Travels with my grant

30 September 2015 - By: Sarah Blackford

Travels with my grant

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Jorge Ruiz Legazpi

By Sarah Blackford

I love reading the travel grant reports from our early career researchers and students. It’s a real breath of fresh air, or should I say fresh water as described by Matthew Regan:  “Early December, 2014. The location, Can Tho, Viet Nam, where Mekong River water molecules are forced to decide which of the many tracts and tribs they will take on their final course to the sea. The stories these molecules could tell. Drifting down from the Tibetan Plateau, winding through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam, pulled into countless piscine mouths in search of food and drawn across twice as many gills in search of oxygen, and then finally here, drifting under this overloaded boat ferrying 33 westerners upriver towards a fish processing plant. “How did I ever get here?” wondered Matthew while gazing over the gunwale and down at the water molecules. “A Company of Biologists Travel Grant, that’s how!” Matthew had travelled from UBC, Canada to Vietnam to attend an international graduate course entitled “Physiology of air-breathing fish in the Mekong Delta” headed by Dr. Mark Bayley of Aarhus University, and hosted by Drs. Do Thi Thanh Huong and Nguyen Thanh Phuong of Can Tho University’s College of Aquaculture and Fisheries.

“I am probably not alone among the student attendees when I say I have returned to my hometown a more knowledgeable and experienced young scientist with a host of new friends and colleagues”, Mathew said, adding “What more can such a course offer? Perhaps good food and drink, but we managed that too”.  

These out-of-lab experiences are invaluable to upcoming researchers and PhD students, not only for the skills they acquire but also the people they meet. Marta Koloszyc (Aberystwyth University) used her travel grant to visit the Mathematical and Statistical Methods Group in Wageningen University, where she spent three days consulting with Sabine Schnabel and Joao Paulo on her data analysis. “Apart from the fact that they made me feel most welcome and spent long hours talking to me about statistics during my stay”, Marta reported, “both of them are amazing statisticians. I was impressed with their knowledge, expertise and kindness, additionally it is always great to see women in a male dominated field of research”. 

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Marta Koloszyc and Joao Paulo

Lab visits and field work are also regularly funded for those looking to work with other research groups: “In a collaboration with Fernando Galvez at Louisiana State University, I travelled to Baton Rouge, LA, USA to begin a study comparing hypoxia tolerance across the Fundulus fishes”, reported Brittney Borowiec (McMaster University, Canada). “Our goal was to investigate the role of environmental variability and/or the natural occurrence of hypoxia in the ecology and evolution of the hypoxia acclimation response in Fundulus fishes. While we have already demonstrated that Fundulus heteroclitus uses different hypoxia acclimation strategies depending upon the pattern of hypoxic stress, it is unclear whether this is unique to this species”. 

Brittney and her collaborators hypothesized that fish from variable, hypoxia-prone environments have a greater degree of phenotypic plasticity, and so is more able to cope with hypoxia, than fish from more stable freshwater systems. Using whole-animal stop-flow respirometry experiments, they were able to determine how acclimation to constant or nocturnal hypoxia alters hypoxia tolerance, and whether there are interspecific differences in the capacity to respond to hypoxic stress. “This interspecific comparison will allow broad inferences to be made, particularly about how the coping strategies for continuous and diurnal hypoxia may be modified by evolutionary or ecological constraints”, Brittney concluded.
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Jorien Oste setting up high tide water level measurement

The purpose of Jorien Oste (VUB, Belgium)’s research visit to South Africa was to collect samples of stem wood, roots, branches and leaves of two mangrove species, Avicennia marina and Rhizophora mucronata, at four different locations. “These samples and data will allow me to study the wood anatomy in 2D and 3D, functional balances in the tree water transport system and carbon content of the wood over a latitudinal gradient”, she explained. “They will also be compared to samples from Kenya and Egypt in a later phase of this project to assess the range of adaptability of the water transport system of mangroves trees”. Jorien also commented on the friendliness and helpfulness of her co-workers: “The collaboration with local researchers, Prof. Dr. Janine Adams (NMMU, Dr. Anusha Rajkaran (Rhodes University) and Prof. Dr. Sageran Naidoo (KZNU) and local fieldwork assistants was very fruitful and enjoyable. In particular, Prof. Naidoo helped me by showing me around in the Beachwood mangrove nature reserve, assisting during fieldwork and he and his family did their very best to make me feel welcome in Durban and to tell me about the culture and history of Indian people in South Africa”. 

As well as learning from the people she met, Jorien was also invited to give a talk at a local Rotary Club “I had never presented my PhD research project for a non-scientific audience before”, she said. “However, I was pleasantly surprised by the interest of the audience in my project and the questions they asked me afterwards”. 

Of course, many of our members need to travel to international scientific meetings and, for this round of grants, SEB funded two researchers to attend the Fish Passage conference which, as Elsa Goerig explained in her report “brings together people who work in basic biology and hydraulics, as well as engineers and managers to increase dialogue among the different fields and ultimately improve river connectivity through better engineering and management. Elsa had travelled from INRS, Quebec, Canada to attend the conference in Groningen, The Netherlands and, as well as being the lead organiser of a special session on fish biomechanics and behaviour, took part in one of the field trips which she said: “allowed me to discover the dyke and differents tidegates along the Wadden sea as well as the location of the future 'Fish migration river', which will be the world's largest nature-like fishway”.  

The other winner of this grant was Jorge Ruiz Legazpi (University of Valladolid), who reported the findings of his project showing the influence of biometric parameters, flow condition and water temperature on Iberian fish sprinting behaviour. “This experiment presents sprinting data from Iberian barbel (Luciobarbus bocagei) and northern straight-mouth nase (Pseudochondrostoma duriense), volitionally swimming against different flow velocities and different temperatures in an open channel flume”, he reported. “The research shows that swimming endurance and swimming speed greatly exceeds previously published observations for barbel and nase, and they are similar to what has been observed for salmonids”. The information and results obtained in this research have important implications for restoring river connectivity and particularly in the design of fishways and for this Jorge and his colleague Javier Sanz-Ronda received the “Distinguished Project in Fisheries Engineering and Ecohydrology Award” from the AFS-EWRI Joint Committee Project Award, on behalf of GEA-Ecohidráulica.   

Staying with what seems to have been quite a Canada/Netherlands theme for the latest round of grants, PhD student, Esmer Jongedijk (Wageningen University), mentioned the useful contacts she made following her talk to an audience of over 200 during the Terpnet conference in Vancouver. “In my PhD project we try to elucidate the pathway of the production of certain monoterpenes from plants, find out the biosynthetic genes, express them in a green production system and apply them to make bioplastics”, she said. “Following my talk I established additional contacts in the field of plant terpenes, both on the chemistry and biology side. I also received some useful advice on the progress of my project, how to develop the synthesis of plant terpenes to biopolymers, and also some colleagues from other labs offered to send related DNA constructs to our biosynthetic genes that I can use for my project. As well as discovering colleagues from Greece who have expressed some of the plant genes I’m working on in yeast, I also made contact with a possible industrial partner for our project”. 

These reports clearly demonstrate the invaluable networking opportunities which conferences afford to early career scientists. Not least of all, our own SEB Meetings. For Maria Klecker (Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry, Halle (Saale), Germany) the meeting in Prague this year was not only her first SEB Meeting, but also her first international conference and visit to Prague. Reflecting on the broad spectrum of topics covered by the meeting, Maria even happened upon a former fellow student and friend, who was presenting a poster on skeletal muscle regeneration in paralysed pigs, “a research topic I would hardly encounter in a conference with stronger topical focus”, she commented. With discussions during the day and dinners in the evening proving both instructive and pleasurable, Maria was particularly grateful to the session organiser Freddie Theodoulou, who “gave me the opportunity to present a talk, resulting in new scientific contacts, some solution to latest issues in the laboratory and the intensification of an ongoing collaboration”. 

Jenni Prokkola (an MSc student at the University of Turku in Finland) also appreciated being able to show and discuss her results more than once during the SEB meeting: “I presented a poster of the transcriptomics work I am conducting with Arctic char at the fascinating Satellite meeting on Genome-powered Perspectives in Integrative Physiology and Evolutionary Biology. I also had oral presentations in two sessions: Ecotoxicogenomics and Integrative Physiology – Gen(om)es-to-Environments and vice versa. It was a great experience, and helped me connect with numerous genomics and ecotoxicology experts”. Particularly pleasing for organisers of the meeting was Jenni’s final comment: “This meeting also showed that SEB is really invested in helping early-career researchers, and the down-to-earth atmosphere of the meeting was encouraging for discussions with senior researchers”. This was echoed by Michael Gallagher (University of Aberdeen, Scotland) who said, “The highlight of my conference trip was definitely being able to present my research to top scientists in their fields. Having the opportunity to do so twice, at the Satellite meeting and the main conference, was an amazing experience from which I gained valuable presentation skills. I also thoroughly enjoyed listening to talks from other scientists who are leaders in their respective fields. It was fascinating to hear about all the research currently being undertaken by various labs around the world from the people who conceive the ideas themselves”.

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Cheng-YU Li

It’s worth noting that mentoring, both formal and informal, can be crucial in many people’s careers. This can happen within your department or institution but, with many people in your field working in other places around the world, personal insights from them during conferences can be invaluable. Cheng-Yu Li from the University of Alabama highlighted this point in his report on his experience attending the Animal Biology Society Meeting in Anchorage, Alaska. Presenting his poster “Sexual phenotype drives variation in endocrine responses to social challenge in a clonal animal”, he was pleased that Jeff Lucas, a professor at Purdue University and one of the judges of the poster session, spent some time discussing with him the details of his study. “Neuroendocrine mechanisms in seasonal animal is one area of his expertise”, Cheng-Yu explained. “He gave me a lot of suggestions and constructive comments about my research for which I am very grateful and which will help me to revise the manuscript I’m currently preparing”.  

Category: grants
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Sarah Blackford

Sarah Blackford is the head of education and public affairs at the SEB and the editor of the SEB magazine. As a qualified careers adviser and MBTI practitioner, Sarah provides career development and support for SEB members and the wider scientific community. Sarah is also an active member within SEB+, focusing on a number of initiatives aimed at improving gender equality and diversity in the science field.