First Year Biologists Reach Out to the Community

A major part of the Semester 2 Biology tutorials involves a group project where our first year students work together on a project that brings biological science to the local community. This allows the students to engage actively in science-based activities within the local community while developing team-working, project-management and problem-solving skills. On May 9, 2016, a symposium was held where each first year biology tutorial group presented their projects to each other and to an elite panel of Faculty of Life Sciences judges – Professor Matthew Cobb (Professor of Zoology), Professor Cathy McCrohan (Professor of Comparative Neurobiology), Professor Liz Sheffield (Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning) and Mr Rory Beresford (Final year Biology Student Representative on the Student-Staff Liaison Committee).

More than 75 students took part in the 2 hour event which highlighted the scope, diligence and imagination involved in bringing biology to the local community.  Students worked as tutorial groups to raise funds and awareness through cake sales, informative leaflets, and by setting up information stands in the Stopford, the Student Union and at events like Just Fest 2016.  Through these activities they supported diverse topics such as Manchester’s bees, Food Waste, Blood Donation, and the Christie’s hospital.  Others laboured to improve the environment by clearing allotments, planting pumpkin patches and building composters with local/University organizations like Hulme Garden Centre.  Others work on upland restoration by planting sphagnum moss.  Groups also worked to raise awareness about the benefits or organic farming and the lack of composting on the University campus.

The overall winner of the day was a group of students from our Associate Dean for Social Responsibility, Prof Amanda Bamford’s tutorial group who raised awareness of the thermoregulatory issues neonates face (see photo).  Their campaign, ‘knit for neonates’ reached out to the wider community and encouraged people to knit hats to cover the heads of these tiny babies to prevent heat loss.  By engaging retired members of the public (who arguably had the best knitting skills) , they also helped reduce the social isolation felt by many seniors.  Together, with the help of Stopford Reception staff and other knitters,  they collected 917 knitted caps for St Mary’s hospital!  They plan to continue the initiative and encourage their world-wide team of knitters to make blankets as well as little hats.  Members of this winning team were each presented with an award (High Street Gift Certificates worth £20) by Professor Liz Sheffield.

An honourable mention went to Dr Ron Burke’s tutorial group who decided to tackle the disengagement many youngsters have for science.  They researched schools and curriculums and then developed an engaging and informative series of activities to enthuse students in Science.  They spent a day during National Science Week in a local school with students in the final year of primary.  Their aim was to make pupils consider science as a subject and also as a career when they moved schools next year.  Upon presenting the awards Professor Liz Sheffield remarked that “it was fantastic to see the resourceful and imaginative ways our students brought science to the community.  Many of the projects will have a lasting legacy”. The event was rounded off with a pizza party for the students, Advisors and Judges who deserved both praise and pizza for their hard work!

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Photo of the judges and the winning group ‘Knit for Neonate’.  From Left to Right: Cathy McCrohan, Rory Beresford, Matthew Cobb, back row: Cam Brough, Rowena Seaton Kelly, Kira Pattinson, Kath Bailey; front row: Jenny Capel, Lucy Helas, Amanda Bamford, Ffion Hall, Rachel Sparrow, Ben Williams and Liz Sheffield.


Article by Biology Programme Director Holly Shiels

Zika virus vaccine to be developed in Manchester

A University of Manchester team is to develop a new vaccine against the Zika virus as part of a new initiative to counter the disease which has spread rapidly across the Americas in the last few months.

The team will create and test a vaccine based on a safe derivative of a pre-existing smallpox vaccine – the only disease to have been successfully globally eradicated.

Dr Tom Blanchard, Honorary Senior Lecturer at The University of Manchester and Fellow of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and Consultant in Infectious Diseases at North Manchester General Hospital and the Royal Liverpool Hospital will lead the project. Professor Pam Vallely and Dr Eddie McKenzieare University of Manchester experts involved in the project and the work will be done in collaboration with Professors Miles Carrol and Roger Hewson from Public Health England.

Dr Blanchard said:

“As we have seen in the case of Ebola there is now a real need to react quickly to fast spreading tropical diseases. Zika can cause serious illness, but it often has no visible symptoms, so a vaccine for those at risk is one of the most effective ways we have of combatting it.”

Zika virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947 and the disease is mainly spread by mosquitoes, though there have been reports of human to human transmission. It is particularly serious for pregnant women, as it’s been linked to birth defects – in particular, microcephaly, a condition where a baby’s brain doesn’t grow properly and it is born with an abnormally small head and serious development problems.

A recent and particularly severe outbreak which began in South America and has since spread north to United States Territories prompted the Medical Research Council, The Wellcome Trust and the Newton Fund to launch a £4m rapid response funding initiative at the beginning of February.

The results of this call for proposals have been announced today and Dr Blanchard and his team were awarded £177,713 to build and test a vaccine as part of this.

It is expected that the results will be delivered within 18 months and although the first target will be the Zika virus, the nature of the vaccine candidate may enable it to combat many infectious diseases simultaneously.

Dr Blanchard added:

“We know that there’s an urgent need for this vaccine but we’ll be working carefully to deliver a product which is safe and effective and which can be quickly deployed to those who need it.

If we can also use this vaccine on multiple targets then this will represent an exciting step forward in dealing with these kinds of outbreaks.”

 

Huge carbon stores discovered beneath UK grasslands

 

A nationwide survey by ecologists has revealed that over 2 billion tons of carbon is stored deep under the UK’s grasslands, helping to curb climate change.

However, decades of intensive farming, involving heavy fertilizer use and excessive livestock grazing, have caused a serous decline in valuable soil carbon stocks in grasslands across the UK.

The nationwide survey was carried out by a team of scientists from the Universities of Manchester, Lancaster, Reading and Newcastle, as well as Rothamsted Research.

The team found that 60% of the UK’s total soil carbon stored in grasslands – covering a third of UK land surface – is between 30cm and 1m deep. The team estimated the total grassland soil carbon in Great Britain to be 2097 teragrams of carbon to a depth of 1m.

Though the effects of high intensity agriculture are strongest in the surface layer of soil, they also discovered that this deep carbon is sensitive to the way land has been farmed.

Dr Sue Ward, the lead author of the paper from Lancaster Environment Centre, said:

“What most surprised us was the depth at which we were still able to detect a change in soil carbon due to historic land management.

“We have long known that carbon is stored in surface soils and is sensitive to the way land is managed. But now we know that this too is true at considerable soil depths under our grasslands.

“This is of high relevance given the extent of land cover and the large stocks of carbon held in managed grasslands worldwide.”

In contrast, the soils that were richest in carbon were those that had been subjected to less intensive farming, receiving less fertilizer and with fewer grazing animals. The team found that soil carbon stocks were 10% higher at intermediate levels of management, compared to intensively managed grasslands.

Professor Richard Bardgett from The University of Manchester said:

“Our findings suggest that by managing our grasslands in a less intensive way, soil carbon storage could be important to our future global carbon targets, but will also bring benefits for biodiversity conservation.”

He added:

“These findings could impact how grasslands are managed for carbon storage and climate mitigation, as current understanding does not account for changes in soil carbon at these depths.

“Our findings suggest that by managing our grasslands in a less intensive way, soil carbon storage could be important to our future global carbon targets, but will also bring benefits for biodiversity conservation.”

The research is part of a five year research project, supported by DEFRA, aimed at managing UK grassland diversity for multiple ecosystem services, including carbon capture.

 


The paper, ‘Legacy effects of grassland management on soil 1 carbon to depth’ is available in the journal Global Change Biology.

Costa Rican Ambassador visits the Faculty of Life Sciences

costaricanambassadorvisittolifesciencesThe Costa Rican ambassador recently travelled to Manchester to help further the established links between the Faculty of Life Sciences and Costa Rica.

His Excellency J. Enrique Castillo officially launched ‘Learning with Lucy’, a University of Manchester campaign to save one of the world’s rarest frogs.

Lucy Marland, 9, joined forces with The University of Manchester after coming face to face with a Lemur Leaf Frog, kept at Manchester Museum and one of only a few hundred left anywhere in the world.

The campaign aims to educate primary age school children in the UK, Sweden, and in the Guayacan region of Costa Rica, where the frog still survives, about the amphibian and its threatened rainforest habitat.

The Faculty runs a second-year field course to Costa Rica every year where students are able to explore the breath-taking biodiversity of the country.

The Faculty has a long standing relationship with Costa Rica, with the field course running for many years. It is hoped the ambassador’s visit will strengthen the ties between the University and Costa Rica and will open up new doors of partnership.

After his tour of the Faculty’s facilities, the Ambassador said:

“My country is grateful for this contribution from the University of Manchester and the Museum to the protection of endangered species in Costa Rica and to the country’s efforts in environment protection in general.

I look forward to cementing the already very good relationship between The University of Manchester and Costa Rica.”

Professor Amanda Bamford, Associate Dean for Social Responsibility said:

“This University of Manchester project also supports environmental education in primary schools in Costa Rica, where these frogs occur in the wild, not only reflects a genuine commitment to helping conserve endangered species but also provides us with a wonderful opportunity for our undergraduates to exercise their global citizenship.”

National Trust work experience launches

In partnership with the National Trust the Faculty of Life Sciences have launched a new work experience program giving undergraduate students an opportunity to get hands-on experience working with one of the UK’s largest conservation charities. The monthly events, organised by Amanda Bamford and Adam Hugill, led by Ashley Deane, a Manchester Biology Graduate and National Trust Ranger, each focus on a different area of conservation giving students a wide range of experiences.

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Shortly before Christmas, 14 Life Sciences students headed down to the National Trust site at Styal Mill for the first of these events focussing on fish passes and submerged camera technology. The students spent the morning learning about the importance of fish passes and got their hands dirty practising how to carry out the regular maintenance of the passes and how this affects its use by fish. After a chance to explore the site further the students braved the Manchester weather and carried out river surveys measuring river flow and their profiles working closely with Ashley, fellow ranger Claire Disley and Manchester PhD student Cecilia Medupin.

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The day was a great success with all involved looking forward to the resumption after the Christmas break:

Ashley Deane, National Trust Ranger:

“Having graduated from the same university with many of the same units I studied still available to study today I have put together the whole programme designed to offer opportunity for undergraduates to gain practical experience which will help them in extremely competitive jobs hunt. All the students seemed to thoroughly enjoy the day- in all a great day was had all round.’’

Charlie Hewitt, 2nd Year Biology Student:

“Ashley was great and her enthusiasm for her job made the event. It seems that she gets a lot out of what she does and has made me consider a similar role to hers for my own future.”

Amanda Bamford, Associate Dean for Social Responsibility:

”I am really delighted that we have been able to develop this exciting collaboration between our Faculty and the National Trust. This is a unique opportunity for our students to learn and work alongside National Trust rangers out in field, helping with the protection and care of habitats and wildlife and importantly gaining valuable work experience.”

Adam Hugill

If you are interested in one of the future events please contact Employability.FLS@manchester.ac.uk

 

Tuesday Feature Episode 18: Ciara Stafford

Episode 18 of our Tuesday Feature is with Ciara Stafford, a PhD student who looks at how Monkeys and humans coexist! Ciara gets the chance to spend a lot of time out in the Ecuadorian Amazon researching this. We had a quick chat with her about her research, how it can help us here in the UK, and what it’s like doing a PhD in Manchester!

Can you explain your research for the layman in ten sentences or less?DSC_0048

I work in the Amazon rain forest. I’m particularly interested in what happens when animals share the same habitat with indigenous communities that are still dependent on the forest for a living. So are the animals benefited by the people being there? Are they exploited by the people being there? Do people value them, care about them? Do people know that these animals are actually living around them?  So I’m particularly interested in primates because it’s been shown that throughout a lot of the Amazon that they’ve been over-exploited and they’ve been having a bit of a tough time recently. The idea is that if we can understand some of these relationships between people and wildlife, we can make much better conservation decisions; it’s been shown that conservation works a lot better if you work with people rather than against them.

How can your research benefit the person reading this blog?

I think it’s really easy to think that the stuff that goes on in the rainforest with monkeys has no relevance to say wildlife issues in the UK, but if you actually look at what the core problems are between people and wildlife here, a lot of them are exactly the same. Even though it might sound I’m doing research in the middle of nowhere, the issues that I’m tackling are a lot of the same of the conservation issues we have here.

How did you first get interested in primates and conservation?

I don’t know – I kind of wanted to be a zoologist as long as I can remember. When I was little I had this obsession with those little Early Learning Centre animals and there are pictures of me on camping trips – next to my sleeping bags there are these little rows of marine mammals and I would refuse to go anywhere without. I liked animals – I was never particularly interested in primates (which sounds pretty bad) but all that I knew was that when I work outside, I’m really happy and when I work with animals I’m really interested in them. I think that if you have a PhD that’s going to have field work – regardless if that’s in the middle of the rainforest or whether that’s in a reserve that’s 20 minutes from Norwich, it’s going to be adventure! You won’t know what’s going to happen next and that’s really exciting.

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?

Science heroes – there’s a guy down at the UEA (University of East Anglia) in Norfolk, Carlos Perez; he’s basically a legend of neo-tropical primates (primates that live in Brazil and Ecuador and other places that I go to). The guy has put in some serious hours traipsing around the rainforest and has put out some really cool papers. I don’t think you really do that unless you love what you do – so yeah, he’s a bit of a science hero.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Manchester is generally just a great place to do a PhD. You get a lot of support from the staff and we also have a lot of brilliant links with a University out in Ecuador which we collaborate with. They run the research stations and it’s the whole reason that I’m able to go there.

What do you outside of work?

It’s going to sound really sad because I’m like animals – animals, animals, animals all the time, but I draw. Mainly birds and things like that. I also spend a lot of time down in Norwich, which is where my boyfriend is, and he’s a RSPB warden and I’m a bit obsessed with Fens so every weekend that I’m there, I go down to the Nature reserve to have a look at what we can find.

Ciara also recently did a Minute Lecture with us – check it out here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHmBOuPwyQc

How tuna stay warm with cold hearts

Working with colleagues at Stanford University, Dr Holly Shiels and her team have discovered how bluefin tuna keep their hearts pumping during temperatures that would stop a human’s heart from beating. The research answers important questions about how animals react to rapid temperature changes, knowledge which becomes more important as the earth warms.

Bluefin tunaPacific bluefin tuna are top predators renowned for their epic migrations. They are unique among bony fish as they are warm-bodied and capable of elevating their core temperature up to 20°C above that of the water that surrounds them. They are also capable of diving down to the colder waters below 1000m, which affects their heart temperature. Dr Holly Shiels said:

“When tunas dive down to cold depths their body temperature stays warm but their heart temperature can fall by 15°C within minutes. The heart is chilled because it receives blood directly from the gills which mirrors water temperature. This clearly imposes stress upon the heart but it keeps beating, despite the temperature change. In most other animals the heart would stop.”

 

The team conducted their research at Stanford University’s Tuna Research and Conservation Center, one of the only places on the planet with live tuna for research. They used archival tags to track and monitor the fish in the wild, measuring the depth they swam to, their internal body temperature, and the ambient water temperature. They then used the data to set experimental conditions in the lab with single heart tuna cells, investigating how they beat. Dr Shiels explained the findings:

“We discovered that changes in the heart beat due to the temperate, coupled with the stimulation of adrenalin by diving, adjusts the electrical activity of the heart cells to maintain the constant calcium cycling needed to keep pumping. If we went through this temperature change our calcium cycling would be disrupted, our hearts would stop beating, and we would die.”

The next step for the team will be to test other fish species to see if this method of keeping the heart pumping at low temperatures is unique to bluefin tuna. Dr Shiels concluded:

“This research was about understanding how animals perform under dramatic environmental changes. This gives us a clear insight into how one species maintains its heart function over varying temperatures, something we will need to study further given recorded changes in the earth’s temperature.”