Day 6: Fossils are fantastic!

After a weekend of talking to anyone who would listen / couldn’t politely remove themselves from the conversation, about plants, I headed into the lab Monday morning to see what else we could learn from this diverse research group.

Karen had a few things planned for us. We started off the day by building our own herbarium (collection of leaves, catalogued, to be made use of again at a later date). We used our leaf samples from Friday for this and pressed them together to be used later in the week.

Following this, we were introduced to the fossils. I will never allow anyone say fossils are boring or of little interest again! It was absolutely amazing to stand over a leaf, preserved in the rock layer, that had been on the earth long before us – 201 million years to be precise! It sounds like a small thing but it was just really exciting to know that this leaf had witnessed things that we can only dream about seeing and try to put together through scientific replication. We spent some time examining the different leaves and imprints visible and Karen dazzled us with her knowledge of several plant species and terms from fossils taken in Greenland that I had never even heard before (Stachyotaxus elegans anyone? No? Anomozamites?!) 

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Having come to terms with how brilliant it was to be able to witness this intact piece of plant history, we soon turned our attention to more samples, and I have every intention of returning to the fossil collection next week to check out the rest of them (See picture below, there are THIS many!)

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Our last task for the day was to discuss leaf economics. Considering how I tend to tune out when people mention Ireland’s mess of an economy, I was intrigued to discover leaves have their own currency (carbon) and as it turns out, they also find managing their economy not so straight forward. Karen informed us there are certain leaves (thicker, lusher leaves) that store up their carbon, as opposed to the thinner leaves, which go by the “live fast, die young” rule (basically, use it as soon as you get it… modelling their economic plan on our small island perhaps?!) It’s definitely a new way of thinking about plants!

These traits can be used to piece together what an ecosystem might have been like, along with other facts such as amounts of nitrogen present. On that note, we headed to the lab to crush and grind leaf samples that had been treated with different amounts of gases, to check their mineral content.

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This involved deciphering a fairly complex numbering system (thankfully carried out by Karen!) while our job was to crush and grind the ginkgo leaves into a powder form, to be analysed at a later date.

Again today we witnessed just how important it is to know and understand our plant kingdom, so that we can comprehend what went before us, and hopefully predict what might  be yet to come.

 

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Day 5 – The hidden messages in a leaf

The last day of the first week arrived much quicker than I realised. The week had been quite hectic, in a great way – brain power that I had switched off at the start of the holidays was well and truly in use again.

This morning, we went back to check on our pollen grains to see how our pollen tubes had developed from the day before. Sure enough they had definitely needed more time to develop on our slightly watery agar (NOTE: a tiny mistake such as a decimal point in the wrong place in a recipe to make agar can make a huge difference to experiment results!) We used a very fancy and presumably very expensive and therefore definitely not something we will have access to in many schools, microscope to examine the pollen tube growth, and see them in real time on the computer screen. This was really beneficial as we got to make a montage of the images to take with us that will definitely be used in the classroom to show the growth of the tube.

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Next on the agenda was a walk around the college campus to collect different leaf samples with Karen. As our coordinator, we had been checking in with Karen all week but hadn’t worked directly with her so this was a chance to find out more about what part she played in the project (http://www.ucd.ie/plantpalaeo/bacon.html). The walk took us to one of the lakes on the campus, where we gathered several different leaf species from woody plants, with the hope of using them to estimate an average temperature, among other climate statistics, for the area. Now here you might think, why not just check in with Met Eireann for such a detail, but the whole point was we were to do this ourselves! I couldn’t honestly see what a leaf could tell us about this but we were not the experts and so myself and Louise dutifully collected bags of leaf samples and answered questions put to us that made me realise exactly what my students must feel like when I am asking them something they feel they should know but don’t. (Example: What is a plant? We found that it is actually quite hard to define but yet seemed so straightforward in theory. How would you define a plant?!) 

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With the leaves gathered under a hot midday sun, we decided an ice cream break was in order. Karen discussed what we would do next in the lab – identify the species of plant by their leaves (Easy, there were lots of common things such as sycamore and ash in the bags) and then classify the leaves based on their appearance (Again, surely not tough? Leaves were green and of a few different shapes yes? Where could the hassle be in that task?)

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So. As it turns out, leaves are not all as similar as we thought and you do NOT automatically know everything about trees because you can identify the four that line your own driveway at home! Karen lulled us into a false sense of security by leaving us with a book promising to  tell us everything we needed to know about leaf shape and identification and then left us to see just how difficult that task was. We turned leaves up and down, studying them as if some secret words were embedded on the under surface, we downloaded a phone app that promised success if you took a picture of your leaf and uploaded it (false advertising, they gave us twenty possible options for every different leaf!) We eventually had a larger pile of unknowns than ones we did know, and with everything starting to look like it had a green tint to it, we decided it was lunch time.

When Karen, with Caroline, eventually rejoined us, we were forced to accept the experts help on the matter!

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Karen then showed us how to use CLAMP (Climate Leaf Analysis Multivariate Programme), found here online (http://clamp.ibcas.ac.cn/). This demanded that we study the leaf in much more detail. Did the leaf have teeth? (Yes, that was a question!) Were they close to each other? Had it a pointy or rounded tip? Was it wider in the middle? How did the leaf and stalk join? All of these were important observations needed to enter onto the data sheet to show a link between leaf form and climate in the area at that time and this is where fossils are used in climate predictions. (For example, toothed leaves correlate with colder climates).

Amazingly, when we entered our information, our result was just one degree off the average temperature for the last twelve months in the area, which really impressed us. It was one of those moments you sometimes have in science where the data collection can seem tedious and you wonder, am I really going to get something worthwhile from this, and then suddenly you see the results and you have a real Eureka! moment. Without doubt this is something I will be utilising in the classroom, most likely with a Transition Year group. This was really eye opening stuff and the end result was definitely worth waiting for.

And so ended the first week of the course and I headed away from UCD for the weekend and home to tell everyone of what we had seen and done behind the closed doors of a research lab. Interested in plants or not, the family were about to see a whole new side to plant biology!

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Day 4 – Lab work with Caroline

With Day 3 given to us as an open, self directed day (reading papers, catching up on safety induction for the lab and chatting about what we had seen so far), it was nice to get into the lab on Day 4 and work with Caroline (http://www.ucd.ie/plantpalaeo/elliott-kingston.html) on some experiments that are definitely going to be of use to us in our school curriculum. 

First up was a simple dissection of a flower, showing the male and female parts amd how to correctly draw / label this. In school this had seemed a fairly dry topic of discussion as students find it hard to think of a flower as having reproductive parts, but the idea of having a whole practical built up of smaller tasks relating to flower structure and dissection of the different parts will make it more attractive, especially once presented as a whole class practical with discussion groups. A slightly off topic conversation in the lab, touched on Padre Pio’s wounds being stigmatised, aphid reproduction and banana seed abortion… You have to hand it to scientists when they are together, nobody can accuse them of letting a topic go stale!

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Caroline was a great host, and with her genuine excitement at discovering a well shaped stigma or perfectly formed flower, it was hard not to get sucked into the secret life of plants. (Quote “Oh look at that, have you ever seen a pollen tube like it? Have you though?!” Suddenly I was looking at them in a whole different light and I have every intention of impressing that on my students!) 

Evolution and genetics were also touched upon and it became so clear to me that plants are not used enough in school to highlight random mutations and what really happens during evolution, another thing to add to my list of ideas to take away with me.

Another great experiment we set up was the growth of pollen tubes in a medium replicating that supplied when pollen lands on the female part of the flower and needs to germinate. These were left overnight and after a really enjoyable day in the lab, I can’t wait to get back in in the morning and see these. Even writing that makes me realise how great of an experience this is when I am willing to get out of my bed a bit earlier in usual to see a pollen tube! Pictures tomorrow!

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On a final note, did you know that the word gymnosperm (naked seed) originated from the Greek gymno for male athletes competing naked in appreciation of the male form and a tribute to their gods? You possibly didn’t… but it is amazing what you pick up when studying plant biology!

 

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Day 2 – Field trip to Johnstown Castle, Wexford

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Setting an alarm for 5:30 am in July is not something a teacher often does. However an appointment with Aidan, a PhD member of the group (http://www.ucd.ie/plantpalaeo/holohan.html) at 7 am on the far side of the city was calling. On the two hour trip to the beautiful grounds of Johnstown Castle, Aidan explained the aim of our task for the day and it was clear the buzzword would be stomata. It had been made clear to us that this would be the case for the four weeks, and that anyone saying they did not work in stomatal research was in denial or hiding something.

When we first went into the glasshouses in the morning, the temperature was reading at a bubbling 32 degrees. We wondered how it would be at all possible to do anything in that heat, but thankfully our task was easy on the muscles. We were to collect leaf samples of four different plant species (grass, red clover, white clover, chicory) which had been planted in pots either as a monoculture or together as a community. These native species were then subjected to various levels of watering, up to drought. The idea behind examining the plants in this way is to discover any reaction they may have to a drought situation and similarly, if been surrounded by other species forces them to adapt better to their situation and find a niche. The leaves collected by myself and Louise are to be examined next week in the lab.

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Both Aidan and Eamon, another member of the PhD family (http://www.ucd.ie/plantpalaeo/haughey.html), were extremely helpful in answering any questions we had on the topics, and also helping us find the castle tearoom which boasted its own set of peacocks wandering around for entertainment during breaktimes. After a tour of Eamons field plots we returned to the glasshouse to discover the temperature had reached an all time high for the day of 39 degrees. Not wanting to see what might happen to a pair of teachers exposed to those cruel conditions for longer than necessary, Aidan decided enough was enough and we hit the road, having well and truly earned ourselves an ice cream.Image

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Day 1 – Meet the Team

Today was mainly an induction day, to meet the group and discuss schedules and aims. I was also introduced to Louise, my partner in crime for the next four weeks. I’m not sure if we all knew each other well enough to show out true emotions when Karen, our coordinator announced about ten minutes into our first meeting, that we were heading to Wexford on a field trip the next morning at 7am. So we smiled nervously until we realised she wasn’t joking, as it was followed with, “bring suncream, a rain jacket, hiking boots, light clothing, lots of water, a packed lunch”… you can never account for the Irish weather! But I came into this project for the possibility of doing something different so here goes! To Karen’s credit, she organised a lovely lunch by the lake with the rest of the group to soften the blow.

A tour of the PEAC lab, where plants are grown in chambers imitating a range of atmospheres from times past is an eye opener to the facilities available here. These in particular I am looking forward to investigating in more detail next week; there is something about a locked door and the word danger that just makes you want to know everything you possibly can about what goes on in there and why!

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Introduction

Yes! I have secured a place on the ERC Summer Experience Programme with the Plant Palaeocology and Palaeobiology Research Group in UCD for the month of July. A teacher voluntarily looking for a months research work during the summer holidays probably doesn’t sound normal, but this was too good a chance to miss.

Two positions had been allocated to allow teachers a chance to immerse themselves in the lives of the researchers behind a hugely important, but in my opinion, sometimes underappreciated field of science – plant science. I was determined to jump on the bandwagon for this, my aims being:

– Further my own experiences of lab research, while of course getting to enjoy the feeling of been back in college! Also it was an unmissable opportunity for continuous professional development.

– Be part of a new outreach programme that could really show the work done in university labs doesn’t have to remain as secretive and technical as it sometimes seems to those on the outside

– Most importantly, build a package that could be used in schools to interest, entertain and educate students in the area of plant biology, at a time when the limited current school curriculum does not open wide all the possible options there are for study in the plant kingdom. 

Welcome aboard!

 

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