A Biography of Professor Jane Memmott

“I’m still smiling!” was Professor Jane Memmott’s reply to being asked her feelings about becoming the newly-elected president of the British Ecological Society. In an office filled with shelves of books, a case of preserved butterflies, feathers from various species and a plant collection to rival the rest of the life sciences building, I interviewed Professor Jane Memmott on her career, interests and her journey towards the prestigious position she holds today.

Like so many of us, Jane’s lifelong fascination with nature began at an early age. It was during her childhood camping trips to County Clare in Ireland that Jane, inspired by her surroundings, developed an interest in ecology. In 1981, Jane began studying zoology at the University of Leeds. She described herself as a “keen and enthusiastic” student but mentioned that she still has “a horror of a few areas of biology from not liking them as a student!”. Jane went on to explain that it wasn’t until her third year at Leeds, when she really enjoyed everything she was studying, that she truly excelled as a student.

Professor Memmott took a year out after her BSc at Leeds, during which she took her first flight to Peru, where she worked as a tour guide in the Amazon rainforest for three months. This was Jane’s first taste of the tropics, and she became captivated by rainforests, leading her to write a PhD to be based in Costa Rica. Jane described one of her most memorable moments during her PhD in Costa Rica, when she encountered a sloth crossing the bridge of the field station. “They’re quite difficult things to catch- you can’t just unhook them from the handrail. We got it into a large dustbin and had the cutlery tray from the dishwasher over the top!” Once captured, the sloth was safely transported to a tree buttress to see what effect it would have on Jane’s experimental phlebotomine sandflies. Professor Memmott explained how she’d spent a lot of her life in tree buttresses, describing them as being “like a series of rooms around a big tropical tree.” The tropics can be a paradise for entomologists, and Jane recalled iridescent Morpho butterflies the size of dinner plates and giant damselflies that fly like helicopters.

“Jane described her endless fascination with understanding how the architecture of the network can affect pollination interactions and the robustness of the system to species loss.”

After her PhD in Costa Rica, Jane returned to the tropics for her first post doc. The project was to create the first food web to come out of the tropics, putting together a picture of the trophic interactions between the plants, leaf-miners and parasitoids of the rainforest community. This project got Jane hooked on studying ecological networks as a way of sampling whole communities. She explained, “rather than homing in on species x or species y, you kind of look at the whole alphabet at once.” Jane described her endless fascination with understanding how the architecture of the network can affect pollination interactions and the robustness of the system to species loss. Jane spent her second post doc working on the biological control of invasive plants. During this project, Jane spent time in New Zealand, which proved to be a contrast to the hot, sometimes gruelling nature of her project in Costa Rica. She spoke of her time in New Zealand, describing it as one of her favourite places in the world: “I lived a life of eternal summer – it was easy to live in a little house in paradise and travel round the country doing experiments.”

After ten years travelling the world and living out of a rucksack, Jane returned to the UK, where in 1996 she obtained her lectureship at Bristol. Jane stressed that returning to the UK did not mean forfeiting amazing wildlife encounters, mentioning the amazing views of peregrines that can liven up staff meetings in the sky lounge. From 2012 to 2016, she became Head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol. This position came with some challenges, including leading the movement of the school to the new Life Sciences Building that we know and love today. Nowadays, one of her favourite parts of the job is teaching – especially first year lectures. Jane also enjoys seeing students from all around the world progress through university to do PhDs, and she loves to see the effect that the publishing of a big research paper can have on the young scientists leading the project.

 “I asked Jane what advice she would give to students interested in getting into academia. Her reply was “it’s absolutely worth it!”.”

Outside of her work, Jane enjoys gardening, dog walks and getting out and about in nature with her family; having recently been searching for short-eared owls on the Severn estuary. Professor Memmott describes herself as “always reading”- she enjoys novels, adventure books and books related to ecology. She also mentioned that her two teenagers take up a lot of her attention. I asked Jane what advice she would give to students interested in getting into academia. Her reply was “it’s absolutely worth it!”. She spoke of the “tremendous freedom” associated with being able to do your own research but warned to be prepared to put up with lots of rejection. “You can learn a lot from your rejections – it’s not wasted time.”

The British Ecological Society is the oldest ecological society in the world. The society has six journals including the Journal of Ecology and Ecology and Evolution, and it provides research grants and supports ecologists in their early careers. Jane joined the British Ecological Society as a PhD student and has been a member ever since. She described the society as having been very supportive over the years; providing her with a grant that enabled her to employ a field assistant to help carry out the field work that began all of her pollination research. I asked Jane what it meant to her to be elected as the president of the British Ecological society. She replied, “I’m very honoured – I’m still smiling!”.

Written by Jenny Stewart, MSci Zoology

From protists to whales: predicting the future of biological systems

Complex biological systems are notoriously unpredictable, but forecasting their fate has arguably never been more important. In a recent seminar in the School of Biological Sciences, Dr. Chris Clements describes his latest research in this emerging field at the interface of ecology and conservation science.

The world is facing an unprecedented biodiversity crisis. As mankind’s ecological footprint grows ever larger, the rate of environmental change continues to accelerate. Identifying at-risk populations or ecosystems before they are irretrievably lost or damaged is becoming an increasingly important goal for conservationists, but predicting how complex biological systems will respond to evolving pressures is challenging.

One way of forecasting the future trajectory of biological systems is to use system-specific models founded on a detailed understanding of the underlying ecological processes. In practice however, scientists’ ability to do this is constrained by a scarcity of in-depth knowledge for the vast majority of ecosystems. An alternative strategy is to concentrate on inferring changes in the underlying state of the system from trends in more readily available data, such as estimates of population abundance. This approach is based on detecting statistical patterns or ‘early warning signals’, which can potentially be used to alert conservationists to the imminent danger of a sudden and catastrophic shift within an ecosystem, or the impending collapse of a population. A large part of Dr. Clements’ current research is focused on testing and extending these techniques.

“Under sustained pressure, the system will eventually reach a tipping point where it is so unstable that even tiny disruptions can trigger an abrupt change”

Dramatic shifts within ecosystems can occur when a change in conditions overwhelms the capacity of the system to return to its original state. Under sustained pressure, the system will eventually reach a tipping point where it is so unstable that even tiny disruptions can trigger an abrupt change. A classic example is the rapid transformation of pristine coral reefs due to declines in the abundance of algae-grazing marine life. While transitions to so-called ‘alternative stable states’ are often difficult to reverse, in theory, it should be possible to detect them in advance: as tipping points approach, predictable changes in statistical signals should become apparent.

Despite the potential usefulness of abundance-based early warning signals, the inherently noisy nature of population estimates can sometimes lead to unreliable predictions. Animals living in complex and inaccessible landscapes are usually elusive, and it can be tricky to estimate population sizes with confidence. One possible solution to this problem is to combine or replace abundance-based early warning signals with information on trends in key individual traits, such as body size, which can be estimated more reliably. Crucially, shifts in the distribution of body sizes within the population at-risk can be indicative of deteriorating environmental conditions, and of a population under strain.

“Dramatic shifts in the variability of body size also predicted plummeting worldwide populations of blue, fin, sei and sperm whales during the historical period of commercial whaling”

By describing his recent experiments on microcosm populations of the predatory protist Didinium nasutum, Chris showed that the collapse of stressed populations was preceded by a sharp decline in mean body size. Switching focus to an analysis of whale populations during the 20th century, Chris went on demonstrate how dramatic shifts in the variability of body size also predicted plummeting worldwide populations of blue, fin, sei and sperm whales during the historical period of commercial whaling. In both cases, trait-based early warning signals produced more accurate predictions about timing of population collapses, compared to those based on measures of abundance.

While our understanding of trait-based early warning signals is progressing rapidly, there is still much to learn about how these techniques can be applied to identify at-risk biological systems in the real world, where populations differ markedly in the rate of environmental change they are exposed to. Using both mathematical models and experimental microcosms, Chris’s research group is currently focused on tackling a range of unresolved questions in this area.

Written by Andrew Szopa-Comley, PhD student in Biological Sciences

University of Bristol researchers embark on a programme to develop crop production technology

Dr Antony Dodd, whose internationally leading research at the University of Bristol focuses on circadian rhythms, plant physiology and environmental signalling, has been awarded a Royal Society Industry Fellowship to contribute to product development at the Bristol-based start-up company LettUs Grow.

LettUs Grow was co-founded by University of Bristol alumni Charlie Guy, Ben Crowther and Jack Farmer in 2015. Since then, they have become rising stars in the world of green technology, winning multiple awards for their application of innovative technology to creating more sustainable food production. They have developed novel aeroponic technologies for application in greenhouses and “vertical farms,” which are systems for crop production using stacked indoor systems. Vertical farms reduce water use by up to 95% compared to traditional growing methods, significantly boost yields outside traditional growing seasons and allow crop production in densely populated urban areas.

Dr Dodd will be working closely with LettUs Grow to apply fundamental plant sciences to the advancement of their vertical agriculture technologies. This will involve combining Dr Dodd’s expertise in circadian rhythms and plant physiology with the work of LettUs Grow’s biologists and engineers to design optimal aeroponic cultivation recipes. This will enable LettUs Grow to optimise their systems for individual crop species and consistently increase yields.

Dr Dodd said, “This represents an outstanding opportunity to apply fundamental plant sciences to the development of the next generation of technologies for food production by vertical agriculture.”

Jack Farmer said, “The alignment of plant circadian rhythms with lighting photoperiod represents a real opportunity to improve yields, whilst reducing the cost of production. We’re very excited to work with Dr Antony Dodd to optimise a wide range of indoor farming techniques.”

The year-long Fellowship provides funds to allow Dr Dodd to dedicate time to working closely with LettUs Grow.

Written by Jess Bowers-Martin (year 3 Biology)

Rainbow Meadow supporting the Bees’ Needs

The beautiful Rainbow Meadow outside Royal Fort House has won the Bees Needs Champion 2018 award!

The annual wildflower meadow is part of the ‘My Wild City’ project – a scheme by Avon Wildlife Trust launched in 2015 as part of the #GetBristolBuzzing campaign. The #MyWildUniversity initiative, works within the #MyWildCity framework and is a commitment set out by the External Estates Department to work within and adopt this strategically across our landscapes within the University of Bristol. This exciting collaboration has combined research from the Life Sciences department at the University and the National Pollinator Strategy for England, and has been brought about by the wonderful Royal Fort Estates Team and students from Roots Community Gardening – a student-led volunteering group who promote positive mental health and wellbeing by encouraging more students to connect with nature and their local community.

The recognition by DEFRA and Keep Britain Tidy for the project’s contribution to pollinators and the local community has been a huge honour. The award ceremony was hosted by the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew) on the 13th November 2018, during which representatives from 26 Green Flag awarded projects were presented with the Bees Needs Champion award by Lord Gardiner (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for rural Affairs and Biosecurity):

“I urge everyone to be inspired by this year’s Bees Needs Champions and take pollinator protection into their own hands through simple actions such as growing more flowers, cutting grass less often and thinking carefully about using pesticides.”

It was hugely inspiring to see the wide range of groups, organisations and individuals (councils, conservation charities, academic institutions and the Pollinator Advisory Steering Group) from across the country taking action to help pollinators and conserve the crucial ecological service they provide. The day included a number of speeches about the work that is being done to protect our pollinating insects, including; Philip Turvil and Richard Pollard from Grow Wild; Huw Merriman from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Bees; Hauke Koch and Phil Stevenson conducting scientific research projects at Kew; the Northumberland Honey company; and Dr Lynn Dicks from the University of East Anglia.

“The economic value of pollination is currently estimated at between $235-577 billion globally. A study in 2011 found that two-thirds of the crop pollination service is provided by wild pollinators, not by managed honey bees (Breeze et al., 2011). It is therefore important that we work to preserve landscapes that support common wild pollinators in the long term, by providing the food and nesting resources they need at the appropriate scale.” – Dr Lynn Dicks

We are extremely proud of the work that’s gone into achieving this award and want to say thank you and well done to all involved. Furthermore, whether you are a farmer, a gardener, or a manager of urban or amenity spaces, there is something you can do to help support our valuable insect pollinators.

There are five simple steps you can take to help pollinators in your area:

  1. Plant for pollinators
    Grow more nectar- and pollen-rich flowers, shrubs and trees
  2. Leave patches of land to grow wild
    Wildflowers are important for insects and undisturbed areas make good nesting sites
  3. Put away the pesticides
    They can harm bees and other beneficial invertebrates
  4. Leave your mower in the shed
    Cut grass less often to allow plants to flower. If possible remove the cuttings after you mow longer grass.
  5. Make a bee house
    Drill holes in a log or bundle up lengths of bamboo to provide nesting sites for solitary bees

Visit the Avon Wildlife Trust website to find out more about the Greater Bristol Pollinator Strategy and how you can become part of Get Bristol Buzzing campaign.

A celebration of Pollination and Bristol’s Bees

On the first weekend of September, members of the Bristol community came together to celebrate pollinators in the University of Bristol’s Botanic Garden. The Bee and Pollination Festival returned in its ninth year and welcomed over 2,200 visitors across the two days. The Botanic Garden was abuzz, with a full schedule of educational talks, craft activities, live demonstrations, with plants and produce to browse and take home.

The Botanic Garden in full bloom.
Numerous stalls with plants for sale were throughout the festival.

Nick Wray, Curator of the Botanic Garden, summarised: “The festival allows scientists, beekeepers, food and cider producers and nature reserve managers to come together and share knowledge and experiences with the visitors. A programme of inspirational talks allowed experts to share their knowledge to some of the two thousand people who visited over the weekend, which this year coincided with the 90th Anniversary Year of the Bristol Beekeepers Annual Honey Show, making for an enriching experience for all.”

The School of Biological Sciences was represented by a team of researchers and current students, set on enthusing the public about pollination. The team’s educational messages focussed on highlighting the diversity of pollinators, beyond the much-celebrated honey bee, Apis mellifera. University of Bristol representatives spoke passionately about pollinators which are often overlooked, including hoverflies and solitary bees, of which there are over 250 species in the UK.

Myathropa florea has distinctive markings on the thorax – often likened to the Batman logo. This hoverfly was spotted feasting on nectar at the Botanic Garden.

Solitary bee houses from Professor Jane Memmott’s garden were on display to encourage the public to buy or build their own, aiding invertebrate conservation efforts.

Learn more http://www.avonwildlifetrust.org.uk/getbristolbuzzing

The Biological Sciences team showed visitors a range of different bee houses.
A buff-tailed bumblebee nest in a box.
The Biological Sciences team displayed insect collections and answered questions from the public.

Other delights included invertebrate collections from previous research projects, which garnered surprised reactions at the number and range of different bee species. Also, on show was an old nest of buff-tailed bumblebees, Bombus terrestris, which was interesting as they are usually hidden underground. Plants of Himalayan balsam, Impatiens glandulifera, were on display to engage visitors in discussions about non-native plants. Himalayan balsam is a real problem in nature reserves, out-competing native species. However, it amazingly has 10X more nectar and pollen than any native plant and is the fastest growing plant in the UK.

Jane Memmott showed visitors the giant Himalayan balsam plant, which had grown 2.5m in just a few months.

The stand offered games to play, including: “Guess how much sugar is in the flower.” Frieda, aged 10, spent half an hour playing and learning, asking questions to the University’s Biological Sciences team. Freida’s favourite part of the day was “discovering loads of stuff.” She added, “It’s great how much you can learn in one day. It’s cool how some flowers have loads of petals but are rubbish for bees.”

Frieda is referring to artificial selection occurring over a long period of time, for flowers with big, showy petals in multiple layers. Whilst aesthetically pleasing to some humans, there are consequences for pollinators; both the nectar and pollen content can be drastically reduced.

Freya Cohen from the Biological Sciences stand, explaining the differences between two Zinnia flowers and the consequences for pollinators.

Stallholder, Malcolm Allison, specifically brought plants to sell at the festival which are considered better for pollinators. These flowers are assumed to contain higher quantities of pollen and nectar, which is important for the conservation of local invertebrates. Researchers at the University of Bristol are currently investigating exactly what makes certain plants good for pollinators in collaboration with the Royal Horticultural Society.

The Avon Wildlife Trust at Feed Bristol were also selling wildflower plug plants. Rachael explained, “We do lots of wild collecting from local sites. Sourcing plants as locally as possible, means they are more resilient to pests.”

Rachael from Avon Wildlife Trust at Feed Bristol.
Pollen dusted bee visiting a flower during the Bee and Pollination Festival.

The festival welcomed representatives from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. Somerset Volunteer Coordinator, John Butler, noted the current variety of bumblebee species in the garden, and observed: “There’s even a hornet flying around.”

Educational talks at the festival included a hornet identification workshop, where Colin Lodge discussed the threats posed by Asian Hornets, Vespa velutina nigrithorax. Meanwhile, Clara Montgomery, a PhD candidate from the School of Biological Sciences, presented her research on bumblebees and floral electric fields.

Bristol beekeeper, Quentin Alsop, captivated audiences with live hive demonstrations and carefully opened one of the Botanic Garden’s resident honey bee colonies to show the public the inner workings of the hive. Quentin discussed the stigma associated with stinging insects, and put people at ease whilst handling the bees, despite not wearing a bee suit.

Quentin Alsop’s live hive beekeeping demonstrations were well attended on both days.

Festival-goers got involved with activities including beeswax candle making and willow weaving workshops. One participant was overheard commenting on their willow creation “Well, it was meant to be a bee, but it’s now a dragonfly.” A success nonetheless.

The atmosphere was certainly festive, with the returning sunshine, and drinks provided by Mad Apple Cider Company. Sue Beech, Membership Secretary at the Botanic Garden, remarked, “It’s always a lovely and calm atmosphere at these events, even though it’s really busy.”

Ian Cunneen from Mad Apple Cider provided the festival with fresh tasty cider.

At the end of the festival, one person pulled over his car, wound down the window and declared, “That place, that just blew my mind.” Hopefully, next year’s will be just as good.

There was a very festive atmosphere throughout the weekend, with people relaxing and enjoying the sunshine in the garden.

The Botanic Garden is free to ALL students, under 18s, Friends of the Garden, and University of Bristol staff. Admission is otherwise £5.50 (includes a 50p gift aid donation). The Impossible Garden by Luke Jerram is open 7-days-a-week until November 25th, 2018. The exhibition is a collaboration between artist Luke, who is colour-blind, and researchers at the Bristol Vision Institute. The exhibition features 12 sculptural ideas exploring how we perceive the world around us.

Luke Jerram’s The Impossible Garden is open to the public until the end of November 2018.

Written by Freya Cohen (Biology MSci) and Rosie Leary

Festival of Nature 2018

Millennium square was a hive of activity on the 9th and 10th June as more than 50 enthusiastic organisations put on free events, including exhibitions, workshops and talks, to celebrate the broad topic of nature. Since the festival was first established in 2003, organisations such as the Avon Wildlife Trust, Bristol Zoo and, of course, the University of Bristol, have been chosen to inspire and educate the many who attend.

Despite the upbeat vibe and general excitement caused by the event, a serious message concerning the negative impact humans are having on the world could be found hidden amongst the majority of the activities. Perhaps where this message was portrayed most prominently was in a sculpture of a diesel soot particle which was three million times larger than the actual size. This new artwork, aptly named ‘Inhale’ and created by Luke Jerram, stood as a poignant reminder to all about what humans are breathing in as a result of air pollution.

‘Inhale’ by Luke Jerram.

Air pollution can cause damage to the lungs, leading to shortness of breath. The focus was on the fact that breathing is not just an important body function, the air within our lungs can be used to sing, speak and laugh, therefore, it is important to aid expression of human emotion and to communicate. A collaboration between Prof. Jane Macnaughton from Durham University and Prof. Havi Carei from the University of Bristol has led to a five-year research project funded by the Wellcome Trust called ‘Life of Breath’. It is hoped that an exploration of the use of breath in the arts, humanities, social sciences and medicine will aid people to live well with breathlessness. Members of the team were present at the festival, encouraging visitors to explore and learn more about their own lungs.

Testing lung capacity with ‘Life of Breath’. Photo by Adam Beddoe.

Through the provision of lively, interactive demonstrations, visitors discovered that their height was positively correlated to the capacity of their lungs. Participants were asked to fill their lungs with air, which when blown into a container would displace the water inside. When the participant could no longer blow air out of their lungs, the degree to which the water level had fallen indicated the capacity of the individual’s lungs. This data point was then added to a chart plotting lung capacity against the participant’s height. After a few hours, a positive correlation between the two variables emerged.

CO2 and methane are other examples of air pollutants and are also well-known greenhouse gases. It is thought that approximately one-third of greenhouse gases come from agriculture. For example, nitrous oxide is produced naturally in soils, methane is produced by animals as they digest their food, and the use of fossil fuels in agriculture production releases CO2. The pollution in the atmosphere is also increased by the destruction of large carbon sinks such as woodlands. Farming practices and the fragmentation of woodlands has taken a heavy toll on wildlife, such as dormice, as their habitats are progressively destroyed.

However, how can we encourage younger generations, which are arguably more disconnected from the benefits of nature than any other generation before, to protect the environment? One solution is to educate them and endeavour to show the beauty and inspiration that can be found in nature. This festival encouraged and inspired those that attended in a multitude of ways to do just that.

Pressing plants with Bristol Museum.

Parents could be seen throughout the festival encouraging their children to take an interest in local wildlife. The Bristol Museum enabled visitors to look at their plant fossils and herbariums and to press their own plants in order to explore how they were preserved two hundred years ago. Participants would then be helped to identify the plant that they had pressed.

Bristol Zoo used creative methods to encourage visitors to identify wildlife that could be found in the Avon Gorge and Downs. Children were asked to choose a mask from a choice of billy goats, peregrine falcons, butterflies, badgers and the Bristol onion. Tactfully, the Bristol Zoo staff would ask which mask the children wanted by interjecting interesting facts about each species; “Peregrine falcon; the fastest animal in the world which travels at over 200mph!” or “Bristol onion; only found in the Avon Gorge in the whole of the UK!” were facts told to excite the participants. Inspiration for their artistic creations were found from nature, for example, they would study different species of butterfly to inspire their designs. When they were finished, their creations would be made into masks for them to wear.

Butterfly masks with Bristol Zoo.

The Wildlife Trust encouraged visitors to ‘give it a go’ themselves. The team spoke to children concerning the decline in the number of dormice and the work being done to capture and reintroduce this species into woodland. Examples of dormice nests and cracked nuts were shown so that the visitors could spot when dormice were present in a woodland as well. One way in which the presence of dormice could be noticed is by how they cracked open the nuts. Members of the wildlife trust spoke enthusiastically about the ‘chief nutter’, the man who first learnt to distinguish how a nut opened by a dormouse was different from a nut opened by any other species; teeth marks of dormice are across the edge of the opening of a nut, like a chisel.

Bristol Zoo took a similar approach; children participated in a ‘peregrine chick checking’ activity. Toy baby Peregrine Chicks had been made that were the approximate weight of a real chick. Young participants would measure the beak, head and wing using callipers, then weigh and ring the bird. Using the information obtained, they could then determine whether the chick they were checking was male or female, as female peregrine falcons are heavier than males.

Sophie Pavelle; wildlife presenter.

Critical decisions must be made to prevent the destruction of our planet, however, the choices made often come at a cost. The lively and interactive clouded leopard play that took place enabled the audience to vote in order to make decisions regarding the conservation of the clouded leopard and its home. This encouraged the audience to weigh up the benefits and costs of a decision and decide what they would do in realistic dilemmas. One situation that arose was the deforestation of the forest that the leopard lived in; this would have benefited the economy as crops could be grown there and the wood from the trees could be used by the locals as fuel, however, it would have destroyed the leopard’s habitat. Despite the immediate benefits to the local community, it was interesting that the audience often voted to save the leopard’s habitat.

Clouded leopard play cast. Photo by Adam Beddoe.

There are many organisations actively working to restore nature across Britain; the green forum tent was a place for them to advertise their ideas and motivate visitors to aid them in their efforts to make a difference. The ‘Blue Campaign’ asked for visitors to allow part of their lawn to grow naturally to encourage an abundance of new life into that area, ‘Feel Good Food, Feel Good Farming’ supports sustainable agriculture and local produce, and ‘Shared Interest’ provide fair finance to fair trade farmers and handcraft makers across the globe. The ‘Shape Our City’ stall advertised their creative engagement project named ‘Our City Our Health’. This project involves a collaboration between UWE, UPSTREAM researchers and Bristol citizens who are trying to understand what changes should be prioritised in their aim to achieve healthy urban development.

The prominent sculpture, created by Jerram, was part of the UWE Bristol public engagement project; this succeeded at sparking conversations about how we could shape our future for the better. All in all, visitors went away with at least a few wishes about what they would like to change in order to improve the environment we live in. UWE had put up a wishing tree on which visitors wishes were written; “more allotments please”, “more street trees please”, “green walls on buildings” and “more community food-sharing events”; all ideas full of hope for a world that is greener, more diverse and more sustainable than it is right now.

UWE wishing tree. Photo by Adam Beddoe.

Written by Lydia Rowland (year 3 Biology BSc)


Plant Science Outreach- Meiosis and the Generation of Variation

Plant Science Outreach- Meiosis and the Generation of Variation

Plant science is a fundamental area of research at the University of Bristol. The School of Biological Science recently hosted an outreach event on the 9th and 10th of May which communicated the BBSRC funded project “Releasing natural genetic variation in wheat by modulating meiotic crossovers” to 60 school students from around Bristol, arousing their curiosity and interest in plant science and genetics.

Meiosis, captured under the microscope.

The event involved a day-long introduction to meiosis and recombination. Project partners were invited, including Dr Stuart Desjardins from the University of Leicester and Prof Chris Franklin, Dr Eugenio Sanchez-Moran and Dr Kim Osman from the University of Birmingham. From Bristol, Dr Helen Harper, Dr Mark Winfield, Dr Lucy Hyde, Dr Amanda Burridge and Prof Keith Edwards. Prof Edwards made a strong impression on the students, with one student stating that the highlight of the day was ‘hearing Prof Edwards talk.’

Prof Keith Edwards displaying protoplasts from the florescent microscope

Aside from talks, there were videos, experiments and games, all of which brought the project to life for the students and allowed them an insight into life at the university. With a wide variety of activities, it’s no wonder the event was popular with the students’ teachers too. Afterwards, 88% of students said they understood that increasing the genetic variation of crop plants was important for food security and another 94% of students said that, as a result of taking the course, their knowledge of meiosis had increased.

Students viewing their slide under the microscope.

The event was a great success, with teachers commenting that they would like to repeat the event in the coming years, and students saying how it had informed and inspired them and that they really enjoyed the experiments and using the equipment in University labs. It was agreed the event was a great way to stretch and challenge students and encourage them to seek an understanding of current topics, including gene edited crops and why this technology is important.

Students enjoying the teaching labs at the University of Bristol

Students were not sent away empty-handed but were given a course handbook covering the work and research discussed during the workshop. This event may have inspired a future generation of geneticists and plant scientists and shows the importance of outreach programmes in ensuring the future of this research.

Course Handbook

Written by Cara Doyle (Biological Sciences MSc)