The triggers have arrived!

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It has taken a couple of months to get my new aquarium system ready for experiments and I am so excited that I finally have the fish I will be using for actual experiments.

For my research, I am using Picasso triggerfish (Rhinecanthus aculeatus) as my study species. These beautiful fish have so much personality. They are curious and expressive and will pretty much bite at anything. When working with them, you have to be careful not to leave your hand in their tank or you will get a surprising nip taken out of you!

You can see in my video below that they will attack things that come too close to the glass of their tanks as well (in this case it is my finger).

This species is found on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and on coral reefs around the world. They are omnivorous and territorial. They spend much of their day swimming around their home region taking exploratory bites out of pretty much everything

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In their tanks at the lab, the fish seem to enjoy rearranging the gravel by picking it up with their mouths and dumping it elsewhere.


The set-up

One of my favorite parts of research is the many opportunities I get to build things. Given a handful of cable ties, some duct tape and a saw you would be surprised what you can pull together.

Upon starting my new position as a research fellow at the University of Oxford, the first thing I had to do was build myself an aquarium system. I have used several different systems throughout my research career and had a good idea of what I wanted and what would suit my research. It was pretty exciting to be able to build a whole system just for me!

I decided to build two flow-through aquarium systems. A flow-through system means that all the tanks are connected by pipes and therefore the same water flows through all the tanks. First, I had to design the system and source all the equipment (tanks, pumps, lights, pipes, glue, you name it) which took quite a long time. Then came time to build it…

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The laboratory space I was given already had racks for tanks so I needed to add tanks and plumbing. Getting all the pipes cut and in place so that water can flow through the system took a lot of time and effort. As I was several months pregnant at the time, my husband came in to help me do some of the heavy lifting.

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Once the plumbing was all finished, water was added and we watched for leaks. Unfortunately we had a leak in the bottom sump system where the water gets filtered! Luckily it was nothing one or two tubes of silicon couldn’t fix.

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In this type of aquarium system, the filtration happens in the bottom sump compartment. My system has a biofilter, a protein skimmer, and some algae.

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After several weeks, we were all finished and could finally add some fish!

Let’s get started

As this is my first blog post, I have decided to use it to catch everyone up on how I got to where I currently am.

I began my career in marine biology in grade school. In grade 4 we had an interactive project that lasted several months, where we learned all about the oceans. I loved the idea that researchers were underwater explorers and I (wrongfully) believed that every single day for them was a big adventure. Despite the fact that I lived in a landlocked city and didn’t actually see the ocean until I was about 15, my interest was piqued. In high school I attended a week-long marine biology field trip in St Andrews, New Brunswick. For a week, we got up in the early morning to collect samples, spent the remainder of the day in a wet lab learning about what we had collected and wrote up reports in the evening. By the end of the week, I had learned a lot,  was tired, and had pneumonia. It was at this point  that I decided to study marine biology in university. I also decided to never study marine biology in such a cold location!

I completed my undergraduate degree at Dalhousie University on the east coast of Canada. In my final year, I conducted a research project on fluorescence in phytoplankton. I chose this project because I thought things that glowed were pretty. That perhaps sounds like a silly reason, but I am still fascinated by the beauty of nature and how these spectacular sights have evolved. This project was hard and I don’t think I even understood my research question until about 3/4 of the way through! I made a lot of mistakes and really only succeeded due to the help of two female researchers in the lab. But boy did I learn a lot!! These woman taught me how to do basic programming in Matlab, how to order equipment from a catalog, how to remove adjectives from scientific writing… Actually this would be quite a list if I enumerated it all. They taught me how to think like a scientist but also the practical administrative skills as well.

After university I took a gap year and moved to London, England, working in the finance industry. After a year, I decided to get back into marine biology, so I booked a flight for Australia! I didn’t have any specific plans or a job lined up but when I arrived in Brisbane, I approached Dr Alexandra Grutter at the University of Queensland, as I was interested in her work on coral reef ecology. I told her I was willing to do anything required and would even work for free while I learned and so she accepted me into her lab.

For the next couple of years I worked and volunteered with a number of different lab groups around the university. I studied marine parasites, the visual system of fish and larval reef fish. I conducted research in both the laboratory and the field. I was lucky enough to work at the Lizard Island Research Station and experience diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I also put my database experience (from my time working in finance) to work in a landscape ecology research group, inputting  a huge amount of data on birds and tree species.

In 2011 I received a PhD scholarship at the University of Queensland and began working with Dr Ulrike Siebeck and Dr Guy Wallis. Briefly, the aim of my project was to determine how archerfish see 3D objects so that we could learn about how their brain processes visual signals. I loved my PhD. I loved the new discoveries, coming up with new hypotheses to test, trying to apply new technology to my experiments, applying for and especially receiving grants, and collaborating, or at least discussing ideas, with researchers in very different fields. During my PhD I was also involved in science outreach. I wrote some magazine articles on my own, answered the questions of journalists and was a science ambassador with the Wonder of Science program.

In the final year of my PhD, I applied for a Marie Curie Research Fellowship with the University of Oxford. In 2015, I moved from Australia to Oxford and began a whole new stage of my career.