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Biology & Environmental Sciences

Biological & Environmental Sciences Blogs

In this section, students and graduates of subjects from the common entry Science degree in Biological and Environmental degree subject areas will share their experiences in UCD. 

Zoology graduate Síomha shares her story as to why she chose DN200 Science and what it was like studying Zoology.

Watch the complete Q&A with Siomha on the UCD Science YouTube channel

Final Year Zoology student Sanni Hintikka describes her four years in UCD and how Zoology in UCD has changed her….

From the moment I walked into UCD I knew I made the right choice to go back to education, having spent six years travelling in Europe, working with horses as a groom and a rider (this is where my love of animals comes from), never staying for more than a year in one place. I had been to Ireland before, and despite its rainy climate and cold houses, I enjoyed the warm atmosphere that surrounded me whenever I walked on the streets or went for a pint. Going through the course choices on UCD’s website was exciting, although a little scary to be honest, as I was going to commit to living in one country for at least four years! But when I saw “Zoology” as a course choice, it was like love at first sight.

Without any deeper knowledge of what I was getting into, I fell head over heels for the ruggedly handsome title superficially promising a lifetime of monkey play and sunny safaris. Having said that, choosing modules for my first year was tougher than I thought. Zoology, is part of the common entry Science programme in UCD. This meant that even though I had my sights set on a Zoology degree filled with furry animals, it wasn’t all deer watching and zoo visits, but a mixture of Chemistry, Biodiversity modules, Genetics and Maths. I know what you’re thinking: “I want to study animals, not do calculus!”. However, as I found out, Zoology is a hard science with lots of experimental planning, detailed measuring and excruciating statistical analysis, and thankfully there are some excellent computer programs to help with that (and their use is taught as a module, how convenient!).

In the first semester of year 1, one of the modules we did was called “Principles of Scientific Enquiry”, where I for the first time in my life laid my eyes on a real scientific paper. Abstract, introduction, methods, results, references…it was all very structured, yet so very confusing. The language was my biggest issue, as I had only used common English and some office terms before, so I decided to invest in a good biological dictionary (my first language is Finnish). I spent hours during the first couple of months getting to grips with terms that were used like sugar in soft drinks in some of the papers, as well as in lectures. I always thought I had a near native level of English, but the scientific language was a new acquaintance, one that I would learn to use fluently in the coming years. So fluently in fact that at times I had to check myself when excitedly describing a project to a colleague in my part time job as a bar tender…if someone had gone on a rant about the power of PCR to me a few years ago I probably would have swatted them away and told them to come back to me when they spoke English again.

For the second year we were asked to pick subjects, three in total if only picking from the Biological pool of courses, and two if branching out to Chemistry. I toyed with the idea of doing chemistry, as I had found I had a knack for it, but genetics had stolen my interest. A field of science so complex and powerful it could rewrite relationships between species we thought to be true for decades, but also a subject beautiful in its inherent simplicity. All organisms alive have DNA – plants, bacteria and animals alike – and by mapping their genomes we can deduce their evolutionary development to what they are today. We can even pin-point genes that are responsible for certain behaviours, like bird singing.

I was in awe of what I was learning, and hungry for more, so I picked Zoology, Genetics and Neuroscience as my subjects for second year. The choice for Neuroscience came from both an interest in the way we function, but also from sincerely enjoying the few lectures we had had in first year introducing the subject. Second Year was filled with lab work and reports, from a module concentrating on essential laboratory skills (Biomolecular Lab skills) to using videos to observe and analyse deer rutting behaviour. We learnt about biological systems, the form and function of animals, plant and animal genetics, how metabolism works.

By the end of year two I was torn between my interest in Genetics and my love for Zoology, so I went looking for guidance from experienced people in both fields. I remember vividly one wise man asking me a question I never thought of asking myself: “Well, do you want to work in a lab, or do you want to be out there, in nature?”. I never even stopped to think about my answer. As much as I believed in the power of Genetics in Zoology, I realised majoring in Zoology would give me more of a chance to do both. I could do population Genetics, by studying a species in their natural habitat, be it in a forest or on a coral reef, and use genetics to figure out if populations of that species are mixing and to what extent. Or I could use environmental DNA, to find out a distribution pattern of a species, again, in their natural habitat.

In year three, we got more hands on than ever before. There had been labs before, of course, dissections of invertebrates and analyses on a molecular level, but we had never been out there, in nature, conducting science. One of our first field trips was to the rocky shores of Sea Point, using quadrats (it was the first time I even saw one!) to try and calculate the biomass of algae and the abundance of marine organisms on the shore. Working in groups to simulate real life research, we gathered data, divided the workload and wrote a report in the form of a scientific paper. Sure, things were a little more relaxed than in proper research, as we had a very tight timeline (2 hours is not much when you are trying to get accurate data!), but the experience was what really mattered. To get to grips with what it could be like, working in research, what are all the steps to be taken in order to produce a viable project and the time it takes to write a solid report. The next big trip was the trip to Bolonia, Spain.

A field trip combining Environmental Biology and Zoology, we spent two intense days learning about the marine diversity present on the rocky shore, how weather patterns can affect what we see any given day and what insects and other organisms might lurk in the terrestrial environment of the maquis shrubland of the Mediterranean region. On the third day we got to visit the Barbary Macaques of Gibraltar, and we did an exercise that taught us common methods for observing and recording behaviour of animals generally seen as active and social. Mostly teaching was done by sending us out and about to observe, collecting organisms from algae and limpets to spiders and centipedes, but we also had lectures each day, highlighting the differences between the biodiversity of Spain and Ireland.

For the remainder of the trip, we were free to create our own mini project on whatever topic we wanted to explore. Choosing to do a marine project, I again found myself branching out from what I had always thought I was into – pure terrestrial. Everyone found themselves a suitable project, some working with beetles trying to figure out if their torso size is indicative of their strength in battle, and others observing pollinator visitation rates on shaded vs unshaded flowers. The options were endless, and we chose to do a project on hermit crabs, mainly because they were extremely cute! I know, it is not a very scientific reason, but again this felt like an opportunity to develop our experimental design skills, group organization and presentation abilities, regardless of the topic. Granted, we did not score highest on “relevance”, but we enjoyed doing our project and I’d like to think we all learnt something new doing it! Spain was also "The Trip" for me to get to know all my class mates, as well as the professors and lecturers we spend time with during our studies. As far as studying goes, Spain taught me an important lesson in connecting lectures and theory into reality.

Now, it is time to begin my fourth and final year of undergraduate study, and I was lucky to be able to go and do the data collection for my dissertation abroad during the summer, hopefully freeing me some time during term. My three years in UCD have shaped me profoundly, awakening an interest in marine biology I never knew I had. I always thought I would end up working with large mammals, you know, the “Big Five” in Africa, or in a zoo trying to get endangered animals to reproduce successfully. Never in my wildest dreams did I end up doing my dissertation on Caribbean long spined sea urchins in Honduras, and what is more, finding myself thoroughly enjoying observing the behaviour of a primitive invertebrate I never even heard of before! Zoology is a subject with a multitude of paths, you just got to find the one(s?) that will lead you home.

Zoology student Irene Sullivan describes her summer researching in Madagascar

In the summer of 2015 I spent six weeks living in a remote camp in a patch of dry deciduous forest in North West Madagascar. There was no running water, limited electricity, and the food…well, it kept y’going. And I’m so, so incredibly grateful I got to do that.

I went to Madagascar with three other final year Zoology students of UCD. We all had one mission in mind- to gather data for our final year projects (a 20 credit dissertation). Our trip was, in part, facilitated by a wildlife and biodiversity conservation organisation called Operation Wallacea. They established the site, and provided us with internal travel, tents, food, water, and some academic advice and supervision. The camp was run by Malagasy people. The guides who patiently accompanied troupes of sweaty students on treks through the forest were local men from Mariarano (they can spot lemurs, chameleons and other forest dwellers insanely fast, even at night).

The coquerel’s sifaka is the animal who enticed me to Madagascar. I’m passionately interested in all animals, but these guys are great. They are large diurnal lemurs, who munch leaves and fruit high in deciduous canopies (I’m not exaggerating when I say clarify: REALLY high- “lemur neck,” is an established phrase). My friend and classmate Sorcha and I spent every day i.e. 5:30am to 17:00pm, with breaks for meals in between, observing the behaviour of these lemurs. My main aim was to determine whether or not their behaviours changed in close proximity to human settlement. Levels of deforestation are chronically high in Madagascar, and I wanted to know if weird looking creatures like humans creep lemurs out (or not).

The beautiful Coquerel’s sifaka. I was lucky enough to be situated just a couple of feet from them on some days.

We did this by noting what behaviours we were interested in occurred within half hour periods, to determine whether or not they prioritised vigilance of human and predator presence over other important activities (such as feeding) when near human settlement. Coquerel’s Sifakas are endangered, and their habitat has now become so fragmented, they have little choice but to occupy trees near villages.

My experience of Madagascar was honestly one of the best times in my life. Not only did I make great friends in the students that were there, but I also got to know some fantastic local and Malagasy people. I learned a song in Malagasy (intimidating stuff- a huge proportion of the Malagasy people at camp were beautifully talented singers and musicians). I learned a few Malagasy words. Malagasy scientists passed on some invaluable knowledge to me.

The wildlife of Madagascar is so diverse and magical; it always felt more like a David Attenborough-narrated documentary than real life when I encountered new enigmatic flora and fauna. There are so many chameleons in Mariarano; I nearly stepped on one twice, while walking on the path through the local village. The lemurs there included mouse lemurs, avahi, mongoose lemurs, brown lemurs and sportive lemurs. The reptilian diversity was remarkable: we saw (and sometimes held!) ground boas, hognose snakes, leafnosed snakes, chameleons, and my favourite, leaf-tailed geckos. I was dumb and lucky enough to stumble upon a dried specimen of the smallest chameleon in the world (Brokesia micrus) behind a tree once, while looking for my study subjects. Entomological and ornithological diversity was also huge; bird mist-netting experience allowed me to hold some birds and properly admire their plumage and idiosyncrasies.

At camp, we were always immersed in nature. Mouse lemurs, brown lemurs and sifakas leaped through the trees above our heads. Frogs and spiders kept us company in the showers and toilets. Various insects fluttered across our laptop screens, attracted to their brightness at night. Birds called from deeper within the forest. Geckos watched you rest in the hammocks, and chameleons peered at you irritatedly from the ends of branches.

Our trip did have its discomforts, but we loved them too. “Bucket showers,” totally keep you clean, b’grand (well we were all in the same boat, and you get used to dumping cold water over your person). Long-drop, non-flushing toilets became a fact of life. Lack of contact with home was hard, but we didn’t particularly mind. Rice and beans for lunch every day (every, single day) isn’t such a big deal when you spot a lemur while you’re raising your spoon to your dusty face. We spent 12 hours in a cramped bus to get from the capital to the camp, and 5 hours off-road in an army pick-up. It sounds sweaty and awful. Well, it was sweaty, but it was in fact brilliant fun.

My stay in Madagascar was, as a budding zoologist, a bit of valuable in-field experience. My experience in Madagascar as a person was a bit of valuable life-enriching experience. It made me all the more determined to do the best I could for our natural world, and for the organisms that continue to try to exist within it despite over-whelmingly powerful and pre-dominantly damaging anthropogenic impact. The biodiversity in Madagascar is shrinking along with its depleting forest. Passionate biologists from all around the world need to work together to uncover the mysteries of a country so varying in landscape and habitat. Another vitally important component of saving a country’s biodiversity, is understanding its people. Those native to Mariarano love the land they come from; they rely on it daily for raw materials and natural resources. By creating sustainable alternatives to deforestation for rice paddies and other industrial endeavours, it may be possible to ensure these people enjoy their forests forever. Because, if you take our current attitude to nature as permanent, the natural world as we experience it is finite.

Zoology student Irene Sullivan describes her experiences on a field trip in the Biogeography and Field Biology module in Third Year. 

The fieldtrip to Bolonia (Southern Spain) for 3rd year Zoology and Environmental Biology students is an experience that really reawakens the love a student has for their subject. I really appreciated being able to get some hands-on, in-field experience, while at the same time getting to know both my classmates and my lecturers that bit better.

The trip involved exploration of terrestrial and marine sites. Usually a freshwater habitat is also sampled, but the dry spring weather in Bolonia ensured all rivers had dried out by the time we arrived. We were instructed on how to sample terrestrial habitats using a variety of trapping methods for terrestrial invertebrates. The marine element of the trip involved examining rockpools for interesting specimens. A behavioural study was carried out in Gibraltar, where we recorded the behaviour of Barbary Macaques- monkeys which will use you as a stepping stone to get from A to B, and will try on your hat if you have one, or take food from your rucksack!

The most exciting part of the trip, for me, was encountering so many animals I had never come across in Ireland, or had seen rarely here. These included chameleons, larger than life dung beetles, colourful sea slugs, gobi fish, preying mantis and large grasshoppers, starfish, octopus.. a nerdy zoologist could go on! Observing macaques in Gibraltar, which aren’t caged or restrained by a barrier, was particularly fascinating, especially as I am hoping to carry out my final year dissertation on primate behaviour.

Though the fieldtrip is fantastic fun (sangria in the hostel bar is almost too cheap..) some work is involved! At the end of the trip, students were divided into groups and we each carried out, and presented, the findings of our own research project. This is brilliant for final year preparation; I became really passionate about my own idea, and the field-work wasn’t considered work as a result. The class was also given a quiz on local taxa, as well as a few analytical questions on our recordings of the macaques.

All in all, the field-trip to Bolonia is an experience that reignites the love of biology that you have when you make the decision to enroll in UCD with the intention of studying zoology, environmental biology, or plant biology. It’s easy to get bogged down by exams and assignments and to forget the reason you’re really there;- that is, to learn about and explore elements of nature that have always fascinated you, and to find new ways to protect and understand the world around you.

UCD College of Science

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