At the heart of every scientist is an obsession with finding out something new. Sure, most of us do science because we want to help the world somehow, or understand something better, but really - we do it for the thrill of discovery. Bush Blitz brought together 18 biologists, amazing organisers, traditional owners and a yellow dinosaur and said, "here - go discover everything new you can about this place". No wonder we were in paradise! Did I ever think I would use the word paradise for a place that included drop toilets, showers from a bag and tents? Well, no. But there's something about opening your tent to sunrise in the Australian desert that pushes all those things to the sidelines. Let me walk you through it.
Mustard and I flew from Adelaide to Ceduna, then picked up 4WDs and joined the convoy to base camp - a 10 hour trip from Ceduna. Being the second time in my life driving manual, I reckon I did ok. I mean, I only managed to stall pulling up in front of everyone at base camp....
Base camp was already set up and ready to go when we arrive. The hardworking Bush Blitz team had set each of us up a tent, and also created some lab tents for us to process samples in the evenings. Robbie and Paul, the amazing caterers, had dinner ready to go! One thing I miss already is having someone cook me dinner every night! On the first day I went hunting for witchetty grubs (marku) with Conrad and the traditional owners. Conrad is completing is PhD on combining the Aboriginal science of the grubs with western science. He's finding new plant host records and looking at the protein levels of the insects. Watching the rangers be able to spot a tree likely to have the grubs in it, then find them within a few minutes of digging up the roots, was really cool. Later in the week, Roger, one of the traditional owners, cooked me one to try. It was pretty good! Tasted like scrambled eggs.
We were on the outskirts of Mamungari Conservation Park to find new species. One of the first things we did was set up malaise traps, as these have been successful at catching the wasps I study in the past.
For the rest of the week we used nets to sweep and beat trees and bushes to find insects, dug holes to find scorpions and spiders, and peeled bark off of trees to find beetles. Oh, and did I mention we got to go in helicopters to reach other parts of the park?!?
One afternoon, a bunch of girls from my old high school, St Mary's, came to visit. They'd been in Oak Valley at the school, on a learning exchange, and came to check out what we do at Bush Blitz! It was pretty awesome to get a chance to chat to them - they were super enthusiastic about everything and embraced all the opportunities we threw at them.
The most remarkable thing about the trip was spending it with the amazing group of people that was there. As a PhD student, there really are not that many opportunities to learn so much, from so many people, in such a short amount of time, as at Bush Blitz. I spent a day with the botanists, and learnt about how they collect samples and process them. I spent many hours watching Dr Mark Harvey find spider and scorpion burrows, and was always impressed at how he managed to find the beastie at the bottom of the tunnel. I learnt that giant nets on top of cars are awesome for catching my wasps, and that different insect scientists collect and process their specimens in different ways. It was so incredible to be able to learn from experts about their techniques, methods and share their passion for their work. Everyone was happy to share their knowledge and pitched into help each other. Bush Blitz goes down as one of the most inspiring and educational times of my PhD, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity!
On Monday the 18th September, Mustard and I are joining 17 other scientists on a scientific expedition like no other. We are off on our very first Bush Blitz! Bush Blitz is an innovative partnership between the Australian Government, BHP Billiton Sustainable Communities and Earthwatch Australia. It is the world’s first continent-scale biodiversity survey, providing the knowledge needed to help us protect Australia’s unique animals and plants for generations to come. The program has been running since 2010, and brings together scientists to survey understudied areas of the country and learn about the plants and animals that live there.There have already been over 1300 new species discovered on Bush Blitzs! Maybe we'll discover a new species of wasp!
This time, we're headed out to Mamungari Conservation Park, right on the border of South Australian and Western Australia.
Myself, Mustard and a colleague will fly from Adelaide to Ceduna, where we'll meet some other scientists, pick up some awesome 4WDs and convoy to base camp at the conservation park. We'll join botanists (plant scientists), mammal and reptile scientists, entomologists and arachnologists (people who study arachnids like spiders and scorpions) and spend two weeks trying to learn as much about the biodiversity of the area as we can. We'll get to work with the traditional owners of the land and local rangers, which will be amazing - and we'll even get to visit the nearest school (3 hours away) and say hi to the community. The Conservation Park is really in the middle of nowhere. The organisers will truck in fuel, water and tents for us to sleep in, we'll build pit toilets there, and we get to shower from a bag of water. This is probably not the time to mention I've been camping a grand total of twice in my life, am terrible at successfully peeing behind bushes and that the fact I won't have access to internet or phone signal for two weeks is embarrassingly scary... but the adventure and contribution we'll make to learning about our wonderful plants and animals will make it all worthwhile!
We're busy getting organised (new boots and net already acquired, refresher manual driving lesson taken and passed) and also finishing off some data analysis to be able to present some results at a conference in Canberra. We won't be able to post much whilst we're on Bush Blitz (the no-internet thing) but we'll take heaps of photos and videos and will make a series of posts to share it all with you when we get back! Stay tuned!
The last few weeks have been a mixture of very tedious data analysis and exciting outreach. You might remember that a couple of months ago we sent off our little vial of hopes and dreams to an external sequencing company. A vial filled with the amplified genes of over 700 wasps! Well, it turns out sorting through those data takes a really long time.
The upside is that there is actually data to look through! The sequencing of our wasp DNA seems to have worked reasonably well, and we promise to keep you updated as we sort through it. It's just very slow going! Sometimes science happens quickly, and we have really fun days in the lab or the field. But good science also requires making sure any results you publish are correct, and that takes time. It's more than a little scary knowing I have less than a year left of my PhD (where did the time go?) but hopefully this might be the last big hurdle.
What's been a welcome break from data analysis has been a bunch of outreach events! We headed up to Murray Bridge High School and talked about wasps to year 7/8 students with Children's University Regional Lecture Series, and also visited a primary school to do some slime-making and dry ice demonstrations with the year three students (they were learning about states of matter). I also participated in the Three Minute Thesis Competition, and am off to the University Finals on the 12th September! Hooray for wasps!
This Friday 25 August, we're giving a family-friendly talk convincing you why you should love wasps! Find out more and come along here: https://www.scienceweek.net.au/why-you-should-love-wasps/
What's next on the cards? Well, we're heading to Canberra for a conference in September, and then Mustard and I are off to Bush Blitz! Never head of Bush Blitz? Don't worry, we'll be writing a few posts as we get ready for the grand adventure, and the next one will explain everything you could ever want to know about why 20 scientists would go to the middle of nowhere for two weeks... stay tuned!
This week our lab was in Strathalbyn meeting cows. I mean, we were here to get away from the university campus and have a productive research retreat, but the cows were pretty much the highlight. It was a beautiful spot, and it was really lovely to spend some social time with the awesome people in our lab group.
we even managed to have a campfire! Mustard toasted some marshmallows, and almost caught on fire himself.
apparently, cows are very curious about scientists and yellow dinosaurs, as they always came over to say hi. They didn't want pats though.
This vial that Mustard is holding in the above picture contains all the hopes and dreams of a PhD student. 25 microlitres of clear, colourless liquid. The result of weeks of lab work, and even more weeks of preparation. I felt like I should whisper some sort of hocus-pocus charm over it before putting it in the navy blue bag in the sample fridge for the courier to pick up the next day and transport it to the sequencing company. Instead, I managed to drop it just as I was putting it in the transport bag, spread the liquid into tiny droplets (hence increasing their chance of evaporation) and had to trudge back upstairs to spin it down again before unceremoniously shoving it into the bag and crossing my fingers.
The vial theoretically contains the PCR products of three genes for over 700 specimens of microgastrines. You can learn what a PCR is here, or what microgastrines are here. It took weeks of lab work to put together - we even got to use some robots to help us!
The robot is transferring our PCR product (which contains many, many copies of a particular gene for each of our specimens) from one purple plate to a second purple plate. By using the robot we saved lots of time, removed the chance of human-error (i.e. me losing concentration and putting samples in the wrong places on the plate) and saved our arms from getting a repetitive strain injury.
The sequencing company will take our little vial and run it through a machine called the Illumina Miseq to enable us to learn the genetic code for each of the samples - it is a pretty cool process that we will try and explain in a future blog! In the meantime, cross your fingers for us as we wait not-so-patiently for our results!
On Saturday, Mustard and I headed to Port Augusta to visit the Friends of the Arid Lands Botanic Garden to talk about wasps, parasitoids and our citizen science project! We had a lovely time chatting to everyone and sharing our love of wasps. The botanic garden is an beautiful site, with over 250 hectares of plants from the arid environments of Australia. These plants have evolutionary adaptations to survive the extreme drought and high temperatures. It's a wonderful place for a walk, bird watching and the cafe does great coffee and food! The garden has also recently opened an Arid Explorers garden for children and families to explore nature together.
There's a beautiful view of the Flinders Rangers from the garden!
I appreciated the insect artwork!
The Friends of the Garden gave us a lovely arid land plant to take home and add to our garden - it smells divine!
Today we're babysitting wasps. Our friends at the Bible Museum Butterfly Garden sent us some wasp pupae, so Mustard is diligently keeping a close eye on them to see what emerges! The life cycle of these parasitic wasps means that the baby wasps (which look like tiny white grubs) live inside a doomed caterpillar, feeding on it's flesh until the wasps are big enough to eat their way out and spin cocoons to metamorphose inside of (just like a caterpillar does when it turns into a butterfly). These babies are slowly changing themselves from being weird white grubs, to weird black wasps! The black lump in the photos is the dead caterpillar, and the white rice shaped things are the cocoons, stuck together in a mass.
We're excited to see the wasps hatch, so we're watching them closely in anticipation!
It's been a week of ups-and-downs, highs and lows. Successes and failures. But that's basically a PhD in a nutshell, right?
We started the week with the unhappy sight of our malaise trap on the Fleurieu Peninsula having been destroyed by storms. It was irreparable, so we packed it up and will attempt to make two ripped malaise traps into one with some questionable sewing skills on the weekend.
The week was improved dramatically by following the hashtag #actuallivingscientist on Twitter. The idea apparently stems from the fact that many people can name scientists now in their grave (e.g. Einstein, Marie Curie, Darwin) but can't name living scientists. So the scientists of Twitter took to the internet to introduce themselves - if you have five minutes to spare, look it up and check out some of the amazing people doing science around the world!
The week then got even better with a delivery from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery of vials of wasps from recent Bush Blitz expeditions. Bush Blitz is when a team of scientists hit a a small area hard to document the biodiversity there - recording insects, plants, birds, mammals, reptiles - everything! These samples are the first wasps we've had from Tasmania, so it's pretty exciting.
Then we got some not-so-good results back from our recent DNA sequencing, where we can't really work out what went wrong. Science doesn't always work first time though, so the trick is to try not to think of the grant money you just accidentally spilled down the drain on sequencing that didn't work, and move forward, trying something different and hoping for better results.
We then got some good results to balance that out, with a new DNA extraction method trial working pretty well!
To finish of the emotional highs, we got a parcel from a scientist in Cairns who is running a malaise trap for us - and we found lots of our wasps! Yay! We also found this super cool wasp in the picture below - it's a wasp in the family Eucharitidae, which are know to parasitise ants! Insects are so crazy looking sometimes!
Science is emotional, particularly when results come back as basically unintelligible rubbish. But just like with the rest of life, you need to focus on the positives and just keep swimming. Or crawling, if you're a wasp larvae looking for an ant to attach yourself to, so that you can be carried back to the ant brood in the colony and slowly gorge yourself on baby ants. Each to their own!
A few weeks ago, Mustard and I joined an expedition with a couple of other PhD students. The mission? Hunt for wasps and bees, set some traps and check out some places we'd never been. We didn't have any luck that day, although our colleague who studies wasps that parasitise bees did find some great specimens. We'll see if he can tell us all about them in a post soon!
This weekend I headed back down to check the traps, Mustard and my self-proclaimed support crew (my adventure-keen parents) in tow. It was a three hour drive to Wirrabara State Forrest at the southern end of the Flinders Rangers in South Australia, and unfortunately there wasn't much in our trap there.
Not to be disheartened, we continued on to Mt Remarkable National Park. This place is beautiful, and I'd highly recommend a visit if you ever find yourself driving the rather boring piece of highway between Adelaide and Port Augusta!
We made friends with a massive goanna (and by made friends, I mean stayed well back whilst it plodded along then climbed up a gum tree) and check out our malaise trap. Unfortunately somehow the trap had been knocked over, and the bottle that normally catches the insects was unscrewed and empty.
Malaise traps are basically a big netted tent. As insects are flying along above the ground, they don't notice the inner black netting and crash into it. An insect will then naturally climb upwards. Unfortunately for the insect, the highest part of the trap is a bottle of ethanol. However, malaise traps don't work very well when they're flat on the ground!
There wasn't much we could do but make a sad face, stand the trap back up and hope that when we visit next month it still be standing and full of wasps!
We didn't find any wasps for our project this field work trip, but we did eat an awesome pasty at the Port Wakefield Bakery and we had a fun walk in Mt Remarkable National Park. We'll have better luck next time, I'm sure!
This week we're in Melbourne! As well as eating crazy donuts and liquid nitrogen icecream, we're sorting through specimens at Melbourne museum!
Museum Victoria have done a lot of biological surveys, and lots of this material might have specimens of our wasps in it that would be useful for our DNA project. So we're slowly sorting through it and borrowing the things we find.
Getting to visit most of the museums in Australia has definitely been a highlight of this PhD, and is one of the awesome parts of being a scientist - we're able to travel and see so much of Australia and the world!
PhD student and her trusty dinosaur explore the world of science. Check out our Citizen Science Project, The Caterpillar Conundrum!