Monday 22 December 2014

I did it (but not without this lot!)

First and foremost I would like to thank Dr. Miranda Whitten, for introducing me to the joys of molecular biology, being an extremely patient mentor, and for the continued support throughout my PhD; someone whose enthusiasm for all things tiny and ‘yuck’, never ceases to amaze me. Dr. Emma Wootton, thank you for the extensive lobster knowledge and encouragement, even long after leaving the laboratory, and for more than anything, being a friend. 

Special thanks to Anita Kim and Dr. Michael Tlusty at the New England Aquarium, Boston, USA, for being both meticulous collaborators and gracious hosts. Professor Spencer Greenwood, Dr. Fraser Clark and Adam Acorn at the Lobster Science Centre, Charlottetown, Canada for making qPCR sound so easy, and to Spencer’s wife for my first taste of pumpkin pie, thank you. 

To my collaborators in the engineering department, Drs Thierry Maffeis and Mark Penny, for getting excited about ‘little bugs’ and letting me loose on some very expensive equipment. To Keith Naylor, thanks (and apologies) from both me and the forever-leaking/escaping/generally disastrous lobsters and to Ian, Hilary and Sarah for the endless favours and questions. 

Thanks to Devon and Severn Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority and Natural England for letting me sample in the No-Take Zone of Lundy Island, and Geoff and his crew aboard ‘Our Jenny’ for keeping us afloat during the sometimes-choppy sampling periods. I would also like to thank Dr. Paul Stebbing at Cefas for the positive controls of bacteria.

Thanks to Professor Rory Wilson, for showing me that not only can you travel the world and be head of department; you can do the moon-walk too! Carolyn for the lab use and PCR advice, Ed Dudley for the spectrophotometer, Caspian for the coffee and complaining, and the rest of the Animal Movement Lab for the lunchtime Pictionary and Frisbee. 

I would like to thank the Society of Biology, Marine Biological Association of Great Britain, Climate Change Consortium of Wales, John Mathews Educational Charity, Society of Experimental Biology through the Company of Biologists, British Ecological Society and Challenger Society for Marine Science for the travel grants and bursaries, without which I would not have been able to complete this adventure. In addition, to Penny, Laura, Gethin, Ed, Ian and anyone else who succumbed to my pestering for teaching hours – a huge thank-you. 

I would like to thank my mum, dad, nanna and sister for the grounding, support, chocolate deliveries, and for always being there when I needed an ear (or a holiday)! I would also like to thank Dr. Andrew Johnson for sharing the dreams, reminding me that life extends beyond the PhD and for educating me in the art of patience (and R)! 

Last, but not least, I would like to thank my supervisor, Professor Andrew Rowley, for the support, tolerance, advice and the home-grown vegetables! Without him I would not have begun this strange journey into the secret life of lobsters; I have learned a great deal from working in his laboratory.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Ultimo pez

I know, I know, I have been slacking in the blogging department. Although, I do have a good excuse! This weekend I finished my thesis. Yup, you read that right. FINISHED. THESIS. It feels good to say that. The last few months have been a bit of a whirlwind, I'm not quite sure where all the time has gone (or whether I have a social life anymore?) but all I know is that I am done. I'm not quite sure if I can feel the relief yet.

Another reason for me being so busy these past few weeks has been because it's the start of term again, and you know what that means? Yup, the start of the teaching semester! As you will know if you have read my blog in the past, I am a 'self-funded' PhD student, so teaching has been a major part of my PhD. This year I have been helping out my supervisor with Cell and Immunobiology again, and started assisting with a new module; Molecular Ecology! We are teaching the second years how to do DNA extractions and PCR - wahoo - wish they did that when I was doing my undergraduate degree! I have also been helping out teaching an R module to the new cohort of Masters Students and a plant module to the first years.

I have also been guest lecturing again for the third year Diseases of Aquatic Organisms module, my favourite! Luckily, I already had a talk prepared, because in September I was invited to speak at a very cool conference. The Annual Meeting of the National Reference Laboratories for Crustacean Diseases takes place, as the name suggests, annually. This year was the 6th meeting, which took place at Cefas, Weymouth. The Weymouth lab is the European Union Reference Laboratory for Crustacean Diseases and I was invited by the director, Dr. Grant Stentiford, who will also be the external examiner for my PhD. I was asked to give an overview talk on shell disease, as part of the 'eDNA and invertebrate pathogens' session, which was really exciting. I was able to meet a bunch of international researchers interested in the same subject area as me. I was also able to get a tour of the department from part-time PhD student and EURL Coordinator, Kelly Bateman. Weymouth is a lovely little town and I had a little time to explore before catching my train home on the Friday evening.

So what next?! Well that's the big question. Obviously I have to wait until December for my viva (or 'defender', as the rest of the world calls it) and I have a few ideas up my sleeve and a couple more papers to send off. I have already applied for funding for some work abroad next year, will keep everyone posted. I will also be applying for some more in the coming weeks so it's just a case of waiting on decisions... I did get a little over excited the other night and treated myself to a new tripod and aperture timer so watch this space for some cool time-lapse videos (spare time... what are you!?) Before I go, here are some photos of a contented PhD student in her natural habitat:

Monday 4 August 2014

North Wales is beautiful - let's keep it that way.

So, in the midst of the big write up, I'm allowed to have some fun, right?! Last week I took some time out to visit my 'home country' of North Wales - and boy, do I miss it.

Growing up on a staple of Snowdon and the surrounds, I was surprised to find I have never climbed Tryfan, a rocky mountain in the in the Ogwen Valley of Snowdonia. The breathtaking views were worth the rocky, scrambling ascent of the North Ridge and we were only second to the peak thanks to being early birds. I was told that at the top there are two famous rocks; Adam and Eve, and it is tradition to jump between the two once the peak is reached. Safe to say that I did it... just (the sheer drop on the left side is rather off-putting). Following this we decided to cool off with a swim in the nearby Llyn Padarn (Padarn lake), in Llanberis. It was here that I first started to take note of the litter.

Adam to Eve - a tradition apparently 
Litter? What? I need to backtrack. The week before my mini-holiday, I was sent a link to a news article about lego being washed up on beaches up to 17 years since it was lost at sea in a container - it just serves to highlight the fact that plastic discards are there for a very long time, and not just plastic - any sort of litter that is lost at sea, or dumped on a beach. It was a video that accompanied the article that I found the most interesting, about a man, Martin Dorey of Bude, Cornwall who has started a project called the two minute beach clean. I say project - it has become somewhat of a revolution. Forget #nomakeupselfie, forget #necknominate - all the cool kids are hashtagging #2minutebeachclean! If you're wondering what on earth I am talking about - take a look at the short video here.

A seasoned explorer on Malltraeth Marsh 
That night we camped on Malltraeth marsh near Abermenai Point and as usual picking up any plastics and litter we found along the way.. but it was only the next day whilst snorkelling in Church bay near Aberffraw that it started to become real - not only on the beaches, but at the bottom of the sea; abandoned lobster pots (or parts of them), fishing line, rope - it's very sad really. We saw some rather large dogfish (I guess I should call them catsharks now...), who I'm sure don't appreciate the rubbish! One beach loving animal who I am sure would get ill from trying to eat stuff like that is the greedy seagull who stole my ice cream in Beaumaris.. but that is a different story altogether. 

The following day we explored Porth Wen brick works, an abandoned site near Amlwch which overlooks a beautiful bay and is only accessible by a very brambly path, but the views and hidden beach are totally worth it. We did try some snorkelling but the vis was too bad, and considering the 'hidden and abandoned' nature of the area, we still managed to find some abandoned rubbish - beer bottles, plastic bags... you get the picture. I think the only place we didn't find any of this stuff was during our visit to Aber falls in Abergwyngregyn.
Porth Wen brickworks
Freezing, but happy at Aber falls!
Next time you're at the beach, or if you are lucky enough to live near the sea - I would encourage you all to try your own #2minutebeachclean and help spread the word on twitter, facebook or instagram - it only takes 2 minutes and imagine how much we could get done if everyone in the world gave it a try. I for one, will be encouraging students to do this next time we hold a beach practical. Dream big!

Sunday 6 July 2014

The hardest 6 months of my life?

Casual diatomic nitrogen molecules.
So, I guess I could call it 'the beginning of the end'.. or, in the words of Winston Churchill, 'perhaps, the end of the beginning'. Yes I am being dramatic. A couple of months ago, a friend and colleague told me that I was about to begin the hardest 6 months of my life - the write up! 

As I near the 3 year mark (October marks the end of my third and final year as a PhD student), I have been met with looks of sympathy from friends and colleagues, one even going so far as to tell me I had the 'thousand yard stare'. 

Tuesday this week will be the last time I bleed a lobster, and from there on in, I guess it will be tying up loose ends and writing, which will, come September, form the chapters of my thesis (if all goes to plan...)

Zoology ambassador, Caspian

However, it's not only the science that's been keeping me occupied- summer time means summer work, and the last week or so I've been back to my old tricks helping out Swansea Science Summer School (S4). S4 is a project funded by the Welsh Assembly Government and Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, which offers a five-day science programme to Year 12 school/college pupils, at the College of Science in Swansea University. The students are just about to start applying for universities so this gives those interested in science the chance to have 'tasters' of what it might be like.

Each of the five days is spent in a subject area: physics, maths, computer science, geography and finally (saving the best till last?) bioscience! As an ambassador I am on hand to advise and help the students, often just a friendly face, who's 'been there, done that', plus, they seem to love my lobsters, so that gave me extra 'cool' points!

Students have been able to help Dr. Mary Gagen bore trees in order to age them as a part of the geography workshop, create computer games with Technocamps for computer science and work with exoplanet modelling in the physics department with Dr. Will Bryan. For the bioscience day we looked at adaptations of fish and rockpool species with Dr. Ed Pope, and had a surprise visit from Welsh Assembly Member and prospective MP Byron Davies - really nice for the students to be able to see how science is widely appreciated.

As part of the Bioscience day, ambassador Ross also created a time-lapse of us feeding a tank full of mussels with algae. We had a spectrometer and lamp at one end so that we knew exactly when the water was clear enough to be classed as 'back to normal'. The students took guesses on how long it would take the mussels to clear the tank, and I think the winning answer was 4 hours! My favourite part of the video has to be the little snail moving around as the evening gets darker. Invertebrates are now officially cool (you were always cool to me, guys!)

Checking out some mussels feeding on algae!
In addition to the subject specific programmes, the students also attended a UCAS workshop, which gives tips on how best to prepare a good application for any university, not just Swansea.

Personally, I love these weeks, it gives us a chance to share my passion for science with younger generations, and I think it's really important to inspire future scientists! In the evenings, it's back to the thesis, but that's okay. We have another S4 week coming up at the end of this month which is residential, so students from farther afield can benefit from the programme - I can't wait!

Hardest 6 months of my life? I'm having a pretty good time, thanks very much (NB... don't tell my supervisor that)!

Monday 2 June 2014

10th International Conference and Workshop on Lobster Biology and Management

Jan Factor, author of the 'lobster bible' and me
being utterly starstruck.
So, I'm home...! For those of you I haven't already bored half to death about it... On the 18th May 2014, I travelled to Cancun, Mexico for the 10th International Conference and Workshop on Lobster Biology and Management, hosted by the Institute of Marine Sciences and Limnology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

This was my first international conference, which only happens once every 2 to 3 years, so it was therefore a very important opportunity for me to attend in terms of career development and networking. I gave an oral presentation on some of my PhD research findings under the title 'Does the importation of live American lobster (Homarus americanus) pose a threat to native European (H. gammarus) populations? Shell disease susceptibility', which consisted of a culmination of my findings, published recently in two papers; MicrobiologyOpen and Journal of Invertebrate Pathology. As you can read in my previous blog, they investigate the disease susceptibility of the European lobster in relation to the American lobster as an ‘invasive’ species. Lobster catch in the UK is a multimillion pound industry so my work is important for fisheries and future research – there is currently a team in Norway looking into Euro-American hybrid lobsters being found in Europe!

Team lobster PhD UK at the Tulum Ruins
Being able to present my work and receiving feedback the experts in my field, was, although nerve-wracking, a fantastic experience. I had questions from researchers such as Kathy Castro and Jan Factor, who, in the lobster world, are big scientists! In my opinion, the talk went well, and I remembered pretty much everything I wanted to say. I also had a little extra on the end of my talk, about my current studies looking into lobster health in the UK Marine Conservation Zone around Lundy Island - just so people know what else I am working on.

In addition to being able to attend presentations on areas such as fisheries, management, stocks, genetics, behavioural ecology and diseases and parasites, there was also a poster session. I must add here actually, that the 'diseases and parasites' session, had the biggest number of talks (23)! Pathology is cool guys! This event also enabled me to catch up with past collaborators (Anita from NEAQ was in attendance) and share ideas with possible future ones, some of whom have been a great inspiration to me since I began my PhD – is it possible to be ‘starstruck’ by lobster scientists?!

The clear blue waters of Puerto Morelos..
(and some lobster scientists!)
The conference dinner was accompanied by traditional music, dancing and an abundance of tequila, standard in Mexico! We were also able to enjoy a mid-week free afternoon activity of snorkelling on the coral reefs followed  by a lobster sunset barbecue meal! This was a nice informal way to get to know a lot of the delegates.

The conference proceedings are to be published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, for which I am aiming to submit an abstract involving my current work surveying a UK Marine Conservation Zone... the deadline is 31st July, so I'd better get a wiggle on!

Apart from attending the conference in Mexico, I was able to do a little exploration, I met a few like-minded lobster lovers from the UK, with whom I rented a car and we explored the ruins at Tulum, where we were also lucky enough to see some recently inhabited turtle nests (complete with turtle footprints... awwwww), we also snorkelled in a 60m deep cénote;' Kim Ha', which amazingly we managed to get all to ourselves - it was a little scary as since it was in reality, an underground cave, it was full of bats, and the uneasy feeling of not knowing what is beneath you whilst swimming made it slightly eery for me! We also enjoyed an afternoon in Puerto Morelos and I dragged the boys to a flea market (which, I know they enjoyed really!). I would really like to explore more of Mexico in the future, maybe away from the hub of the 'Zona Hotelera', where the conference was based - it is a great country full of culture and colour!

Turtle nests...!
I think for me, reflecting on this conference I can say that it was one of the most useful events I have attended since beginning my PhD, and it came at the perfect time. Being able to meet and talk with so many scientists whose work I have read and cited in my own, was a great experience - even just meeting students from all over the UK, who are working in a similar area to me, was great. I would like to thank the Challenger Society for Marine Science, the British Ecological Society and the Society for Experimental Biology through the Company of Biologists for the travel grants, without which I would not have been able to take part in this event. I would also like to thank the coordinators for not only organising a conference where I was able to learn so much, but an event which was amazing fun – there are not many conferences where you would be able to spend a free afternoon snorkelling on a coral reef!

Definitely at a conference... 

Saturday 5 April 2014

Conferences, PhD routes and funding for postgrad students!

So, I've been at it again... I'm sure all lobsterologists out there (and my close friends!) will have heard that the 10th International Conference and Workshop on Lobster Biology and Management (10th ICWL) is coming up, and this year it is in Cancun, Mexico. Aside from the amazing location, this is a 'must attend' conference for me, since it only happens every two years and as I am in the final year of my PhD I feel like it is a very important opportunity to make contacts, talk about my current work and even future collaborations. So, in true 'Charlotte' style, I have been on the hunt for travel grants..

'More grants?!' I hear you all ask... but yes, really, this is how I get by. I have mentioned this before, but I am a self-funded PhD student. Whilst most of my research is funded, as I have mentioned in previous blogs, I personally do not receive a 'stipend' like most PhD students would do traditionally. This means that I have had to work part time throughout my PhD in order to pay for food, rent and personal items. Before you ask, the bank of mum and dad closed a long time ago, for which I am extremely grateful - I have learnt to be careful, self sufficient and at the same time, developing my grant - application skills!

Why start a PhD that isn't fully funded? The answer to that is slightly complicated...  I started my PhD in a rather unusual manner; after graduating in 2011, I knew that I wanted to continue studying, preferably in a research environment, after having such a great time doing the work for my undergraduate dissertation. I applied for a fully funded MRes in Aquatic Ecology and Conservation, but found out on the day of my graduation that I didn't get the funding and I knew that doing it with none and paying my own fees would be excruciating. I know Professor Rowley, my supervisor, had a really cool project lined up, so I quickly applied for an MSc by Research in Aquatic Ecology, which was a new course that came with a £3000 bursary if you were successful, in order to help pay the fees. Luckily, I was successful and my masters began technically in August 2011, a month after graduation, when I volunteered with Dr. Emma Wootton, a post doc from my lab, on a research trip to Lundy Island, which was funded by Seafish.

Fresh from graduation, sampling on a fishing boat!
I'll take a minute here to explain the differences in 'Masters' courses. All masters, unlike undergraduate, are a full year, as opposed to the usual academic year of September - June. An MSc is a 'taught' masters, which means that it is very similar to your third year of undergraduate, in the sense that it is 2/3's taught (ie. lectures and exams), and 1/3 research (a dissertation, or thesis), which usually begins around June/July. MSc's are 'graded', much like an undergraduate degree but rather as a pass, merit or distinction. An MRes is the opposite, it is a 'pass or fail' masters, 1/3 taught, usually with exams in January, after which you begin your research project, which continues until the summer. An MSc by Research is a relatively new idea, it is much like the first year of a PhD (see where I'm going with this...?), in the sense that you start your research from day one, and it continues throughout the year. You don't usually have lectures or exams, however in my case I had to sit a 'skills and stats' module, for which there was a short exam in January. The outcome of this exam does not go towards the final grade, you merely have to pass it (50% or more) in order to continue with the masters.

For me, by May, I was thoroughly enjoying my research, and finding out some really cool stuff, but I couldn't help but notice that it didn't seem to be ending. The original project was going well, but there was also some unanswered questions, and some really cool follow up work which I wanted to do. Luckily, I was able to convert my masters to the first year of my PhD, which I wouldn't have been able to do if I was doing an MSc or an MRes, so that day when I didn't get the funding to do my original choice was a blessing in disguise! Andrew, my supervisor, did warn me that it would be difficult and to think carefully before I made a decision, but that he was able to pay my tuition fees, shared with my second supervisor in the school of medicine. I took the plunge.

This is where my journey into obtaining funding began. I found out that you can get funding from Grant Giving Trusts, which are organisations who help others, be it charities, institutions, NGOs or individuals, in the form of grants. I popped down to the local library and took out a copy of the Charities Aid Foundation 'Directory of Grant Making Trusts' to make some notes. What I found was unreal - there are thousands - and while some ask for a formal application, others just request a letter. I drafted around 20 letters and sent them out, I heard back from a few, but not all and some took months, so you need to be patient. I was eventually rewarded when I received a letter from the John Mathews Educational Charity with an offer of £1500 - it was more than I could have hoped for and really helped me get through the second year of my PhD.

Obviously part-time work helps, and during the second year of my PhD I worked part time in a pub in Swansea - however, this was only for about a year as I was tired all the time and when I couldn't get time off to go to an important Shellfish Association of Great Britain conference, I had to quit. I demonstrate within my department, which means helping out in undergraduate practicals, on field trips and sometimes even guest-lecturing. I also mark work, which includes practical and field trip write ups, essays and CVs. This work is dependent upon when I am needed by lecturers, so can fluctuate; as can my work as a student Ambassador, which involves helping out on open days talking to prospective students and their parents. Work is often seasonal at the university; in the past I have helped out on the clearing helplines for admissions and worked as an ambassador at a summer school. There is always work around if you can be motivated enough to find it - I know that there will always be something around the corner, even when times are tough.

I often get asked how I obtain my funding, or how I am 'so lucky'... really there is no luck involved, just a motivation to succeed and a passion for my research. You may or may not have noticed, but I LOVE my PhD and really care about my subject, which I hope comes through in my applications. I know exactly why it is important, maybe not to everyone, but to fishermen, pathologists and seafood lovers, it is!

For those I keep promising to write a list for, here it is! To date, a list and sources of all funding I have applied for and received (and some that I am ineligible for - but definitely recommend).

Marine Biological Association of Great Britain Travel Bursary to attend their 2013 10th Postgraduate Conference at Aberystwyth University. I was given £200 to attend, which paid for travel costs and accommodation for the week. This conference was invaluable and I also attended the 9th one at University College Cork in Ireland the previous year. Loads of postgrads from all over the UK attend, there is a really informal atmosphere, definitely worth it for Masters or PhD students - a great practice for larger conferences and great to meet people in similar fields. This year it was held at the Centre for Environmental and Marine Sciences on the Scarborough Campus of the University of Hull, definitely worth a look if you are a Masters or PhD student in marine biology.

The Educational Charity of John Mathews - An award of £1500 to assist in the costs of my PhD, The Educational Charity of John Mathews encourages applications from young people seeking to build upon their talents and improve their educational and career prospects.
Society of Biology Travel Grant - A £500 travel grant towards the start up of a new collaboration between University of Prince Edward Island Lobster Science Centre and Swansea University, which is the reason I started this blog!

Climate Change Consortium of Wales Travel Bursary - A £500 travel bursary toward the start up of a collaboration between the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, and Swansea University, looking into shellfish disease affecting both European and American lobsters and how climate change may be displacing lobster populations (more about this in my next blog!)

Society of Experimental Biology via the Company of Biologists - A £500 travel grant in order to present at the 10th International Conference and Workshop on Lobster Biology and Management in Cancun, Mexico.

Challenger Society for Marine Science - A travel grant of £250, again, to assist towards costs of presenting at the 10th ICWL in Mexico.

The British Ecological Society Training and Travel Grant - I was awarded £465.92 again, to assist towards the cost of presenting at the 10th ICWL - Mexico, especially when the conference is right in the centre of the 'Hotel Zone', is an expensive place!

I also applied for, but was unsuccessful:

The Paul Kanciruk Student Travel Award for the International Lobster Conferences and Workshops - this is specifically for the ICWL conference, but if you are looking for conference funding, always get in touch with the organisers - they sometimes have money for poor students like us!

Plus, here are some which I have come across but I was ineligible for...

The Fisheries Society of the British Isles (FSBI) Travel Grants, primarily aimed at early-career scientists studying fish biology or fisheries science. Grants are to enable researchers to present their work at international scientific meetings other than the FSBI annual conference.
With most of these awards, you need to be a member of the society itself, so it's worth checking before you apply - some even request that you have been a member for a certain amount of time before you may apply. Personally, I like to have memberships with a lot of societies as it opens doors and helps you make contacts in similar fields, as well as discounts when submitting papers to certain journals (again, a big plus if you are self-funded). On top of the blog post for the Society of Biology, I have recently been asked to give a talk at the Cheltenham Science Festival - the day I arrive home from Mexico!

So there we are, another monster post - but one I've been meaning to write for a while... How is it May already? Someone told me this week that I was on 'the home straight'... I'm not sure what that meant, but it did remind me that I have huge amount to do (and write!)... to the lab!

Saturday 22 February 2014

Fisheries, management and guest-blogging!

Just a quick one today really... If you are a close friend or follow me on twitter you will have seen me harping on about a guest-blog I have recently written for the Society of Biology. The SOB were one of the funders for my trip to Canada and the USA back in October - they gave me £500 and for this, I had to write a report on what I got up to whilst there, which you can read here. Whilst I was there, they noticed that I got some press coverage and saw that I had a blog, so I was asked me to write a guest-blog on my experience. I've been so busy that it took me months, so finally it was published last week. I'd like to thank Dr. Andy Woolmer for his help with the article.

Obviously, the main reason I went to Canada was to learn new techniques and more information about lobster diseases such as gaffkaemia (see my first blog), but since I am still working on the analysis and results for that, I decided to take a different approach when writing my article. I am fascinated by fisheries, sustainability and conservation and hope to one day work in fisheries management of some sort.

Currently, there is a review of all fisheries legislation in Wales, which commenced in January 2012 and whilst over in Charlottetown and Boston, I had some discussions regarding local laws and fisheries management, some of which were really different to ours, so I decided to talk a little about how we manage things over here, compared to how things are done over there, where awards have been won. If you'd like to go for a read and learn a little more about Welsh vs. North American lobster fisheries (and see some pictures!) click here, or.... I have copied and pasted the whole article here:

'What we can learn from our peers around the globe?

Guest blogger Charlotte Eve Davies, a PhD student at Swansea University, talks about receiving a Society of Biology Travel Grant to go to the AVC Lobster Science Centre, Canada.

‘So what do you do?’ is the question I get asked rather often. People look at me and assume, at the age of 24, I should be settled down with a ‘grown up’ job. Alas, I am still studying, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In truth, there isn’t a single word to summarise my work. Underpinned by a degree in biology, I have since branched out into various areas. Pathologist? Maybe. Marine biologist? I like to think so. Lobsterologist? If only that was a word! I like to keep my options open.

Last autumn, with the help of a Society of Biology Travel Grant, plus one from the Climate Change Consortium for Wales, I was able to take my love of all things lobster to the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island.

During my time ‘across the pond’, I learnt a lot about lobster fisheries!

When you’re looking at my area of research – assessing lobster disease, fisheries are the target. I think that Welsh fisheries management could learn some valuable lessons from the systems implemented in the US / Canada. Over there, v-notching, a system where females with eggs have their tails cut to indicate their ability to produce offspring, thus enhancing future stocks, is mandatory. Both scientists and fishermen alike there recoiled in horror when I told them that in Wales you can still catch and land berried hens (egg carrying females).

In Maine, USA, 1872, the first law was implemented banning the capture of berried lobsters, but it was a measure already practiced by many Maine lobstermen. Last year the Maine lobster fishery was awarded Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification as a sustainable and well-managed fishery. The Prince Edward Island lobster fishery entered into the process of being assessed for the same award whilst I was there.

Why are we so behind the times?

Unlike the co-managed Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities in England, fisheries in Wales are managed by various sectors of the Welsh Fishermen’s Association, who decide upon Sea Fisheries Legislation, or ‘by-laws’, which are then implemented by the Welsh Assembly Government.

Last year (2013), the Llŷn Fishermen’s Association bravely decided to vote in favour of implementing their own voluntary ‘berried ban,’ – disallowing landing of females with eggs. This unilateral move may have influenced the recent decision by the Welsh Government to propose a berried ban.  Amongst a raft of new crustacean management regulations being proposed, they are consulting on a berried ban in Wales for the long term benefit of Welsh fisheries.

The current Welsh crustacean consultation includes an evidence report outlining the case for a ban and other potential best practice management measures aimed at securing the long-term sustainability and profitability of the Welsh fishery. In Wales, unlike the rest of the UK, fisheries regulations are able to extend out to the 12 mile limit which really makes these effective management measures.

Opposition to these proposed by-laws comes from some fishermen, who worry about a depleted catch if the berried hens are off limits. However, it has been found that putting berried hens back does not cost the fishermen anything after the first season and the lobsters put back today can be recaptured once the eggs are shed.

Each 90mm lobster returned produces 7 lobsters for the fishery – based upon documented egg production at that size and assuming only a 0.1% of eggs result in lobsters entering the fishery. It’s a lobster win-win!

American and Canadian lobster fisheries are a lot larger than ours, but considering their success, we can afford to take some tips from them. The UK landed more than £32m worth of lobster in 2011, but unfortunately there are also imports of American lobsters into the UK (mainly for the restaurant industry), introducing an ‘invasive species’, leading to hybrid Euro-American lobsters and the possibility of disease transfer… but that’s a whole different kettle of fish!

Before I leave, a few words of advice on the collaboration front. Never give up. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, and if you have an idea, make it heard! You never know, you could wind up halfway across the world kissing seals (yuck), feeding turtles, and learning an awful lot more than you bargained for…

For more of my ramblings, check out my blog and find out more about the proposals for the inshore crustacean fishery.'

Whilst I know for many PhD students that writing their thesis and getting papers published is the main priority, I believe that writing small things like this, that are interesting to the public when written in an informal manner, are also a really good way of raising the profile of your research as well as getting those who wouldn't usually be interested in science, interested!

I should also mention that the Society of Biology offer £500 Travel Grants to student affiliate/AMSB and Early career/MSB members, and the deadline for the next round of grants is 31st March 2014. I get lots of people ask me about how I self-fund my PhD, so I will be writing a blog soon about funding opportunities, and my experience applying for them, so stay tuned!

Sunday 9 February 2014

Are European lobsters under threat?

An American (top) and European (bottom) lobster. 
So, in my last blog post, I talked about how I recently published a paper, which I am obviously very excited about! It is in the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology and is a result of my recent collaboration with the team of Dr. Michael Tlusty at the New England Aquarium in Boston, one of the papers we were looking over whilst I visited back in October.

The study was funded by the Marine Management Organization’s Fisheries Challenge Fund with the stakeholder support of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, plus some funding from another grant; the European Regional Development Fund (Interreg 4A, Ireland–Wales, 2007–2013, SUSFISH).

The aim was to assess the importation of live lobsters into the UK, in terms of disease transfer to European lobsters (Homarus gammarus). More and more, American lobsters (H. americanus) are being found in European waters, which have been documented by fishermen, most actively around Norweigan waters (Stebbing et al., 2003; Jørstad et al., 2011).

When I was out in Charlottetown, PEI, Adam told me that lobster would sell for around Canadian $3 per lb. There is significant competition between lobstermen in the Maritimes and across the Eastern coast of North America, so the prices are driven down. However, here in the UK, the price for European lobster from a local fisherman is around £14 per Kg, that’s £6.35 or Canadian $10.48 per lb, nearly 4 times more expensive than Canadian lobster! It therefore makes ‘sense’ for restaurants to import their lobster from the US – as even with shipping, it still works out to be more economical for them to import American lobsters. I put sense in apostrophes here due to the fact that I don’t think it is very sensible at all – I am all for supporting local fishermen and think that the carbon footprint of importing lobster when we have perfectly good lobster off of our own doorstop is totally nonsensical… but that’s just me I guess!

Sampling aboard a commercial fishing vessel in 2011. 
And this is where our problem begins. Accidental escapees and carelessness means that American lobsters are often released into our waters. On top of this, ‘conservationists’ who think they are doing the lobsters a favour when they see them in a restaurant and buy them with the view of setting them free, don't realise the real damage they are doing to the natural H. gammarus gene pool. Now, to the untrained eye, American and European lobsters can look extremely similar, especially when they haven’t moulted for a while and are covered with slimy biofilm, tube-worms and barnacles, however there are significant differences and beady eyed fishermen in Norway have been reporting hybrid Euro-American lobsters (yes, really!). The lobsters are being collected by Dr. Ann-Lisbeth Agnalt at the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, where they have discovered that unlike other interspecies cross-breeds, these lobsters are not sterile! 

American lobsters are host to some devastating diseases which have not yet been detected, or tested for in European lobsters. One of these diseases is Bumper Car Disease, caused by Anophryoides haemophila, a ciliate parasite and another is Epizootic Shell Disease (ESD), a form of shell disease thought to be caused by bacteria, amongst other stressors. Shell disease syndrome, or in crabs, Black Spot, is endemic to the European crustacean populations (see Vogan et al., 2008), but it is not as severe or as devastating to the shellfish industry as ESD is in the US.

An American lobster with Epizootic Shell Disease. 
After that long-winded introduction, this is where I come in! Is it possible for my beloved European lobsters to get ESD? How will the 'invasion' of these pesky Americans affect our native lobbies? We devised an exposure experiment to test if when they are damaged in the same way, sharing the same tank and water, would European lobsters display the same shell disease as American lobsters? When I say damaged, we imitated natural damage by puncturing the claws as they would when fighting, as well as abrading the shell with sandpaper to mimic the natural damage from shuffling around under rocks and in ‘caves’, where they would usually reside. On top of the European and American lobbies in Boston, we had a like for like experiment running at the same time in Swansea, with just European lobsters (from the same stock as the ones we sent to Boston), to see how the disease (if any) would develop alone.

We did all sorts of analysis, including swabbing and photographing the induced damage development weekly over the entire experiment (about 10-12 weeks), which were then extracted of DNA, and tested using PCR (polymerase chain reaction) for the bacteria thought to cause ESD, a gram positive critter called Aquimarina homari (Quinn et al., 2012), photographing the time final shells or moults under Scanning Election Microscopy (SEM) and placing the final tissues into histology (which I am still in the process of examining).

Top (A): European, and bottom (B): American
cuticle, check out that difference in thickness!
When looking at the bacteria, we noticed that most of it resided around the pore canals and setal pits (hairs) on the lobster shell. Pores are little indentations for the transport of ions and minerals such as melanin to the surface of the lobster and the hairs are for chemo and mechano-reception (tasting and feeling the water). We aren’t the first people to notice the bacteria hanging around these areas (Smolowitz et al., 2005) and this observation along with the hypothesis that bacteria may cause shell disease (Rosen, 1970; Sindermann, 1991) means that these are probably the aperture allowing the entry of pathogens – therefore the reason why the damage we induced gives entry to the disease.

The American lobsters had a different array of bacterial flora than the European counterpart, but we found A. homari in both species - I won’t give too much away, as that paper is still being reviewed. My most exciting finds were of that under the SEM – European lobsters have a thicker cuticle (shell) and less pores on their claws than American lobsters. This is pretty exciting for European lobsters for a number of reasons… namely because it may mean that they are less susceptible to disease. Hurrah!

So, that is a simplified version of my work so far and to me, like I said earlier, it is very exciting. I like to think that it’s good news for the European lobster, but our study was just a small in vitro fraction of the whole population, so plenty more work so be done. For more of the science, see my paper: Davies, C.E., et al. A comparison of the structure of American (Homarus americanus) and European (Homarus gammarus) lobster cuticle with particular reference to shell disease susceptibility. J. Invertebr. Pathol. (2014),, and if you can’t access it, just leave me a comment or send me an email to get a copy – if anything, the pictures are pretty awesome. It’s currently only online
but should be in print within a couple of months!

References (I tried to link them all, but not sure who will be able to access them if you're not on a subscribers network)

Jørstad, K.E., Agnalt, A., Farestveit, E., 2011. The introduced American lobster, Homarus americanus in Scandinavian waters. In: Galil, B.S., Clark, P.F., Carlton, J.T. (Eds.), In the Wrong Place – Alien Marine Crustaceans: Distribution, Biology and Impacts. Invading Nature – Springer Series in Invasion Ecology, vol. 6. pp. 625–638.

Sindermann, C.J. 1991. Shell disease in marine crustaceans—a conceptual approach. J. Shellfish Res. 10, 491−494