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...