Science for Work and Pleasure

August was a busy month. Two harvests for an MSc student project at work made for a few hectic and, at times, stressful weeks. But now, a month and a half into my new role, I am loving my job. I love the people, the purpose it gives me, the atmosphere which promotes curiosity, and truly feel proud to work at such a prestigious university doing research relevant to climate change mitigation. Ok, gush over – so what have I been up to?

I’ve already learnt how to use three of the instruments, the AutoAnalyser, TOC and C/N Analyser (known as the cube). I’m also still growing plants at the greenhouse, and along with other lab mates, we had some issues with plants being dug up. After some investigating it turned out that a squirrel had buried a few hazelnuts in our sample pots and was now sneaking back in through the roof ventilation gap to dig them up. But as the cliche goes, it couldn’t remember exactly where they were so was scratching away at multiple pots a night.

Settling in at work has taken up a lot of my energy, but I have continued to push myself to try something new every month. I’ll have an update on that soon, this months new thing is happening on Tuesday and it’s a doozy so I’ll write a ‘new things’ post after that.

At the moment I am house sitting for my aunt and uncle, which means I get to roam Monty Toothkind around their lovely big house, but more importantly to me, I get to cuddle their lovely cat, Monty. He’s the original Bengal cat that made me want one, leading me to get Mango, the gone but not forgotten super affectionate and characterful kitty. The cycle to work is a fair bit longer and on an even busier route! But I’m persevering so far, until the really awful weather hits.

This weekend I finally ran the Science themed puzzle hunt I have wanted to do since creating the club. I spent nearly a month planning it but did find myself finishing a few things the night before! Thankfully it still went off without a hitch, and we had our highest turnout yet. Unlike previous hunts which were all based around town, this time half of the clues were out and about, but the rest were in a pub function room. This allowed me to rely more heavily on props.


Same Lab, New Job!

After three fixed term contracts at the University of Manchester, I am thrilled to have secured a full-time position as the Research Technician for the remainder of the BBSRC Root to Stability Project. This role is fairly similar to that which I have been doing on and off since December, but with some additional responsibilities and duties. For instance, I will have more autonomy and will be involved in more of the analysis, planning and writing up.

I don’t officially start the new job until the first of September, but my casual contract up until then means we can get the training started straight away. I’m so happy to continue working with all my friends in the Soil and Ecosystem Ecology lab, and that I get to play an important role in this interesting climate change related research.


Notes on Novelty – April to July

At the start of the year, I set myself the goal of trying at least one new thing each month. Six months in, I have a tidy list of new experiences and skills, and fond memories of the people I met along the way.

April: I designed and ran my first ever puzzle hunt (which also happened to be the first ever event I’ve run entirely on my own, based outside of work/education). For more, see my earlier post here.

May: I gave my first presentation on my own research – it may only have been to the 5 people of an interview panel, but it’s still a first for me. All my previous presentations have been group work, or based on general topics rather than my own work. I wrote about the experience here.

June: While at the RSPB Hay Day, I learnt to use a scythe to cut grass the traditional way.

July: With a lovely friend from work called Ully, I went to the Leeds Tattoo Expo – my first tattoo expo and actually my first real convention (I’ve decided the UCAS Higher Education Fair definitely doesn’t count). Neither of us got any new ‘ink’ done, but it was fascinating to see the process up close, and there was some stunning artwork on show (both displayed on stalls, and walking around on peoples skin). We also met up with some friends of Ully’s from Edinburgh, who had a stall at the expo.

A Coombes Valley Hay Day Visit

Sunshine and botany

Jonathan and Holly

I visited Coombes Valley RSPB reserve yesterday with my friend Jonathan, who worked there at the same time I did my research internship. The day was pretty dull when we set out, but quickly turned in to an absolute stunner. In fact, some sun cream and sunglasses were in order! To celebrate National Meadows Day, they had put on their annual Hay Day celebration (which is also a requisite of some National Lottery Funding).

The sun was shining, live folk music floated out from the yurt, children giggled at the creatures found while pond dipping. Stalls had been set up in the education barn for the local bat group, the results of a moth trapping session, and three family craft activities. I examined the moths which had been placed in individual pots, and some were truly beautiful. It was my first time seeing a buff-tip moth up close, and I was utterly convinced the tub contained a piece of twig at first.

We also had a quick walk around the site to look at the finished canopy walk way, and I tried my hand at scything, before we finished with an hour long guided wild flower walk. It was fascinating to discover one of the meadows contained most of the plants being grown as part of one of Angie’s experiments. We harvest them before they reach maturity, so it was interesting to see what they’d grow in to.

It was lovely to catch up with the site manager, Mel, and the head ranger, Bennett, along with some of the long term volunteers; we also got to meet all the new interns who were doing Jonathan or Becky’s jobs now. They aren’t hosting a research intern at the moment, but those are rare so it’s not surprising.


A Mini Eden Hidden in Student Central

I’ve spent many hours working at ‘The Firs’, which is what most of the users call the Manchester University Botanical Grounds in Fallowfield. It’s hidden between student accommodation and a large sports ground, and bordered by old imposing brick walls – such that most people have no idea it’s even there. Despite all those days sieving soil and checking plants for aphids, I hadn’t ventured into the tropical greenhouse until yesterday. Partially concealed behind shade painted glass is a small but beautiful tropical bubble. With 3 heat zones, it reminded me of the Eden Project but on a miniature scale – not that the individual plants are mini! In fact, some of the cacti are up to 90 years old, and have repeatedly had to be trimmed away from the roof panes.

Back to the Lab, and a Happy Houseguest

I’m very happy to be working at the University of Manchester again. Angie contacted me out of the blue and a week later I was back in the familiar setting of Richard Bardgett and Franciska De Vries’ Soil and Ecosytem Ecology Lab. It’s the busy fieldwork season anyway, and Angie realised a new student was going to need more help than expected with her project, so some funds were found for me to help. Little did she know just how much help she’d need, as a week into my new contract, her research technician handed in her notice!

It’s great to be working among all my friends there again, to be doing science, and to feel I have a defined purpose. The role is very similar to my last one, with root scanning, grinding, C/N parcelling, caring for plants, and collecting root exudates on the cards. The lab also has the added bonus during the current heatwave, that I can go and stand in the cold room when it gets too much!

cold room

When the oppressive, humid heat finally got too much, I escaped into the cold room for a 3 minute break – and I wasn’t the only one with that idea!

In other news, I am cat-sitting for a friend at the moment. She works at the lab too, but is currently in Costa Rica helping out on a student fieldtrip. We’ve had two cats in the past and are all animal lovers, so it wasn’t hard to convince the others to let the cat come to us. I am lucky enough to live in a big house, so even though we can’t let him outside (we live near a main road), kitty has plenty of space to explore. The cats name is Sirius and he is an absolute sweetie pie, and much better behaved than Mango was. He is also a big scaredy cat though, so thus far, he has voluntarily stayed mostly in my bedroom anyway. He tucks himself into tiny spaces, like down the side of my bed next the wall, or on top of some boxes right under the eaves. When he does occasionally venture downstairs, even a tiny noise will startle him and he shoots back to my bedroom. He’s been here for nearly two weeks now, and has another week to go. I will be genuinely sad to give him back, it’s been lovely to have a cat again.

Victory at Puzzle Hunt 2

The day started off very soggy which unfortunately dissuaded a few people from making the trip to town. Nevertheless, we had a good enough turnout to just about cover the website costs.

This hunt began in Victoria Train station – it had been planned before the attack on the arena (which is adjoined to the station). We decided to postpone for a week, for obvious reasons, and happily I noticed that none of us were scared or preoccupied with rubbernecking in the station.

This hunt was created by Aidan, who attended my hunt last month. The clues were great and had a very professional layout – we were all impressed.

The route took us around the Northern Quarter, including to a few quirky shops and examples of beautiful architecture we wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. We stopped for a snack here and a drink there, often bumping into the other team, which was handled with all good humour. It certainly isn’t a cut-throat competitive group.

One clue took us to the beautiful new bee mural on Oldham street, painted with 22 bees as a tribute to the 22 people who lost their lives in the Ariana Grande attack. Not that I spent much time looking at it, far too busy desperately trying to work out what a magic eye puzzle said. I’m normally very good at them, but this had 3 rows and 4 columns of numbers on an A4 sheet – that’s quite a lot of detail for a magic eye!

Half an hour and a headache later we headed to the next clue. Sudoku, semaphore, a riddle, a rebus and codes all played a part in this entertaining race, and to my surprise even clues left out in the open weren’t moved or stolen by the public.

We headed to a pub afterwards to play around with some ideas for future hunts, and laugh at ourselves for the inevitable frustrations of the day. All in, a great way to spend 4 hours on a Saturday. Hopefully there will be enough interest for me to keep the group going for a while.