Spatial heterogeneity of dissertation research on the behaviour of an MSci student

This update comes from a little island of peace I’ve managed to grab in the middle of a whirlwind of mud-scented chaos, with that chaos being my dissertation. Which is running this week, in it’s (almost) entirety. It’s all very busy and tiring and muddy. Let’s review.

My diss is the ideal combination of my academic interests – benthic ecology, and ecosystem function and services. (I know, I know; I do a degree involving sharks and whales, and I end up loving me some mud). It’s an expansion on a hypothetical research proposal that I did for coursework in my second year – my supervisor, Martin, grabbed me and asked me if I wanted to do it as my actual thesis. The same applied to Pippa – Pippa Fitch – who I now have the great pleasure of calling my lab partner as we work together on twin projects, running side-by-side.

The title of my project, when asked to squeeze it into a little box on the official form, was ‘Spatial heterogeneity of nutrient resources on the burrowing behaviour and functioning of Nereis diversicolor’. This basically means, if you arrange the same amount of a food resource in different ways, a) will the worm burrow differently to get them and b) as a result of burrowing differently, will the worm have different sorts of effects on its environment, in terms of how it moves about and aerates the sediment and such. All very cool. Well, to me, at least.

Step one – once we were all settled back into term and we had been thoroughly risk assessed – was to get our tanks together. We had a fun little road trip to Hampshire Plastics in Portsmouth, who were very bemused by our request for 60 individual five to 15cm high perspex tubes. Then we glued their bases to the tubes, which was far more complicated than it sounds in addition to being part of a day far more surreal than I can adequately convey. Half the doors in the NOC don’t open unless you have the correct security clearance, and Pippa and I were needing to traipse around the building constantly even before we had to go out of our way to avoid these fun obstacles. We went from our lecture, to the lab. We went back up past our lecture room to find our supervisor. We went down to pick up the glue. We got our cores, we went out to the quayside. We tried to open the container. We couldn’t open the container. We brought the cores back inside. We opened the glue. We had to go find pipettes and stirrers for the glue, upstairs. We came back downstairs. We went outside again. We came inside again. We went outside again. We sat next to the bike sheds gluing cores together with the most pungent and fume-y solvent I have ever encountered.

My pedometer app says we walked 3.2km inside the NOC that day.


After all that activity, the cores were left to soak in the sinks for a few days (to find out which ones were watertight, and remove as much of the truly evil smell from the glue that we could) while we had a little rest. But then, on a bright Monday morning, Rachel, Pippa and I met in the lab and began assembling all the things we’d need – collecting buckets, and bin bags to protect the car boots. We drove in the sunshine playing old school Now CDs, and reached our collection site at Hamble-le-Rice (which is lovely and yet further evidence that you can drive 10 minutes out of Southampton in any direction, and reach somewhere infinitely nicer than Southampton).

The weather was lovely, and we had to sit in the orange autumn sunshine waiting for the tide to go out. Then we got into our waders and started playing in the mud. I mostly stood (sunk) in one spot, and just grabbed handfuls of mud in a circumference around me to tease apart for worms. It’s really neat – you just sort of pull the handful apart, and it splits neatly along any burrows, plus there was one handful that really, really nicely showed increased oxygenation in the soul around the burrow. But I also I fell over on my arse a lot and recreated that time I attempted to jump my home town’s river in Year 10, failed spectacularly, and had to throw away the school uniform covered in mud up to my waist.

IMG_7816The day was ended with the manual sieving of a small person’s body weight in mud, and the two subsequent days dedicated to the similar but potentially worse task of washing and removing pinhead-sized Hydrobia snails from a giant bucket of seaweed.

(We ended up using about a handful of this, like, together. …Anyone want some seaweed?!)

After we put together a much desired timetable for this whole thing, I was up to scan my stuff first – working backward, this obviously meant I’d need to set up my sediment first, and when it’d settled the next day add my worms. I spent two days getting up obnoxiously early, for to get down to the NOC and assemble enriched and unenriched sediment into my different patterns. (You enrich the sediment by weighing out 3 grams of seaweed, then blending it. In, what it was revealed to us, is a household spice grinder. Aaaaah, science).

Assembled in the two lots of ten they’ll run in, over Saturday and Sunday these cores were delicately transported in the back of Pippa’s car  – with me spread eagle over the top – up to campus. (Avoiding Saints’ match traffic on the Sunday was a fun experience). The experiment is running out of a tiny little building we’ve been allowed to use; it’s got this giant submerged floor tank for testing acoustic engineering equipment, which is now colonised by at least one Hydrobia for which we accept no responsibility.

Something about the general appearance of the whole set up (which my mother deemed ‘not as high-tech as she had expected’), and how much we seemed to McGuyver various bits and pieces together, gave the experiment the general feeling of an episode of Mythbusters.



Get a load of that science.

So, that’s been about it for my life of late – these days are so long that things that happened that morning genuinely feel like they happened three or four days ago. I exist in a perpetual cloud of vaguely scented air wherever I walk, and it’s constantly under my nails. I seem to always have good hair days, which is odd because I keep accidentally dipping the ends of it in tanks of mud. I keep forgetting lunch is a thing, and my upcoming coursework deadlines are sufficiently far away that I can just about justify the whole ‘not doing anything of an evening and crash into bed a 10:00pm’ thing. I basically stay up late enough to watch Downton and then go to bed.

And I bloody love it.

I’m really appreciating the affirmation that I am enjoying the scientific process. The investigation and the story, the physical embodiment of curiosity. Meeting and working with people. Trekking endlessly around your campus looking for stuff to stir glue with. It’s great, I adore it, and I think I want to do this forever.

Will the worms like their new homes? Will they do cool stuff? What are their names? All questions that will – hopefully – be answered soon.


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