Lucy Clement

Microbiologists Make Memories in Medellin

Many students will have spent the summer before third year as a chance to revel in one last holiday of no responsibilities before the inevitable post-graduation job hunt. However, 13 students from the University of Reading’s School of Biological Sciences were given the opportunity to ditch the “legs of hotdogs” instagrams and all-night Netflix binges to spend two weeks working towards a final year module on the other side of the world.

Although the School is no stranger to running far flung trips, the tropical microbiology field trip is the first of its kind to be run by the university. The brainchild of the University of Reading’s own Dr Rob Jackson along with Dr Mark Silby of UMass Dartmouth and Dr Camilo Ramirez from the Universidad de Antioquia, the trip spent over three years in the planning pipeline before it received the go ahead from all four universities involved.

Setting off for Medellin on a mid-July evening nobody knew quite what to expect. The opportunity to take part in such an intensive research programme, where we would be the one’s collecting samples in the field and taking them to the lab for investigation, is something rare to see at undergraduate level. In addition to being thrown into such an unfamiliar environment we were informed we would be split into teams on arrival- a mixture of Colombian, American and British students who we would collaborate with to produce a final symposium of our research at the end of the trip.

Arriving in a surprisingly chilly Medellin (apparently not all of the tropics are hot and humid) any apprehension quickly faded away as we were welcomed by staff from one of our host’s the Universidad EAFIT. After a weekend getting to know the UMASS Dartmouth students and staff, the whole group was gathered together to be formally introduced to each other and the course. We also had the chance to learn a little more about bioprospecting, a growing field of microbiology and the central theme of the course; in essence the first week would see us visit three hugely diverse regions of Colombia to collect soil samples. These were then investigated, both in culture and through genetic analysis, for the presence of microbes with potentially beneficial antifungal or antibiotic properties.

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A slightly soggy team after crossing streams in the rainforest! Source: Camilo Ramirez/ Universidad de Antioquia

That evening Camilo warned us that the trip was “not a holiday” a fact made startlingly clear the next morning as, weighed down with hiking rucksacks, we struggled to catch our breath at 2500 metres above sea level in Parque Arvi. The next fortnight would prove anything but restful as we crammed in fieldwork in the neighbouring valley of Santa Fe de Antioquia and a three day trip to the Caribbean region of Urabá. Thankfully Colombia lived up to its reputation, with vats of local coffee frequently appearing outside every lab, seminar and presentation preparation room we occupied on the EAFIT campus.

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Colombian mango fresh off the tree in Santa Fe

Yet whether we were watching monkeys in the humid rainforest of Tulenapa, dodging spiders on a banana plantation or simply learning about one another’s culture’s over local Colombian delicacies, to describe the trip as anything other than an unforgettable experience would be an understatement. The course provided invaluable experience both academically and culturally to every participant and a special thanks must be given to our Colombian hosts who made each of us feel so welcome.

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