Monday 25 November 2013

Next chapter... Virginia!

The Capitol.
I know I've been back over 3 weeks now, and I just KNEW when I started this blog that I would be totally rubbish at keeping it updated... but I am a trier! Here's the part about Virginia... the final chapter of my travels across the pond (for now!)...

So I was picked up at Richmond airport by the one and only Tessa Diehl and her beau Frank, who kindly drove me all the way to Williamsburg! I was staying with Tessa for two nights, and then a hotel for the rest of my stay, as I didn't want to get in her hair too much and her room-mate has exams.

The White House.
Tessa goes to the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, which is one of the oldest universities in the US so has many traditions, and old architecture. The campus is very green and beautiful, Tessa gave me a tour on my first day. She lives in Monroe Hall, a special accomodation reserved for the 'Monroe Scholars'. The James Monroe Scholars Program is offered each year to the top 10-15% of all admitted students to the College of William and Mary, and gives them a special stipend to pursue research, which is amazing for a freshman, as you wouldn't normally get to take part in research until your final year, like you do here in the UK. So in the USA, unlike back home in the UK, the freshmen share dorm rooms. It is much like our first year accommodation - shared flat with shared bathrooms and kitchen, except here, the boys are one wing of the corridor and the girls are the opposite end - and they all share rooms! Williamsburg is quite small and walkable, so Tessa also showed me around the town before we headed for dinner to the Blue Talon Bistro because it was Tessa's roommate, Mary's, birthday.

The Lincoln Memorial.  
The next day, Tessa and I set off on a road trip to Washington DC! It took a couple of hours, but it was a lovely day and when we got there, walked the National Mall to The Capitol and then all the way down to the Reflecting Pond and the Lincoln Memorial. We even had time to explore the Natural History Museum on the way! We stayed until evening as Tessa insisted that this was the best part of the day to see the mall, and it was breathtaking! Unfortunately the Washington Monument (the giant obelisk) was having some repairs done due to damage caused by the 5.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the region in August 2011.
Since he attends George Mason University near Washington, Frank came to meet us for the evening and took us for dinner in a real American diner (very exciting for me)!

Real American cheerleaders!
The pep band.
On the Saturday, it was the William and Mary Homecoming Weekend. It's an event that most schools have over in the US once a year, where alumni return to the university for a reunion. There was a parade on the Friday, which we missed because we were in DC, but on the Saturday there was a big American football game - obviously from my cheerleading days I have seen them before, but in America, it is a TOTAL amazing experience. The games and stadiums in schools are HUGE - beforehand, everyone meets in the parking lot to have a pre game meal and drinks out of the back of their cars, this American tradition is called tailgating, which I had never heard of, but it was a must. We went to meet for a BBQ with Tessa's friends, Alpha Phi Omega, a co-ed fraternity - everyone was lovely. William and Mary is a relatively small school, but the atmosphere was electric, we watched the pep band, the national anthem, the cheerleaders and dance troupes before the game started, and we WON! Go Tribe!

On the Sunday we went to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg for the annual Howl O Scream night - it was terrifying! Haunted houses, scary monsters dressed up chasing us around with chainsaws... the rides were awesome, but I spent most of the night awake thinking someone was coming to get me in my hotel room!

The next day Tessa drove me all the way to  Gloucester Point, to visit a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (more widely known as VIMS). The man in question is Professor Jeffrey D. Shields, who has an array of crustacean disease research under his belt, and is a bit of an idol for me, so it was great to meet him! His work includes the 100 Lobsters Project, and various Hematodinium (Bitter Crab) projects. It was nice to have some impartial advice, share ideas and get perspective on my work - No doubt it will be Jeff who reviews some of the papers I hope to publish from my PhD thesis! It was a great afternoon - and Tessa had a chance to talk to him about a possible lab internship, so it was win-win. Later that day, Jeff gave me a lift back to Williamsburg - much to my amusement, his license plate read 'KrabDr'... amazing.

As it was my final night, we went for dinner and then watched a halloween show put on by the Chemistry department at William and Mary - pretty cool - and hilarious, their professors and postgrads were great - I don't think we'd get away with half of it here in Swansea though - health and safety nightmare! After this, we went to a haunted house that the students were setting up - one of their halls of residence used to be a hostel, and is aptly named Hospitality House - nicknamed the Ho House. For one night, some students vacate their rooms and they decorate the halls to hold ghost tours - it was amazing, and I would love to see something like that here in Swansea - there it such a community spirit and they are all having an amazing time without having to go out and drink themselves senseless. 

The next day, I had to say my goodbyes before getting a taxi to the airport... I have alot to think about, digest, read and reflect upon, but I will save that for another blog post... Goodbye North America... hello London (and, if you hadn't guessed already, it was raining when I landed!).

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Beautiful Boston.. and around!

Boston skyline from the harbour. 
So after last weeks antics I didn't think that Boston could get any better. It did!

So the nice man in my hotel who saw me looking entirely clueless on my first day, took pity on me and drew out a map of things he thought I would be interested in.

First things first - whale watching in Massachusetts Bay - in particular, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The boat left Boston Harbour and took just over an hour to reach the sanctuary, and we were lucky enough to see 5 humpback whales, which included one baby, which was less than one year old (they leave their parents at around 11 months). However, as I had chosen to go on a Saturday, it was extremely busy and I'm surprised the boat didn't tip over with the amount of people hanging over the side! It was amazing to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat, but they got so close to the boats that it worried me - is this how whales get killed by boat propellors and fishing nets? The guide on the boat told us 'not to worry' that the boat was going to hit the whales, and that scientific research shows that they actually come closer to boats each year... Are they becoming habituated to people following them around on boats? We weren't the only boat there, as you can see from my pictures.

The lesser spotted tourist boat.. I mean, humpback!
Two humpback whales.

The Harvard campus.
Since I had the rest of the day free I decided to take a trip to Harvard. I took a walk around the beautiful campus, which was nice to see because of the 'fall' colours, and the Natural History Museum, which is also on the grounds. The campus was beautiful and Dr. Tlusty had told me that I needed to see the glass flower exhibit - a collection of over 3,000 model flowers created by glass artisans Leopold Blaschka and his son, Rudolph. The commission began in 1886, continued for five decades (1887-1936), and the collection represents 847 plant species.

The Salem Witch 'Museum'.
Since it's October, and the Americans (and Canadians!) go mental for Halloween, I thought it would only be appropriate to head to Salem for the day on Sunday. Strangely, aboard the 45 minute ferry I saw a familiar face, and ended up talking to a lady who works at Swansea University, in my building! Small world. 'Haunted Happenings' is a month long festival around Salem which, in a way, profits from it's famous 'Witch Trails', in 1692 when 20 people, 14 women and 6 men, were executed. Salem is older than Boston by 4 years, and is home to the Burying Point Cemetery, the second oldest burying ground in the United States. It has lots of cool history, but at this time of year the witch museum is the most popular. I was able to see Salem Maritime National Park, a National Historic Site, which is home to 'Friendship of Salem', a replica of an East India Trading Co. cargo vessel built in Salem in 1797. I ate lunch on Salem Common, where some of the 'Hocus Pocus' movie was filmed, and was also able to take a 'tram' tour of the city. On the ferry home I met a lovely family from Edinburgh!

Salem harbour by night.

Bunker Hill Monument. 
On Monday I explored Boston some more, finally finishing the Freedom Trail. It took me to Bunker Hill Monument, built to commemorate the first major battle of the American Revolution when American colonists faced British forces during the famous 'Battle of Bunker Hill' in 1775. I also stumbled across the Boston Navy Shipyard (formerly known as Charlestown Navy Yard). It closed in 1974, but is now a part of Boston National Historical Park. There is a museum and visitors centre, and you can see where they used to build and repair the boats in the dry docks. The USS Constitution and USS Cassin Young are also displayed, representing the types of vessels built there.

Behind the scenes at WH aquarium. 
On Tuesday I took a bus down to Woods Hole, a small town south of Cape Cod, as I was really interested in seeing the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). It is one of the leaders in marine research and they have an Ocean Science Exhibit Center, where you can learn about their research, including the discovery of the Titanic wreck with their submersibles. I really wanted to visit the Marine Biological Laboratory, another private, nonprofit institution, but the public areas were closed for the season. I did get to visit the The Woods Hole Science Aquarium which was established in 1885, making it the USA's oldest marine aquarium. It is owned by the government and operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service, in partnership with the Marine Biological Laboratory. It was rather small, but the public were able to go behind the scenes and see how it is run. They also had a couple of seals.

The jetty at Martha's Vineyard. 
Because alot of places were closed due to the off-season, I had a few spare hours before my bus back to Boston and decided to take a ferry across to Martha's Vineyard. I actually had no idea what Martha's Vineyard was until I got on the ferry, but I figured that there were alot of people heading there so there must be alot to do! It's an island south of Cape Cod, mainly a summering haven, as the temperature is higher so people go there for their summer vacation, it has lots of nice beaches and the famous gingerbread houses in Edgartown.  It also has a bunch of nice shops, and it was nice for me to just walk around and take some pictures of the beautiful harbour.

Wednesday was my last day at the aquarium, so I met with Michael and Anita for last minute checks on some work we are finishing up together.. and I had one last walk around Boston before leaving for Virginia!
The Charles River Reservation.

Dr. Michael Tlusty, myself and Anita Kim. 
Dr. Tlusty had enough of me by the end of the week...

Saturday 19 October 2013

I kissed a seal and I liked it.

Benjamin Franklins grave & memorial.
So I arrived in Boston on Tuesday evening, and Anita, one of my collaborators at the New England Aquarium (NEAQ), picked me up from the airport. It seems like visits in October are to become a 'thing' for us - Miranda from my lab visited to begin the collaboration back in October 2011, and Anita visited Swansea in October 2012, so it's only right that I am here in October 2013! The hostel is amazing, and I am sharing a room with 5 other girls.

Anita teaches a lab at a local college on Tuesdays and Wednesdays so I had Wednesday to myself to get to know the city before visiting the aquarium on the Thursday. Armed with a map I set off on the 'Freedom Trail', a walking trail around the city which takes you to historic sites around the city, telling the story of the American Revolution. Boston is a great walking city, and I got to see lots along the way, including 'Little Italy' and Boston Common!

Baby lobsters in medicine cups!
On Thursday I headed to the aquarium for the first time, and was given a 'Visiting Researcher' pass - which, as it turns out has come in quite useful! Anita introduced me to her intern Rebecca, who is taking a gap year before university. She showed me the lobsters (they have ALOT), which were all stage 4 postlarva (basically, miniature lobsters which have survived the larval stage). They also have the European lobsters which we sent over 2 years ago - which have grown really big now - one of them is even on display in the aquarium! First, we censused the lobsters, checking any that had died/moulted/lost their name tags, and then fed them (mazuri, a sort of gel mixture, or mysis or brine shrimp). It's a really big job, and the interns also count the eggs on the large adult females. Later, I saw some of the experiments they are currently running, which involve colouration induced by diet, and some more shell disease work.

Beautiful blubber jellies.
I was also shown around some other research areas, where they culture coral and jellyfish, they were really beautiful, and it was difficult to get a nice photograph that did them justice. An interesting thing about the jellies is that all the tanks they are kept in have to have round bottoms, as in square cornered tanks can tear them as they are so delicate - some areas are just one cell thick!

Anita took me behind the scenes in the marine gallery, where I was able to see all the exhibits from the side that visitors never see, and also some of the conservation work that goes on at the aquarium. An example of this is the Red-Bellied Turtles, or Northern Red-Bellied Cooters, which are endangered in Massachusetts as in the wild, turtle eggs are eaten by animals such as raccoons and skunks. To prevent this, scientists are putting wire cages over turtle nests so that the eggs don't get eaten. When the turtles hatch in the Autumn, some of them are brought to institutions like NEAQ, and they are raised over the winter, so that they are big enough to resist these predators. These turtles don't go on display, as they are released back into the wild.

Haloween lobster!
I also got to meet the famous 'Halloween' lobster, a genetically coloured lobster caught by fishermen in October 2012 off the shores of Massachusetts. I suspect that it will make an appearance in the public gallery on 31st October. They also had horseshoe crabs, which I have never seen up close before, and an octopus, who are amazing escape artists, and I learnt that they only live for about 2 years, which shocked me as I thought they would live alot longer than that.. In the freshwater gallery they had an anaconda, some salmon and more turtles, amongst other things.

After lunch I was given a tour of the basement, where all of the water gets pumped in from the harbour, much like at Swansea University, but on a MUCH bigger scale. The giant ocean tank alone holds 200,000 gallons of water, which needs to be filtered (usually with sand), and heated to 22°- 24° C (yes, I had to convert that from Fahrenheit) - this gives you an idea of the size of the basement and filter tanks!

Feeding Myrtle some lettuce.
Last, but not least, I was given the opportunity to feed Myrtle, the green sea turtle who rules the Giant Ocean Tank, and has lived at the Aquarium since June of 1970! She is HUGE, and weighs over 500 lbs (227Kg!), which is surprising as she eats lettuce, cabbage, squid and brussels sprouts. There are other turtles in the tank, Kemp’s ridley and loggerhead, and there are divers who go down and feed animals individually with squirters and boxes of food, but Myrtle has to be fed separately at the top of the tank to be distracted, since she is so big and heavy, if you are a diver with food you don't want a 500 lb turtle pushing over your shoulder!

I had a chance after this to walk around the aquarium a little - and see the 'Lobster Nursery' exhibit, which contains one of my babies! It's also interesting seeing the displays which I have already seen from behind the scenes - I need to dedicate a few hours when I'm free to exploring the whole aquarium!

Dr. Innis checking over Trumpet.
After work I went for dinner and drinks at The Littlest Bar with Anita and a couple of her friends, before dessert at the renowned Mikes Pastry in Little Italy, where I tried their famed Cannoli, which is a sort of fried pastry dough rolled up and filled with a sweetened ricotta - I had amaretto flavour and it was DELICIOUS! After this, we walked through the city, which is really beautiful at night, and nice that I was able to explore it with some friends, who were also nice enough to walk me back to my hostel so I didn't get lost!  

Making seal friends.
This morning (Friday) I started at 8am for work in the Mammals Department, with Paul Bradley, the ‎Senior Marine Mammal Trainer. I met some volunteers, Meg, Tricia and Kim who I helped with food prep (sorting and chopping the fish, the seals get fed 4 times a day - some 5!), before going to watch the feeding and training of the Atlantic Harbour Seal. I was able to sit with the head vet, Dr. Charlie Innis, who was checking over a seal called Trumpet.

They also have California Sea Lions, and Northern Fur Seals in a separate exhibit, and Paul let me sit and watch him train Leu, their 2nd youngest fur seal, who was rescued off California last year, he is blind in one eye so wasn't able to be rehabilitated back into the wild. I was lucky enough to be able to feed him, and get some kisses!

Amelia gets her teeth cleaned.
After this I went back to the harbour seals again, this time I was allowed to observe Amelia, who let me rub her belly - the fluffy marine biologist in me was DYING of excitement! I should probably mention that in the picture of the trainer cleaning her teeth, she isn't holding open her mouth, she just holds her hand in that position and the seal will willingly open his/her mouth for teeth cleaning.

This afternoon, we went for a 'lab lunch' to a nice Italian restaurant called Bertucci's before it was back to work, and this time I mean real work! I met with Dr. Michael Tlusty, Anita's boss, who is also working on the shell disease project with us, and went through a couple of papers we are writing together.

I realise that this has been an extremely long blog post - I'm just excited, okay?! Last of all, on the way home I decided to book a place on one of the whale watching boat trips, and after seeing that I had my 'Visiting Researcher' badge, the woman at the kiosk gave me a free ticket! Told you it came in handy.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Charlottetown, it's been a blast!

The lighthouse at Rocky Point, in front of Fort Amherst.
So the time has come for me to leave Charlottetown.. and what a great time I've had. I have learnt so much, and I am excited to take my new found skills back to the UK to start testing my samples.

I wish I had longer, there is still a lot of stuff that needs optimising when I'm back in Swansea, but it will be better to do it in my own lab with my own facilities - I have a nice big shopping list so I'm not sure how Andrew, my supervisor, is going to feel once I'm back, heheee.

Renee has 'mid-terms' (exams) starting this week, so she took me on a few adventures last weekend so that I could explore the island a bit more, and we had a fantastic time. First of all we visited the 'Argyle Shore', which is part of Prince Edward Islands Provincial Park (sort of like the UK's National Parks... I think), and then Port-la-Joye—Fort Amherst, a National Historic Site of Canada, at a place called Rocky Point, which overlooks Charlottetown Harbour. I learnt about the colonisation of the Island, from the Mi'kmaq natives, to the French settlers from Fortress Louisbourg in Nova Scotia, who called the point Port-la-Joye until the invasion of the British, when it was renamed Fort Amherst. It's a pretty sad story, and there is a memorial there for everyone who died during the battles. 
Being a tourist at the Argyle Shore.

I made a massive mistake when booking my flights - turns out that today (Monday) is Canadian Thanksgiving, so nobody was in work, and I fly to Boston tomorrow evening, which means, I've had an extra long weekend just to wait for a flight out of here, doh!

Either way, it's quite cool that I've been able to experience thanksgiving here, and on Saturday night I was invited over to Spencer's house for dinner and met his family - his wife, Diane, their two dogs, and two cats. The cats were huge tabby british shorthairs, my FAVOURITE, and anyone who knows me, knows I am definitely a cat lover. They were so cute I just wanted to take them home! Turns out that Spencer is also a very accomplished artist, and I got to see some of his wonderful creations - my favourite had to be the pop art lobsters in his living room, you can see some of his work here.

Saying goodbye to my mate John.
We had lobster (yay!) and cilantro (coriander) salsa, along with all sort of yummy things topped off with pumpkin pie, which is amazing and apparently what everyone has at thanksgiving over here - I need to learn to cook it once I'm home!

I have spent the remainder of the weekend doing a little bit more walking, and getting some pictures of my favourite landmarks... including a statue downtown of Canada's first prime minister, Sir. John A. Macdonald, which is on the corner of Victoria Row (walking street) and Queen Street in 'downtown' Charlottetown - my favourite area here (and yes, Dr. AFJ, if you're reading this, that side profile is for you).

Gahan ale. No funny faces.
This past week has been a bit crazy, rushing to get things finished and set ready for when I leave tomorrow. I realise I am doing this post in no particular order, starting with the weekend and working backwards?! On Friday, I was lucky enough to have a tour of the Charlottetown Aquatic Animal Pathogen and Biocontainment Laboratory, a level 3 government run facility (much like Cefas in the UK), which is able to work with hi-risk aquatic animal pathogens involving in vivo (live animal) and in vitro research and testing. The lab is part of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency laboratory, which mainly looks at potato crop diseases (PEI is famous for it's potatoes). Dr. Phil Byrne, who is section head at CAAPBL, showed me their facilities where recent research involves diagnostic test development for a crustacean viral disease (WSSV). There were lots of doors and lots of clothes changes, and definitely no photos. Sorry!

Lyndsay, my host, has gone home to Toronto for thanksgiving so ReneĆ© and I went out to dinner last night. She has told me that I NEED to try the local Gahan ales before I leave, which are brewed on the island, below a restaurant, 'The Gahan House'. Beer makes me do a funny face, so I wasn't sure how well it was going to go, but I had a fantastic meal, a pint of beer, and thoroughly enjoyed it!

I am sat here procrastinating. My suitcase is half packed but I am still in my yoga pants, and need to make dinner. This time tomorrow I'll be in Boston... but first I need to go to the lab and say goodbye to my collaborators. Charlottetown, I'm gonna miss you!

Goodbye Charlottetown!

UPDATE: So it's my last day here at the university, and it wouldn't be the same without having a couple of photos with Spencer in the lab! Thanks for everything guys!

Professor Greenwood and I.

Saturday 5 October 2013

Losing my (lobster eating) virginity, and other adventures...

Look who's going in the pot!
So, I did it.. I came to Canada and I ate a lobster.. a real (almost) live, whole lobster and.. I liked it. I think. With the help of my house mate Renee, we cooked and ate the lobsters I had taken home from the lab the day before (no, they weren't 'contaminated' or 'sick', before anyone decides to publish a newspaper article on it!). Apparently the best way to eat lobster is with a little bread, and a lot of butter, so we popped up the road to Sobeys (Canada's answer to Sainsburys) and stocked up on supplies for the big cook. Renee's dad had also supplied us with some amazing pumpkin cider which he had brought all the way from New Hampshire - it was delicious, and as I put it, 'tasted like Christmas'. 
Sorry lobbies.
The lobster itself didn't really taste 'fishy', as I'd expected it to, it was slightly salty (although we're not sure if this is because we put too much salt in the boiling water), and tender. Lobster taste varies according to area, so if you were eating it in Maine, you would get a very 'sweet' tasting meat. We were a little worried as the lobsters had been frozen the day before, but they turned out pretty good, according to in house lobster expert of the evening, Renee. I think the cats have a taste for lobster too, as they were trying to climb all over the table whilst we were eating, and proceeded to try and lick the shell bowl after we had finished eating! Maybe, in the days before my host, Lyndsay, had taken them in, they had developed expensive tastes! Naturally, being this side of the pond, our lobster dinner was followed by a shared tub of Ben and Jerry's 'If I had 1000000 flavours' ice cream - the perfect end to a wonderful evening. 

A dinner fit for kings!
Now, I know I've always said I don't like the idea of eating lobster - mainly because with the amount of lobster dissections I've had to do for my PhD over the years - it has put me right off. It also has something to do with the idea of diseases - obviously, as a pathologist, diseases are 'my thing', and it surprises me what can be inside a seemingly healthy looking lobster. All of the diseases I have looked at so far do not affect humans, and affected lobsters can still be eaten - shell disease is more an aesthetic thing, most shell diseased lobsters are forced to be sold into the lower value canned meat industry, as nobody wants a scabby looking lobster on their plate! I have heard that shell diseased crab causes a 'metallic' taste, but I've not read it about lobsters. Other pathogens, such as nicothoe parasites, live on the gills.. which wouldn't be eaten anyway, and they are only interested in sucking lobster blood, so nothing to be scared of there! 
My work so far has actually been funded by a project called 'SUSFISHShellfish Productivity in the Irish Sea: working towards a sustainable future', and another grant from the Fisheries Challenge Fund - 'Importation of live lobsters into the U.K. - An assessment of disease transfer to European lobsters'. Both of these projects are concerned with fisheries, and sustainability, so I support lobster fishing - if it is done sustainably... I feel a whole new blog post coming on regarding this, but there is a time and a place!
All of the trees!
Okay, so before the epic lobster feast on Friday, I failed to mention that en route to 'school' (I love that they call it that here!), I managed to capture a picture of some of the elusive foxes! Unfortunately, it wasn't the rare black one with a white tail, as mentioned in blog post 28/09/13, but a couple of regular red foxes (Vulpes vulpes, for all the Caspians out there). I see them daily, walking to, and from school. They don't seem perturbed by humans, so I'm pretty sure that someone out there is feeding them, as they really do come quite close. However, after whipping out my camera they all scarpered pretty sharpish, so it makes me wonder whether they thought it was a gun? Do people shoot foxes out here? My camera was slung over my shoulder, so quite possibly... Either way, I managed to get a couple of snaps, not so great, but you can see how close they don't mind getting.
Friday was full of awesome-ness, as that afternoon, Renee had invited me out with some of her course-mates (1st year veterinarian students) to go apple picking at Wintermoor Orchard, in York  (about a 10 minute drive out of Charlottetown). I waited for Renee after class, and it was a little scary because AVC is a relatively small 'school', and I was clearly an outsider, so I did get some funny looks in the corridor by the lockers... however, there was nothing to worry about after Renee arrived and I had been introduced to everyone. Her friend Liz took us to the orchard to save us taking too many cars, and we managed to get there without getting lost! The orchard was huge! There were several different types of apple in season, and we were given a map which we quickly forgot whilst exploring. The woman had told us we were allowed to sample and eat the apples as we went, which was a bad idea, as we all ended up eating our way through the orchard (never give students a free lunch.. we will take advantage!). I chose a few different types, and the boys came in handy for the shiny big apples which were higher up.
Now, just by chance, on Friday, I happened to be wearing a 'plaid' (checkered) shirt, and I noticed that a few of the girls were too wearing them. It turned out that Friday was actually 'Plaidurday' - a worldwide celebration of plaid which occurs annually on the first Friday of October. Who'd have known?! Naturally, we had to have a plaidurday photo.
Giant pumpkin.
At the orchard, they also have a cider press, and we were invited to a cider pressing event on Sunday, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to make it out there. I already have so many other plans, this weekend has been exciting! They also sold pumpkins, and I know halloween is a HUGE deal over here, so I just assumed that they were all out for the upcoming event. Since the day I arrived in Charlottetown I have seen houses decorated for halloween, and even specialist halloween shops dotted around the place - it really is crazy, like Christmas! Anyway, at the orchard they had the biggest pumpkin I have ever seen, and Renees friend Wilson was pretty tall, but as you can see, it still looked pretty impressive! Giant pumpkins?! I hear you ask... Yes, my blog really is that exciting. You're welcome.

Thursday 3 October 2013

No foxes... but lobsters!

Squirrel. I think.
This week has been a bit crazy, and I'm feeling a super long blog coming on (sorry!), but rejoice, for this time you'll be happy to see that I have curated some photographs! Unfortunately for Luca, there are none of white-tailed foxes, but I do have a squirrel (well, at least I think it's a squirrel - it was rather small, but I'm guessing that's because I'm so used to those huge grey things that run around Singleton Park...). Foxes pending.

I want to start with a bit of a disclaimer... I have been the centre of some media attention these past couple of days, which is great for sharing my research, and I am very happy to share the the stories online, there is one from the University here, and one from the Western Mail here. However, this has also made me realise how the media can twist your words... I would like to say that lobsters DO NOT need 'saving'... in the print version of the Western Mail, it states that I am in Canada to help save the lobsters.. no idea where they got that from. To be honest, lobsters are doing a pretty good job of looking after themselves. I even told the reporter that he wasn't to write anything of that sort, as I am worried about scaremongering fishermen. I would also like to point out that I am working at the foreFRONT of research in my field.. not with the foreRUNNERs.... anyhow, rant over.

I have also been contacted by Wales Online, and the Denbighshire Free Press, so look out for those articles.. (Think I'm a bit scared to be honest..).

The Fall Flavours Farmers Market.
Over the weekend I got to explore a little more - it was the Fall Flavours Farmers Market down town, which was amazing - they had all sorts of food and arts stalls, as well as a petting zoo?! I also took a walk to Victoria Park.. but I am starting to feel a little cabin-fever-ish. PEI is a relatively small island so you'd think that it would be easy to explore via public transport, but it turns out that it's not as easy as you think (unless you have a car, which I don't!). I've heard that other towns worth seeing are Cavendish (of Anne of Green Gables fame), and Souris, both of which are over half an hour away, and there are no local regular buses, only private shuttles which run once or twice a day and are extortionately priced. I mainly want to get out to Souris as I hear it has beautiful beaches, and boat trips that promise whale watching. The fluffy marine biologist in me is dying to get out there! 

The rusty red dirt.
My housemate, Renee, a veterinary student, has just had her car brought up from New Hampshire by her dad, and she has invited me to go apple picking to a place called York this weekend, so I'm excited to go and explore! She also told me it was definitely worth checking out the red cliffs.. but we are yet to discover where they are. The soil on PEI is famous for it's red colour, this is due to the high iron-oxide (rust) content... Adam told me today that it's havoc for cars, and they have to buy second hand cars from off of the island because with the rust, and the sea air... cars don't last long!

Dinner! I mean... research subjects.
So, real highlight of the week so far.... I got to see an American lobster, in the flesh, for the very first time (Oooooooooh, aaaaaaaaah!). Adam, who has been helping me in the lab, brought a male and a female in as we needed some blood for the DNA extractions I am trying to optimise. Naturally, I had my camera handy... and was fascinated. It's cool to be able to see the differences between the lobsters here and the ones back home. Whilst the main difference is the colour (European = blue/black, American = brown/red), there are also other differences, such as the American lobster having an extra spine on the lower rostrum (the 'nose'). The spikes on the claws, as well as the underside of claws, are a bright shade of orange/red, rather than the creamy white/pink colour of the European ones. I couldn't stop looking at them, and as always, got a bit sad when we had to bleed them (I need to man up and be a scientist...).

Since I have never actually eaten lobster before (the horror!), over here they think that's so strange because it's so popular and readily available. I was able to take home the two lobsters, for my dinner.. and Renee has promised to help me cook them (she loves lobster), but I'm not so sure how I feel about eating them! I will keep you posted on dinner plans...

Taking some haemolymph (that's lobster blood).
In other news, the 'science' is going great, I am doing some DNA extractions so I can test some primers, and doing lots of reading. Everyone has been so helpful, and I am actually really excited to go back home and start my experiments, now that I have a solid plan. I am also really excited because I have been in contact with another lobster professor, from Virginia (the last stop of my trip), and we are going to meet and discuss my plans - just so I can have the perspective of another scientist - he might have some additions or changes I could make to my plans, or even just some advice. May seem like overkill, but I just want to make the most out of my time over here... it is, after all, a once in a lifetime experience!

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.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Dora the explorer

The Confederation Trail
Charlottetown is AWESOME. Everybody I have met has been so friendly and helpful and we have been lucky enough to have brilliant weather these past two days - it is so beautiful... I am feeling optimistic about the coming weeks!

I ventured to the farmers market on Saturday morning, which was full of yummy local produce and crafts, from candles, to soaps and wool.. I definitely need to go back to invest in some PEI Maple Syrup before I leave! I walked to the market, followed by the University (to get my bearings before I start tomorrow) along the Confederation Trail, which is really nice, but early in the morning quite lonely- hopefully on Monday it will be bustling with students.

After I had walked to the university I decided to go on a hunt for a plug adaptor (I left mine in Llangollen.. another thing to add that to my list of mishaps..), there was a bus but it was such a nice day that I decided to walk - Charlottetown is pretty small and I wanted to see as much as possible! There are SO MANY SHOPS - it's crazy, everything is HUGE.. and it's all along one big road. If you're into shopping (which I'm not... massively...), you would be in heaven.

Downtown Charlottetown
Later on in the afternoon I took a walk 'downtown', and it's so different to the area where I'm staying (around University Avenue) - the architecture is beautiful and there are lots of little shops, restaurants and things to see, and there are LOBSTERS EVERYWHERE. I'm in heaven. I'm not just talking about lobster to eat (of which there is plenty... live and kicking in tanks in restaurant windows), but every sort of lobster gift and paraphernalia you can imagine, too. I was reminded yesterday, however, that the whole point of buying gifts is that they are for someone else, and I don't know anyone else obsessed with lobsters...

There is a marina (well, there are three!), with a boardwalk around the coastline - I could see lots of sail boats out in the bay, even sailing right into the harbour! I've enquired about getting some sailing done one weekend, it's all weather dependent so I'm keeping my fingers crossed for next week. By the end of the afternoon I had walked about 10km so I decided to leave the board walk past Victoria Park for another day...

One of the marinas
One for Dad...
So much to see and do! I feel like Charlottetown could easily become my home, and I have only explored a tiny corner of the Island so far.. I have already signed up to begin a Moksha yoga class, which I've never tried before, and I start at the university tomorrow (eek!), bring on the next few weeks...

Saturday 21 September 2013

I'm here, I'm here, I'm here!

So, I got here in one piece.

As per usual, I left all of my travel arrangements until last minute, I only yesterday bought my Canadian dollars, and bus home from the airport in November.... doh.

Me and the lobbies having our close up.
Eventful week, having to travel home to get some essentials, say goodbye to family and friends, and then on Wednesday, perhaps a little stupidly, I had agreed (weeks ago) to take part in filming for a commercial for Swansea University. Only realising how close to my departure date it was at the weekend, I started to panic a bit. I spent 12 hours being followed around Swansea by a camera crew (insert red face here) - but it was a lovely day and we managed to get out on the departmental boat; Noctiluca, to get some shots of me 'catching' some lobsters, and measuring them, before they were taken back to my lab.

My unorganised-ness doesn't extend to everything, I have been lucky enough to be able to organise a volunteer to look after my lobsters whilst I'm away. Sarah, a Marine Biologist entering her third year, is going to be feeding and checking on them with the help of Amanda, another PhD student in my lab, so I don't have to worry about the welfare of my 'babies'.

Smallest plane in the world.
Anyway, back to Canada! After a 5am start, bus to Heathrow from Swansea, then flight to Charlottetown via Halifax, I am currently sat in a beautiful room sipping green tea and nibbling on a Hershey bar (priorities, guys), however, being me, I've had a couple of mishaps already - first I forgot to pick up my Canadian money from the travelex shop before I went through security in Heathrow... and only remembered when I was sat at my boarding gate, 20 minutes before the flight (Apparently you're only allowed to pick up money from the designated shop...), but after a mini panic and a visit to 3 different travelex shops I found a nice man who managed to log into the system and retrieve my money.

The flight to Charlottetown from halifax was on the TINIEST plane I have EVER seen! It only had 18 seats and one pilot, and I was sat with a bunch of ladies on a hen-do, so funny!

Zephyr, one of my hosts cats.
I've already ventured out to the supermarket to get some supplies, and I'm going to a farmers market tomorrow, on the recommendation of Lyndsey, my host. I am also joining a yoga class, it's 'hot yoga' - so a bit like bikram... I've done it before and not really enjoyed it, but she said this isn't quite sauna-hot, and that I should give it a go and see if I like it.. exciting! 

I am getting a little nervous about going to University on Monday. I skyped Professor Greenwood yesterday, and we spoke about real-time PCR, and some new techniques I might be learning, so I'm really excited to see what he has in store for me.

Persephone, the other cat.
I should probably take a moment to tell you all what it is exactly that I am doing in Canada... as you know I'm interested in all things lobster, especially disease. There is a devastating disease called Gaffkaemia (Gaffkemia if you're American), which affects lobsters in both the US and UK. It is caused by a bacteria, Aerococcus viridans var. homari, is extremely contagious and is exacerbated by warmer temperatures, so thrives in lobster impounds. There are all sorts of antibiotics and contingency plans available as it is a well studied area, but there is one thing that I am particularly interested in, and that is virulence. The bacterium seems to have a virulent and avirulent form, and as thus far, there is no screening method which can differentiate between the two. PCR, and gaff broth (PEA or Phenylethyl alcohol broth) are methods used to test for the disease, however I have found that the broth gives alot of false negatives and vice versa, and the PCR is not sensitive enough to differentiate between virulence. Prof. Greenwood and his team have been looking at Gaffkaemia for a few years and I am keen to learn anything about the disease, including new screening techniques that I may use back home.

This weekend I plan to explore the Island a little, and do some reading before I begin work on Monday, so I will keep you all updated...