Maria Hull

Benefits of fieldwork for microbiologists in a multinational setting

When I told my family and friends I would be travelling to Colombia, their first response was often a raised eyebrow (smuggling jokes were not uncommon), indicating Colombia has not yet lost its reputation gained from its colourful past. After correcting them, explaining that this was an educational trip to sample soil and learn more about Colombian soil microbes, a noticeable glaze covered their eyes. Clearly people have misconceptions of both Colombia (we could not speak highly enough of our host city, Medellín, and the people we had the privilege of meeting there) and microbiology (a science both dynamic and highly engaging, though as a microbiologist I may be slightly biased!).
The Colombian expedition group consisted of American, Colombian and British students representing the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Universidad EAFIT, Universidad de Antioquia and the University of Reading. Our aim was to examine the effects of temperature and humidity on soil bacteria through fieldwork and lab sessions along with seminars given by the senior academics present.
To achieve this aim we took soil samples, in multinational groups of 4-5 students, from three different sites with varying conditions; the first site was cold and humid, the second warm and dry and the third warm and humid.

pan_001A sweltering day at our second field site, Santa Fe

Sampling at the third site, Urabá, took place at a banana plantation which was sprayed daily with a chemical fungicide to try and prevent the devastating Panama fungal disease (a strain of which destroyed the large majority of banana plantations in South America during the 1950s). It was interesting to see how this affected the bacteria residing here. It also highlighted why the study of soil microbes is important; a bacterium that could kill this destructive fungus would be a great alternative to the fungicide (clearly labelled ‘SUSTANCIAS TOXIC’) that we saw workers spraying on the harvested bananas at the plantation.
Between fieldwork, which took place during the first week, and throughout the second week we grew the microbes from our samples on agar plates. We then isolated bacteria of interest to carry out tests to find out more about their characteristics (antibiotic properties, for example, a highly applicable trait!).

Our Group, Erika, Ash, Maria and Sarah (on camera duty), busy sampling at Arví Park, the first site

Aside from the academic outcomes, through which we all gained great insight into the kind of fieldwork seen at the frontiers of microbiology as well as building on vital lab practices, there were also some unexpected outcomes. The display of camaraderie (owing at least partially to the fine Colombian beers on offer) between groups of such culturally different people, despite our heated discussions over pronunciation of words, was particularly noticeable; for example, with the Americans (oregano was particularly popular), and the mocking we received from the Colombians for our ‘over-cautious’ use of insect repellent and malaria tablets, this all ultimately showed our liberal like-mindedness and ability to work in teams. Many traits important in the field of science were exhibited through the course of the trip and this was, truthfully, inspiring. With the backdrop of the breath-taking Colombian scenery, the trip was, indeed, a monumental milestone in all of our journeys as young scientists.