR mix to make it work. I feel that when you are learning as a student, manually might be better, to give a better understanding later on.

Spencer had invited me to a genetics seminar on Wednesday, which he assured me would include a free lunch and a chance to meet lots of cool people (food genetics... err... genetics in general... my brain is hurting just thinking about it)... however plans changed (should I be relieved?), and instead I attended a shorter seminar on aquaculture, presented by an AVC alumni now based in New Zealand.

On Wednesday I got to meet one of Spencer's post-docs, Dr. Fraser Clarke, who is only in a few days a week (he lives in Nova Scotia, which is over an hour away), so time with him is valuable. He completed his PhD with Spencer looking at gaffkaemia, so is the perfect guy for me to talk to, and a fountain of knowledge about lobster immune systems. After sitting down with him for just half an hour I was ready to start designing primers (??!). He was really friendly and helpful and didn't mind that I didn't have a clue what he was talking about half the time. We went through some ideas I had, he showed me some pathogens down the microscope and talked me through a few histology slides, which contained gaffkaemia and bumper car - both of which I have never seen down the microscope, so that was cool!

By this afternoon (Friday), I had come up with a proposal for two separate projects (and maybe even a third one!), which I can start here and complete once I am home in Swansea, using equipment we already have in the lab. I am really excited about everything I have learnt this week, it's so nice to get someone else's perspective, and as Fraser said, we are both at early stages in our career and this is how collaborations start!

In other news, I've been to my new yoga school a few times now, and am booked in most days until next week.. I love it! The heat wasn't unbearable at all, it was about 40 degrees celsius, but once you're 'in the zone', you don't notice it (except when the sweat starts dripping in your eyes... blerughghh, I am gross, I know). I think it helps you relax as I was getting into positions I didn't even know were possible and it didn't feel like a regimented workout, you just did what you could and concentrated on your breathing. After class, my teacher today, Robin, and I got talking, and it turns out that her sister did her degree at the lobster science centre and now works with the local lobster fishery, and is married to a lobster fisherman. She gave me her email so I could chat to her.. I think the UK, Wales especially, could learn a lot from fisheries over here!

For now, there are lots of new things to learn and lots of reading to do. Having never practised techniques such as RNA extractions (I only have experience with DNA), qPCR, or primer design, it is all very exciting and new, and I hope that I can replicate my new found skills once I'm back in the UK.

Apologies for lack of pictures in this post - I hope to take some of the lab next week, when I am actually doing some 'hands on' work... and I hope too to get some pictures of the wildlife here - every morning walking to University, I see wild foxes, they are beautiful and shy, so usually run away, but this evening I had the fright of my life when I saw a black fox with a white tail!? He stared at me for a while before strutting past, stunned me a little...! It has been pouring with rain all week, so I felt right at home, but the weather for the weekend is looking up - perfect for some more exploring.

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