Winning research – Zoology storms the Lightning Talks

 

Earlier this month, postgraduate students of the Zoology department compete in the fourth annual ‘School of Natural Sciences Lightning Talks’ alongside students and staff from Botany and Geology.

We all presented 120-second snapshots of our research and were judged by a panel. Judges included the Head of the School of Natural Sciences Professor Fraser Mitchell, Science Gallery’s Aine Flood and Trinity’s press officer for the Faculty of engineering, mathematics and science, Thomas Deane.

Zoology had two winners on the night, Darren O’Connell (@oconned5) for his presentation on ‘Character release in the absence of a congeneric competitor’ and myself, Rachel Byrne, on my research titled ‘Parasites of badgers in Ireland- an untold story.’

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Studying worms – a Nobel calling

Professor William Campbell with Professors Celia Holland (front right) and Yvonne Buckley (front left). Back row L-R Professor Holland’s parasitology research group: Dr Peter Stuart, Gwen Deslyper, Maureen Williams, Rachael Byrne and Paula Tierney

 

“Parasites are not generally regarded as being loveable. When we refer to people as parasites we are not being complimentary, we are not praising them. We tend to think that a parasite is the sort of person who goes through a revolving door on somebody else’s push. This is unfair. It’s unfair to real parasites… It is time for parasites to get a little more respect!”                                                        – Professor William C. Campbell during his 2015 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

In 2015, Prof. William C. Campbell, a Trinity Zoology graduate, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for his discovery of ivermectin. The drug can be used to treat a wide range of parasites, but is most widely known for its effectiveness against river blindness. In 1987 the pharmaceutical company Merck enabled the free distribution of the drug to developing countries.

This Nobel Prize, which Prof. Campbell shared with his then colleague Prof. Satoshi Ōmura, is an important accomplishment not only for the Professors themselves as the cherry on top of their careers, but it is also important for the wider academic community.

This Nobel Prize is of importance to what Prof. Celia Holland described as ‘the international worm community’. This community has been struggling for many years to get recognition and funding. This prize therefore finally highlights the importance of parasitic worms. A lot of these parasites are often, despite their wide prevalence, classified as ‘neglected tropical diseases’. Neglected tropical diseases mainly affect the poor communities and are often forgotten in research and in the ‘public health agenda’. It remains to be seen whether some parasites will ever be able to shake their neglected status, but this Nobel Prize and associated international attention could be a great step in the right direction.

Hopefully, other pharmaceutical companies will take note of this prize. Giving away lifesaving medicine should be celebrated. We all know of the negative press pharmaceutical companies have gotten such as the recent price hikes in epi-pens. However, we tend to forget and ignore when pharmaceutical companies go to great lengths to help those in need. I see this prize also as a celebration of Merck for showing how it can be done differently. Because, really, what is the point of us producing any medical research if it doesn’t translate into affordable medicine?

During Prof. Campbell’s visit to TCD, the provost announced a new lectureship position in parasitology in honour of Prof. Campbell and the work he has done for the international worm community. Needless to say that this position would not have existed without Prof. Campbell’s Nobel Prize. Parasitology is a struggling field worldwide and every lectureship position is one to be valued and celebrated. This lectureship shows the commitment of the university to parasitology and will reinforce Trinity’s leading role in parasitological research within Ireland.

Additionally, this is an inspirational story for a lot of people. The story of ivermectin is a great motivation for parasitologists like myself. I work on a parasitic nematode called Ascaris, which infects 800 million people worldwide every year. Much like river blindness, it is also a neglected tropical disease, and as is often the case for these types of diseases, there isn’t much interest or funding going around. So it’s great at the start of my PhD to see that this type of research can also be honoured and valued.

I’ve read interviews of Prof. Campbell where he said that this prize meant the end of his retirement. I’m sorry to hear that his well-deserved retirement has been shaken up, but Prof. Campbell took one for the team and is promoting parasitic worm research to whoever wants to listen, just as he did before, only now he has a broader audience.

Author: Gwen Deslyper (seen charming Bill at 1:49 )

Room for one more?: Egg fostering in seabirds

 

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When attempting to conserve a rare animal population sometimes every individual counts. Conservationists regularly go the extra mile to protect their study species. The conservation efforts implemented for the Little Tern (Sternula albifrons) in Britain and Ireland demonstrate the success these efforts can have. This species nests on shingle beaches and had experienced catastrophic population declines due to increasing development and use of beaches by people. Little Tern adults are very vulnerable to disturbance and their eggs are particularly vulnerable to walker’s boots! Thankfully a network of wardened colonies, run by a mixture of conservation organisations and enthusiastic volunteer groups, succeeded in stabilising this species’ population.

However the Little Tern has lost much of its former range and is increasingly dependent on wardened colonies for their continued existence on these islands [1]. Being concentrated in a densely populated protected areas has made them acutely vulnerable to predators. This has led wardens at the nationally important colony at Kilcoole in Co. Wicklow to adopt a practice of fostering Little Tern eggs abandoned after a depredation event in an attempt to maximise colony productivity, outlined in our recent paper in the latest issue of Irish Birds.

 

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As Little Tern colonies are often squeezed into small protected areas this makes them a beacon to hungry predators. Corvids (members of the crow family), can be a danger to colonies. They are vigorously mobbed by the terns, but sometimes manage to slip through the defences. It was noticed that corvids often only managed to take one egg from a nest, perhaps because the parents were then more vigilant. However within a day of having an egg taken, the parents abandoned the remaining eggs in every case observed. This may have been due to anticipation of the predator’s return (Little Terns depend upon their egg’s camouflage to protect their nest), or in an attempt to re-lay a full clutch. However clutches laid later in the season often have poorer survival rates [2].

To maximise colony productivity, Kilcoole wardens fostered abandoned eggs abandoned after depredation events to other nests on the same incubation schedule when the colony experienced corvid depredation in 2011 and 2014. Nests were confirmed abandoned after the parent’s failed to return to incubate for several hours and the eggs went cold. The parents in recipient nests always accepted the foster eggs, apparently not questioning why they had gained an extra egg! Where possible eggs were fostered to other nests which had experienced partial depredation but had not yet been abandoned, replacing the eggs lost. Having a full clutch again seemed to stop the parents abandoning the nest. Fostering eggs resulted in the fledging of an additional 5 Little Tern chicks, a small but worthwhile number given the precarious status of the Irish populations.

The fact that the fostered eggs remained viable despite hours without incubation in cold conditions further demonstrate the extraordinary robustness of seabird eggs. In a previous paper we wrote about how Little Terns recollected eggs which have been washed out by tides and moved them into new nests. Many of these eggs hatched successfully even after hours without incubation, exposure to freezing seawater and potential mechanical damage from being moved.

 

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This robustness can prove a boon for conservationists working with endangered species. In a recent case an egg abandoned by an inexperienced pair of Chatham Island Tāikos (Pterodroma magenta) was successfully fostered to another pair after being abandoned for 10 days. Even after all this time without incubation a healthy chick was hatched, an important victory as only 150 of these birds are left in the world, showing the potential value of egg fostering.

 

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While the aspiration must always be for animal populations to be self-sustaining, in many cases hands on conservation measures are necessary to ensure a population’s survival. In order to ensure the continued survival of the Little Tern in Britain and Ireland wardened colonies are still necessary, at least until they experience a full tern around in fortunes.

 

Author: Darren O’Connell

 

Photo credits: Little Terns – Andrew Power and Peter Cutler. Chatham Island Taiko Chick – Dave Boyle.

 

A special thanks to all my co-workers on the Kilcoole Little Tern project, the volunteers who make the project tick and project manager Dr Stephen Newton of BirdWatch Ireland.

 

[1] Balmer, D., Gillings, S., Caffrey, B., Swann, B., Downie, I. and Fuller, R. (2013) Bird Atlas 2007-11: the breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland. HarperCollins, UK.

 

[2] Nager, R.G., Monaghan, P. and Houston, D.C. 2000. Within-clutch trade-offs between the number and quality of eggs: experimental manipulations in gulls. Ecology 81: 1339-1350. DOI: 10.1890/0012-9658(2000)081[1339:WCTOBT]2.0.CO;2

The Evolution and Laboratory of the Technician.

First in a series of posts on life after an undergraduate degree, Alison Boyce gives an account of the life of a scientific technician.

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Science, engineering, and computing departments in universities employ technicians. Anyone working or studying in these areas will have dealt with a technician at some point but most will be unaware of a technician’s route into the position and their full role in education and research.

Technical posts are varied e.g. laboratory, workshop, computer. Funding for technical support is afforded by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) to provide assistance in undergraduate teaching. This is the primary role of technical officers (TOs) after which the Head of Discipline or Chief Technical Officer (CTO) decide further duties.

 

History

Until the early 1990s individuals joined the university as trainee technicians. Many came through the ranks starting as laboratory attendants, a position which still exists. Trainee technicians would spend one day a week over four years working towards a City and Guilds’ qualification. At this time the occupation was mostly hands on with little theoretical work. Many started young by today’s standards (starting at 14 years old was not uncommon), and they continued to study well past diploma level. Changing the nature of the role so much that nowadays almost all technical officers have primary degrees and come with a more academic view of the position.

In 2008, it was agreed that incoming technical officers must hold at least a primary degree in order to work at Trinity College Dublin. Those looking for promotion to Senior TO would require a Master’s and to CTO, a PhD. Those already in the system would not be penalised, local knowledge and experience are recognised equivalents and rightly so. This agreement gave rise to the job title changing from technician to technical officer reflecting the removal of the apprenticeship system. Many still use the old name but it doesn’t cause offence. These qualifications represent minimum requirements. TOs constantly train, learning new technologies and procedures. It is difficult to resist the temptation of further study when you work in an educational environment.

 

From graduate to TO

Gaining experience in medical, industrial, or other educational laboratories is most important.  Further study in areas general to laboratory work are also advantageous e.g. first aid, web design, or statistics. Sometimes researchers move into a technical role temporarily and find they enjoy it so stay on. Applying to a discipline with some relationship to your qualifications makes sense; a physicist may not enjoy working in a biological lab. Having come though the university system many graduates would be familiar with teaching laboratories and their departments. Seeing a place for yourself in the future of a discipline is vital for career progression as it is seldom you will see a TO moving from one department to another. It should be possible to adapt the role to your skills or study to meet those required for promotion.

 

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BioLab Teaching Facilities

 

Day to day

All labs/disciplines differ but certain core responsibilities fall to the technical staff at some point. Running practicals is the biggest responsibility during term time with design and development out of term. Some departments in science and engineering have lab and field based classes. Various modules require field sampling in preparation for the practical. Getting out on the road can be very satisfying even if you are at the mercy of nature!

 

If you consider what it takes to run a home you’ll have an idea of what a TO does to maintain a lab/department. Ordering supplies and equipment. When something breaks, repair it or have it mended in a cost effective way. Logging, maintaining and installing equipment, health and safety information and implementation, chemical stock control, running outreach programmes, planning and managing building refurbishment, organising social events, updating the discipline’s web pages, assisting undergraduate student projects and much more.

 

These are just the basic duties and do not describe the essence of technical work at university level. Firstly it is to guide, instruct, and assist in scientific matters. An analytical and practical mind is necessary. You must have a willingness to facilitate the design and execution of projects in teaching and research. If you are eager to help and learn, it’s the perfect job for you. The information base for many materials and methods is the technical staff. Local knowledge and an ability work in consultation with other departments is often key to completing a project. Ideally, when a researcher leaves the university, their skills should pass to a TO keeping those abilities in-house. Imparting them to the next generation.

 

If you’re very lucky, you’ll be in a discipline that encourages you to take part in research and further study. It’s wise to check where a discipline or school stands before considering work in that area. Career opportunities open up in such disciplines. CTO Specialist is a promotion given to someone with expertise of a specialist nature e.g. IT, histology. Experimental Officer is a post created to further research in a discipline and often requires some teaching.

 

Overall, the position is what you make of it. If you strive to improve and adapt, you’ll find it immensely rewarding. Many practical classes repeat annually but on a daily basis you could be doing anything, anywhere. Being a technical officer is stimulating and constantly changing, keeping your brain and body active. You won’t be sitting for too long when you’re surrounded by young adults in need of advice and equipment. The relationship is symbiotic, your knowledge and their enthusiasm eventually gets any problem sorted.

 

Author: Alison Boyce, a.boyce[at]tcd[dot]ie

Alison Boyce has worked as a technical officer at Trinity College Dublin for over 20 years. In that time, she has acted as a master-puppeteer in seeing countless undergraduate projects through to completion. Her in-depth knowledge of technical, theoretical, and practical aspects of natural sciences has made her one of the most influential figures in the history of this department.

The editorial team thanks her for taking the time to write this piece. 

 

3 years as a PhD student

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I arrived in Ireland October 2012 with the purpose of undertaking a PhD supervised by Natalie Cooper on Primates evolution. Looking back, the start of the whole endeavour seemed really stressful to me (new country, new customs, new language) and the project just as frightening (what do I do?, where do I start?, will I be able to do it?)… What happened after was way below my expectations: these three years were anything but stressful and frightening!
OK, even though not everything went smoothly and it had to take the best of the personalities (that are thankfully common sights in Trinity College’s Zoology Department) for dealing with some ups and downs, here is my top 5 list of personal thoughts that always improved the two aspects of my PhD: the working aspect (the research) and the “social” aspect (feeling relaxed and enjoying it).

Be ready to change your PhD

As I mentioned in the first line, my PhD was supposed to be on Primates evolution. In the end, the world “Primates” is mentioned only once (and that is, buried in a sentence about several other mammalian orders). Of course, sometimes the PhD is a Long Quiet River if everything goes well and you keep your highest interest in the original topic. However, sometimes it changes completely! And this should never be a problem! The PhD should be allowed to evolve just as much as yourself (or more pragmatically: your field) evolves into these three or four years.

Failure happens to everyone

Another major part about the PhD (and about the scientific endeavour itself!) is that it will fail. More or less often and more or less dramatically in each case but failure should just be part of the process. As a early career researcher, you can learn a lot from the mistakes and the success of others. However, I found that there is nothing much more personally instructing than the trial and error. I already mentioned how my biggest PhD disaster led to my most positive development.

Stay open-minded and curious

Writing the thesis or even just doing the lab/computer work for the PhD can narrow your mind and highly decrease your sanity. I found that the best way to avoid that was to try as much as possible to make the PhD only priority number two and put all the other things (seminars, meeting speakers, chatting/helping colleagues, etc…) before it. It has two advantages for the PhD: (1) you don’t work on it 24/7 and (2) everything you learn outside of it will actually be super useful for the PhD. In the Zoology Derpartment, we were only a couple of people doing macroevolution surrounded by ecologists. Yet, I think my work benefited heavily from the influence from these people.

Don’t rush

One thing I found nice with the PhD is that before you even start – before day one! – you already know the final deadline. OK, at day one, the handing in date seems far away (3 or 4 years away actually!) but that leaves you plenty of time for doing awesome research, writing it down as papers/chapters (and even trying to publish them before the deadline) and going to the pub or to other non-PhD recreational events…

Chat with your colleagues

Finally, I found that I gained so much just by chatting with my colleagues. And by colleagues I mean my fellow PhD students of course but also with the post-docs and the staff. I always found a long term benefit to both PhD aspects, whether it was talking about the latests video games during working time (I’m not only looking at you @yodacomplex) or having heated debates about species selection during coffee time.
I know much of these tips worked for me but might not apply to other people. In the end their is only one ultimate tip: make your PhD a hell of a good time!

Photo Credit: Thomas Guillerme

A Nobel Pursuit

Splitting the atom, unlocking the secrets of radiation, or even leading a peaceful civil rights movement.

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I grew up knowing that these were the sorts of achievements that earn you a gold medal and an invitation to Sweden in mid-December. I have since learned that the annual ceremony held in honour of Alfred Nobel hasn’t always been awarded to the most deserving candidate, and that sometimes the winners simply stumbled upon a discovery that changed the world. This was not the case with the 2015 Nobel prize for Physiology and Medicine.

 

Scientists rarely aim for such high levels recognition, as it often comes decades after the initial discovery. Working in Natural Sciences is often considered a noble pursuit in itself, with the aim of one’s research to protect our planet. While undeniably important, rarely does work from our field receive the recognition afforded to Nobel Prize winners.

 

This year, the department of Zoology joined illustrious company in having one of our alumni named as a Nobel laureate. William (Bill) Cecil Campbell was born in Donegal in 1930. He studied Zoology at Trinity College Dublin, graduating in 1952, before beginning his PhD in the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 

His research centered upon the field of parasitology, initially working on parasitic worms as an undergraduate with Professor Desmond Smyth, which, as Dr Campbell puts it, “changed [his] life by developing [his] interest in this particular field”. Upon completing his PhD, it was his work at the Merck Institute of Therapeutic Research on parasitic roundworms that led to the discovery of a class of drugs called avermectins with Satoshi Ōmura, that would help to control two of the world’s most debilitating diseases: lymphatic filariasis and onchocerciasis.

 

Lymphatic filariasis, more commonly known as elephantiasis, is caused by filarial nematodes, using mosquitos as a vector for the disease. They enter a new victim as larvae, which migrate to the lymph nodes of the legs and genitals, and mature into adults. When these worms die, they trigger intense inflammation. This blocks the flow of lymph, which accumulates under the skin, causing limbs and groins to swell to gigantic proportions.

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Onchocerciasis, more commonly known as river blindness, is also caused by filarial nematodes, but of a different species. These are spread by blackfly bites, entomb themselves in deeper tissues, and release larvae that migrate to the skin (where they cause severe itching) and the eyes (in which they can cause blindness).

The avermectins that Campbell and Ōmura discovered, and especially their most potent member ivermectin, can control the symptoms of these diseases by killing the larval nematodes.

 

Unlike many drug discoveries of this magnitude, Dr Campbell’s employer, the Merck Institute of Therapeutic Research decided to release the drugs for free for those that need them. As a result of their altruism, their discovery reached potentially millions more people than would usually be able to afford such a drug. Although Dr Campbell is credited with floating the idea of releasing the drug for free, he insisted in a recent interview with The Irish Times that his chairman, Roy Vagelos be credited with making the ultimate decision on its release. In describing the decision, Campbell remarked “I think it was done because it was the right thing to do, and I think the employees applauded it, because they thought it was the right thing to do.”

In a typically understated fashion, and unlike some recipients before him, Dr Campbell never hoped to win this award. Instead, he dreamt of one-day curing malaria, a goal he feels is achievable to young scientists willing to keep an “open mind” to their research.

 

This award offers a timely reminder that the research carried out both within these walls, and when our alumni move on has the potential to make an impact far beyond our initial intentions. As Dr Campbell “The greatest challenge for science is to think globally, think simply and act accordingly. It would be disastrous to neglect the diseases of the developing world. One part of the world affects another part. We have a moral obligation to look after each other, but we’re also naturally obligated to look after our own needs. It has to be both.”

author: Dermott McMorrough, with thanks to Dr Celia Holland.

 

images: rte.ie, wikicommons.