That is how you say Kia ora or Hello in Oldenburg, which is where my family and I have been living since August 2012. As I near the half-way point in my 18-month fellowship, I thought I would show you where I am living, update you on what I have been up to in the lab, and introduce you to my lovely colleagues here.
Oldenburg is located in the state of Lower Saxony in northern Germany and has about 160,000 inhabitants, most of whom get around by bicycle, ourselves included.
Each day I cycle to the University of Oldenburg, where I am curently based. The best part of my 15-minute daily commute is cycling down the last kilometre along Drögen-Hasen-Weg.
The beautiful native trees (“Traubeneiche”, or sessile oak, Quercus petrea) that line this “Eichenallee” (literally, “oak avenue”) are now a protected natural monument.
I have come to Oldenburg to work on a research project regarding polyploidy in New Zealand and European Veronica with Dirk Albach, and in the process learn some new techniques. Polyploidy means whole genome doubling, and it occurs in Veronica species from both areas. We will compare the genes that are expressed in European and New Zealand polyploid species with their closest diploid relatives to determine when these genome doubling events occurred, confirm that the polyploid species likely evolved following hybridisation of diploid ancestors, and compare patterns of evolution of duplicated genes.
One of the first things I learned was how to extract RNA, or ribonucleic acid, from leaf tissue.
Once the RNA is extracted and cleaned up, it is checked to determine whether it is of sufficient quality and quantity for sequencing. The next step will be to send the samples to a sequencing facility, and hopefully soon I will get some new data to analyse!
Another part of the project involves determining genome size, that is, measuring how much DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) a particular plant contains in the nuclei of its cells. By working with Silvia Kempen, one of the technicians in the lab, I have learned how to use a flow cytometer and have measured the genome size of several Veronica species.
I must admit, the lab work has had its ups and downs, and it has taken me longer to get to this point than I had planned. One logistical problem we had, was that the plant material collected prior to my arrival did not result in good RNA extractions. That meant we needed to collect fresh plant material and retry the extractions, so I did my part by heading to Mallorca, Spain, on a collecting trip.
But perhaps delays, hiccups and changes are to be expected when one is learning new techniques, in a new lab, in a new country, and in a new language, no less! Although I speak quite a bit of English at the university, I am taking an evening language course, and I seek out daily opportunities to practice German with my colleagues. Speaking of which, here they are!
Lab outings and field trips are a great way to get to know each other. One day last October, we took a trip to the nearby North Sea coast to the Wattenmeer (Wadden Sea), which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Then in February, one afternoon our lab took a “Grünkohlfahrt” (literally, “kale walk”), which is a regional custom involving walking around with your friends or colleagues while eating, drinking, and playing special, regional games together. Oldenburg claims to be the kale capital of Germany.
At the end of the Grünkohlfahrt, we sat down together to share some excellent regional cuisine…
And earlier this month, we had a very exciting special visitor, Radio New Zealand journalist Veronika Meduna, who came to interview Dirk and me about our collaborative research. You can hear the resulting interview here.
On both professional and personal levels, our experience in Germany so far has been at times enlightening, challenging, surprising, and overwhelming. Germany is a great place to do scientific research, and there are countless opportunities to learn about and experience its fascinating culture and history. Our first 9 months have certainly qualified as an adventure so far, and I look forward to experiencing what the next 9 months will bring.
Keep up the awesome work Heidi!. Thanks for sharing your adventure.