Monday 15 July 2013

My adventures at Iso-Camp (part 2)

Actual Science
The lectures started with an introduction to SIRFER (Stable Isotope Ratio Facility for Environmental Research, and yes, acronyms were to be a recurrent theme throughout the course). Thure Cerling gave us a useful introduction to some of the most fundamental concepts that would be a part of all the lectures over the coming two weeks. (Fortunately, there were  comprehensive handouts, and the lectures were recorded for us to view later. For this I was very grateful.)

 Overall, the lectures covered a very broad range of topics, and many were highly relevant to my current research. In the first week, several lectures were very helpful in filling in gaps in my knowledge on the bigger picture; how the differences in isotope ratios that I see in human bones relate back to natural processes in terrestrial ecosystems. In other words: understanding how the differences seen in plants and other parts of the environment make their way into the foods we eat and the water we drink, allows me to better explain why I might find differences between groups and individuals in past populations.  To be specific, the lectures that were particularly useful in this way were Jim Ehleringer's lecture on "Plant carbon and related processes in terrestrial ecosystems", Todd Dawson's "Meteoric Plant and Soil Water",  and Jed Spark's "Terrestrial Nitrogen Ecology". 

There was a LOT of this
I had been particularly looking forward to the lectures timetabled to the end of the first week, as these were specifically about diet in animals; precisely the same concepts as I apply to human, archaeological material. The lectures, entitled "Body water and animal physiology as integrators of geography and diet" by Seth Newsome, and "Reconstructing diet and tissue turnover in animals" by Thure Cerling, were both very useful, and I am sure I will keep coming back to my lecture notes frequently.

In the second week, two lectures were particularly interesting. The first, "Biology of oceans" by Brian Popp included a section on compound-specific nitrogen isotope analysis of individual amino acids in marine food webs (I'll explain more about this in a later blog post). This is something I'm going to be using in my own research, but have only recently started learning about. In studying Viking Age diets, the use of fish and other marine resources is a highly relevant topic, and also something that formed a part of my MPhil thesis.  The second lecture I really enjoyed was Jim Ehleringer's talk on isotope forensics. Isotope analysis has some very important applications including detecting adulteration of food, tracing the source of drugs, explosives, and biological weapons, and solving murder cases (the latter, of course, being of great interest in my Other Life as an aspiring crime writer!). 

Lab work briefing
The lab course was held in the afternoons. This, too, started at the pace it was due to continue. On the first afternoon, straight after the lectures finished, we were split into groups and taken to the nearby Red Butte Canyon, which lies behind the University of Utah campus. Here we were given a picnic lunch, and were briefed on our task: coming up with a lab project to work on that week, and collecting all the samples we would need. The conversations over our sandwiches turned to leaves, soils, and water. I knew know virtually nothing about plants, and only a little about soils and water. My research deals with humans, more specifically dead ones.  Attempting to come up with a suitable project left me feeling  a little concerned. Luckily for me, the rest of my group seemed a little more switched on, and each team was assisted by one of the academic staff.  Over the next week I learnt how to extract water from soils and leaves , measure oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen isotopic content from said soils and leaves, and also how to analyse and present our data in a very short space of time.

Fieldwork at Red Butte Canyon
In the second week, we formed our own groups based on research interests, and were a little more free to choose projects. I was very keen to work on a project involving diet, and fortunately found some like-minded students. My group chose a project to see whether we could pick up on variations in carbon, nitrogen , and oxygen isotope ratios in hair following either recent moves to the US, or significant dietary changes. (Keep posted for a more detailed explanation of this in a future blog entry!) 

More fieldwork. As this involved alcohol
it was not permitted on campus
We also carried out some other projects, including a study of potential adulteration of sparkling wines, through the addition of sugars (which have a different isotopic signature from grapes). This project involved going to the local liquor store to buy several bottles of sparkling wines from different countries ("fieldwork"), and taking samples of the CO2 content (i.e. the bubbles), and the liquid. As we only needed a very small amount of wine for the analyses, our team invited our fellow students around to dispose of the leftovers in the most sensible manner. At the end of the week we concluded that some of our wines had most likely had sugars added. The region that was the worst offender seemed to be California, and cheap wines were far more likely to be adulterated - which may not come as much of a surprise. (For a more thorough investigation of adulteration of sparkling wines, see this article by L. Martinelli et al (2003)). 

Although there was officially little time to socialise during these two busy weeks, the course was incredibly social. On our day off we were all invited to Jim's cabin in the Wasatch mountains. There, we went for a hike up to a mountain lake (during which the heat and altitude made me feel I had the stamina of an unfit 75-year-old), took a swim (dodging leeches), ate an incredible Dutch oven dinner (or rather ate far too much of said dinner), and competed in a horseshoe tournament (in which I narrowly avoided decapitating one of the instructors).
Horseshoe tournament at Jim's cabin
Overall, I am absolutely and unequivocally delighted that I had the opportunity to go to Iso-Camp. The course really helped me get a much better understanding of the background to my research, and allowed me to get more of a foundation in lab work. Thinking beyond my PhD (yes apparently, there is Life beyond), I am sure that even the lectures which weren't directly relevant to me now will prove to be useful in my future career.

I am very grateful to SIRFER for providing me with a scholarship to allow me to attend Iso-Camp, and to the AHRC and the Graduate School of Arts at the University of Bristol for support towards the cost of my flights. Thank you! 

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