A final reflection of the most important skills that I gained.

I have now arrived back to Dickinson College after finishing my internship, and I am already back into the swing of things. However I think that it is very important for me to write a reflective closing piece about my internship experience. Firstly, I am genuinely very grateful for the fact that I could pursue this opportunity, and this was made possible by my parents’ support and the Dickinson internship grant that I received. Not only did this grant provide substantial funding for this internship that I wanted to pursue, but it also gave me a new confidence in myself and my abilities in the work place. I also think that the knowledge that there were Dickinson faculty who believed that my internship experience would be worthwhile actually made me work harder to derive all that I could from this opportunity. I arrived to Archipelagos with a determination to succeed. And I believe that my positive and motivational thinking was the key to my fruitful internship.

My supervisor, myself, and the boat captain.

Over the three months at Archipelagos I was able to get involved in many different projects and areas of study. This included microplastics research – both independently and with fellow interns; marine mammal boat surveys and photography; necropsies of different marine organisms; assistance with land-based surveys and presentations about my own work. The diverse set of knowledge and skills that I gained during this time are very valuable and I know that I will apply these over my next few years at Dickinson and during other internships. Yet the most important thing that I learnt during my experience was the ability to communicate with people from different parts of the world. I was working with fellow interns from China, Australia, United Kingdom, India, and Canada, amongst others. Additionally, the directors were Greek and the supervisors arrived from different parts of Europe. Therefore I was exposed to a varied set of people who each had a different academic and social background.  This difference in culture and skills could be challenging at times,  but the different perspectives and ideas that are created in such a diverse organization are extremely invaluable. And after three months at Archipelagos, I am able to say that I have the ability to work alongside almost anyone from almost anywhere. I believe that this skill to communicate across cultures and different backgrounds is extremely important at this time.

My internship also involved sharing my own knowledge and teaching the incoming interns.

Some highlights of my previous week that provide an indication of what it takes to be a successful intern.

  • Take advantage of opportunities! 

My working week actually began on Sunday afternoon. My supervisor approached me during lunchtime on Sunday and asked if I wanted to help with the necropsy of a turtle that was found stranded on a beach about 30 minutes away. I had already made plans for the afternoon  with my friends, but I had never had the chance to join a necropsy and so I decided that it would be a good idea to participate. My friends came along and were the “camera team” and they watched the necropsy as well. Overall, it was a really enjoyable and productive afternoon because I got hands on experience doing the necropsy. 

This is the type of situation that reminds me that it is so important to take advantage of every opportunity that you come across. Even if it may seem insignificant at the time or outside the lines of your internship description, all experiences will provide a new learning experience. It could be a learning experience that shows you what you do not want to do in the future, or rather you discover something that you really enjoy. Either way I think that it is important to always “say yes” and make the most out of your internship period.

Measurements of the turtle.
Removal of the intestines and stomach contents.
Measurement of the turtle, and removal of some claws.
  • Interact with all of your peers – you never know who could provide valuable knowledge.

I spent one morning this week kayaking to collect water samples. Each time that we go out we have to take a backup kayak for safety reasons, and each time I try to ask different people to come along. I have found that including different people in your project, even in a small way like a backup, provides a range of insights and questions that you may not have considered before. It is very useful and a good idea to take into account other people’s thoughts, because a perspective different from your own is always important for reflection and improvement of your own work.

Kayaking with Loutje (my usual partner) and the backup team.
  • Be enthusiastic to learn and prove yourself as a valuable member of the team.

I have realized that it is very important to be an enthusiastic intern who is proactive about learning. Particularly in an organization such as Archipelagos where there are many interns over the summer months, it is essential to be recognized as a valuable member of the team. One example that emphasizes the importance of showing that you are motivated and able to be of use is during the marine mammal boat surveys. There are only about 8 places available for interns per survey due to the limit of the boat but there are usually more people on the team at any time. I have observed that people who are recognizably more useful and active about participating are primarily considered for these surveys. It is always a good idea to show your interest by asking questions if you are unsure, and volunteering to help out wherever you can. This sort of attitude will contribute to a successful and fruitful internship experience.

On the boat survey this week, we spotted two bottlenose dolphins. In previous surveys, a resident pod of common dolphins and other common dolphins are usually spotted. Therefore, I was very fortunate to be a part of this boat survey. The dolphins were spotted travelling and they approached the boat. A few minutes later one dolphin leaped out of the water and it was a very interesting behavior to observe. We were able to watch the dolphins for about 15-20 minutes until they disappeared from our line of sight. During this survey, I had my camera to take pictures and I was able to do one 30 minute transect to collect water samples.

Sunrise from the boat.
One bottlenose dolphin that we spotted.

A busy, productive week with Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation.

I wrote this blog post as I was finishing up the week 10/7 and I cannot believe how quickly the time has flown by here – I only have about one month left! I have had many different experiences both during working hours and on the weekends and evenings here at Archipelagos. I have met an array of different people from all over the world in both a professional and personal manner. I think that it is important for students to consider an international internship similar to mine because it offers unique opportunities that you normally would not find if you stay in your home country. I have learnt a lot about the Greek culture in general and about the culture of the people on Samos Island. I have come to recognize this island as “my” island since I have spent such an extended amount of time here. I have really enjoyed exploring all that Samos has to offer and I am very grateful for his experience. In addition, I have met many people from all different parts of the world. I think that exposure to different cultures and countries is very important. And my internship experience has become a lot more valuable due to the different backgrounds and perspectives that have contributed to my work.

Boat survey crew 13/7 (Canada, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Zimbabwe, USA, UK, France and captain from Italy)

How did I spend my week?

I have had a very busy week that started with work in the lab. I finished filtration of the oesophagus of one sea turtle (this data will not be included in the report since the other turtle did not have an oesophagus saved, however it was interesting to do the analysis anyways). I found a few relatively large pieces of plastic and a lot of plastic fibers. I have not yet done statistical analysis or compared this data to the other organs of this turtle but I predict that it will show that there was more plastic in the oesophagus than in the other organs. I think that this could possibly be the case due to the structure of the turtle’s oesophagus. Attached is an image of the oesophagus and it seems more likely that fibers could get caught in the esophageal papillae (spikes) thus showing a higher percentage of plastic than in other organs.

Oesophagus of a loggerhead sea turtle (C. caretta).

On the Monday afternoon I had a meeting with the scientific director about how I will spend my next month. We decided collectively that I will analyze more loggerhead sea turtles to contribute to the previous data on these turtles. There were about 3-4 strandings in 2017, and their organs are stored in the freezer at the base therefore I aim to analyze at least these samples over the next few weeks. In addition, I will be participating in the marine mammal boat surveys and collecting water samples behind the boat using a plankton net. I will also be collecting water samples behind the kayak with the plankton net on days when the weather is suitable and there are no boat surveys. I will then analyze these water samples in search for microplastics. If time allows, I will also count for plankton in the water samples in order to estimate the ratio of plastic:plankton in the surface waters. This is important data to collect because a lot of marine organisms do not selectively ingest plankton over plastic; they just consume the surface waters unknowingly.

On Tuesday, I participated in a boat survey that left at 6am and lasted until about 12pm. Myself and another intern identified one dolphin that was travelling (this behavior is recorded due to the movement of the dolphin); and one other dolphin was identified as travelling. However, we did not view any other marine mammals in this survey. I was able to collect a water sample of a 30 minute straight line transect.

Collection of surface samples using a plankton net behind the survey boat.

The next day I did microscope work to analyze the oesophagus samples on one sea turtle, and I spent the rest of the day researching methods for plankton counting. However, this search was rather fruitless since most methods use equipment that is not available here at Archipelagos.

On Thursday I participated in another boat survey that lasted the entire day – from 8am until about 5pm. We followed a different transect around the east of the island, however we did not view any dolphins on this day.

Unfortunately, I woke up on Friday morning feeling very ill – I think that I was dehydrated and possibly a little sun sick from the boat survey the day before. However, later in the day I did conduct an interview with my supervisor, Dr. Guido Pietroulongo, for the internship notation program. Guido is someone that I have gained significant respect for over the past few months here at Archipelagos and I felt that he would be a suitable candidate for my interview since he has had many years experience in the field of marine biology. My conversation with Guido has helped me to realize that I really enjoy the more relaxed working atmosphere here at Archipelagos. However, I would not be very interested in a marine biology career related to organisms and their behavior. Rather I am interested in the microbiology and biochemistry of the marine ecosystem. I think that I will really enjoy work in this discipline and also be challenged often. I have really enjoyed doing fieldwork, however, I find the limitations and possible inaccuracy in fieldwork to be very frustrating at times. Therefore, I would prefer to pursue a career that involves more accurate work in a well-equipped laboratory.

 

 

 

Samos Island and a few of the beautiful scenes that I have explored so far.

Samos Island

The Archipelagos main base is located in Methokampos just about 150m from the beach, and approximately 3 km east of the main tourist town Pythagorio. Pythagorio is a lovely Greek town. The main street is dotted with souvenir and clothing stores alongside grocery markets and ice cream shops. This street leads you down to the harbor, which is lined with friendly, good quality restaurants, and bars that face the yachts and boats moored in the water. If you turn off of the main street and venture through the winded side streets you will find some of the town’s hidden treasures.

Pythagorio in all of its evening glory

My favorite place in Pythagorio is a broken down castle that is situated behind the town right on the sea. I have spent a few evenings eating a picnic with friends and watching the sun go down over the mountains from these ruins. The pictures below show the beautiful panoramic view that this humble location has to offer.

 

There is a charming monastery in the mountains above Pythagorio. The monastery is situated next to a cave in which there is a smaller prayer room as well. This place offers a breathtaking view of the town below and the sea stretched for miles beyond the marina.

     

A Few Weekend Adventures 

Last weekend, my sister visited and so we hired a car and drove around to some different areas on the island. We first drove north to a popular tourist town, Kokkari, where we ate lunch on the beautiful beach. Then we continued our drive west to a secluded beach called Mikro Seitani. You have to hike in for about twenty minutes but once you reach the beach it is absolutely breathtaking. We spent the day snorkeling around the rocks and soaking up the sunshine. Later in the day we drove south to visit a small little town and then our final stop was on Balos Beach. We spent the night here lying on the sand underneath an open cave. We watched the stars as we went to sleep and woke up to the sun rising up over the mountains.

View from Kokkari Beach.
Hiking to Mikro Seitani Beach
Mikro Seitani Beach
Balos Beach Cave

 

Samos is an Island of green mountains and blue waters. The sea surrounding the island is understandably one of the greatest attractions as it offers up the most beautiful views and sceneries. Additionally, the underwater world of the Aegean Sea is a spectacle to be discovered. I have been on one scuba diving excursion since I arrived on Samos and it was very enjoyable. The underwater life in these waters is different to what I am accustomed to seeing in the Indian Ocean off the shores of Mozambique, but it is nonetheless interesting.

Before the Dive.
Mountain to Sea.

Another interesting day trip that I had was to Kasonisi Island. We walked from the main base eastward for approximately 3 hours to reach the shore of Samos that is opposite Kasonisi. The walk there was through the hills and so it was rather tiring but still very beautiful. Once you walk down to the beach, it is shallow enough to cross the channel with your bags above your head to reach the small Island called Kasonisi.

View of Kasonisi Island

I think that I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to learn about the micro plastics field and marine biology in general during my internship as well as being able to explore the beautiful Island that I am living on. I definitely appreciate all that this island has to offer in sceneries, activities and people; and I am so grateful that I have so many more unique experiences still to discover and enjoy.

I would never have been able to accept this internship with Archipelagos if it wasn’t for the generous internship grant that I received from Dickinson College, as well as my parents’ relentless encouragement to pursue such an opportunity! Simply reflecting back on a few of the many ways how I have spent my time on Samos Island really puts into perspective the wonderful experience that I have had so far.

A quick reflection of last week: Filtration, Filtration, Kayaking, Filtration.

I spent most of this past week (ending Sun 27/6) in the micro plastics laboratory conducting filtration of the second turtle (stranded in 2017). This small turtle was found deceased covered in barnacles – this is a sign that the turtle was sick and therefore too weak to fight off the barnacles. The necropsy of this turtle suggests that it died of starvation because there was nothing but bile found in its stomach or intestines. I aided Dr. Guido Pietroluongo (marine mammal supervisor) in the dissection and sampling of this sea turtle therefore I was able to see the empty stomach and intestines.

The Gastro intestinal tract of the turtle stranded in 2017.

As per the protocol, the samples were placed in hyper saline solution to separate the lighter plastics from the organic matter. However, with this sea turtle there was a lot of stomach and intestine lining that was a similar density to the plastics; therefore the filtration of these samples took a very long time because some of the organic matter was blocking the filter paper. Megan spent Monday and Tuesday evening doing filtration so that we could finish the filtration of this last turtle by the end of the week.

We have two filtration pumps in the laboratory but there are three different micro plastics projects happening at this time. Therefore we meet each Monday to organize a timetable of the filtration units and the microscope room. On Tuesday morning the two other students who are conducting their master’s dissertations here were using the filtration units. Therefore, I went out on the kayak to collect surface samples for my future micro plastic project. Unfortunately though the GPS was being problematic and the wind had picked up a lot. The waves became very large as we kayaked a little further out, and we got soaking wet. The sea state was not ideal for collection of surface samples because the waves were so large. Therefore, we decided to come back in after about twenty minutes. The wind did not really calm down over the course of the week so we did not go out on the kayaks any other day.

Kayak Sampling:

The images below were taken by the media team on the first sampling that I did in the previous week. In the front is Loutje who works with the GPS points – she records the time and GPS coordinates at the beginning of the transect whilst I place the plankton net in the water behind the kayak. We then kayak along the transect for about 10-15 minutes at a constant speed. We follow landmarks to mark the ends of the transects and then I pull the net out of the water whilst Loutje records the GPS coordinates and time. Distilled water is then used to rinse the contents of the net into the end piece. At the end of the net is a collecting piece (cod end) that is screwed off and rinsed into the sample jar. The cleaned cod end is then screwed back onto the net and the net placed into the water as we begin kayaking the next transect.

I am rinsing the net to encourage all particles into the cod end. Loutje is recording the time and GPS coordinates on the slate.
Rinsing the contents of the cod end into the sample jar.
Kayaking one transect.

For the next three days of the week, I was in and out of the laboratory as we were conducting filtration of the turtle samples. We finished the filtration for our entire project on Friday morning!

My sister is visiting so I took Friday afternoon off to go explore the nearby town, Pythagorio.

 

Micro plastic Research

Micro Plastic Research in general

This is a relatively new field and there is still a great deal of micro plastic research that is required in order to obtain an extensive understanding of the presence of micro plastics in the world’s oceans and lakes. The methods for micro plastic analysis are continuously being developed and there is not yet a standardized method for separation of micro plastics from organic matter. Therefore any new research conducted using any method will be an important addition to the literature. I am therefore very excited to be contributing to this new and ever-changing area of research.

Micro plastic research at Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation

The field research laboratory here at Archipelagos is relatively simple in comparison to a university style laboratory. This is due to the lab being situated on a small island with limited resources. However, in this simpler lab I am able to completely understand and appreciate each process that is carried out. I began my internship by reading many past scientific papers on micro plastic research in order to understand the field, and I also practiced micro plastic analysis. In this laboratory, we use the ‘hot needle test’ – the sample is viewed under a microscope, and then a needle held by grip scissors is brought close to any materials that are present. If the objects ‘dance’/jump, then the material could be plastic. The needle is then heated and if the needle melts the material then it can be determined confidently as plastic. This is a relatively simple test that allows the detection of micro plastics. Some samples from specific projects are sent back to the US or UK for further detailed analysis as well.

It is extremely important to prevent contamination in the laboratory. Therefore no plastics are worn in the laboratory and plastic gloves are only used when handling the organic matter in a dissection or when handling chemicals. Lab coats are always worn and all of the windows are kept closed to prevent excess contamination.

Megan and I separating the organic material from lighter plastics using a salt density solution. The turtle’s GI tract has a strong smell therefore we wear masks.

My role in the micro plastics team

Currently I am working alongside one other student, Megan Kelly, and we are analyzing the gastro intestinal tract of two different loggerhead sea turtles that were found stranded and dead. I arrived to Archipelagos when Megan was in the process of writing the protocol for the analysis for these turtles. Therefore I have been doing a great deal of research on different protocols for the micro plastic analysis of sea turtles and other organisms in order to gain an understanding of the topic and to contribute any new found ideas. We begun the laboratory work on the 31st June and since then we have been carrying out the processes that will enable us to analyze the contents of the gastrointestinal tracts of two turtles. These two turtles were stranded in the same area 7 years apart. Therefore, the analysis of each turtle could provide an indicator of micro plastic ingestion by turtles in the recent years compared to seven years ago.

Dissection of the GI tract of one sea turtle with Dr. Guido Pietroluongo, Marine Mammals Supervisor.
The removal of the insides of the small intestines of one loggerhead sea turtle.
Dissection of the GI tract of one sea turtle with Dr. Guido Pietroluongo, Marine Mammals Supervisor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Future Plans

I will be finishing the analysis of the sea turtles in the next two weeks, and then I will be aiding Megan to write the final report. In addition, I have begun a new micro plastic project this week (12th June) that I will continue until I finish my three-month internship at Archipelagos Institute. I will be taking surface samples off the southeast coast of Samos Island in order to study the long-term presence of macro plastic and micro plastic content in three different transects. This study will last one year therefore I will hand it over to another intern before I leave Archipelagos. I will do weekly or bi-weekly trawls in a kayak with a plankton net attached behind that will capture sea surface samples. The majority of plastics tend to float in seawater therefore surface samples are a reliable indicator to the presence of micro and macro plastics. This information will provide an indicator as to whether the presence of plastics in these specific transects changes over one year. Additionally, the difference in plastics presence with changing winds and currents will be observed. I am very enthusiastic about the kayak sampling method because it is a project that I will be taking the lead on, and the samples will be sent back to the US with Juliette Humer (Micro plastics team supervisor) for further analysis as a part of her final thesis.

My first week as an intern at Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation

My first week with Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation is a good representation of the type of experience that one can have while working here at this organization. It is a melting pot of different students, graduates, and supervisors who devote their time to projects that research, protect or conserve parts of the Aegean Sea. Today there are about forty team members from about 20 different countries that are a part of the Archipelagos team here in Samos island and on two nearby islands, Lipsi and Leros.

Sunset view from my bedroom on Samos Island, Greece

I spent my first working morning in the microplastics laboratory practicing microplastic analysis of past samples. I was introduced to the protocols of the laboratory, and I read the protocols of the two different projects that were in the process at that time. Over the next few days I then read a large number of papers on the topic of micro plastic analysis in order to become familiar with the different processes.

That night I went for a midnight swim with a few other people and there was bioluminescent plankton in the water around us! It was a good introduction to the Aegean Sea.

The next day I helped the marine conservation team to install the artificial reef that they had built. I was a snorkeling aid and with a few other people we swam the reef out to the installation site about 100m off the shore. It was very interesting and educational to be practically involved with this installation and it was obviously great to spend working hours swimming in crystal blue water! This team has now installed four different types of artificial reefs about 100m from the shore in front of the main base. The reefs are monitored a few times a week at varying times in order to assess if the reefs provide a significant habitat for fish and other marine organisms. This is an experiment on the success of the different artificial reefs, and the end goal is to install many artificial reefs on Lipsi Island where Archipelagos is preparing a natural sanctuary for the release of captured dolphins and seals back into the oceans.

I was fortunate enough to spend the next morning on a boat survey for marine mammals. We left the marina in the morning and followed a specific transect to survey for dolphins. There were four people with binoculars each surveying a quarter of the area around us. We had hardly left the marina, and one person spotted a feeding frenzy with birds and dolphins. It was a pod of about 15 – 20 common dolphins (D. delphis). The boat went closer to the pod in order to monitor their behavior, and the dolphins began boat riding. It was a magical experience to watch the behavior of so many dolphins from such a short distance.

Looking back and reflecting on my first week has made me even more enthusiastic about the upcoming months and all of the experience that I can have if I truly grasp each opportunity that comes my way!