Studying microbial symbiosis in Iceland – Nora Cox

I was lucky enough to take a microbiology class in Iceland this summer. I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t let pass by; it would be the experience of a lifetime. We traveled to Iceland on June 19th and met up with Universidad EAFIT from Colombia and the University of Reading from England before traveling to the city of Akureyri, Iceland. Then we arrived at the University of Akureyri to meet our Icelandic classmates and professors as well as to discuss the course. We would be doing lab work, fieldwork, as well as attending lectures and getting a taste of Icelandic culture too.

The students were put into pairs and assigned a specific topic, astrobiology, geothermal, symbiosis or environmental microbiology. The goal was to take samples in these different environments to them compare the characteristics of the different bacteria species we found. I was paired up with a student who was studying for her master’s degree at the University of Akureyri, Pia. We were assigned to symbiosis so we would be taking lichen samples out in the field. I couldn’t have been more excited for the fieldwork.

The field days also gave the students time to bond and get to know each other. We were stationed in the small town of Raufarhöfn, and staying at the school in town. We spent a total of two nights there, along with three days of fieldwork. The Icelandic faculty cooked us dinner, and let me tell you, it was wonderful. The Icelandic fish stew was the best thing I ate during the whole trip; even better than the cured shark, believe it or not! The school we stayed at was also located by the ocean and when the tide went out, a few of us went down to explore. One of my fondest memories took place here. A few students and a professor from Reading, Ben Neuman, were looking in the tide pools when Ben picked up some seaweed and ate it. He then held out his hand and offered some to the rest of us; it didn’t taste bad and made me laugh. Some wonderful moments were shared between the team during our stay in Raufarhöfn.

Pia and I got to take our samples on the first day of fieldwork, in a large canyon called Ásbyrgi. We sampled lichens from two different spots within the canyon. This was done so we could see if there were any differences between the samples in the different environments. Once we sampled, we were free to watch the other groups take their samples as well as to enjoy each location and our peers. It was such a valuable experience to watch groups sample using different tools and techniques. Being able to observe and explore during the fieldwork days was one of my favorite parts of the trip. We were able to see parts of Iceland not many people see as well as a few touristy spots.

Pia and I at one of the field stations near Raufarhöfn.

Pia and I at one of the field stations near Raufarhöfn.

After we finished up in the field, it was time to head back to the labs in Akureyri. Here we worked with our samples and ran different tests on samples given to us from the lab as well. Here we learned new techniques and ways of thinking from professors and fellow students. This is a rare chance not many people get, to be working so closely in the lab with peers from different countries. It really opens your mind and allows you to tackle problems in different ways.

Overall, this trip was an amazing experience that I will never forget. I have made friends I will keep for a lifetime from many parts of the world and have learned lessons to help me grow not only as a biologist but also as a human being. I will carry these memories forever and couldn’t be happier about taking this opportunity.

We made a movie – watch it here

Hannah, from Reading, and I doing some last minute cleanup and sample checking in the lab at the end of the trip.

Hannah, from Reading, and I doing some last minute cleanup and sample checking in the lab at the end of the trip.

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