Our deep origins: deciphering the earliest branches on the tree of life

Uncovering where we come from and how we have evolved involves a trip into the ancient history of life. Delving deep into our past, we find that the eukaryotic cells that eventually became animals like you and me, branched from other types of cell long ago. But the precise way this branching occurred and the unique features that distinguish our cells from others is uncertain and hotly debated. Studying rocks and specifically fossils has long been the only source of information about these deep origins of life. Unfortunately, the majority of organisms leave little or no trace in the fossil record from which their ancestry can be determined. This is but one of the many challenges scientists face when trying to unravel the origin of eukaryotic cells.

Examples of the three domains of life: the Bacteria Helicobacter pylori, the Archaea Halobacterium sp. strain NRC-1, and a diverse range of Eukaryotes. Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Phylogenetics is a field that aims to understand the evolutionary relationships between species and is a key tool for deducing the common ancestor that eukaryotes shared with the two other domains of life – the Archaea and Bacteria. In their recent paper that was published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, Williams, Cox, Foster, Szöllősi, and Embley focused on determining which of the two current hypotheses for the structure of the tree of life are most likely to be correct, and attempted to find last common ancestor of the Archaea and Eukarya. One of these hypothesises, the three-domain tree, suggests that the archaea and eukaryotes are ancient sister lineages; the other, the two-domain tree, proposes that eukaryotes evolved from within the archaea. The two-domain tree suggests an endosymbiotic event in which an Archaeon engulfed a Bacterium, which later became the mitochondria of eukaryotes, leading to the evolution of Eukarya and ultimately us. Lead author Tom Williams states that their use of “the best-fitting substitution models” supports the two-domain model.

Schematic phylogenetic trees showing the two competing ideas for where Eukarya sit in the tree of life. Image courtesy of Thomas Gorochowski.

The exact Archaean has yet to be found, but Williams et al. have taken a significant step towards elucidating who this proto eukaryote might be. The paper proposes that the “best candidate for the closest archaeal relative of the eukaryotic nuclear lineage” is a member of the Asgard Archaea, Heimdallarchaeota. The identification of Heimdallarchaeota as the closest sister-group to eukaryotes, means that it shares the most features of any other known archaeal cell with eukaryotes. However, Heimdallarchaeota are not the direct ancestors of eukaryotic cells, only the ones with the closest known phylogenetic relationship. The work of Williams et al. suggests that even closer archaeal relatives of eukaryotes might remain to be found.

When asked for a comment on what the paper means and how he found the process, Williams spoke about how “working out what happened potentially billions of years ago [was] difficult and a number of hypotheses for eukaryotic origins have been discussed recently”. Upon re-evaluation of these claims “our analyses support just one of these ideas: a two-domains tree in which key components of eukaryotic cells evolved from within the archaeal domain.”

So, how is this significant to us? Aside from the direct scientific relevance of this study in understanding the origins of eukaryotes, Williams paints a bigger picture. This is one in which we can see how eukaryotes are distinguished from their archaeal and prokaryotic relatives; fundamentally what makes eukaryotes unique at the lowest level. Furthermore, it highlights how the eukaryotes became so inherently complex. The research into eukaryotic origins is far from finished, but Williams et al. have broadened our understanding of where the types of cells that make up you and I come from and identifies the source of their unique features.

Paper: Phylogenomics provides robust support for a two-domains tree of life (2019) Williams T.A., Cox C.J., Foster P.G., Szollosi G.J. & Embley T.M. (2019) Nature Ecology and Evolution DOI: 10.1038/s41559-019-1040-x

Written by Ellie Nichols (2nd Year Biology BSc)

Ellie Nichols is a second-year biology student interested in molecular genetics and phylogenetics. If you’d like to contact her, she is available at pu18241@bristol.ac.uk



A Surprise Visitor Comes Back

As a surprise treat, a daughter had asked us if we would show her 86 year old father Dr Peter Hunt around our biology buildings old & new, as he did his first degree in botany here in Bristol and he also did his PhD with the world famous mycologist Lilian E Hawker also in Bristol, he was here from 1951 to 1957.

Absolute pleasure to show him around our wonderful new building, and he was lucky enough to speak to some of our wonderful 1st year undergrads in the their practical class looking at protists which he knew all about from his own undergrad days. Also lovely to give him a tour of Fry Building, which in 1950’s had biology & chemistry in it, now been beautifully refurbished for Maths, it was lovely that he still recognised many features & where his lab was, even though 60 years since last visit.

After Bristol he moved to Cornell University where he saw the light and converted to plant pathology, before taking up a position at University of the West Indies in Jamaica where he spent the majority of his career, and later worked with ODA (now DFiD) and other aid agencies in Sumatra, Java, Grenada and Belize. He worked on cloves, peppers, citrus and others I hope we are all as sharp and sprightly as he was today at age 86.


Written by Professor Gary Foster

Twitter @Prof_GD_Foster



Summer in the Fly Lab

Finding summer internships and career experience to build up a CV is a common pressure on university students, and for those who use summer work to help financially support themselves, these often voluntary or unpaid opportunities can become especially limited. I found myself in this challenging position in my third year when I was deciding on a career path without any experience. I was considering research or science communication but felt overwhelmed with the possibility that it was too late since I hadn’t done a summer placement.

After months of searching for internships, I had almost given up hope until I received an email from the University of Bristol Careers Service about the University of Oxford’s pilot UNIQ+ Summer School. Students who may find pursuing a postgraduate degree a challenge, for example, for financial or socio-economic reasons, could partake in a six-week postgraduate-style research project, receiving free accommodation in an Oxford college, and a generous stipend to cover any missed summer income. It was the perfect solution to my dilemma and being part of a cohort appealed much more than being alone!

The Application Process

This year, UNIQ+ was open to medical, biological, mathematical and physical sciences students but will hopefully expand to other subjects in future years. While applying, you specify your research interests to help match you to the right supervisor and project; mine were behavioural ecology and sociogenomics but I included a few others if they weren’t available. I sent my CV and an official academic transcript, and wrote a personal statement which elaborated on my circumstances, research interests and experience, and what a place on UNIQ+ would mean to me. A challenging part of the application was ensuring two referees sent in their reference letters by the deadline; I only had ten days in the latter half of the Easter holidays to do this, hence reaching the relevant academics was difficult! Thankfully, my referees were wonderful and wrote my letters just in time. I strongly recommend starting the process much earlier than I did and prioritise contacting your references as it is your responsibility that they are submitted!

I was offered a place having just finished my first of six exams in May; news which couldn’t have come at a better time as I had declined summer work holding out hope! I didn’t know the details of my project until early June but fortunately, my project was very well suited to my interests, studying the nutritional choices of five species of Drosophila under the supervision of Dr Jen Perry, an evolutionary ecologist in the Department of Zoology. I had never worked with fruit flies before, so this was a good opportunity to learn new lab techniques and challenge myself.

Lab Experience

I was shown around the Fly Lab on my first afternoon in Oxford, realising how different research labs are to the teaching labs that I was used to! The small size made it feel very immersive, and it meant I met everyone and became familiar with everything so quickly. I attended lab meetings where I set my own weekly goals and spoke about my project’s progress, which made me feel so welcome and often forgetting that I was a visiting student at all. I was given a lot of independence which suited me despite the steep learning curve it brought – one evening I left the lab at 10:30 pm because I severely underestimated how long transferring individual flies to vials would take!

My experiment expanded upon recent studies which suggest that D. melanogaster females consume more protein than males and that this contributes to egg production. This was supported by studies showing that increased protein consumption can decrease longevity, implying that the consumption must increase lifetime fitness for this strategy to persist. To the best of our knowledge, this hadn’t been tested in other species of Drosophila, which provided the premise for my project. I used D. melanogaster, D. birchii, D. pseudoananassae, D. pandora, and D. sulfurigaster to study the difference in protein and carbohydrate consumption in mated and unmated (virgin) males and females. I reared flies of each species and allocated them treatment groups once they were sexually mature (around five days after eclosion). Then, I performed large-scale mating experiments with roughly 600 females (see picture of the mating rack below) and separated them into their experimental agar vials for the nutrition experiment. Nutritional choice and consumption were measured using the difference in fill-level of two small capillary tubes (called ringcaps) over 24 hours; one filled with protein solution and the other with a carbohydrate solution. I repeated this process for three days, eventually converting the fill-level difference to volume consumed for statistical analysis.

An example of just one rack for the mating experiment. Recorded on the tubes are the species, the time the male was introduced, the time they began mating and the time they finished mating. This helped discern any mating differences between species. I was watching all of these flies at once!
Vials with ringcaps. The red-topped tubes contain protein solution and the green-topped tubes contain carbohydrate solution.

After my initial analysis, my most notable result was a significant difference in protein consumption between mated females of different species. While protein consumption significantly increased following mating in all species, there was significant variation between them in the proportion of this increase. Considering that there are over 1500 species of Drosophila, results from lab generations of D. melanogaster therefore might be less applicable to other species than originally thought! To further investigate the relationship between nutrition and mating status, sex and species I completed further analyses which I presented to the cohort on my final day.

I truly enjoyed my time as part of the Fly Lab; I developed a repertoire of animal husbandry skills, from anaesthetising and sexing my project species (they’re surprisingly different!), to making their food and observing their mating behaviour. My biggest mistake was not keeping an organised lab book, particularly when it came to experimental design and numbers, something I know for my master’s project! After these six weeks, I feel more prepared not only for my fourth year but potential postgraduate studies. Although this time was a twinkle in the eye of a PhD, I am seriously considering it for my future and I look forward to exploring my options.

Social Experience

Alongside working hard in the labs, there was also a social programme to integrate the 39 of us with different projects (this included 6 students on a similar programme for the social sciences organised by Nuffield College). The core events were weekly semi-formal dinners hosted by one of the Oxford colleges. They offered a chance to catch up with other participants, meet the UNIQ+ academics and admin team, and speak to current PhD students (known as DPhil students at Oxford). If you are considering postgraduate study particularly at Oxford, these dinners were instrumental in creating a true college experience and meant you could ask college-specific questions at each. Set around these dinners were talks from academics and current DPhil students about their research areas, college tours, drinks receptions and even punting! Informal events were also organised by us, such as a curry night and attending a Shakespeare play at Oxford Castle.

For me, one of the most influential days was the Graduate Study Information Session. We heard informative talks from admissions and finance staff about the postgraduate interview process, applying for scholarship funding, and other extremely valuable tips to help us for the application process. These sessions, alongside our lab experience, really made postgraduate study feel so much more accessible than before UNIQ+ and gave me the confidence boost I needed to decide whether postgraduate study was for me.

Of course, one of the best parts of UNIQ+ was the friends I made. Leaving your established friendship group to go and live in a new city was so challenging but making friends from other universities in similar situations to yourself was definitely a highlight. I’m so grateful to have met such driven and passionate friends who genuinely inspired me so much in such a short time.

Punting was clearly not as easy as it seems…

Final Thoughts

Although it wasn’t without its hiccups, the pilot year of UNIQ+ was incredible and I am confident that our feedback will help make next year’s programme even better. The intended increase in intake hopefully means more participants in each college to create a more representative view of college life, where I felt there could be the most improvement. This, however, didn’t dictate my overall experience, and I left the programme with so much more clarity about my future direction, and for that I couldn’t be more thankful.

If you are passionate about research and meet the requirements for the UNIQ+ application (which can be checked here), then I strongly urge you to apply, even if you aren’t considering Oxford! It was a unique insight into postgraduate life and a really valuable way to spend the summer; it pushes you out of your comfort zone and into a world-renowned university that is often seen as inaccessible. Opportunities like these are still scarce but I am hopeful that this is changing. I believe that the University of Oxford’s UNIQ+ Access Summer School is pioneering a new era of research internship opportunities across universities so that all students can fulfil their passions.

Finally, I would like to thank all members of the UNIQ+ admin team and organisers for such a memorable experience, as well as the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology and in particular everyone in the Fly Lab for being so welcoming. Of course, a special thank you goes to Dr Perry – I couldn’t have asked for a lovelier supervisor who helped make my summer in Oxford so brilliant.

Written by Ellie Jarvis Zoology (MSci)

UNIQ+ Summer School at the University of Oxford (1st July – 9th August 2019)


Futures European Researchers’ Night

The Futures European Researchers’ Night at We the Curious was a chance to meet and question top researchers from three universities including the University of Bristol. Pitched at a level for individuals with a non-scientific background, it enabled members of the public to engage with ground-breaking science that usually might not be accessible to them.

It was especially interesting to meet the Fluid and Aerodynamic Research Group, who use animal behaviour research to inspire novel technologies. We discovered how gull flight paths are very energy-efficient because they take into account wind patterns, and we learned that this knowledge is being used to develop drones that fly in a similar way. Check out https://www.bristol.ac.uk/aerodynamics-research/research-projects/bif/research/urban_gull/ for more information, including how you can get involved in spotting gulls that have been tagged for the project.

 

 

 

 

 

Written by Ella Boswell, Biology (BSc)



Bee and Pollination Festival 2019

The University of Bristol marked the 10th anniversary of the Bee and Pollination Festival at the Botanic Gardens on Saturday- 31st August and Sunday- 1st September.

Beekeepers, scientists and local enthusiasts teamed up for a fantastic event aimed at educating, celebrating and raising awareness of the importance of pollination. A ‘hive’ of activities were spread across the two days, including- exhibition stands, educational talks, craft workshops and some fantastic plant and produce sales.

Upon my arrival at the festival I was met by one of the staff members, Nicola Rathbone (also known as Frogie), who was extremely kind and took time out of her busy schedule to talk me through the activities on hand and what to expect throughout the weekend. At the end of the conversation she left me with an interesting thought; “It’s not just about the bees, it’s about all pollinators”. People`s focus is usually centred around honeybees when it comes to pollination and often the rest of the 300,000 species of pollinators are overlooked. The event’s organisers are keen to stress that all pollinators have value and are worthy of conservation.

On Saturday, the Festival welcomed Jane Memmott, Professor of Ecology at the University of Bristol and Director of the Botanic Gardens, and her talk on ‘Who pollinates your daily food and why it matters’.

She walked visitors through examples of foods that are a product of pollination, often foods we consume every day and could be found in our cupboards. She encourages us to put more thought into what goes into our meals and how it end up there. She continued with factors that contribute to the rapid decline of pollinators, what could be done and how we can implement small changes in our everyday lives in order to attract and protect pollinators in our gardens.

Another popular talk was by Phil Savoie, biologist and award winning nature photographer, with ‘Wild Bees in my Garden’. Using mesmerising photos, he took visitors on a journey around his garden to have a closer look inside the lives of different species of native bees.

A solitary bee was spotted feeding on nectar at the Botanic Gardens

An insight into the Asian Hornet and the havoc it causes on honeybees in the Channel Isles was presented by Lynne Ingram, Master beekeeper from Somerset, who has been working alongside scientists from the University of Exeter and Jersey in order to tackle the perils of the Asian Hornet. Using ground-breaking telemetry, she and her team are tracking Asian Hornets back to where they nest and destroying the nests once located. She is tirelessly working on spreading awareness among beekeepers and the public of the destructive nature of these invasive wasps and the harm they bring to honeybees and other pollinators.

Matt Cracknell, Project Manager of Feed Bristol, was another speaker. He introduced the project for a six-acre wildlife gardening hub and a native wildflower nursery, where people and wildlife can thrive together.

The festival continued on Sunday with a very interesting talk from Dr Rowena Jenkins, lecturer in Microbiology and Infectious Disease in the College of Medicine at Swansea University, on her research on the healing qualities of Manuka honey against antibiotic- resistant strains of certain bacteria.

Across the two days, nature organisations put on free workshops, exhibitions and information stands to celebrate pollinators.  Organisations such as Avon Wildlife Trust, Bristol Naturalists Society, Friends of the Downs and Avon Gorge, as well as the School of Biological Sciences and many more took on the task to engage with the many who attended, raising awareness and promoting interest in local nature, and encouraging pollinators’ wellbeing.

Bee- friendly flower and plant seeds, honey and even raw pollen (which is great in smoothies) were available for people to take home. Visitors had the opportunity to taste honey cakes and cider, and buy local fruits and vegetables; all of which supports local farmers and allows you to reduce your environmental impact.

Honey for sale was available throughout the festival
A hive of bees as part of one of the demonstrations

 

 

 

 

 

 

The family-friendly workshops, demonstrations and games were enjoyed by everyone. There was willow weaving and nature workshops, beekeeping demonstrations and games like the children’s trail, where through pictures, kids and their parents were identifying different plants and their associated pollinators.

The director of the gardens, Prof. Jane Memmott, leaves us with food for thought; “What makes pollinators happy often makes people happy too – flowers provide a literal feast for bees and a visual feast for people”

On a whole, it was a fantastic event with something for everyone: a good balance of fun, food and educational events. As commented by one of the visitors “it is not one to miss”, so make sure you attend next year!

Written by Antonia Yovcheva, Palaeontology and Evolution (BSc)School of Earth Sciences



The Value of Your Degree and What to Do Next

Dear students of Biological Sciences.

I must say, you are looking exceptionally intelligent and ravishing today, I love what you did with your hair.

Now they do say:

Flattery is telling people what they already know about themselves

I won’t flatter you anymore and will instead be telling you awesome things about you that you don’t know. Firstly, you are reading a blog about just what an awesome life you can lead with the skills you already have. As long as you make the right decisions at the right time, anything is possible and that’s just a case of having the right mindsets that will influence your decisions.

Decision 1. Keep reading ;-]

That was easy.

I’m going to tell you things you learnt during your degree that you might half know already, things that you had no idea about, and why you can win at everything. Followed up by a few rules for life to help make the most of the skills you didn’t know you already had.

Now let’s dive into some more pre-amble self-qualification so you can understand where the hell this advice is coming from.

Who is Sam?

I studied Biology BSci 2010-2013 and had the honour of Gary Foster as my Tutor, Clare Grierson for my mini-thesis project and Alistair Hetherington for my research project. I couldn’t have asked for a more brilliant set of human beings. Sadly, I was rather pre-occupied from my studies due to starting a business at the same time, before I go too far into the details it was basically Deliveroo before Deliveroo. I did pretty well out of it in that it didn’t fail, I employed actual humans and made stuff happen reliably and somehow sold it. But I’m not yet a millionaire which is woefully unimpressive. I managed to not fail my degree and learn some useful stuff from it.

Since uni I have done an array of things mostly highly unrelated to Biology.

The two things most related to biology:

  • Working in AI (artificial intelligence) measuring human emotions by tracking biomarkers (facial expressions, voice intonation, sweat response, heart-rate etc…). This was used for learning how to make interesting experiences for TV, advertising but will be increasingly used for creepy stuff. (We started building lie detection during credit card applications that could detect micro-expressions. In the future Netflix will know exactly how you felt about every movie you watch and just what the best movie for you right now will be based on how you are feeling.)
  • Working on oil rigs developing new software for controlling and improving their operations. This helped reduce the amount of gas being flared and the amount of oil going overboard due to poor separation processes. (Amazingly a new species of crab was found on one of the rig legs whist I was there but it had nothing to do with me. I also saw a pack of killer whales once but mostly it’s just sitting in a metal box living groundhog day again and again and again and so on until the Gods allow you to go home. I don’t recommend it.)

Less related to biology I’ve learnt a lot about coding and marketing and I’ve travelled the world with highlights including:

  • Toured North Korea
  • Hitchhiked across Kazakhstan
  • Being paid to sail around the Caribbean Lived in the woods of Tasmania for a month with zero technology (not even a watch)
  • Spent ten days meditating in complete silence in India (no reading, writing, or even looking at other human faces – just deep exploration into your own mind)

I currently run the Growth Mindset Podcast where I get to interview some of the worlds most fascinating humans. From leading scientists to Olympic athletes, tech billionaires to an actual real-life Hitman. Since starting it two years ago, I now know the inventor of Siri, the founder of Graze, the guy who built the BBC iPlayer and one member of the team that discovered the Higgs Boson (and yes a hitman).

I’ve even exchanged letters with Sir David Attenborough himself.

This letter of rejection has now been framed by my mother (which she strangely hasn’t done with my degree yet).

Back to the point. I may have only left Bristol 5 years ago but I’ve learnt a lot about life so hopefully I can impart some wisdom on you that I wish I had known back then. In an ideal scenario, I might just save you the monumental amount of failing that I’ve done in the process of achieving these things.

The Value of a Biological Sciences Degree

Your degree is very important. But remember that it only opens doors for you (or perhaps more accurately it buys you a window of time to explain why you should go through the door.) You still have to deliver and generally be a useful person to be kept around in whatever you do. And there are other ways you can find to help open doors.

Some cool things that might not have been obvious that you can do with a degree in biology straightaway.

Like now: Start a Stupidly Cool business

Biotech is the new big thing. Food innovation is hot, whilst Beyond Meat was the most successful launch on the stock exchange this year, even here in Bristol companies like Lettus Grow are doing super cool things. Deep Branch Bio are capturing carbon dioxide in industrial processes with bacteria that turn it into protein.

You don’t need years of experience to do this. Just research something that interests you and there is a whole team within the University to help you turn any inventions into a business (Basecamp Enterprise Team). You don’t need 20 years experience in industry before starting a business, people will take you seriously. Young people are considered smart these days, they’re unbiased approach to new ways of thinking is very valuable. You don’t need money, people give it to you to build your ideas, it’s pretty neat.

(see Anthony Rose Podcast for advice on how to raise money)

Save a Species and Save the Planet

For some reason conservation seemed like an awesome thing that I could never quite get round to spending a lot of time on. Documenting the decline of a species seemed rather depressing. I didn’t see how it really stopped anything bad from happening when you need to stop the economics of what is destroying the habitat rather than just measuring the resulting effects.

It turns out if you work in conservation you need to also get involved with the rest of the world. Tourism, politics and economics and then stuff actually starts happening. If you go and talk to leaders of countries with the right message you can get entire areas protected and national parks established with your work. Not only does this save species it also prevents deforestation and thus helps combat climate change all at the same time.

(see podcast episode with Dr Niall McCann about conservation and his work with National Park Rescue where he is actually doing this. He also finds time to get on TV and do mental things like rowing the Atlantic, skiing across Greenland and cycling the himalayas. My last email exchange with him was rather ‘snappy’ because he was busy rescuing alligators…If you want something meaningful to do you might find some life purpose helping them out)

Some cool things you definitely weren’t told about how great your degree is:

The Huge Value of being a Scientist:

Seeking truth is one of the most important things in life that humans happen to be terrible at. You would think that an intelligent ‘rational’ human would be open to new information that improves their knowledge about the world. But actually we much prefer to keep hold of the current idea in our head and use our intelligence to think about why the new information is wrong. (Confirmation Bias)

If you read a few different blogs about a topic that you have an opinion on, the ones that agree with your viewpoint confirm to your brain just how wonderful its opinions are. The ones that don’t agree must be written by idiots because your brain has a good view of itself and wouldn’t be wrong. (Confirmation bias in Online News)

If you can constantly challenge your thinking to seek truth, to cultivate a constant cycle of feedback and learning, then your life will be amazing. Your decisions will be correct so much more of the time, and whatever you choose to do, you will rise to the top because most humans can’t do this. (read books like Principles, by Ray Dalio, Creativity Inc by Ed Catmulll or biographies of Andrew Carnegie, Warren Buffet etc… The genius quality of these rich people isn’t that they are instantly correct about everything, it’s that they encourage other people to tell them when they’re being stupid and change accordingly).

If you have learnt anything from your degree I hope it is to scientifically seek truth. Look to find out exactly what is going on rather than seeking to prove your ideas right. It took me a long time and I genuinely always thought I had it fine because that’s how the ego works. In my third year Clare Grierson marked down my epic amounts of research due to being too selective. To this day, being sat in her office feeling like a melon is still the most memorable moment of my degree. Suddenly a whole tonne of things clicked into place. I sat there reflecting how much of an almighty idiot I was and I’d spent three years thinking I was doing something that I wasn’t.

Now just consider the vast number of papers published that show the writer had a great idea and proved it right, versus the number of papers that prove the writer’s idea was stupid. Being wrong is valuable information for future researchers. Science is still rather broken. Hopefully you aren’t.

How Biology Applies to Business:

I often get looks of surprise when people find out I studied Biology, this is swiftly followed by the question. ‘That has nothing to do with business. How did that lead into startups?

’The theory of evolution, adaption to the environment, competing for a niche to survive, game theory for optimal choice in partner selection or resource acquisition, the replication and proliferation of the genes which are the blueprint for a successful entity. This is all business, literally Biology is Business.

Companies are just individuals fighting for survival over scarce resources in their given niche. They are constantly evolving and adapting to change. Those that stay agile and quickly react to new opportunities proliferate whilst others die (e.g. Amazon became huge whilst Nokia disappeared).

A business franchise is literally just replicating the blueprint of a successful formula the same as replicating your DNA.

Not only do you know a tonne about business, you also know about Biology and Science which is more than any business graduate. Two degrees in one and no one ever told you!


Rules for Life

So you’ve learnt that you can start a business, save the world or get to the top of just about any field with your degree. Now some candid advice before you get too excited.

1. Focus

“You can do anything” does not mean “You can do everything”.

The Growth Mindset attitude is an amazing thing. It teaches us that with hard work you really can learn any skill, achieve greatness and constantly advance yourself.

It is important to remember that “hard work” actually means “focused work” and implies sacrifice of other things. You could spend your life working “hard” all hours of the day on a million different things, but you would only go backwards.

There’s a reason Mo Farah doesn’t compete in weightlifting, he’d be average at both running and weightlifting if he did. He also doesn’t “run” a business or “jog” patients back to life or “canter” through Netflix documentaries or “pace” himself through a long night out on the Triangle or “shuffle” his way through a PhD (or “lope” his way through awkward synonyms for “running”…). He just spends a lot of focused time training one skill and the rest of it smiling an inordinately.

2. Don’t Rush

The world is a brilliantly exciting place. There are also a million things you ‘could’ do and if you are doing one thing that leaves 999,999 things that you aren’t doing.You can quickly feel pretty inept when your Instagram feed shows a mate surfing in Bali, another getting a doctorate in curing cancer whilst another launched a million $ marketing business. This can lead to huge urges to quit what you’re doing and do something else that looks more fun.

Going back to the reflections on time earlier: If you are in your early twenties we can assume you will probably live until you’re 90, so that leaves almost 70 years to do all the things on your list. If you dedicated 7 years to each major project urge you are having, that is 10 projects you could go really deep on. You can really nail it safe in the knowledge that you can get down your list of awesome cool things that you will also nail. Now it seems pretty sensible that having a list of 10 projects you’ve completely bossed is better than a ridiculously long list of things that you started and stopped before you got any good at them.

3. Keep Learning

So you’re finishing education and about to embark into the world of actually doing stuff and becoming a productive member of society. Well actually your first 7-year task should be do more learning. Sorry.

It does slightly conflict with the ‘focus and only do one thing’ message, but try and learn as much as you can initially by working in different industries. Experience life in startups, corporates, science. See more of the world. Advice from the billionaire founder of Siri: never focus on money in any job you take and always optimise for learning. Whilst you’re young you can handle sleeping on a mate’s sofa and eating ramen etc… you don’t need money.

Money actually comes with it’s own set of problems and the whole overhead of managing it and not losing it which is another faff. It’s wise to acquire as much experience as possible and find out what you’re passionate about. You can learn what you would enjoy dedicating long periods of time to, when you’re older and more settled.

I don’t mean change what you’re doing every month. Do put time into actually doing the thing you’re doing. Just be open to trying different things that look interesting and get you out of your comfort zone. Switching it up every year or so till your 30s. By then you should have acquired a unique set of skills and can really start doing something you’ll smash out the park.

Just because you see people being ultra successful at 22 or whatever, you really don’t need to worry.

Firstly, remember that other people are irrelevant and the only thing that matters is that you keep on improving each day in comparison to yourself.

Secondly, 90% of these of ultra successful wizz-kid geniuses are actually just super lucky. In fact, I’d say I feel sorry for some of them because it goes to their heads and they genuinely start to believe their own crap and completely lose any ability to really seek truth and take on feedback (which was the all important quality I alluded to earlier). It took a while to realise that I am not a genius and that my first business took off due to sheer luck. Being honest, it was successful in spite of me and the number of mistakes I was continuously making rather than because of my innate business genius.

So now when I see a list of Forbes 30 under 30 etc.. I don’t think, “Oh God these people are so amazing and I’m such a failure”. Instead I think “Wow, look, a bunch of ridiculously lucky people who have no clue what they are doing but are under this weird illusion that they are geniuses. They’ll learn”

4. Respect Your Elders

As humans we are built to think pretty highly of ourselves and you should. If we lived in constant awareness of our ineptitude at almost everything we’d soon lose the Growth Mindset we should be cultivating. However, I think the gravity of how much more your elders know only hit me after leaving university.

The idea that you reach the phase of being an “adult” when you’re 20 is a very dangerous illusion. The bracket of working adults is 20-65 years old; thinking that this means you are on a level playing field is actually quite bonkers when you look into it.

My brain slightly explodes just trying to comprehend all the multitude of experiences and lessons I’ve learnt in the last 5 years. Trying to explain these things feels vastly more impossible than anything Tom Cruise has ever done (this includes the impossible achievement that for some reason I still like his movies which no amount of science can explain).

A few crushing realisations brought this about:

5. I am Stupidly Young

In my anticipation of David Attenborough’s sure to be wildly enthusiastic letter of acceptance, I thought about the fact he is 92. Collectively our combined ages add to 120 years of life experience. That’s impressive! But 71% of that is his experience. Him talking to me is directly equivalent to me talking to an 8 year old. This is rather humbling to say the least and made me feel like a baby.

Taking this a step further, we can look more broadly into the age of humanity or the earth and consider that your life is the merest blip on its timeline. You are literally just out of the womb with you eyes bulging at the monumentally mind-blowing phenomenon of taking a breath for yourself. And then that’s it, your life is already over.

Whatever you know now, a few years later you will look back and think of just how naive you were. This phenomenon never stops as you get older. Thus, you can conclude that your current self is an embarrassing idiot for your future self to deal with. This helps you take yourself less seriously, take others more seriously and forgive any mistakes of your own or others.

6. Other People Have Real Stories

There have been times when I’ve been asked to tell my own stories to people of stupid / genius things I’ve done and generally pass on fantastic wisdom. I often recognise a look of mild indifference that I know I used to have. Topics such as:Showing someone how to save their business from a huge mistake

The story of being unlawfully arrested in ParaguayGenuinely accepting my own impending death in the alps and being weirdly chill about it

Miraculously finding myself staying in a drug dealer’s house on the border of Mexico when I was trying to get to an organic farm to do some WOOFing.

All these things somehow didn’t seem to have the full gravity you’d expect.“Yea that’s cool but well. err whatever…”.

As young people we just seem to have this mild indifference the stuff older people tell us which causes them irrational annoyance. They will often wistfully accept that whatever they do there is nothing they can do to illustrate the importance of what they said or just how much it means.

This may sound weird, but it was at this point that I finally understood that other people’s stories are truly deeply real, whether it was exotic stories from a traveller, a business mentor explaining his mistakes or my grandfather talking about the war. It always felt a little, not quite ‘real’ when you’re younger and everything you’re told is just, well, a story. It took telling my own stories, and seeing them not quite sinking in, to recognise that there is so much behind the stories other people tell.

You shouldn’t just listen politely to others, you should listen with intense empathy and interest, and even if the subject means nothing to you, it means something to them.I made an interesting observation during my speech at the alumni event in the Biological Sciences building. All the other alumni with life experience seemed to really resonate with what I was saying. The students were visibly not so impressed by it. It’s not like they hated it, I guess it was just fine, whilst some of the alumni there were having ‘oh shit’ moments. But this makes logical sense. When I was young I wanted to play computer games all day and eat sweets and this seemed vastly important. Having my mum tell me that cleaning my room and doing homework was more important seemed odd and gave me the feeling she might be really stupid or something. Telling my friends 14 year old little sister that she doesn’t need to spend every hour on her phone messaging friends she’ll never talk to again when she’s older grants a similar reaction. It was about as effective as telling Trump the climate has issues that might be more important than building a big wall.

The point is that at every stage of life has different stages of what is important at that time and it can be hard to see other people’s viewpoints. As you get older you start to realise that any one who is older than you and tells you something they think is useful and interesting is inevitably always right.

7. Cherish Your Mentors

Now considering how young you are and how real and beneficial other people’s knowledge is, we can start to take onboard a lot more when we realise it is a resource to be treasured.

I really wish I had understood just quite how precious the delightful bundles of knowledge those people we call lecturers are. They have so much incredible experience in life, science, and just making things happen. The University just lets these insanely valuable entities wander around the department freely. What’s more, they will even talk to you if you ask questions, and to all appearances they seem to take you seriously. You can really make the most of them by finding excuses to get involved with anything you can, asking for advice and genuinely listening to it.

If knowledge were chocolate then the University is Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: Do your best to fill your pockets before you leave.

Author: Sam Harris

Blog: www.SamWebsterHarris.com

Podcast: www.GrowthMindsetPodcast.com



Life After a Biological Sciences Degree

Alumni Careers Event (3rd May 2019)

‘So, what do you want to do after uni?’ is a familiar question that undergraduates face when discussing their degree, too often answered with something along the lines of ‘I have no idea!’. Due to its versatility, life after a biological sciences degree can be open-ended, leaving those without a career plan feeling overwhelmed. So, what better way to explore your options (biology-related or otherwise) than to hear from the University of Bristol’s own Biological Sciences alumni? During the evening of Friday 3rd May, nine speakers presented short summaries of their post-university life, including how they utilised their degree and gems of wisdom for current biological sciences undergraduates looking to make the most of what their degree offers them.

Sophie Lanfear – Producer, Silverback Films

 

First to present was Sophie Lanfear, a producer at Silverback Films, having been recently involved in the Attenborough series ‘Our Planet’ on Netflix. Graduating from Bristol in 2005 with a BSc in Psychology-Zoology, Sophie emphasised how she combined her passion for science and creativity through photography whilst studying meerkats at Cambridge University’s Kalahari Meerkat Project. The film crew of the TV series ‘Meerkat Manor’ advised Sophie that going directly into the filmmaking industry would be more worthwhile than a PhD, leading her to the BBC for 8 years where she provided insight into animal intelligence for documentaries. She recently specialised in the Arctic and filmed for the BBC series ‘The Hunt’, during which her unique on-location experiences included a polar bear breaking into their accommodation! Aside from the adventurous elements of her career, Sophie said that her degree has helped her put scientific integrity into filmmaking and aided her research discussions with the field biologists working with her team. She is glad that her work is now having as global a reach as Netflix provides!

Niall McCann – Director of Conservation, National Park Rescue

 

During the summer of Niall’s second year at Bristol, he proved his keen interest in research by organising an expedition to Bolivia to study giant otters for seven weeks. Following his graduation in 2004, he ignited a passion for conservation whilst studying biodiversity in Guyana, leading to a successful campaign preventing a river he worked on being claimed by gold miners. He continued working in conservation through a PhD at Cardiff University studying Baird’s Tapirs in Honduras, realising he wanted to act against the extinction he was witnessing. Therefore, he founded a community ranger programme in Honduras, which still continues today. He later established his charity ‘National Park Rescue’, identifying Africa’s most at-risk national parks and integrating law enforcement and conservation to protect endangered species. Niall had already attracted the attention of the media through presenting docu-series on PBS and partaking in extreme hobbies, such as rowing across the Atlantic Ocean and cycling over the Himalayas (twice!), aiding the publicity of his cause. He currently works closely with the UK Government’s response to the illegal wildlife trade and recently became a National Geographic Explorer. Niall’s closing words of wisdom to the audience were ‘do something you’re passionate about, be tenacious, volunteer and say yes to every opportunity’.

Shaaron Leverment – Deputy CEO, UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres

 

Shaaron followed a different path after her graduation in 1997 by creating her own science-outreach business ‘Explorer Dome’, engaging young people’s interest in space through taking a portable inflatable planetarium to schools. She has since obtained qualifications in astrobiology and is the former president of the British Association of Planetaria. Now, Shaaron is the Deputy CEO of the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres, working on national programmes with organisations such as the UK Space Agency and the Royal Society, promoting science engagement and education. She is particularly passionate about tackling inequalities in STEM education, highlighting how those of different gender, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds are still left out. Shaaron recently completed an MSc in Applied Neuropsychology on the effects of chronic inflammatory conditions on sleep, illustrating that it is possible to be involved in multiple scientific fields after university! She laughed about how 20 years on you still might not know what direction you are going in but emphasised that the course she did at Bristol and the people she met were central to her career path. Her top tip encouraged undergraduates to build their network as early as possible.

Hendrikus van Hensbergen – CEO, Action for Conservation

 

Hendrikus graduated with a BSc in Biology in 2010 without a career plan, and settled on an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at Oxford University. His first job advised timber companies on sustainable sourcing, providing the basis for his subsequent job as Forest Policy Manager for WWF. Hendrikus was invited to speak about his career at his secondary school, leaving surprised at the engagement and energy that young people had for conservation. He noticed a gap in the market for conservation engagement schemes aimed at teenagers and filled it with his charity Action for Conservation – offering workshops, residential camps and ambassador programmes engaging 12-18-year-olds in UK conservation. Focusing on those from disadvantaged urban areas and minority groups, Hendrikus hopes to create systemic change in the wider sector, pushing NGOs and the government to engage youth groups. Next month they launch the UK’s first large-scale youth-led restoration project in the Brecon Beacons and continue to engineer change with their campaigns. Hendrikus demonstrates that his degrees laid the foundation for an influential and fulfilling charity which could integrate his passions for education and conservation.

Jon Davies (& Paola Reason & Will Trewhella) – Ecological Consultants, Arcadis

 

Jon opened by admitting he initially came to Bristol specifically for wildlife filmmaking but got somewhat side-tracked. He followed his Zoology degree with an MSc in Conservation at UCL, encouraging the audience to do something they’re fascinated with. Since then, he has researched baboons in Namibia, fruit bats in the Comoro Islands (whose descendants currently live in Bristol Zoo!) and specialised in beetles at the Natural History Museum. After completing his “interesting stuff”, he began work at a small independent ecological consultancy company which became part of Arcadis, one of the world’s largest environmental consultancies, and remains there 22 years later. Ecological consultants work with developers to make development more sustainable and reduce the impacts on local biodiversity. Jon said it is now a common career and can be tailored to your interests, from practical surveying to office-based work. Now the Head of Ecology at Arcadis and leading a team of 65 ecologists, Jon doesn’t do fieldwork anymore but has fond memories of the late nights, early mornings and long hours made enjoyable by the team he worked with. He joked about how his is a more accessible career than Niall’s or Sophie’s, but nonetheless crucial to the conservation of British biodiversity!

Sam Harris – Host, Growth Mindset Podcast

 

Sam’s life since graduating in 2013 takes an alternative route. During the first year of his degree, he spent his spare time coming up with business ideas, settling on a successful cycle logistics company and jumpstarting an entrepreneurial career. Sam admitted that he hasn’t technically had a ‘real job’ since university but has been volunteering at start-ups and charities to gain valuable experience. He now hosts the ‘Growth Mindset Podcast’ where he interviews and tells the stories of fascinating individuals, teaching him to learn as much as possible rather than following the money. Sam had an interesting take on the use of his degree, comparing evolution, competition, niches and resource exploitation to key business concepts, and explored the similarities between running a business and an experiment. Alongside the podcast, Sam has spent time in North Korea, lived tech-free in a forest in Tasmania, and spent ten days silently meditating in the Himalayas, and reflected on how such experiences have influenced the way he views the world and society today. You can hear more about Sam’s explorations on his podcast at www.growthmindsetpodcast.com!

Lewis Honey – Delivery Manager, Humanity and Inclusion

 

Lewis graduated in 2015 without knowing what he wanted to do. He spent 2 years working for the NHS in Emergency Preparedness and Business Continuity where his curiosity for public service developed, consequently applying to the Civil Service Fast Stream as a way to fulfil this interest. This path immediately provided him with the unique opportunity to spend six months living in a condemned Navy submarine fort in Portsmouth whilst working as a Programme Manager at the Ministry of Defence. His second placement was as Delivery Manager for Humanity and Inclusion, a charity working in situations of exclusion, conflict and disaster to help vulnerable and disabled people meet their basic needs and promote respect for their fundamental rights. Lewis has since moved onto an exciting new posting in the Home Office where he is working on Brexit! Aside from his career, he still wanted to make the most of his science degree and in January 2019 he became a Trustee of ‘Lightyear Foundation’, a Bristol-based charity that breaks down the barriers to disabled children taking part in STEM subjects. His final message was that it’s absolutely fine to not know exactly what you want to do before finishing university; the important thing is to challenge your own preconceived ideas of what is your ‘ideal’ career choice, and then make the most of the opportunities you seek out.

Guy Cowlishaw – Senior Research Fellow, Zoological Society of London

 

During the second year of his Zoology degree, Guy was set on a career in research, so began searching for experience for his PhD applications, eventually studying rhesus monkeys at the Caribbean Primate Research Centre. He then studied a PhD with Professor Robin Dunbar in Anthropology at UCL on primates. Whilst initially apprehensive, seeing himself as a zoologist rather than an anthropologist, that exposure to anthropology broadened his horizons and benefitted his subsequent work, particularly that on the bushmeat trade. Guy then spent two years teaching on UCL’s MSc course in Conservation before taking up an ESRC research fellowship back in the UCL Anthropology department. During this fellowship, he applied for a research fellow position at the research branch of the ZSL, the Institute of Zoology. Whilst unsuccessful, his well-received application gained him an alternative position and he now works there as a Senior Research Fellow. Guy’s current research involves long-term study at the Tsaobis Baboon Project, the impacts of the bushmeat trade on wildlife and local communities, and the dynamics of species extinctions. His presentation finished with a reminder to keep an eye on the bigger picture and be prepared to make short-term sacrifices to meet long-term goals.

Simon Carley-Smith – Physiotherapist, NHS

 

Simon graduated in 2005 not knowing what he wanted to do except stay in science. He also went to Bolivia the year after Niall McCann but discovered he wasn’t ‘cut-out’ for fieldwork and wanted to have more of an impact. He accepted a PhD with Professor Mark Viney at Bristol, studying nematodes in rat faeces, finding that he didn’t enjoy the day-to-day process of research enough to continue in the field. So, following his PhD he focused on his other passion and started a rock-climbing company in Cornwall, highlighting that the analytical aspect of his degree gave him the necessary skill-set to do so. After some time running this business, he decided he no longer wanted to live in Cornwall and trained to be a physiotherapist, ensuring he could still incorporate science into his career. Simon now works with British gymnasts, such as Olympic-potential Amelie Morgan, is a Level 8 Clinician in Hampton House, and runs a rock-climbing physiotherapy business ‘Rise’. His advice was to be passionate about what you want and you will achieve it, emphasising the importance of surrounding yourself with passionate people. If you don’t know what you want, try as many things as you can!

After the presentations, students, staff and alumni met in the Sky Lounge of the Life Sciences Building for food, drinks and networking. The chance to hear from alumni left the audience with a sense of renewed motivation and relief from the pressure of making theoretically ‘life-changing’ career choices so early in life. There is a certain comfort that can be found from hearing happy and successful people who didn’t follow a rigid career path that love where they have ended up today! This really was an invaluable opportunity for undergraduates to become inspired to explore their career options whilst gaining some important advice to help them along the way. The key message to be taken away from the evening was to be passionate about your interests and make the most of every opportunity you can to end up doing something you truly love.

Written by Ellie Jarvis, Zoology (MSci)



The colourful world of crab camouflage

How changes in colouration and behaviour enable marine arthropods to survive in a diverse environment

Who is the hero of Professor Martin Stevens? As he told the staff and students of the university this Monday, it is the famous naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who inspired Professor Stevens to pursue research into camouflage and colour in nature.

“Among the numerous applications of the Darwinian theory… none have been more successful, or more interesting, than those which deal with the colours of animals and plants” (Wallace 1889).

This Monday, the School of Biological Sciences was visited by Professor Stevens, who spoke about the mechanics of camouflage and its adaptive value in nature through studies of within-species diversity and habitat matching inshore crabs and chameleon prawns.

Camouflage seems like an easy concept to grasp.

We have all heard of the rapid colour change in chameleons. However, as Professor Stevens explained, it isn’t quite that simple. Firstly, the majority of colour change in animals is continuous and gradual, unlike that of the famous chameleons and cuttlefish. Additionally, this style of camouflage (background matching) is just one of many types that animals employ to disguise themselves in their environments.

Professor Stevens elaborated on this in his case study of the common shore crab Carcinus maenas. This highly adaptable organism shows a huge variation in colours and patterns, which seems in part associated with background matching to the environment individuals are in. Both in mudflats and in rocky shores, the two differently coloured habitats we find these crabs in, the crab’s colour pattern is related to their habitat. Professor Stevens also revealed that crabs showed behavioural preferences to match to certain backgrounds as well.

Interestingly, these crabs also change appearance with age, gradually become duller and tending to lose their markings and converging on a universal dull green colour.

They seem to all adopt this generalist camouflage because while they get less mobile as they age, it might not be adaptive to keep matching the background if constantly moving; this strategy was found to be surprisingly effective, through analysis of a citizen science game at the Natural History Museum! Additionally, it was interesting to hear how individual diversity in these crabs is due to different camouflage strategies, such as disruptive colouration, and how complex markings can defeat predator search images and drive apostatic selection (i.e. rare appearances being more successful in avoiding predation).

Chameleon prawns (Hyppolyte varians) have even weirder and wonderful camouflage than the crabs, some being bright green, red, or transparent.

These creatures can change colour to match seasonal changes in substrate, although again this change takes 14-21 days; it is not quick like the chameleons! Therefore, some behavioural choices are needed to allow them to effectively camouflage in the short term. They seem to prefer seaweeds that match their body colour, and this is an effective strategy as survival rate has been shown to be higher on matched background. Parallels exist with a more exotic species in Brazil; nicknamed ‘carnival prawns’, the males can also be transparent, since they are less likely to sit on algae and are more mobile while in search of females.

Finally, Professor Stevens discussed questions for possible future study: Why do they change in colour at night? Why does light intensity affect the strength of camouflage? And, most intriguingly, can these prawns see in colour vision? To finish, the influence of anthropogenic change on these organisms was discussed in the context of how increasing water temperature and ship noise pollution might affect their camouflage abilities.

Written by Esme Hedley, Biology (BSc) and Miren Porres, Zoology (BSc)


Ecotoxicologists take over LSB!

During the second week of April, 11 biological sciences undergraduates undertook the challenge of becoming ecotoxicologists during the a field course lead by Professor Marian Yallop and Dr Gary Barker. Ecotoxicology is the study of toxic substances on biological organisms and the students had the responsibility of choosing their topic, designing their experiment, conducting the experiment, collecting the data, analysing the data and presenting their findings…all within a week!

The week kickstarted with a great lunch at Cosmos and a lot of discussion on what the students were going to research. By the end of the first day the students had decided to look at the ecotoxicology of pesticides and nanoparticles on microalgae, the effects of UV-C on microalgae, and the effects of UV-C on marine and freshwater plankton.

By day 2 everyone was preparing all of their equipment, toxic substances, algae and plankton. Day 3 and 4 consisted of data collection including cell/plankton counting, using PAM to measure cell health and chlorophyll analysis. On the last day the students finished up their data analysis and created presentations on their research findings. Each group presented their findings and displayed very interesting results. They found that the pesticides and nanoparticles inhibited algal cell growth, UV-C repelled some planktonic species but not others, and UV-C provided some short-term inhibition of algae.

Overall the undergraduates gained some great experience in the MSci laboratory; they became very independent and were very well organised, they learnt the correct aseptic technique, quickly picked up how to plan an efficient experiment, stuck to time-constraints, conducted experiments correctly, understood the data they had collected and presented their findings.

The students showed so much enthusiasm throughout the week and we were all very happy with the outcome! Well done ecotoxicologists and good luck with writing up your reports!

Written by Katie Wojcik, DemonstratorSchool of Biological Sciences