10 January 2013

Thesis writing


it has been a while. Currently I have been working hard on my thesis and I am hoping to finish soon ( a few months that is). Unfortunately scientific writing doesn't come naturally for me and it takes me triple the amount of time, when compared to others, to produce something decent. I have been working on a few chapters but none of them is really in state fit to be presented.

I always though that research was what I wanted to do but in recent months I think I started to change my mind. I am nor particularly enjoying this part of my PhD and really...writing is what science is all about! Communicating your research in a well constructed and understandable format is essential.

So I am at the turning point of my career, which path to take? the choices are:
1- years of struggles going between 2-3 years post-doc contracts (if you can find one...) with no job security but only stress
2- try and find a mindless job somewhere involving getting up every day at the same time, doing exactly the same things every day till your spirit dries up and the only thing to do is to count the days to retirement

Cynical view isn't it? Of course a third option would be find a great job where your brain is stimulated and you get paid loads but really...how many of those are out there? I feel like I have to choose from being a overworked donkey or battery chicken.

I think it may be the stress talking o be fair. In the end if you have an interesting and stimulating private life should help making sense of things, maybe i'll get one of those when I finish and all will be well.   



17 April 2012

Plankton and Junk Food

Plankton and junk food

I am in Plymouth at present, working at SAHFOS http://www.sahfos.ac.uk/ to finish analysing some samples I took on the UK-Chile cruise I sailed on in 2010. Wow, finally after almost 2 years I'll be able to figure out what was going on in the ocean when I looked at it. Well... at least answer the little tiny question I asked myself back then. You will probably wonder...what question was it? In a few months I will reveal it all! I just need to finish my thesis first. Let's just say I wanted to find out a little more about how copepod health is affected by what they eat. It's important you know?! Have you seen that "Supersize me" programme? Well...copepods may have an issue with junk food too...

Anyway. What is good about being here is that SAHFOS have the best Plankton taxonomists in the world and the lots of books that can help me with the identification of the copepods I have seen. Also, they have access to fresh plankton every week (for experiments).

Here what they do and why: http://www.westernchannelobservatory.org.uk

As you can see there are plenty of people interested in plankton and all of us look into different things and ask different questions. SAHFOS for example, has been scanning the ocean for a very long time (more than 60 years!) and their ultimate goal is to have a time series of data available to anyone interested showing species distribution over space and time.  This is because plankton responds to environmental changes much quicker than other animals.

Monitoring plankton is beneficial for us all as in the plankton you get larvae of fish and crabs etc..things that we eat and love! I mean, we eat a LOT of fish worldwide. Therefore looking at things such babies abundance and health can help us identifying problems in the fisheries.

For more info on the system they use visit their website! It's a really clever device.


8 December 2011

Frozen Planet and Climate Sceptics


sorry I haven't been posting since the long lost summer months, yes I am a poor excuse of a blogger! Well in my defense I had no time to do anything...not even the laundry! (as my partner loudly complains).

What I have been up to? well, apart for a short break when my dear sister got married...lab work.

The lab work has been very intense as well as my weekly journey to the British Antarctic Survey (Cambridge) to carry out some specialized samples analysis which, hopefully, will give me some very interesting numbers to discuss in my thesis and show the world (well...whoever wants to read about it).

In the lab I have been finally able to get going with loads of experiments but I had a few problems with my cultures.

FROZEN PLANET http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00mfl7n

Most of you may have been able to watch the latest David Attenborough (BBC)'s series. The photography is just amazing! I loved every minute of it and that reinforced my desire to discover more about this strange world where animals have been able to thrive in such harsh habitats. 

The last episode talked about climate change and, only to be expected, with that sparked a series of responses from critics and skeptics.

In the US they are even going to change the narration and Alec Baldwin's voice will be taped over Sir Attenborough's. They are going to great lengths in order to avoid, what they call, controversy.

The telegraph even dared to publish a rubbish article by this so called "journalist" Christopher Booker, accusing and denigrating the episode saying things like

"‎By making its coverage so flagrantly one-sided on the environment issue, it has betrayed its statutory duty to report on world events impartially".

Now...to crap reporting there must be a limit. Not once I have heard Sir David saying the words "MAN MADE CLIMATE CHANGE". And I have listened very carefully! He just laid out the truth about our world's changes fair and square. He showed pictures of what it was before and what it is now. What animals were doing and how they are trying to cope now. Some species adapt, some migrate and some, unfortunately, suffer and won't adapt on time.

The press just keeps on dramatizing and lying and so called "journalists" with no qualifications on the topics they choose to discuss, just write without even knowing what they are writing about. I always believed that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, even if I don't agree with that. But the arguments need to have a certain foundation of intelligence before they are exposed to the rest of the world.

After my rant..*cough cough*.

I believe we live in a changing world, I believe we are changing it, damaging it and spoiling it. I believe in science.

check this out: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/climatechange/7221110/Climate-change-sceptics-playing-Russian-roulette-with-planet.html

Thank you all


23 July 2011

Oban Field Course

Oban from theMcCaig Tower
I am back! I am so sorry I have not been posting but I am hardly finding the time to sleep...and I LOVE sleeping my beloved 8 hours. 7 I can get away with but 8 it's perfection itself in my eyes.

Lighthouse view from the MV Calanus
Anyways, what have I been up to? Well I have been working hard, I have been to Scotland; to Oban to be more precise, for a week long field course for 1st and second years undergraduates. I really enjoyed demonstrating. The Students were really lovely and we managed to do some really fun activities. We had 3 groups that took turns each day on different field data collection events. We had 5 events in total: 


- Frontal features (MV Calanus) - mixed versus stratified waters, CTD+rosette, light, phosphate, chlorophyll, oxygen – compare spatial transect / across front, compare over 3 days, learn to calibrate fluorescence and oxygen sensors

- Hydrographic survey (MV Seol Mara) – Loch Etive 

- Fish farm ecological footprint 
CTD + Rosette sampling 

- Chemistry lab – analyse phosphate / chlorophyll / dissolved oxygen 

- Tides and currents – make CTD and current measurements from jetty 

The  students were asked to come up with their own sampling plan before we set off. They looked at the data collected in 2009 and then decided on an hypothesis and planned the data collection. We all worked really hard but we had our fun too.
Happy Students

I was in charge of the MV Calanus activity and after that I was just helping around with the tasks/students that needed assistance. Looooong days.

3 of us arrived in Oban the day before the students turned up so we stayed in hotel in the town (City??!) centre...The hotel had one of those 1970' names like "Queen Victoria" or "Regent Hotel" or "Royal Hotel"...something like that! The deco was most definitely 1970'...and the guest average age was around 70 years old! Probably all coming from a organised tour involving a traditional Christmas meal, in June! Just in case you felt you wouldn't make it to see December the 25th 2011...*cough cough*.  Thus, the atmosphere was a little decadent but I had fun having a drink at the bar were all the elderlies were entertained by a Scottish back-piper, the true essence of SCOOOOTLAND that is! 

Fish larvae and small fries
Anyways...the day after we moved with the group to a hostel on the seafront, run by this old and bitter Scottish lady who was a little abusive to us and generally disliked having guests and people in her house, which it's a bonus if you are running  a hotel business. Ahhh sweet memories.

I really enjoyed the visit to the fish farm where the owner took us around the "nursery" and talked to us for ages about how things are run and how difficult the business is. Still he has contracts with Waitrose and Asda...surely it is not that bad??
Halibut pocking out

The cages where the developing young adults are kept were out in the lochs. They keep Halibuts, amazing enormous flat fish, who like to pop at surface for a bit of a breather and to satisfy their curiosity (I like to think), just like sunfishes! They also have rainbow trouts, who like to leap out of the water an breach, and other species scattered along the area. A bit of a smelly place near the warehouses but all in all very interesting.   

On Thursday night Chris and I organised a little BBQ for the whole group. We had it on the beach in front of the SAMS institute where we were based. I must say the word "Summer" somehow doesn't cut it in Scotland. Chris and I drove back from Oban, where we left the place under torrential rain and 12 degrees centigrades and we arrived in Norwich with scorching sunshine and temperatures hitting 30 degrees...

13 June 2011

Catching up and Longitude

I must apologize, I haven't posted anything for a while but it has been a little manic around here.

My sister came to visit last weekend and I have also been busy trying to get hold of some zooplankton for my experiments (I run out). Plus, I have been preparing to head to Scotland next week, to demonstrate for an Oceanography undergraduate module but I will report on that when I get back.

Cycling over Tower Bridge
My sister Valentina, her fiancĂ©e Gabriele and our friends Marco and Eleonora took advantage of a bank holiday weekend in Italy and popped over to the UK. We spent a couple of days in London, under the blazing sun and we managed to fit a few touristy things in (spending the minimum amount of money I must stress!).

I particularly enjoyed renting those push bikes that Barcklays and their "cycle hire" scheme sponsors all around London http://www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/cycling/14808.aspx 

the London Eye in a summer day
We crossed Tower Bridge and cycled along the Thames path and docked our bikes at the London Eye. Along Southbank the "Indian Summer" festival was in full swing to celebrate the festival of Britain, apparently. Lovely set up with lots of stalls and street performers. To note: the queue for the London eye was so long that I couldn't figure out where it started. Pretty busy all around I say.

We then headed  South-East to Greenwich on the Thames ferry. I have never been there before. There were people everywhere! We managed to scramble up the observatory on the top of the hill but due to economical constraints we didn't enter it http://www.nmm.ac.uk/places/royal-observatory/

Yet, we were able to see the Prime Meridian, nicely laid out for people to pose with. We decided that a picture with us walking on it, wasn't worth braving the queue starting from outside the courtyard so we just admired it from afar (it is located pretty close to the gates in fact). 

Prime Meridian. Greenwich Observatory.
I think I would have liked to go inside and browse the planetarium and museum display, I am intrigued by Harrison's timekeepers. I read his biography written by Dava Sobel. The book is titled Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time and it explains in details how the invention of the chronometer improved navigation.

Summary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longitude_(book)

"Before the 18th century ocean navigators could not find an accurate way of determining longitude. This failure caused ships to miss their destination, many times crashing into rocks and killing their crews. A practical solution came from a simple carpenter, John Harrison, who solved one of the most difficult problems of his time by creating an accurate chronometer. The best scientists of the time, including Isaac Newton, thought it impossible. Harrison spent four decades perfecting a watch that would ultimately earn him the prize established by the Longitude Act of 1714, thanks to the recognition and influence of King George III of England" (from: http://www.nobeliefs.com/sobel.htm)

Imperial units of length.
The book is short and easy to read. Anyone interested in all things historical, mechanics, engineering, navigation and science would enjoy it, even if they are not great readers.

The observatory has also organised a photographic competition called "Astronomy Photographer of the Year"
It looks very promising, I am really not going to miss it! It's all online too. The pictures are amazing, the night sky never fails to amaze anyone with it's beauty romance and mysteries. Enjoy the show.

Grabriele, Marco, Eleonora and I

28 May 2011

Introduction to Plankton - Phytoplankton

In my first "Introduction to Plankton" post I introduced the different types of plankton that live in the ocean. I now would like to expand my introduction and focus on one plankton type at the time. I think the logical way to do it to start from the base of the oceanic food chain upwards (downwards in the picture below in order of appearance in the food web) . 

Oceanic food chain.
Phytoplankton at the base , eaten by zooplankton.
The term "food chain" stands for the representation of what species live in a certain ecosystem (environment) and how they are linked together in a sort of "who eats what" order. Basically all organisms that live in a certain habitat interact with each other, those interaction follow an order which, in simple words, start from the simplest life form upwards. 

Different habitats and ecosystems have evolved throughout time different complexities in their food chains, depending on how many species live there and the environmental factors. Although doesn't matter where, they all have one thing in common, the first link of the chain is plants or so called PHYTOPLANKTON (unicellular algae) in the ocean. 

Because plants and phytoplankton are the first link in the various chains they are called PRIMARY PRODUCERS. Plants can produce their own food through a process called photosynthesis (this is what autotrophs means: plants are autotrophs). The two most important things that phytoplankton needs to do that are:

  • light
  • Phytoplankton growth
  • nutrients  (inorganic)

So different light intensities and different nutrient concentrations will determine how well phytoplankton grows and develops. Temperature also plays a major role. Different environments often offer different amounts of the 2 required items. For example, think of polar waters compared to equatorial areas, you will find different species of phytoplankton living in these 2 parts of the world. This is because the 2 areas have completely different characteristics,  therefore the phytoplankton grows differently and over time evolved to adapt to the specific conditions of the habitats. 

Because of this dependence on light, phytoplankton productivity is highest near the surface water and decreases with depth. 

The most important Inorganic nutrients necessary for phytoplankton growth  are CARBON (C), NITROGEN (N) and PHOSPHATE (P) (macronutrients) plus others so called micronutrients such as IRON (Fe). Micro because they are necessary in smaller quantities for the cells to function.

Generally those nutrients are limited at the surface of the open ocean waters with nitrogen and phosphorus in especially short supply; (this is a primary reason for the relatively low productivity of open oceans). Marine phytoplankton is more productive near the coasts were input of nutrients come from the land running off into the surrounding waters. Also productivity is higher in upwelling areas where nutrient rich waters come to the surface.

In one of  the next posts I will talk about the different types of phytoplankton and how to culture it! 

24 May 2011

Norwich and Norfolk Festival 2011

Giant Robot-wolves and "piper" driving a wolf-head
For the past 2 weeks (6-21 of May) here in the East of England we had a large festival going on; the so called NNF11 aka Norwich and Norfolk Festival 2011.

The festival's programme included theatrical and musical events as well as workshops for all ages and general random entertainment.

Gosh it took me ages to figure out how to spell the word entertainment...

special effects of giant robot wolves
with so much going on in the lab I managed to select only a few events. The first thing I went to see was this crazy giant robot wolves performance. It was an interpretation of the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamling where the wolves followed an incredible woman playing the piano at the same time as driving a giant wolf head-cart around the city centre...I forgot to mention she is even a contortionist!

The day after (the beginning of the weekend), opened with the "May Daze". In Chapelfield Gardens they set up a lot of stalls and mini shows. I went to see the "side show of curiosities". Quite random as you can see from the picture of the bearded Houdini mermaid...very funny though! It involved cabaret & burlesque events. http://www.hocuspocustheatre.co.uk/
bearded Houdini mermaid
street entertainment

I loved the randomness of some of these performances, the colours and the creativity behind each thought and costumes. There were a lot of science outreach events too, mainly connected to pollution and conservation. Some very interesting workshops of mixing Art and Science as well (I love it).

Back to the festival. In the main time, all over the city, art displays and streets performances were on.

The highlight of the week for me was the "Dining with Alice" show http://diningwithalice.co.uk/. For that we traveled to Elsing Hall, a 15th century moated manor house in rural Norfolk. A wonderful place so fairy-tale like, my pictures don't do it justice so here the direct link http://www.elsinghall.com/. Some of my friends have even volunteered to participate and gave up much of their precious time for the performance! The attention to the details was fabulous.

dining with Alice 1

Dinner table
Izzy and I enjoying the party/show

Final show

In the end I managed to fit in a puppet show as well as a great classical music/choir concert at the Norwich Cathedral (The so called "voice project"), a very enchanting setting with so much history and atmosphere http://www.cathedral.org.uk/.

I seem to go through phases when I listen to a lot of classical music and others when I am more into contemporary pop/rock/folk genre. At present I am loving the old school classics, particularly while I am trying to write up a paper I wish to publish soon (ish...a few months I suspect)..we'll see. I found that listening to new age type of noises, the sound of waves in particular is also very soothing and helps me focusing blocking the other background noises out. Strangely on the website I found: http://www.partnersinrhyme.com/wmcstore/WMCshop.cgi?action=dbview&id=EA25 you can even select background such as "electric fan"...

I am disappointed I didn't get tickets for some of the show in the main tent arena but there is always next year. Shakespeare season is opening now, not that I understand all of what the actors are saying, with me being foreign and all, but I love a bit of theatre none the less! Shows really break the routine and they are very social.