Alethea Mountford

Our Oceans: Pint of Science Recap

by Alethea Mountford

On a gloriously sunny evening, I sat tucked into the upstairs function room in the Bridge Hotel with a pint in hand. The event kicked off with a live interview with Burhan Shamurad, an Engineering PhD student from Kurdistan. After his undergraduate engineering degree and a year in medical science, he began working with non-governmental organisations in Kurdistan on environmental planning and solid waste management in the region. He spoke about having to travel to and from Baghdad to collect £1.5 million in cash, Facebook messages from Kurdistan’s Prime Minister and his plans for wastewater treatment and environmental waste management. Burhan was a passionate and inspiring speaker, who rounded off his interview by saying that he is working so hard because environmental issues affect everyone in every walk of life and he has the desire to save humanity.

Next up, Dr Miguel Morales Maqueda (Senior Lecturer in Oceanography and my PhD supervisor) spoke about plastic pollution in the oceans. He took us on a journey through the history of plastics, global production and pathways for plastic to get into the marine environment. He gave an eye-opening account of the levels of plastic pollution in the oceans, as well as the work that’s being done both at Newcastle University and other institutions to help to catalogue what’s already in the ocean and where it is. Being such a hot topic at the moment, particularly in the media, the audience had plenty of questions and discussions continued at the bar during the drinks break.

Finally, Prof. Grant Burgess (Professor in Marine Biotechnology) introduced us to the natural history of slime. With Newcastle’s history as a ship building area, the need to reduce slime and biofouling on the hulls of ships was very apparent. The world’s oceans have provided us with numerous compounds with biotechnological applications, for example Zovirax, an anti-viral medication from a Caribbean sponge, and Yondelis, an anti-tumour chemotherapy drug from a tunicate. Slime reduction research started with seaweed, leading to the discovery of a natural slime-busting enzyme named NucB. This enzyme has been used in the medical field, primarily for reducing slime growth and associated infection on artificial implants, and even to help large-scale brewing companies with getting rid of yeast slime in their barrels! Mucus also got a special mention for its abilities to degrade coral disease-causing bacteria, and fellow skincare fanatics may have heard people raving about benefits of snail mucin for your skin!

Overall, it was lovely to be able to enjoy science in a relaxed setting, particularly hearing about things that you may be interested in but not actively studying. If you can get along to an event next year I would wholeheartedly recommend it!

Alethea Mountford Archive

Preparing for your first research cruise

By Alethea Mountford

On the 16th November, I travelled from Newcastle to Cambridge, from Cambridge to Brize Norton airport in Oxford, and from there I flew to Mount Pleasant airport in the Falkland Islands. After a few days in Stanley, I boarded the RRS James Clark Ross, and so began my first research cruise (JR17001), travelling south from Stanley with a stop off in Rothera, and back to Stanley towards the end of December (or at least that was the plan). I had little idea what to expect, or what to pack, so in the months and weeks leading up to my departure I spent a long time on the Internet searching for packing lists and other people’s experiences. These are a few things I wish someone had told me before I left, and things that I learned while I was away…

  • Make a packing list and actually stick to it – I made a list, but ended up doing the majority of my packing a couple of nights before I left and realised when it was too late that I had no idea what I had actually packed 

  • Seasickness tablets can make you feel really awful – I took a couple of seasickness tablets when we first started steaming, as I wasn’t sure how I would fare at sea, and I wasn’t prepared for how out of it I would feel because of the tablets. It’s obviously best to take them as a precaution but be prepared for the side effects!  

  • Things will most likely not go to plan, try to be as flexible as you can – bad and unpredictable weather can lead to changes in plans at a moment’s notice leading to changes in timings, direction and science schedules.  

  • Be prepared for every eventuality, particularly when it comes to your journey home – I had anticipated getting back to Newcastle a few days before Christmas, so had a train ticket booked from there to my parent’s a couple of days after I was scheduled to get back. I ended up arriving back to Heathrow on Christmas Eve, so ended up having to book new train tickets back up as I hadn’t taken my train tickets with me.  

  • Speak to as many different people as you can – you never know who you may end up on a cruise with; people from other disciplines may be able to offer a perspective on your work that you hadn’t considered, people from the same discipline may be able to offer advice on your methods or make you aware of new pieces of work.  

  • Take earplugs and an eyemask – depending on if you’re bunking with other people, you may have very different shift patterns (I was working midnight-noon and my cabin mate was working noon-midnight), so getting a decent amount of sleep might be a challenge! 

  • Don’t spend the whole time looking through a camera – of course taking photos is important, particularly if you’re somewhere beautiful, but make sure you spend time in the moment appreciating what’s around you. 

If you want to read more about what me and the rest of my team got up to on JR17001, check out the Drake Passage blog