Heather Owens

Benefits of fieldwork for microbiologists in a multinational setting

After plenty of planning, meetings and a great deal of apprehension, I was very excited when the day finally arrived to travel from the UK to Medellín, Colombia. This trip was particularly significant as it marked the first collaboration of its kind between University of Reading, UMass Dartmouth, Universidad EAFIT and Universidad de Antioquia. I planned to make the very most of our visit, eager to seize this opportunity to learn from the Colombian and American students.

We had been warned that days would be long and tough, filled with challenges both physical and mental. As it turned out we would hike through dense jungle, wade through streams, climb steep hills in baking heat and trek at high altitudes to obtain our samples. We also had lots of seminars to take in as best we could, delivered by specialists in the topics surrounding our investigation.

As a group, we immersed ourselves in the experience and took on these challenges with an open mind. Despite being very tired at times, there was a wonderful attitude and work ethic from everybody.

Smiles all round after a day of sampling at Urabá.

Our aim was to assess the microbial communities of the soil at three locations. After visiting the sites, it was clear just how much they varied: I learned that there is more to the tropics than the hot, dense, humid jungle we see in films. Although we did experience one area like this in Urabá, there were also areas of arid scrubland in Santa Fe and even cold peaks covered in non-native pine forest in Arví Parque.

We wanted to know if these differences in temperature and humidity between sites would affect what we found from our samples in the lab.

To investigate this, at each site we would set a 10m transect and dig along this distance at set points. We collected two falcon tubes of soil at around 10cm depth, avoiding contamination by use of aseptic technique. Later we investigated how the isolated bacteria performed in tests (ie. Did they produce antifungals? Could they digest certain substances?) and extracted genetic material for a more in depth analysis. Witnessing the whole journey of a sample from field through to results was new to me and opened my eyes to the sort of work involved in this research.

We had some interesting and compelling results like the antifungal activity of some isolates here…

Indeed, bioprospecting in a relatively understudied climate such as the tropics could yield new and useful products.

Some evenings we discussed questions set by lecturers in smaller groups. We all really enjoyed sharing our ideas and the range of answers brought to the table definitely helped springboard our progression (both in analytical thinking and appreciation of the complexity of tropical soil ecology). Ultimately, it is this melting pot of different knowledge, culture and experience which makes the multinational setting such a positive one for any learner – and which made this trip so meaningful for everybody involved.