Leila Bedenham – Benefits of fieldwork for microbiologists in a multinational setting

I headed to Akureyri, Iceland for two weeks as part of a group made up of students from my university, the University of Reading as well as students from Belgium and Germany and those at the our host institution the University of Akureyri. This was for a field course searching for microbes living in the extreme environments Iceland has to offer, such as the geothermal pools with painfully high temperatures and soil at high altitudes.

This meant we went out and did some exploring of northern Iceland; I was part of a group that looked into the environment soil provides for various microbes. We hiked and climbed the highest mountains in the name of microbiology and took soil samples at different altitudes and of different conditions.

We did three field trips; the first consisted of hiking up a mountain to get soil samples from the top at about a 5cm depth using a bulb planter tool and falcon tubes to put the sample in. On the hike we encountered some fascinating iron oxidising bacteria which left an orange residue on the soil by a water source, which I sampled using a spoon and alcohol to sterilise it. For the second field trip I took soil samples by a waterfall using a spade to dig to a 5cm depth and then taking a sample of that soil. For the third field trip we went to the seashore and sampled at the beach, which was very different from a typical beach, with its black sand, very cold sea and picturesque snow topped mountains surrounding it.

Leila Bedenham - samplingOur group for the field trip was multinational with students coming from all over to study environmental microbiology as well as students studying different areas of science at different levels. There was a wide range of specialties from geologists to microbiologists. This was of huge benefit as it enables you to see the differences in lab work and technique between students from different countries and to also have different viewpoints for the same course. For example looking at where we obtained a microbial sample from geological point of view and how the rocks can affect the sample. This is a refreshing view because as a microbiologist I wouldn’t have looked at it in that way.

For the duration of the course we were paired with students from different universities than our own, I was paired with a PhD student from Belgium, Pauline. I learnt a lot from her, including different techniques and methods in the lab to new presenting skills as well as the fact that she was a better hiker.
Leila Bedenham - group photoThe fact that this course was multinational really makes it very special as it brings together lots of people from all over to study and learn from each other while ultimately having fun doing something everyone loves.

Watch Leila & Pauline’s video:

Samuel Holton – The world of environmental microbiology: a multinational venture

Despite being the most sparsely populated country in Europe, any lack in Iceland’s population is made up by its spectacular natural wonders and miles upon miles of otherworldly tundra. This summer, I was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to immerse myself in this environment, through a unique geo-microbiology field trip. We were to study how extreme environments can yield just as extreme microorganisms. Nicknamed “the land of fire and ice” and abundant in these environments, Iceland was the perfect location to study this field of research. The trip was to consist of three main components: lectures and seminars from staff in their specialist fields, field trips to gather samples and dedicated lab time to analyse these samples.

However, on top of an already fantastic sounding trip there was an additional twist. The opportunity to work in a multinational setting. Our Icelandic adventure was to be shared with students and academics from three European universities. This included our hosts, the University of Akureyri, Jacobs University (Germany) and Ghent University (Belgium).

Overlooking Akureyri and towards the arctic circle, our home for the next two weeks

Overlooking Akureyri and towards the arctic circle, our home for the next two weeks

Leading up to the trip, I was excited by the prospect of enhancing my microbiological toolkit in the laboratory as well as exploring fieldwork, a completely new area to me. I was also keen to hear from Icelandic, German and Belgian students about their experiences at University and how their teaching and learning methods differ from ours.

Once in Iceland, I was assigned to the water sampling group along with 2 students from each University. Over the next two weeks we went on field trips to a glacial river, waterfall and fjord. So far as a microbiologist, I have never collected my own samples, so it was beneficial to understand the environment where they came from. This gave me an insight into what type of microbes I should expect to find. It also felt more personal working on your own samples and rewarding when microbes started appearing on the agar plates! The field trips helped bring to life theories discussed in our geology evening lectures. This was helpful as geology was another completely new area for me. During these trips and laboratory sessions my group gelled incredibly well, united by a language known to us all –science! Having a mixed nationally group of scientists was invaluable. Through discussing the science and sharing our knowledge of laboratory and field techniques and how they can vary, reinforced my understanding in each area.

Water sampling group. Left to right: Sam, Nelisa, Lizi, Helga, Jo, Lucinda, Thijs and Evette

Water sampling group. Left to right: Sam, Nelisa, Lizi, Helga, Jo, Lucinda, Thijs and Evette

“If you call a person who speaks two languages bilingual, what do you call a person who speaks one language…British!” This joke, told by a Belgian student, highlights our stereotypically poor language skills in comparison to other nationalities. The trip has made me consider breaking this stereotype and working abroad for future study. With the teamwork and communicational skills I have gained on this course, I am in a good position to do so.

Overall, I have thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. It was incredible to participate in a trip with other passionate microbiologists. I have not only learnt a huge amount about my own discipline but also in new areas e.g. fieldwork, geo-chemistry. These experiences are important in becoming a well-rounded scientist.

Hannah Collard – Benefits of fieldwork for microbiologists in a multinational setting

I have just taken part in environmental microbiology fieldwork in Iceland, as part of a third year module with the University of Reading. It took place over two weeks between the 14th and 28th June with two groups of students from Ghent University in Belgium and Jacobs University in Germany creating a multinational setting for the trip.

This program has been very beneficial for me academically and personally. I found on the trip I learnt from the students and lecturers from different nationalities through the way they carried out techniques in the lab and the differences in teaching styles. For example colony PCR was carried out differently by the lecturers from Reading and Jacobs. One way was adding the bacteria to the ready master mix and the other was done oppositely however both techniques showed same effectiveness; I learnt two different ways of doing the same procedure.

Pluses for fieldwork came through the integration of the different students in the work groups. I was in a lab group with one German student and one Slovenian student both from completely different degree programs. I learnt a great deal from them through a new approach of studying the environments around the sampling areas through the rock types, formation and nutrients and minerals associated. As a group we could link our different backgrounds to get in depth information of the environmental microbiology and help to understand the results obtained in the lab. I plan to keep in touch with my lab partners especially and visit them on their master studies, I can’t wait.

Hannah Collard
I have expanded my personal qualities through the exchanges between the students of different nationalities. I am a shy person when meeting new people but I found it was very easy to integrate with the other students because I was interesting to find out where they plan to go with their PhD or degrees. On the more relaxed side of things, we all connected as a group through the learning of games and cultural differences of food and drink! My experience encourages me to study abroad for further education.

I have personal and academic highlights from the trip. Firstly I loved making new friends and having a great time exploring amazing scenery in the field and collecting samples, this relates to my first picture at a water sampling site having a bit of fun. I also enjoyed getting good comparable results of our soil samples with suspected Pseudomonas through fluorescence on the top left of the plate this is my second picture. This is a great result because this is the sort of psychrophiles (cold loving) organism you would find in Icelandic soil.

Hannah Collard - Plate
With this trip it was a very valuable experience for everyone involved. I feel as a student that a multinational setting was advantageous for me and my learning. This has been an amazing opportunity and wish I could do it again.

Watch Hannah, Ziva & Benjamin’s video:

Sam Hardy – Benefits of fieldwork for microbiologists in a multinational setting

When I first applied for a place on this year’s fieldtrip to Iceland, I knew that the competition would be tough and realised that places were limited and highly sought-after. However, after several weeks of waiting, when the email finally came through with the verdict, it suddenly became very real to me that I’d been given one of the greatest opportunities in my life, both as a student and as an aspiring biologist.

Throughout the 2 weeks, each group (with the students from each participating university having been randomly assigned to each) embarked upon 3 separate fieldwork trips. My group has been assigned to study the bacteria found across a spectrum of geothermal sites and to isolate and characterise any thermophilies sampled there.

Members of my group sample a low-temperature geothermal pool

Members of my group sample a low-temperature geothermal pool

Upon meeting my fellow group members – from Belgium, Germany and our host university in Iceland – I realised immediately that this was going to be both a valuable and unique experience for me. While there was no noticeable language gap between us, one thing which became slowly became obvious was that we all came from different academic and educational backgrounds. The only other British student in my group studied undergraduate biological sciences and myself microbiology, whereas the Belgians were largely biotechnologists studying for PhDs and the Germans a mixture of geoscientists who had just completed the final year of their undergraduate courses.

While at first this may sound to be an issue, in practice, it proved to be quite the opposite. Out in the field, the geoscientists were highly adept at explaining the local landscape, rock formations and at collecting soil/rock samples. In the lab, however, it was mostly the Belgian, Icelandic and British students who appeared to excel. The Belgians, coming from a biotechnological background, were invaluable when we came to work with microbial fuel cells – it should be noted that many of these students were actually constructing their own fuel cells for their PhD projects. When we finally came to culture our own samples from each site, it was the Icelandic and British students who seemed to take the lead. As we had been trained as microbiologists, culturing, isolation and characterisation techniques were almost second-nature to us.

By the end of the 2 weeks, it had become pretty clear to me that the students from each university had benefited greatly from the cultural and academic exchange which had taken place. Somehow, the Germans, previously being inexperienced in a biology lab, departed with an understanding of pipetting and plating techniques – techniques which were completely foreign to them prior to the trip. I, along with the other Reading students, left with a new insight into the fascinating world of thermophilic bacteria, their properties, and how they may be exploited by medicine and biotech industry. Strong friendships were forged during the trip, with some students even offering me assistance for when I apply for an MSc in Europe in the future.

The fieldtrip was, undeniably, a rewarding one and one which I would thoroughly recommend to future students from Belgium, Germany Iceland and my own university to embark upon in future years should the program continue.

A photo of my geothermal sampling group

My geothermal sampling group


Watch Sam & Emilie’s video:

Evette Hillman – The benefits of fieldwork for a microbiologist in a multinational setting

On the 14th of June 2014 I had the privilege of travelling to Iceland for two weeks on a microbiology field trip. I learned a great deal during this trip, for example; field-based sampling techniques and a lot about the microbial biodiversity in the Artic.

At the beginning of the trip, we were divided up into 4 groups; water, soil, geothermal and lichens. As part of the water group we sampled from 5 different sites including a waterfall, the ocean and a cave. I learned field-based sampling techniques from different environments more specifically ‘extreme environments’. Often as a ‘lab’ based biologist you are just given sample, and only know the ‘relevant’ information about them. Collecting the samples bridges the gap between processing them and knowing their origin. It also helps to answer questions such as the structure and activities of microbial communities, microbial interactions and their interactions with macroorganisms.

Evette Hillman - Ocean Sampling day

What made this trip very special and unique (other than the fact we were in Iceland) was there were people from all over the world resulting in more than 10 different nationalities. A multinational setting can sometimes be very difficult as there is such a diverse mix of cultures and with this comes cultural differences. I would know I’m half Kenya and half British, these nations couldn’t be more different! Having said this, I was paired up with Nelisa who is from Zambia and had just graduated from Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany. I learned an incredible amount from Nelisa and all the PhD students from Belgium; from how to give presentations to differentiating the various kinds of PCRs.

Evette Hillman - Collecting samples

There are so many benefits of working in an multinational setting for example I didn’t just learn what was in the syllabus I also learnt from my partner Nelisa that our languages, Swahili and Tonga/ Nyanja are very similar and in fact that all the language in Zambia originate from the same route which is the Bantu family. I also taught them something, by the end of the trip all the students learned that hakuna matata (from the lion king) was in fact Swahili and it means ‘no worries’!

It was a great opportunity to travel to Iceland as I have never had the chance to carry out the aforementioned sampling techniques in such extreme environments! I gained a great deal knowledge from my experience on this field trip; I had to keep reminding myself that collection must be done with great care making sure we exercise aseptic techniques. It was definitely a trip of a life time and one which I will always remember and I’m sure all the others. I made life time friends, took part in ocean sampling day, saw my first whale, learned how to solve the Rubik cube and learnt a lot about sampling. Best field trip EVER!!

Watch Nelisa & Evette’s video:

Jonathan Pennell – Grease and complaining only got us so far

We Brits are an interesting bunch. We can consume copious amounts of grease at ungodly times in the morning – morning after pizza should be a thing, stare with wonder as 10 people turn vegetarian for two whole weeks and last but not least, we can be 600 metres up an Icelandic mountain and complain that we have no phone signal, despite the amazing, once in a lifetime view…
Jonathan Pennell - mountain view
I’m not going to sugar coat it, living and working with 20 or so people from all over the world was a huge eye opener. The motivation of some was amazing, the enthusiasm they had about their work was inspiring and the extremely friendly atmosphere about everyone was something the average Londoner only dreams of. The next two weeks were going to be awesome, we all knew it.

My time in Iceland consisted of 3 field trips – I was in group 2, and ours consisted of hiking up mountains, crossing rivers, the odd collection of faecal matter, lectures and lab time. Sharing this experience with people at different stages in their career was extremely beneficial. For instance, when in the labs – whilst hopelessly trying to decipher the results of countless characterization plates – if the Belgian PHD students opened their mouths we listened, who knew what precious nugget of crucial information they had learned in one of their many years of learning, may be passed on to us.

All of our field trips followed the same pattern. Hike up a mountain/fair distance, take a sample from soil and return home, Sounds simple enough doesn’t it. But after completing this amazing feat I realized something awful. Had this been a solely British venture into the Icelandic back country we surely would have turned back at the first sight of any slope steeper than the travel escalators at Heathrow. But thanks to Jesus, A crackin’ Spanish gentleman who never turned down a chance to help anyone and the Belgian students who – just like Oddur – were often just distant specks on the horizon, with their quite frankly unhuman ability to carry on up a mountain which I felt needed its own basecamp, we made it to the top. Their inspiring efforts led all us stereotypically unfit Brits to carry on, and reach the summit with high spirits and surprisingly less out of breath than expected.

After we reach the summit, the samples were to be taken. I must say the view from the top of that mountain was amazing, the bacteria must love it. I’ll admit I myself was hopelessly inexperienced with sample taking in the field, and so was my lab partner…

Jonathan Pennell - Lab partner

But after some tuition from Oddur, we got there in the end. Turns out its pretty simple, drench the instruments in alcohol – in much the same way you’d find some of the students doing to themselves on a Friday night- then scoop up some soil. Apparently there are at least 1 million bacterial cells in every teaspoon of soil; and according to our lab results we got the lazy ones.

All in all, Iceland was a blast. Two jam packed weeks that will never be forgotten, so one last thing before I finish, a massive thanks to everyone involved, this really was the best field trip ever!

Watch Jonathan & Mihail’s video:

Lauren Vallance – Benefits of fieldwork for microbiologists in a multinational setting

Whilst the whole group was excited to set off for Iceland, none of us were really sure what to expect. We were unsure how we would find the work, whether we would run out of money within the first week, and whether any of our students would embarrass themselves in front of the lecturers this year.

When we first arrived, bleary eyed, in Akureyri, we were tired and eager to get to bed. However we were still able to appreciate the beauty of our new surroundings; the scenery making the long drive from Reykjavik much more bearable. Over the following two weeks, this appreciation grew and we came to feel at home in the town and with each other.

Students learning how to sample saxicolous lichens for the first time

Students learning how to sample saxicolous lichens for the first time

If it hadn’t have been for this field trip, I would have completed my degree without any field experience. Due to my focus on medical microbiology; this wasn’t an issue I had given much thought to.

I see now that this was a very narrow view to take. All science is rooted in observations of the ‘real world’ and field experience should undoubtably only serve to improve one’s understanding of the links between lab work and our surroundings. And of course, the practical methods utilised when studying environmental microbiology are useful in other contexts, too.

A member of my group, Vincent de Paul Bigirimana, picking colonies from a plate.

A member of my group, Vincent de Paul Bigirimana, picking colonies from a plate.

Even if a student has a mainly medical interest in the subject, there are many ways in which environmental microbiology is still relevant. An important example of this is the search for new antimicrobial therapies. It is also possible that experiencing such work for the first time could introduce students to topics they subsequentl develop a passion for.

Taking microbiology out of the classroom also benefits the student-educator relationship. For us, this comes at a time when we are about to start our third year projects; the single, most heavily-weighted aspect of our degree. Being more comfortable around academics can only have a positive influence on a students attitude to completing their project.

Participants in the field trip were from a range of degree courses, and at differing stages in their education. This variation was well distributed among the groups; allowing students to learn about topics and practical methods of which they had little previous experience. This type of integration of knowledge is rare in the classroom. The presence of geoscience students on the course also allowed us to gain a better understanding of environmental processes and engage more with the lectures in this area.

The term ‘interdisciplinary team’ has been an established buzz phrase for a while now, but I think that international diversity should be regarded as just as important. Whilst I am very glad to have been able to take part in this field trip, it would not have been the same without this year’s additional international students. In between making friends, arguing about the football and trying to avoid becoming your stereotype, we learnt important lessons about the value of a taking a variety of perspectives.

Fun was had, shark meat was eaten, but most importantly we gained invaluable field and practical experience; which will benefit our knowledge and confidence as we enter our final year. For those of us who wish to pursue a career in academia, this trip also provided important experience of working in the type of multinational setting which unites the scientific community.

Watch Lauren, Vincent & Birna’s video:

Nima Hossami – Benefits of fieldwork for microbiologists in a multinational setting

Fieldwork isn’t often the first thing you might picture when you think of Microbiology. In fact for many people it would not even enter their thought process. A great shame; the Iceland 2014 trip was a huge success, not because of any one particular piece of information we absorbed or any of the specialised field sampling methods we mastered (although there were quite a few). Instead, I view the trip as an accomplishment because it allowed students from Europe, future fellow colleagues of mine, to come together. We shared good practices, constantly learning and teaching one another, all of us experiencing field sampling together for the first time.

To give a clearer picture of how useful this trip was, let me give you an example of a typical scenario in the lab at university. You are given samples allocated to you usually with a complex labelling system, and sometimes an accompanying explanation as to where the sample has come from. In Akureyri my lab partner and I clambered up rocky terrain to collect our samples, sweaty yet full of enthusiasm. The whole process suddenly became more personal; I was invested in the project in a way that I have never been before. For me having the first hand insight into this vital step in the bigger picture means that my analysis and identification can be that much more accurate. This trip allowed me to see my role in the greater process, furthering my understanding and appreciation of Environmental Microbiology.

On our second day in the field my lab partner from Bremen University and I searched for a Terricolous Lichen (soil growing) that was different to others that my group had found. During our hunt, we noticed that our lichen grew in a particularly barren area of soil with very dry, long hyphae. These factors can all be considered when determining the microbiota of microorganisms that have colonised the lichen, which I discovered first hand on location.

The multinational setting was equally important for me. Students from both the Ghent and Bremen University were my seniors in experience. Some were PhD students, others had BScs in other biological areas. They showed us lab techniques that I had never come across and, in some cases, a slight change to protocol which would produce a result faster with no detriment to accuracy. We Reading students held our own too; although the others were more experienced, few had trained exclusively in Microbiology so we were able to demonstrate skills we had acquired from our two years of specialised lab education.

It is safe to say that, I returned from Iceland with a new perspective on Environmental Microbiology, both from working in a lab abroad with future colleagues and peers, also from collecting my own samples from the side of a mountain. I’d like to think that I came away not just with some new friends, but fresh insights into the protocols used.

Nima Hossami - group photo

Watch Nima & Raju’s video:

Charlotte Bartley – Benefits of Fieldwork for Microbiologists in a Multinational Setting

Arriving in Iceland with students from Jacobs and Ghent Universities, it is fair to say nobody knew exactly what to expect from this extraordinary country. Following group 2’s first field trip to the mountain summit however, two things quickly became apparent: we had all underestimated the true beauty of Iceland and when it comes to hiking the British were perhaps a tad lazy! Despite this the fieldtrip developed into a learning curve for all and has benefited me academically (and physically!) in more ways than I would have predicted.

Taking a more active role
In modern society there is a stereotype that Microbiologists only inhabit laboratories, so to have the opportunity to come to Iceland and conduct microbiology out on the field was a novel experience! As microbiology is becoming increasingly computerised it was a privilege to have the opportunity to collect my own samples for analysis by traditional methods. Being increasingly involved made the samples feel more relevant than if handed out anonymously in a laboratory. This encouraged me to think more independently about the oligotrophic environment from which I was extracting my samples from and observing the harsh conditions in person, gave the term ‘extremophile’ more significance than from reading a textbook alone.
Conducting my own data collection allowed me to exercise my intuition when planning whether it was appropriate to use 9K media for bacteria in suspected iron-rich soils. Using a ‘stomacher’ to extract our bacteria from the soil and the ‘Soil DNA Isolation Kit’ to extract DNA also allowed a more personally active role in our own data collection and analysis which I feel benefitted my overall understanding of the entire procedure greatly.
Charlotte Bartley - SamplingCultural Exchange
The greatest benefit of conducting microbiology in this multinational setting was the knowledge in different specialist areas we received from one another. Not all students had a microbiology background, allowing the Belgian and German students to place Geology onto the table. This perfectly aided our understanding of the interaction between microbes and geology and I feel I have learnt more geology in 2 weeks than I have at school! We have all benefitted from observing the diverse lecturing styles of the different universities and I have also learnt new approaches to laboratory procedures. I became intrigued whilst observing a Belgian PhD student use droplets on parafilm as an alternative method for mixing PCR products. This was different from the protocol I was used to at Reading University so we exchanged reasons on why we use the different methods we do. I feel working with students from different backgrounds and stages in their career have greatly built upon my lab skills and the general mature guidance I received I feel was of particular value to me.

A Unique Experience
It has been a great privilege to work in laboratories abroad and I feel that shall I consider completing a PhD in Belgium or Germany in the future; some good connections have been made internationally. This fieldwork has benefitted me in ways which I could not have received from laboratory work alone and my confidence as a microbiologist has grown. The Iceland field trip has without a doubt been two of the best weeks of my academic career and I have learned the value of teamwork and even some small amounts of Dutch, Spanish and German!

Charlotte Bartley - with friends

Watch Charlotte & Oliver’s video:

Lucinda Wynne – Benefits of fieldwork for microbiologists in a multinational setting

Traveling to the north of Iceland to delve into the world of extremophiles has been an exhausting but amazing experience. The combination of such a remarkable environment with such a diverse and interesting range of people made this trip one of a kind.
I thoroughly enjoyed the field trips, despite the occasional moan about aching legs, and the persuasion needed to pluck up the courage to leap across raging torrents, it was such an amazing experience that I am so thankful for. Having walked miles and risking my life to reach the riverside to collect my own samples, I feel I had much greater interest and curiosity to find out more about them. I also felt a great deal of responsibility to look after them and ensure procedures were done correctly and to even do extra work when time permitted. Another benefit of the fieldwork was that on top of our intended sampling, we could also collect samples of anything else we deemed interesting. Quite frequently when we were out we came across unusual things to sample, such as water dripping from caves and huge biofilms on the rock faces.
Also experiencing the harsh conditions in which the bacteria inhabit, has enabled me to fully appreciate and understand the adaptions they must develop, to not only survive, but thrive in this environment. Had I not been there myself I would not have appreciated subtle but significant observations about the environment; such as why the water temperature of the river was so much lower than the air temperature, or why the conductivity was so much lower in the Glerá river (pictured below) than in the ford, Eyjafjörður.
Lucinda Wynne - Mountain viewBut being surrounded by these striking mountains covered by melting snow really helped me to understand what was shaping the habitat for these microorganisms.
One of the highlights of the trip was Ocean Sampling Day (pictured bottom), I was so glad that I had the chance to be a part of this. It gave a great sense of unity to be involved in something happening all over the world. Even on our little boat we had 6 nationalities working together to collect the required samples from Eyjafjörður. I found it so valuable to have the chance to work with such a diverse range of people with so many different specialisms and cultural backgrounds, but all with the same common interest. I also was so lucky to have such a great lab partner from Belgium, who has taught me so much about laboratory techniques, which have already been useful back at home for my summer placement.
I feel I have learnt so much more about the world around me from having the chance to be a part of this trip; though interactions with the people around me, and those microscopic organisms lurking in the harshest of environments.

Lucinda Wynne 1 - Ocean sampling day

Watch Lucinda & Jo’s video: