Tuesday, June 14, 2016

And so it begins...

It's 3.30 am and I'm sitting on the couch of a hotel room in an airport hotel in Houston, Texas. Unable to sleep, I figured it was a good time to reflect on what had actually brought me here. 

It all started around October 2015, when an organisation known as Operation Wallacea came to visit UCD in the hopes of recruiting some eager environmental biologists and zoologists for their research projects all over the globe. I went to the talk, and boy this woman could talk.... She made me want to book myself onto the next outward flight to any remote location available with just a backpack and no contact to the outside world, armed with a notebook and a pencil. Saving the elephants in South Africa, surveying the effects of tourists on sea turtles in Mexico, looking out for lemurs in Madagascar... The last project I was interested in was the sea urchins in Honduras. A little spiny invertebrate living off algae on coral reefs, big deal, who cares, give me the good stuff, the big mammals and the exciting hikes in the jungle! Over the next couple of months this changed, though.. 

I have acquired an interest in genetics during my years in college, and once I read through the project topics offered I found that they only had one genetics lab throughout all their projects, and it was in Honduras. Well, OK, Honduras, I could do that. The lab was in the jungle though and the project in itself did not look very appealing (insect bar coding, really?), so in the brainfart that followed I found the sea urchin projects. The black, long spined sea urchins in the Caribbean underwent a mass mortality event in the 80's and no one has really figured out why. Unfortunately, these little critters are the cows of the corals reefs, keeping fast growing algae at bay to allow for the slower growing corals to settle and grow. My awesomely ambitious idea was to go there and figure out the reasons for this mass mortality by using genetics! But upon contact with the project's leading researchers, it turned out that genetic research into these urchins is only beginning this summer 2016 and that this would be a way too ambitious undertaking for and undergraduate thesis.... Bummer. But I was in. 

The Case of the Sea Urchin took me by storm, and by February 2016 I found myself writing a research proposal to test for the effects of increasing temperature, different levels of reef complexity and types of reef material on the predator avoidance response of the black long spined sea urchin (phew that was a mouthful!). Basically I will be looking at the movement of the longest spines on the urchins in response to a shadow simulating the presence of a predator, and how this might change in the different scenarios and combinations of the aforementioned factors. The first draft of the proposal was so bad my supervisor basically just sent me an email saying "There's some work to be done yet...." and a word document with his comments, which was - if you've ever seen a track record doc you'll know - bright red. Nothing was good, my statements needed some serious backing up and all in all I wasn't really sure I had anything solid in there after reading the comments. That put me off for a good few days after which I spent one weekend furiously (literally) looking up references and rewriting the entire document. This time, comments were even a little surprised at the advances made and by the end of April we had a solid, final proposal done! While all this was going on I was also doing some fundraising by organising a lip-sync battle with a few other students going away and by starting up a GoFundMe page, which both proved to be very successful and without which I probably wouldn't be where I am now!

The journey to get here, to get excited about sea urchins of all things and to realise that I might actually really like to do marine biology in the future (although I cannot dive, but more on that in later posts ;) ) has been long and at times frustrating, and the one thing I am still truly at awe is all of You out there who helped me get here! Your support, both monetary and mental, has been motivating me through this semesters studying as much as it has pushed me to want to do really well on this project. You have helped me to do something I never thought I'd do, and most importantly you have helped me find a new path, a new adventure, a new view of the future. And for that I salute you. 

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