Our students often have exciting summers and this summer was no different. Here, undergraduate Molly Czachur, talks about her summer of sharks and symposiums.
I am an undergraduate student, and this summer I have had the privilege of receiving funding for a Sustainability Studentship at The University of Manchester. I worked together with Syafiq Musa, a first year PhD student for 3 months.
My project was to assist him in setting up a study of the effects of climate change on the early development of 2 endemic British elasmobranchs: the small spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula) and the thornback ray (Raja clavata). These responses may provide vital evidence for the sustainability of these native UK elasmobranch species under predicted climate change, and these species were chosen as a model to represent all elasmobranch species whose life history strategy includes an egg case phase.
The wider project aims to establish the effects of predicted climate change for the year 2100 on the development of the shark egg cases. For me, this involved helping to set up a system of 8 mini biospheres, each with its own mini climate that reflects different aspects of climate change. These aspects included changes in temperature (ocean warming), carbon dioxide (hypercapnia) and oxygen (hypoxia).
To help us build our system of mini biospheres, we attended conferences and read scientific literature to build up our knowledge of sharks and climate change. The first conference we attended was on the theme of ocean acidification with the Royal Society in London. We met some of the world leading researchers in the field of climate change, and talked to them about our project. I had the opportunity to learn from the experts about the direct effects of human habits that are not sustainable for the oceans and our environment, and I watched leading scientists present their research that tested the effects of ocean acidification on marine life.
We also attended the annual symposium held by the Fisheries Society of the British Isles, and this years’ theme was elasmobranch biology, ecology and conservation. The 5-day conference was held in Plymouth, and included presentations about sharks and rays, which expanded my knowledge of elasmobranchs beyond my university education, allowing me to apply the biology and ecology that I learnt to inform my own understanding on how to sustainably manage our study species. We also spoke to researchers from all over the world about experimental approaches and their experiences of working with our study species. I met lots of like minded people, became informed on how to share science to a wider audience, and I was even inspired to set up a Twitter page (@zoologymolly)!
In addition to our conferences away from our University, I was able to attend multiple tutorials, lab meetings and even an Ecology conference in Manchester with Syafiq, where I heard members of our laboratory speak about their projects and their progress with PhD and other projects, as well as Syafiq and I talking about our own progress over the summer. I had a chance to learn about the scope of the projects and facilities available at The University of Manchester, as well as meeting with people working in academia -a priceless experience for an undergraduate student like myself.
After learning the theory behind the two elasmobranch species, Syafiq and I set off into the field looking for egg cases in a natural environment -usually attached to seaweed by their long and stringy tendrils. Also known as mermaid’s purses, the egg cases are often found washed up on beaches at the high tide line, hidden in the seaweed that has also washed up. All of the egg cases that we found were empty, so the shark had already left the egg case, but they were still useful because we could study the egg cases in detail. Later stages of Syafiq’s project will involve scratching the dark pigmented layer off the egg case to leave a window, where he will be able to look into the egg cases and see the shark embryo developing inside in real time. We could therefore use the empty egg cases to practice scratching off the pigment. As well as being useful for us, we were able to submit our egg case findings to a nationwide survey called The Great Eggcase Hunt by The Shark Trust, contributing to a large record of egg cases distribution across the UK.
Whilst in the field, we used specialist equipment to measure the seawater conditions, to give us more information about todays water conditions.
Based on all that we learnt in theory and in the field, we then set up the biosphere system, with the 8 tanks that imitate different aspects of the predicted future climate for the year 2100. We created 8 environments: four of the tanks were at an ambient temperature of 15°C, and 4 tanks were at an elevated temperate of 20°C. Each of the four tanks had different treatments for 1) a control biosphere which was the same as todays conditions, 2) a low oxygen environment (hypoxic), 3) a high carbon dioxide environment (hypercapnic) and 4) a combined hypoxic/hypercapnic treatment.
Together we wrote a proposal for a supply of shark egg cases from an aquarium, which allowed me to practice writing in the style of a project proposal -a useful skill for writing grant proposals in the future, and very relevant to the academic career that I hope to pursue.
Through my many contacts that I gained during this studentship, I ended up volunteering at Manchester Museum where I filmed and edited a short film (https://youtu.be/NuqZvYvpCcY) and helped recurate a collection of crustaceans. I also had the chance to go shark tagging off the coast of North Wales, where I had first hand experience of some of our very own British shark species. By working at Manchester University with the Undergraduate Sustainability Studentship, many doors opened for me. This scheme not only reinforced the importance of acting sustainably to support marine wildlife, it also gave me a priceless opportunity to work alongside academic staff and postgraduate researchers, something that would not have been possible without the funding from this scheme, and I hope that this initiative continues to spread the important message of sustainability to undergraduate students.