Heading to the Arctic to teach students about the wonderful world of “extreme” microbes by Dr Rob Jackson

In July, Rob Jackson and Ben Neuman led nine Part 3 students from the School of Biological Sciences to the University of Akureyri in Northern Iceland, about 100km south of the Arctic circle. At UnAk, they met with Dr Oddur Vilhelmsson, his PhD student Auður Sigurbjörnsdóttir and 8 Icelandic Masters and undergraduate students. This was the inaugural joint UK-Icelandic module, Arctic Microbiology Field Trip. One might wonder, why Iceland? Simply put, Iceland is a land of extremes – summers are mild and winters can be severe; the land has different types of geothermal, volcanic regions as well as permanently frozen glacial zones. Unlike many organisms, microbes thrive in these zones, and in doing so they have evolved remarkable tolerances eg some microbes can live in boiling mud pits at 120oC, while others are still living in glacial ice after being deposited there 1000 years ago. So this is a great place for students to see first-hand the types of environments the microbes live in – rather than just being given a culture on a plate. Moreover, students learn in-field sampling techniques as well as the practical applications of using the novel microbes. Of course, the students see some amazing countryside and sights.

University of Reading and University of Akureyri staff and students at a lava cave after sampling microbes living on the cave walls and floor.

Designing the course was hard work, especially for three microbiologists who have never led a field trip let alone designed one, especially a joint module. For example, Dr Vilhelmsson translated an entire 20-page coursebook from Icelandic into English. The course was structured as a mixer starter event for all the students followed by three field days and 7.5 lab days to analyse samples taken during the trip. Interspersed were 8 lectures (some by guest lectures from different institutes in Iceland), a free day, a preparation day followed by a student symposium where students gave oral presentations on their experiences and results. At the end, a feedback session was held to discover how the course could be improved. The students were assessed for their symposium talk, and later their lab books and a dissertation.

From the start, one UK and one Icelandic student were paired up for the entire course – this turned out to be a masterstroke as it promoted teamwork and they were also teaching each other techniques learnt in their home university. Staff, as well as students, were also learning new research and teaching approaches, which should help for future trips and professional development. Moreover, it was great for social and cultural interaction – one of the students started learning Icelandic two days in! Also early in the course, all the students had friended each other on Facebook, and unbeknownst to the lecturers, a Facebook group had been set up by all the UK students before heading off to Iceland to help them work together on preparing for the trip. During the course, staff and students alike found the three back-to-back field days with evening labs very tiring, so we adapted to provide a morning off for recovery and catch-up time for reading and lab book completion. The feedback session was very useful and most points were fairly simple, requiring some minor changes to the structuring of the course. Importantly, feedback from the students provided an overwhelming endorsement to run the course next year. Several want to learn more about microbiology, with some finding the research aspect of the teaching experience changing their minds and inspiring them to wanting to do PhDs! The UK staff were really grateful to their Icelandic colleagues for arranging accommodation, food and transport, plus labs. Although it was physically and mentally tiring, the staff are already looking forward to running the course next year and making new discoveries!

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