Thursday 25 July 2019

BSBI Science & Research Grants: supporting botanists in 2019

Jenn surveying in Strontian
with the help of
BSBI's Sedge Handbook
Image courtesy of J. Clayton
Following on from last month's account of how a BSBI Training Grant helped botanist Huw hone his ID skills on difficult higher plants, this month we bring you Jenn's account of how a BSBI Science & Research Grant helped her fund her research into Saltmarsh Sedge. 

Over to Jenn: 

"Four years ago, I started at Edge Hill University studying Biology. Myself and a friend, discontent with our mundane work and lack of prospects within the customer service industry, decided to take a leap and plunge ourselves back into education. Edge Hill’s Fastrack course was the apt choice and so I applied and was accepted onto Fastrack Biology, ultimately completing a BSc in Biology three years later.

"During these three years, my focus transitioned from human genetics to ecology; in my youth I’d always enjoyed engaging with nature, and sadly during my progression into adulthood I seemed to forget that. Botany ultimately dominated my study interest, with my undergraduate dissertation being a morphometric study considering hybridisation between Hyacinthoides non-scripta (English Bluebell) and H. hispanica (Spanish Bluebell) but yet I never quite lost the fascination with the developing field of genetics. This, coupled with a love of research, enticed me to pursue a MRes degree in which I could incorporate both ecology and genetics, and what better species to consider than a new UK coloniser?

Carex salina
Image: J. Clayton
"Carex salina (Saltmarsh Sedge) was first discovered upon Scotland’s west coast in 2004 by Keith Hutcheon. It is a stable hybrid of Carex sect. Phacocystis, however its parental species C. subspathacea (Hoppner’s Sedge) and C. paleacea (Chaffy Sedge), prominent in North America and Scandinavia, are absent from the UK. C. salina is also associated with low fertility, as no fertile specimens were found in the UK between 2004 and 2006 but the species has still dispersed to five other sites since its discovery in Morvich. With a lack of local parental species and a seemingly poor ability to disperse via sexual reproduction, interesting questions in relation to the species distribution and dispersal have been raised. Is the species spreading clonally? If clonal, what is the extent of clonality within and between sites? Are we looking at a single clone dispersing, or multiple colonisations? This is where my MRes project comes in.

Carex salina samples being prepared
 for lab analysis

Image: J. Clayton
I’m investigating the inter and intraspecific levels of genetic variation of all six sites (Morvich, Strontian, Loch Sunart, Loch Nevis, Loch Long, and Bettyhill) in the hopes to answer these questions. In layman’s terms, I’m looking at how genetically similar each individual sedge is both within its populations, and between each of the population sites in Scotland. DNA will be extracted and then analysed; any genetically identical individuals will be considered clonal relatives, with consideration to how somatic mutations can transform the overall picture. C. salina will also be collected in Tromsø, Norway for comparative material, as comparison with the Norwegian samples will allow the variation in Scotland to be put in a wider context against a long established population. 

Patch of Carex salina
Image: J. Clayton
Now despite the fact I am utterly delighted to be involved in such an interesting project, it is a demanding one and so I did have to make the decision to leave my job in retail and focus on this project full time. This had its perks, but the major drawback is of course the lack of income, so as a self-funded student it was vital I applied for funding firstly to help support myself during my studies, but secondly to fund the important sample collection in Scotland and Norway; I applied for three grants in the end, and was very thankful to secure all of them.

Two of these grants were graciously offered by the BSBI. Firstly the Science and Research Grant which funded my Scottish leg of the fieldwork, and the Plant Study Grant (which I will write all about in my next blog post!) which will not only contribute towards my student expenses, but in conjunction with the Botanical Research Grant will help fund that all important comparative sample collection in Norway.

Driving through Glencoe NNR
Image: J. Clayton
My Scottish fieldwork consisted of driving up to the highlands at the end of May and sampling four of the six sites. My partner and myself drove from Ormskirk, Lancashire to Strontian (which took the best part of 10 hours, but we were thankfully met with some fantastic views from our accommodation), before heading out in the morning to survey both populations (Strontian and Loch Sunart) in the area.

Surveying consisted of locating the species and collecting individuals for DNA extractions (as well as a voucher specimen). Thankfully we had some grid references, but because of its small height, C. salina can be a bit tricky to find; we found C. nigra can also look suspiciously similar! We then travelled to Mallaig where the following morning we had hired a private boat for half a day to transport us down Loch Nevis to a very rural population in Camusrory (also situated on Loch Nevis is Inverie, home of Britian’s remotest pub!). Once we’d returned, we travelled up to Morvich, nestling down in another lovely little lodge to prepare for a final day of sampling before returning to England.

Sea Thrift growing at the Loch Sunart site
 Image: J. Clayton
Amongst the C. salina populations we also identified Glaux Maritima (Sea Milkwort), Plantago maritima (Sea Plantain), Juncus gerardii (Saltmarsh Rush), and Blysmus rufus (Saltmarsh Flat-Sedge) with Armeria maritima (Sea Thrift) being the most commonly encountered species, creating mottled carpets of pink and green across the saltmarshes.

From this trip, we collected 81 individual samples from all four saltmarshes, travelled over 800 miles, and surveyed for nine hours, all completed in four days; during this time I have been immersed in the beauty and botanical diversity of an important habitat, witnessed iconic wildlife such as Golden Eagles and Porpoises, and experienced a true gem of these magnificent Isles.

Carex salina voucher specimens stored in
silica gel - they have now been
mounted as herbarium samples
Image: J. Clayton
"Without the vital funding from the BSBI, the outcomes of this trip and all of its experiences would not have been as fortunate, if even achievable. It’s very likely an entire population (Loch Nevis) would not have even been surveyed without this grant, as it provided the opportunity for us to access a considerably inaccessible site.

"These grants don’t just provide the means to fund necessities like accommodation and travel, they also provide skills and experiences that are best developed in the field, and the enhanced opportunities that come from the successful completion of this work. BSBI also offers the option for myself to publish these findings in one of their publications, which will disseminate my work out into a wider audience. These grants really do make a difference.

Saltmarsh site at Morvich
Image: J. Clayton
"With this, I’d like to take the opportunity to thank the BSBI for not just their financial support through their grants, but for helping to support the careers of budding young researchers and botanists such as myself. The memories of our sedge related adventure in the Scottish Highlands will stay with us forever, and I implore everyone to take advantage of all the opportunities offered by fantastic societies such as BSBI".

Well, if Jenn's story doesn't gladden your heart, lift your spirits, and make you glad to be a BSBI member - or make you want to join, if you haven't already - then... well let's just say I'd be astonished! If her story is ringing bells, maybe you were at last year's BSBI Exhibition Meeting at Edge Hill and saw Jenn's poster about her research? And maybe you ran into Jenn herself? She was helping with the very popular behind-the-scenes tours of Edge Hill's facilities for biologists.

Boat trip to Camusrory from Mallaig
Image: J. Clayton
Many thanks to Jenn - I can't wait to read her follow-up blogpost about how her BSBI Plant Study Grant helped her fund other aspects of her research. 

A reminder that Science & Research Grants cover travel and consumables, whereas Plant Study Grants cover tuition and/ or bench fees. Just because you get one, there's no guarantee you'll get the other - in fact it's quite rare. These two grants are awarded by completely different panels - the fact that Jenn was able to impress both panels is an indication of how strong her applications were. 

Great work Jenn! 

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