Tuesday, 18 December 2007

S194: Redirect

Having got a bit sucked into this astronomy lark, I thought I better split of the astro stuff rather than mess up my OU story. So there is a spin off blog here.

Friday, 7 December 2007

S194: More astronomy practicals

After my last experiences with Astronomy and telescopes, I decided that photographing things might be more fun. At least I could show the results rather than just describe them.

Now I'd tried before (March 2007) taking some pictures with a telescope and digital camera of a lunar eclipse. This was a very Heath Robinson setup. The telescope is a very basic reflector that I'd borrowed. The camera was a standard point and shoot digital, hand held up to the eyepiece of the telescope. I was actually very pleased with the results given it was a spur of the moment thing. I worked pretty well until the eclipsing happened too much, then the light levels fell, and I couldn't hold the camera still enough to take anything reasonable without a lot of camera shake and the camera waving a red handed blurring gonna happen sort of icon at me.

So - given the very basic nature of the setup it looked like things were possible.

Having got the telescope out again now the nights are getting darker and more accessible, I thought I'd have another go. Bad news, the moon is not visible from my garden, and waning fast. However there are some other things to take photos of. Mars is very prominent right now, and I had a go at taking a photo of that.

No chance, wobblesville Arizona, population you... Pressing the shutter button it was a good 2-3 seconds before the click finished, and there was just a blurred mess.

Well OK, it was probably a silly idea, I should wait for the moon again perhaps.

However flicking through some astronomy web sites and shops, wondering idly how much it would be to buy a 'scope of my own, and what do you get for your money I spotted some interesting bits on astrophotography.

For not very much money (well £20 or so) you can get a metal gizmo that sits on the eyepiece and has a couple of metal bits sticking out that allow you to screw the cameras tripod adaptor into, and suddenly the telescope and camera move as one! See the attached - if I had two cameras you could even see the camera in situ.

This was much easier to work with. You can even use the LCD display instead of the view finder. The only issue is that in the dark, without the camera attached, you stand a fairly reasonable chance of poking your eye out with the protruding metal spike - but hey, its a small price to pay.

A clear night arrived, and I had a play around. The results were not altogether as good as I had hoped, but at least there were results.

MarsMars again
Somewhere in Orion,
or maybe the Pleiades
Another Mars

Well - the results are not stellar (groan) but they are at least there.

Then I had the good fortune to notice that the Nottingham Astronomy Society were having a talk by a visiting speaker titled "Digital Astrophotography for Dummies" by Kevin Kilburn. I could perhaps pick up a few tips, perhaps join the society, get to use their 24inch reflector. At the very least I could find out if I was on the right lines. So off to check it out, on a cold, very wet night to see if Kevin has any tips I might use.


He was getting some stunning photographs without any telescope at all, but using a digital SLR camera on a equitorial mount. The secret was to use a digital camera and take multiple exposure, and then use photoshop or similar to remove the street light pollution, and stack the multiple images on top of each other.

The results are excellent. I was well and truly inspired as I left the meeting. He was getting pictures better than a lot of professionals, and using them to propose new theories about the moon and other things. I mean - just look at this example of M31, the Andromeda galaxy, our nearest neighbouring galaxy. Many of these were taken from his own back garden, from which he can see 12 street lights.

This could end up as a relatively expensive night out in the long run...

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

A251: Counting down to the ECA

Its the 4th and last part of the course. It depends now why you are doing the course. If you've got a burning interest in the material then there is lots to read. If on the other hand you're doing it for the points, or you're suffering Human Past fatigue, or you just want to be free over Christmas - then the ECA is the goal to be aimed at. As such, it is not really clear how much of the chapters left to be read have any use for the ECA questions.

The questions, to which you need to write 2,500 words worth of answers to one of are:
  1. How has demographic increase affected the development of human societies?
  2. In the archaeological record, what has happened when cultures have met?

So its not immediately obvious why reading several pages and online articles discussing rock art will help you much with either of these.

I think I'm going to pick the 2nd of the two, as TMA-3 has already given a few examples to consider. The Human Past, for all its size, is quite light in details on some of the civilisations that might be considered. It has very little on the Persians, and not a great deal more on the Inca.

Friday, 30 November 2007

S194: Astronomy practicals

Put me firmly in the class of fair weather astronomers...

I have borrowed a fairly basic reflecting telescope to do some observing. Last Friday was an excellent night to try it out. Although I live in a rather light polluted area, the night sky was crisp and clear. Bright pin pricks of light could clearly be seen through the upstairs window. I went downstairs and stepped outside for a better look, and after a sharp intake of breath, I dashed back in - COLD COLD COLD!!
Observation was terminated before it had really begun.

However, last night, there were only a couple of minor squibs of cloud about, but on the whole things looked pretty good, and the temperature outside was much better. This was much more the way to do it, OK so it would require a coat, but not necessarily Arctic survival gear.

So I went back inside, and lugged out the telescope, set up the tripod, picked the least powerful of the lenses and found Mars with the spotter scope. After a while, I managed to get it well fairly centred, but realised that the cross-hairs which seem like such a good idea, when viewed at night, are black on a black background, with little light, are not in the slightest bit visible in the dark! Even with the least powerful eyepiece, the image has to be pretty much in the centre of the spotter scope to find it.

I went back in to get a more powerful eyepiece, there is only so much you can juggle in one trip...
I installed the eyepiece, and after a bit more hunting managed to re-find Mars, and it agreeably became a small disc, jumping around all over the place as I tried not to touch the telescope and induce any more wild oscillations. Have you ever seen Lissajous Figures on an oscilloscope (do they still use those?) - well that's pretty much what Mars looked like most of the time.

Comet 17P/Holmes - nto that I'd recognise it...
OK - time to try something a bit more tricky, how about that comet 17P/Holmes. I could be like a real astronomer, and casually drop into the conversation my cutting edge observations on the night sky. "Have you seen 17P/Homes perchance? No - oh what a shame..."

I'd already loaded the data into Stellarium and so fired up the laptop on the kitchen table. OK - so its approximately overhead at the moment. If I starts a Mars, and a line up, past Cassiopeia and a bit to the right, yeah that should work.

Went back outside with a couple of the constellations roughly memorised... and WHAT THE...??????

The night sky was now completely overcast, not a single celestial object visible! In the 3-4 minutes I'd been inside a cloud layer had just appeared, as if from nowhere, covering from horizon to horizon. I swear, it was like being on a prank TV program! How did that happen? I went inside and out again to see if I'd been mistaken, but no - complete overcast.

I left the telescope out, and checked occasionally, and about an hour later I could see Mars again in a clear patch of sky. Maybe the overcast was a transient feature. I refocused and re-centred, and then ran inside to get the highest mag. eyepiece. A quick squint to see if it was still centred, and as I watched it there, it slowly and majestically faded completely from view! The overcast was back! This time for good - I wondered if there was anything on TV...

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

S194: Astronomy

Wow this is a nice gentle course after S204 and A251!
The box came, and in it was:
  • A study guide
  • Introducing astronomy text book
  • A Planisphere - a device to help you find stars (and not planets)
  • CD-ROM
  • Handbook
  • How to get help book
  • Applications CD
The planisphere is fun to play with, but for me there is a copy of stellarium on the CD-ROM which is much better. I don't bother loading it as its slightly out of date and installed the most current version instead. The CD-ROM also has a collection of images of various stars and planets and some data sheets giving info about all sorts of things in the form of data.

I read through the course book which was a fairly light read compared to more recent texts. Its just over a 100 pages long, and for someone who has done other science courses there is a fair degree of familiar material in it. Stuff like scientific notation, errors, SI units and that sort of thing. This being an entry level course, it has to be covered of course.
The course covers:
The sun, the planets, stars, galaxies, extraterrestrial life, and the universe including the big bang. It doesn't really go into much depth in any of them. The rocky planets are covered in a few paragraphs, as are the gas giants. There is not that much on the different types of stars and only a bit more on the types of galaxies.

After I had finished the book - which took just under two weeks, and looked at a few of the images I was ready to tackle the ECA. I had thought this course was particularly easy. Far less reading than the planets course for instance.

However, the ECA was like a bolt from the blue. It started to ask questions I had no idea how to answer at first glance. Questions about the temperature of the inner and outer parts of the Suns transition zone - the what? I couldn't remember reading much about this if anything, and looking back at the book there is virtually nothing in the book about it. I wondered if there was a second book I should have read, or something was missing. However when looking at the annotated images there is a fuller description of many things there. What's more some of the data files also have answers in them. So its not so much being able to find the answers in the book, but scavenging through all the material you are given to find the answers. It quickly turns into somewhat of a scavenger hunt!

My respect for the course goes up rather after having to turn the course materials inside out to find all the answers! It took me two nights to complete the ECA, one of them lasting until past midnight. However it must be in the running for my fastest ever course. It officially started on the 17th Nov, and I had he ECA completed by the 21st! Obviously the materials arriving early gave me longer than that, but it makes a nice story.

It also gives me plenty of breathing space for the A251 ECA which I want to get clear before my next course starts - at the scary sounding 3rd level.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

A251: TMA-3

Another TMA coming down the road.

This time there is only a single question, but with a degree of latitude. Compare and old world empire with a new world empire. The course has been focusing on empires and has been through most of the ancient empires by now. This has meant a lot of reading, lots and lots.

The first generally recognised empire was the Akkadian empire of which there aren't too many remains of, but lots of echoes. We then go through more empires in the middle east, China, Egypt, middle and south America. Then back to the more commonly known ones like Greek and Roman. It is all quite interesting, but the amount of reading makes it quite a lot of work, and it seems from the forums that I'm not the only one who is skipping lightly through some of the sections that they don't intend to write about in the TMA.

Anyway, on to the TMA. Quite a lot of people seem to be picking the Romans as the old world empire - which is fair enough. There is a lot of material on that empire and plenty of reference material too. I decide to pick the Persians though, partly because I wanted to learn a bit more about them, and als partly just to be a bit different.

Of the new world empires there is much less choice. Aztecs or Incas is really the main choices, with a possible argument over whether the Olmec was an empire or not. The consensus is that the Mayan civilisation wasn't an empire.

Anyway, whichever you pick 1500 words of comparative text is required, together with references.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

A frenzy of course decisions

Its getting nearer to the next start date for courses, and with only the A251 on the go at the moment I'm looking for what to do next.

First, there are the 3rd level biology residential courses. If I want a biology degree, I have to take two of these, and the places fill up fast. So I booked at 7:30am on the opening day via the internet to ensure my place. So that's one down, SXR376 Molecular basis of human disease, but it is not until next July. To go with that I settle on a particular 3rd level main course, S320 - infectious diseases, which I think should be interesting and possible.

In the meantime, I'm missing my science, so I signed up for the short course on astronomy, S194.

This way leads madness as I find there is a certificate in astronomy which involves using radio telescopes at Jodrell Bank, and another certificate that includes a couple of courses I was interested in. Oh dear, I could be here for many years at this rate!

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

A251: TMA-2

Its time to face up to TMA-2. This is a difficult one for me, with all the time out for exam revision and also being half-term I've struggled to read all I was meant to for this TMA. I am running closer to the wire to the due date than I ever have before.

Unlike during my school days, I have always done my work well before the deadline (rather than the night before!). I usually have the TMA's ready at least a week before, and in some case up to a month before on some courses. This time I started the TMA a week before the deadline - but did just a few words on it - it was mostly a symbolic gesture.
I started in earnest 4 days before hand, which is dangerously late for me - thank goodness for the eTMA service - what with postal strikes and other things!

The TMA is in two parts this time.

The first part is to look at one of a selection of websites and write a critical review of it, going over the good and bad points and its attention to detail, credentials etc. I picked the one about Mohenjo-Daro an ancient city in the Indus valley. The course teaches you a series of metrics to apply to a website as a way to gauge how relevant and reliable it is - called PROMPT. 500 words or less are required. I'm done in 100 more or less, and have to work at doing some padding and trying to think of what I've forgotten.

The second part gets you to write a 1000 words on "What is a city?". This is quite a bit more tricky than you might think, especially when dealing with ancient civilisations.
Anyway, as usual I struggle to get up to the word count. However the thing that sustains me through this exercise is I'm writing a new reference formatter for zotero tailored to the A251 requirements - which are a little odd in places. With the incentive of doing some technical work I can get through it. I'm definitely missing the more surety of science based disciplines. I mean, biology essays are tricky, but you are writing about some definite concepts. Here you have to weigh opinions and state concepts but I find it all rather unsatisfactory. Just like the rise of agriculture the basic conclusion I think is who knows? Experts agree to disagree and in the end there is no definitive answer - I mean, what do we mean by city anyway, as compared to a town. Its all a matter of definition and rather nebulous.

I look with increasing longing at some of the science short courses... but at the same time there is only one more TMA and an ECA to complete this - I CAN do this!

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

S204: The exam

Oh well, the day had to come. I've been revising for some time. You want to know about transport in phloem or xylem? I'm you're man. Different types of membrane transport, ask me!

So the exam is at 10:00 until 13:00. I got there at about 9:40, and saw a couple of people from the tutor group. There were a lot of other exams taking place too - the hall held maybe 50. S204 had the middle column of tables and I was in the middle of that. I think there was one person who didn't turn up out of about 5-6 places. Quite a few other empty seats around in other parts of the hall too.

We had the pre exam briefing and had to stash our bags and phones in the indicated places. The desks were barely big enough for the question book, the answer book and the range of pens and pencils I'd brought. I unwrapped a couple of sweets I'd brought, and then the lady announced we could start.

The first set of questions looked OK - there were a few I had no idea on, but I managed to find 9 I could answer out of the 12. The part B looked horrifying at first glance. Nothing there that really played to my strengths. I managed eventually to pick 3 that I could have a fair crack at though. The data analysis I skipped over in the first read through - you have to do them, so there's no point scaring yourself.

Then I turned to the essay topics. I was hoping desperately for something on fluid transport in plants. Not to be - the plant question was about plant survival in dry conditions. I knew the answer to that, I had four points ready for a short answer question on that, but I couldn't turn four points into an essay unless I was feeling really desperate.
There was a question on membrane structure and function - after pondering this for a bit, I thought it was reasonable. Part of membrane function is the membrane transport and I could manage that. So at the back of my mind I planned on that, and hoped that an hour or two from now all the derails would be back to the front of my brain.

I picked my way through the short answer questions - I managed a reasonable answer to most of them, and a slightly shaky answer to a couple. Part B I did manage to answer - but some of the answers were more shaky than others.

Going back to the data interpretation, there was a Hofstee-Eedie plot to draw on supplied graph paper. Well that was ok at least, except you had to plot two lines on the graph. This takes time, and you also have to be careful with these plots, as the line through the points has to extend to the origin. I've done one or two where the graph has a great scale, but then the line goes off the page before hitting the axis. I did a quick sketch graph to check before plotting it for real, and had to extend the X axis quite a way. I had no problem working out Vmax, but got confused about the Km constant. Couldn't remember how to invert the formula. Luckily I remembered the gradient was also the Km so used that. Not so sure I got the signs right.
The other questions were about fungi in compost heaps and temperatures in the thorax of a bee. I think I put something reasonable down for each.

Then the essay. I'd done well for time and had a bit more than an hour left. When it came down to it, I knew more than I thought about membrane structure, and drew quite a reasonable diagram too. I included as much as I could recall on various aspects of it, and got to 5 or 6 pages worth. I remembered to have an introduction and a conclusion, some diagrams and some examples. My writing by now was looking rather poor, it has never been great, so I slowed down a bit. I coloured in my diagram a little to show more details and added some labels.

I finished up with 15 minutes to go. I checked through some of the answers, I couldn't face some of them though. I spotted one glaring error in a short answer question, and fixed that.

Then I attached all my sheets together with the clips provided. Filled in the question numbers - which there wasn't enough space for! Attached the question sheet to the back, and was just about to put my PI number on the graph paper (it didn't ask for it but I thought it might be worth it) when the lady told us to stop writing.

How did I do? Who knows - I suspect plenty for the pass mark of 40%, but I'm hoping for more than that, but who knows.
Next S204 Prev S204

Monday, 8 October 2007

S204: Mock exam

One of the later items you get shiped in the course is the specimen exam paper. This is an example exam paper together with answers that you can do yourself to get a feel for the exam.

I did it today, under exam like conditions - 3 hours, just pen/pencil/calculator and me.

Its quite an interesting exercise, in a masochistic sort of way. I did reasonably OK on it, and I hadn't looked at it before hand to make it as reasonable as possible.
I did ok on the first part where I found enough question (9/12) to answer that I could manage. Lost a few marks here and there, but no disasters.

Part B there seems to be a preponderance of fungi related questions which always brings me out in a rash. Not nearly as well done there, dropping about half the available marks.

Then the data analysis section. Not terribly well done there either - getting just over half marks. I'm quite hard on myself when marking my own work I find. I need to write down more of the obvious conclusions I think, and not get too detailed.

The essay I picked was on water transport. I wrote about 6 pages on this, and I think covered everything pretty much. I imagine I'd loose a few marks here - you always do on essays, there are few occasions you can possibly get full marks.

So - well not a disaster - I would have passed the course, but I'd have like to have done better.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

S204: Revise, revise, revise

All the TMAs are in, all the boxes ticked, there is only the exam left, so there is just revision to be done.

This is not the most fun you can have, it has its own peaks and troughs. You revise a section of the course, and feel all keyed up for it. Then, looking at a past exam paper you find a question on that section, and typically I find I can either answer somewhere between 1/4 and 2/3rds of it, or they use one of the more obscure terms - like autochthonous (I mean, really!) and suddenly you are all at sea. If you knew what the word meant you could have a stab at the answer. In the above case, I suspect this is derived from latin, and apart from a possible guess at something to do with automation and time, there is no headway to be made (its neither of those BTW). Its in the book, I should have learnt it, but there are hundreds of such words!

Anyway, I spent a lot of time going through short answer questions. You have to do 9 out of 12 or these in the exam, and then 3/6 - and they cover everything. So its a good way to check your understanding. To share the pain, I keep posting question I come across, or invent on the S204 bulletin board for others to answer, and some post their own back. Its a good way to see how well you're doing.

The data analysis segment of the exam is difficult to revise for - there is some biology there, but its much more related to interpreting or plotting graphs, making reasonable predictions and so on.

The essay section is the worst. Write for 45 minutes on one of the 5 topics given. If this hits one of the areas I like, I'll probably be ok. If it doesn't - I'm going to struggle. We know by now the broad areas they will be on, so you don't need in-depth knowledge of everything, but you do need deep knowledge of some parts. There is always the horror that it will be an oblique question. I have a reasonably good knowledge of the inner workings of plant transport systems - which is one of the areas. However an old paper has a title "Environmental factors affecting photosynthesis". So I have nightmares that there will be something like "Water transport in the rain" or some such. You have all this knowledge about water transport, but suddenly most of it is not applicable to the question. Arrghhhhhhhh.

Still - two more weeks and I'll know how bad it can get. Who knows, I might be surprised - and I'm hoping in a good way.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

S204: Revision day

A day of revision to prepare for that dreaded exam...

It started off gently enough with PP giving a general talk on exams and how to revise for them. He looked at various strategies and what was useful and what wasn't. He was against question spotting, meaning revising answers to specific questions that seem to come up - as you get that sinking feeling when they don't. Rather revise common themes that come up. He also told us to make revision fun - so I started a quiz on the FC forum.

Then it was into S204 revision class with CM, which went well, but I think a number of us came out realising we knew less than we thought we did! We covered long questions, data interpretation, and enzyme/membrane kinetics. Another graph drawn helped lock in the v/S stuff a little more.

Over lunch it was back to PP and how to deal with data interpretation questions. You can't revise for these, you have to know how to use the skills you've learnt. Anyay we tried a couple of examples, and learnt to use the clues in the questions.

After this, back to more S204 specifics with GL. He had a few tricks to share with us, things like learning certain diagrams that were adaptable to multiple questions. Also learning specific organisms that could be trotted out as examples. Then we went through a number of example short answer questions and discussed answers and where the marks might be.

All in all very useful. Not exactly feeling confident about the exam, but feeling it is possible.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

A251: TMA-1

Its onwards to the first TMA.

We have on the way to this event an e-tutorial. This is a tutorial conducted online. The tutor suggests a topic, and we are to each write about 100 words on it. In this case it was what theory do you think started agriculture, and why.
I didn't spend too long on this, despite being the first to post. I see the evidence as not very conclusive as given in the course, and suspect the reasons are probably many and varied. Besides I need to revise for an exam, so I rather skim it.

Then the TMA - it is in three parts.

Part 1 you need to write 500 words on the agricultural development in SE Asia, and describe the main theories.

Part 2 you write 500 words on agricultural development in either SW Asia, Mesoamerica or North America based on the book text and how the theories might apply. I picked North America.

Finally part 3 requires a compare and contrast 500 words on part1/part2.

Lots of references are required to support the arguments. Now I'd been struggling with bibus as referencing software, and in many of the S204 essays I'd just hand typed references eventually as I had a few problems with bibus locking up. I did take a look at the software (as its open source) wondering if I could upgrade it, but decided I didn't really have the time. I looked around for alternatives. I came across zotero which blew me away! It integrates directly with firefox, will pick up references directly from things like wikipedia, amazon, pubmed and so on with a single click. It has a word plugin to export references and bibliographies directly to word.
You can even drag and drop wiki format references into wiki-pages. It's just brilliant. It needs some work to support other reference styles, and a way of sharing data - but that is being worked on. Its the future I tell you!
Anyway, its my new best friend for these TMA's.

This course uses the eTMA system, so I will be uploading the written document using it.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

S204: TMA-7

The last TMA, and the good news is there is NO essay question!

Its designed as a bit of preparation for that ex*m that is coming up, so it's got a similar structure to some parts of the exam.

The first question is a graph giving infection rates from Schistosoma mansoni - a blood fluke. In this case you have to answer a number of sub questions about possible infections and how the data is interpreted. There is 15 marks in all for this question. Some of the parts a little ambiguous about what is being compared with what but its not too bad.

The next one is a similar sort of question, some graphs relating female dominance in red deer to their propensity to produce offspring and survive the winter. Another 15 marks.

Question 3 is only four marks, and you have to compare and contrast smell and taste organs. Then a quick sentence on how sight works.

Question 4 asks you to give four differences between the structural organisation of sponges and cnidarians for four marks. Not too bad again, but I had to go back to the book to tease them all out.

Question 5 is two questions about insects and spiders and crustaceans - another 4 marks.

Question 6 is another 4 pointer about oxygen dissociation in haemoglobin.

Question 7 asks for four features essential for flight. Another 4 points.

Next you get a choice. Question 8 and 9 are both worth 50 points, and involve sketching from the digital microscope. Question 8 is about plant tissues and 9 about animal tissues. For some reason I seem to have been drawn into the plant side of things, which is not what I had planned at the start of the course. Anyway, I go with the plant question, and have to draw and label low and high power sketches of a vascular bundle and a phloem sieve plate and surrounds.
This is followed up by a number of questions about phloem and apoplastic and symplastic flow.

All in all its not a bad TMA. As you are answering specific questions, I feel there is a lot less to get wrong or forget to cover. However time, and my tutor will tell how well I've done. In the meantime its a bit of a wake up about how little I know in detail without the books.
I mean, I know most of the way that phloem and stuff works, but without the books I can't recall which is the one that is apoplastic and which symplastic. I think its stuff like this that I will get unstuck on in the ex*m.

Monday, 10 September 2007

A251: Week One

Its week one in the A251 world, so time to open the enormous book and try and get to grips with it.

Its made somewhat easier by there being a course guide that leads you through it, actaully what am I saying, it makes it much easier. If you follow the course guide, it tells you what chapters or part of chapters to read. It discusses the information, and also tells you what to make notes on, and when to listen to the CD tracks.
Some of the exercises are a little tedious, and the first one which includes categorising the timeline events I skipped over mostly. I figured I can understand it just by reading through it.

I did go to the A251 website, and I added a few more events onto their dynamic timeline. The break up of the landbridge from the UK to continental Europe for instance I felt was a useful landmark (or is that timemark?).

With the course you get the text to all the TMAs and the ECA, so you can know what you have to do right from the start if you wish. It does help modify your study a little.

Anyway, the first week is all about the rise of agriculture, and the reasons for it. The take away message is basically no-one knows why agriculture came about, there are 4-5 theories, but none of them conclusive. Agriculture takes more work per person than the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, although it does produce more food.
However its a one way gate, very few civilisations that have adopted agriculture can revert back to other forms of living, as the amount of population it supports can't be sustained in any other way.

So that's the news from the cutting face of A251!

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

S204: TMA-6 / Experimental Week 2

Back to the potatoes!

Oh yes - the potatoes have their revenge. In this combined experimental week and TMA you have to do a new experiment of your own devising on the poor potato homogenate and then write it up fully as TMA-6. This is very similar to TMA-2 except you have about twice the word limit, and you have to write much more about everything, but particularly on the biological mechanisms that you are investigating. On the plus side, this is all you have to do for this TMA!

After a few flights of fancy, I decided to follow the advice and stick to something reasonably simple. A couple of options were to vary the temperature or pH of the solution and see if there was any discernible difference in results. I figured that what they were looking for in this exercise was producing some results and analysing them. They were not looking for new contributions to science.

Its a lesson I've found rather hard to come to terms with in this and other courses. For instance the whole purpose of catalase in the potato homogenate is to break down H2O2. Now why would you have H2O2 present? It turns out this is how free radicals, those rather dangerous reactive molecules are flushed out of the system. They are converted into hydrogen peroxide to partially neutralise them. However should H2O2 come into contact with Fe ions, you suddenly have a worse problem than before as it will make very very reactive free radicals, as opposed to just reactive free radicals. If you follow this through, you find all sorts of interesting avenues, such as oxidative stress, mitochondrial errors, apoptosis signals and so on. Although some of this can go into the report, you have to curb your enthusiasm and write down only what the mark scheme is likely to be looking for. This does mean somewhat that you have to try and stick to the course materials as if you find new discoveries since they were written, or more advanced descriptions of mechanisms, no matter how right they are, they are unlikely to get you marks.

Anyway, I settle for two temperatures and attempt to see if there is a difference in reaction rate. This is actually more chemistry than biology, heat increases all reactions. The only biology that comes in is that most catalysts are rather fragile enzymes that will fall to bits if you heat them too much. So I pick two temperatures that are likely to work. A temperature of 0°C is easy to maintain with ice-cubes, a warmer temperature is more difficult. Without some sort of heating, it will tend to cool, so I pick a temperature about 10°C above room, and hope that a large enough water bath won't cool too quickly to affect things. I know catalase works in animals up to 37°C so I don't think potato catalase will fall apart at 28°C or so, so I should be OK.

It would be interesting to look at a whole range of temperatures and see where its peak rate was, and where it started to denature and so on. But ambition must be curbed, and if you've spent a few hours counting drips from mashed up potato juice, this is actually surprisingly easy to temper! Plus you can only do a t-test on two sets of results, so that's all you really need.

After about 4 hours or so, I've been through the experiments, which include a couple of pilot experiments to work out appropriate concentrations and drip rates.

The write up is much easier than the last TMA, although it takes a while to get it all formatted and the biological data into place, run the t-test software on the results and so on. Ultimately though, it is just a question of doing the time and formatting the results. None of the cold hand of fear from the last TMA! Some faith restored. I struggle to reach close to the 2000 word limit, and a certain amount of revision is required to get not too far away.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

A251 World archaeology

What have I done???

Here I am, a died in the wool scientific type, and I'm taking an Arts course? I struggle with the essays in S103, I barely scraped a pass in O level English, I'm humiliated by the S204 essays, so why would I pick an arts course?

Actually, why did I pick an arts course? I'm not sure I have a good answer or reason.

OK - so there were a couple of things in its favour. Archaeology - which I can barely spell the same way twice - is more scientific than, say, analysing the motives of Shakespeare, or writing a novel. It also has no exam. Its also all eTMA based, which unlike all the science courses I'm on means you can submit course work electronically! Call me paranoid, but trusting work to the postal system just seems archaic these days!
The other thing in its favour is its in the dead season - September-January, when there aren't really any 2nd/3rd level courses in sciences running - at least none I need for the degree I'm aiming at.

So here I am, sitting with a huge book The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies that at nearly 800 pages looks like a lot of reading.
It also comes with a study guide, a calendar, a CD with 4 talks on it, plus the usual stuff such as the CD-ROM of software (which I now have about 10 copies of - of various vintages), a stop press and an introductory letter.

Looking at the calendar gives me my second shock after the size of the book, the first TMA is due in late September. I'd vaguely hoped there would be nothing much to hand in until late October by which time my S204 exam would be history. Oh well, if I'm going to get out of my comfort zone, it might as well be well out!

However for now, I don't have much time to look into it much. I need to finish the S204 course for which I've now done nearly all the reading and complete the last TMA for that. Then hopefully I can do enough for A251 TMA-1 and then go into S204 revision mode for the exam.
Hey - its a plan, whether it is a reasonable one, I'll let you know!

Friday, 24 August 2007

S204: TMA-5

This TMA turns out to be the worst so far.

It all starts off gently enough. Question 1 is a question asking about the stomata in plants.
I figure that's a pretty easy one, and its only 800 words so how hard can it be?

I then discover an entire chapter devoted pretty much to this subject in the book - OK so its going to take a bit more work. At least its work I know about and its just assembling he facts and stuff in the right order.

Then there is a choice of two options. One on microbes which looks at genetics of fungi. Another one about nutrients in plants. I'm usually reasonably good at genetics usually, but I know fungi are a bit odd, but this will probably make a good learning experience.

It starts off gently enough with a few definitions and a bit about restriction enzymes - not too bad, it needs a bit of research but it all looks good.

Then I get to part e(ii) of the question, and suddenly I am completely and utterly stumped for the first time in this course. There is some data presented and its all rather confusing. Probabilities in the 0.2 range I find confusing. A figure of 0.05 is usually biologically significant, but 0.2 is not that far away from 0.05, certainly nearer to it than it is to 1.0. I go around in circles on this part of the question for ages - several weeks.

I managed to find the original paper its based but it wasn't much help. My tutor comes up with some suggestions but it doesn't make it any clearer in my mind. Lots of other people are stuck on this too - the sensible ones move onto Q3 instead. I ask a friend who is a senior lecturer in neuroscience and deals with genes all day long if he has any suggestions on how to approach it, he has no ideas and passes it onto a colleague in genetics. He takes it home to look at, but I don't get an answer! Well at least it makes me feel better.

I try and convince myself I can do this, and keep picking away at it. I eventually come up with an answer to all parts of the question, but they are more expressions of hope than anything else.
I leave it for a couple of weeks whilst I'm away on SXR103 and SXR270 residential courses, but it doesn't get any better looking at it with a fresh perspective.

Its my lowest point of the course so far. I know the exam is coming up and I've worried a bit about that, but its more how can I cram all these facts into my head sort of stuff - solvable stuff - at least in principle. I didn't really have any issues with the understanding, more the remembering. This episode has rather shaken my confidence though.

Monday, 20 August 2007

S204: Book 6 Animals

The last book!
Finally getting to the end of the course, and another 270 pages to read. Its not quite what I expected for a book with this title.

The first chapter is about diversity of invertebrates - ok fair enough. Then we move onto insects and similar things, which are invertebrates too. Next its parasites, and some of the pictures are enough to turn you off the whole subject!
Then we're onto vertebrates - you know, mammals, reptiles, fish - but it focuses mainly on their tissue types and how these are used by different things.
Finally a chapter on the molecular biology of the vertebrate and its evolutionary passage.

It sort of covers most of the things I think such a book should, but it sort of sneaks up on them. Nothing is covered in much detail really. I mean, its covered ion much more detail than most people would know about, but somehow it all seems to go by so fast. Eyes, nose and taste are covered, but not things like livers and kidneys. The blood system is covered, but not the heart.

Still - its getting towards the end of the course, and its good that there isn't too much else to remember for the exam.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

S204: Book 5 Plants

Another largish tomb to digest. Book 5 is all about plants.

It starts off with the simplest of plants like mosses and so on, and works its way through the whole field. There is quite a lot of detail, and the start of the book I find rather heavy going as it introduces all the different types and their various ways of reproducing. Its a lot of alphabet soup here as all manner of new terms and structures are described in quick succession. Everything under the sun has a new somethingaphore or blastothingy

However it does get into more of the stuff I like, such as the mechanisms of photosystems and the molecular detail of transport systems and such like. Yes, I know I'm weird but thanks for asking! CAM and C4 plants also get a mention - you'd have though RuBisCO would have sorted itself out by now, I mean its had several hundred million years to get it right, if not several billion!

Then we get into water transport, stomata and xylem, followed by phloem and sugar transport and all that stuff. There is a lot of detail on this and its all quite interesting, but again there are a lot of words to learn. Sieve tubes, companion cells, pressure-flow, cohesion-tension theories etc.

After that we explore the flowering mechanisms, and also re-examine the auxin theory of phototropism. This has changed substantially since I last looked at it, it seems the early researchers came to premature conclusions based on reasonable evidence.

It rounds off with a section on microbes, seeds and interactions between them.

Friday, 27 July 2007

SXR270 - day 7

The last day!

Breakfast and packing, whilst trying to get over the "staying up until past 2:00am at the disco and possibly having imbibed a little more than one is use to" feeling.

Anyway, happily this is about feedback and control systems in the body, and we're looking at blood pressure and pulse rates. We start by measuring resting blood pressure and pulse rates. Then, given our state, we decide to test the hypothesis that they will decrease if we lie down for a few minutes. We all try that out, and then move on to other scenarios. Maybe caffeine in the coffee at coffee break has an effect, we test that out. Others look at exercise and also lying head down and standing on their heads and so on. Still feeling a little rough, we decide standing on ones head is probably going to end in a certain amount of disaster, so we continue with the lieing down theme.

I manage to sidetrack the tutor into a discussion on the comparative anatomy of the crocodilian three chambered heart, and how a giraffe manages its blood pressure. Then, a debriefing followed by a bit of theory on the heart and one of the people is hooked up to an ECG. We compare heart rates with breathing cycles and also the effect of holding your breath on the heart pumping mechanics. Finally, the tutor shows us the dive response by wiring himself up, and then plunging his face into a bowl of iced water! What a way to end!!

The final lunch, and then the final briefing to the whole school about the ECA and then we got the ECA and that was that!

Once you leave campus, the real world starts to filter back in and the residential school starts to seem more like a dream. For that week you are isolated from most of the world, I saw no TV, read no newspapers, and really had little idea what was going on outside the course (and was probably better for it!). So focused you are in the course, its hard to get much time for normal things. Some people attempted TMAs and things while there, but I don't think many were done.

With a typical day (for me anyway) starting with getting up at 7ish, walking into breakfast at about 7:45, chatting with others, then we assembled at about 8:30 for the walk to the QMC for a 9:00 start. Labs from 9-12:30 or so, lunch 12:30-1:30, labs 1:30-5, tea at 5:45, briefings and other sessions 7:00-9:00, bar from 9:00-whenever. Its a full day!

Thursday, 26 July 2007

SXR270 - day 6

Thursday - and its a new activity. Regulation and control.

We start off the morning looking at samples of blood glucose taken from various patients doing various things, including a type II diabetic. This is a lot of work with automatic pipettes and test tubes. After filling 48 tubes with various mixtures we then have to add detection enzymes and run the tubes through a colorimeter. This allows the amount of glucose to be recorded, once we have plotted a graph of controlled samples to calibrate the device. However with 48 different tubes and labels, its quite easy to get a bit confused on the 32nd or so and miss your place, so care is needed.

Its a fairly gentle exercise and takes us up to lunch.

After lunch we go into a different lab and start to play with Douglas bags. These are large plastic bags that will capture your exhaled air which can then be analysed and measured.
We start by using them to try and work out a basal metabolic rate. After we have this, we move onto looking at effects, such as exercise, caffeine intake, chocolate, smoking and so on.
This can then be compared against the base value and we can see the sort of effect it has on you.

After the day is done, there is the option to go and have a look at the level 3 labs and see what they do in those. It looks a little daunting in some respects, and you have to pass a test even before starting. However most people seem to be getting on with it ok.

Tea - then a free evening, and after a certain amount of internal debate I decided to get a disco ticket. We hung around in the Cripps bar until about 10ish, then wandered down to the portland building. People started arriving in significant numbers after a few minutes, and soon some brave souls, lead by the course director, were dancing.

We partied on into the night. Later on some more of the double-blues turned up, including jiving Jonathan. We all got into the spirit - in more ways than one by then. It all wound up at 1am, despite saying 9:30-1:30 on the ticket. One or two of our party went and had a quiet word with the DJ while the rest of us ran for cover fearing the fallout.

We retired back to hall and continued for a while trying to keep quiet in a room. The smokers finally broke rank and I went to bed just after 2:00am.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

SXR270 - day 5

Wow - those days keep rolling by!

We started this morning after breakfast in the plant lab again. This time we ground up some plant leaves to extract the chloroplasts. This involved a pestle and mortar, an extraction buffer, a couple of trips to the centrifuge, and quite a lot of ice to keep them from degrading. It was also our first encounter with whizzy stirrers.

Once we had prepared the extraction, we used DCTIP to check that we had captured chloroplasts and that things were working. This is a die that is blue, but turns colourless as it hijacks the electrons produced from the photosystem electron transfer chains. Extremely convenient as it shows you photosynthesis in action.

First we measured the degradation of the die with white light. Then we tried a few different filters to see the effect red, green, blue, orange and yellow light had on the rate of photosynthesis.

Plotting these on a graph showed the light colours that were best absorbed with the steepest lines.

Red and blue are favourites, green not very good and orange, yellow and light somewhere in between. So that's why plants are green - they absorb the rest.

Other groups tried light intensity variations which showed an increase with increasing light - up to a point. Photooxidation then starts to kick in as the leaves get more light than they can handle. We have a debrief on this session which ends with Rachel posing us the question "why aren't plant leaves black and so absorbing all light wavelengths?"

Lunch was followed by a poster session. We had two hours to make a scientific poster on any of the activities we had done with plants. I did mine on the results from yesterdays lime leaves which gave some rather fine data. As usual, for me, I had about finished it after 30 minutes, but then all the little touching up and fiddling around and reprinting took another hour or so. I asked Rachel why plants are green, to which she suggested it was to do with not absorbing too much light and so causing overheating.
Eventually my poster was as done as it was ever going to be, and it was framed in a big sleeve and pinned up on a set of display boards.
I went back to Rachel unconvinced about the black/green plant leaf explanation, challenging her on plants in low light environments like forest floors and Arctic tundra. Finally I found something she couldn't answer! Boy that was hard work, she had an answer for everything else!!

Then back to the room to crash out for a while until tea, then its back to the QMC to do poster viewing.

We looked and commented on our own posters after a break, and also at all the others in the group. Then we went on to look at the other groups and see what they looked like. It was quite useful in some ways. You got to see posters with bits in that you thought you'd done better. You also saw some ideas you wish you'd have thought of too. Still - in the end I was satisfied with my efforts, and the feedback was fairly good too. I made some rather light hearted remarks on the feedback form, not realising they would be collected in. I hope it doesn't count against me!!

We decided to go to Lenton bar tonight and had a few drinks there. After we returned I thought I'd just poke my nose into Cripps bar to see what was going on, and somehow got into a discussion on Tim's view of exactly what risk assessment means to him (everything apparently!).

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

SXR270 - day 4

Day four - and we move on to theme 3, the plants one.

After the briefing the night before, we were urged to find some interesting plant leaves from anywhere we could to compare carbon uptake. This is a recurring idea in the course. Unlike SXR103 where you sort of just follow a script, here you have to make your own hypotheses and can even devise your own experiments within certain boundaries.

Anyway, Cheryl had this great idea to find some holly and some ivy, and then we could make a bit of a theme if we wrote it up as a poster. However it took a while to track down some ivy. We eventually found some half way to the lab.

In the lab after a briefing we decided to subject the variegated holly to the carbon 14 test. We picked bits of the leaf that were yellow to compare with green bits. After a few background counts we subjected the leaf discs to about 20 mins of 14C exposure, and then started to look at the results with a GM tube. The discs we had cut were quite small so the results were not much above background rates. Background was around 30, and we were getting 50-60 on the green bits. The t-test showed these results as significant.

After this, we tried some lime leafs - one of which was growing in sunlight, the other in shade. This was far more dramatic. The shaded leafs gave counts of 3600, and those in the light around 700. After we did the maths the results were highly significant. Some good results!
We finished up the morning by looking at leaf impressions that showed the stomata under a microscope to see if we could see the structures.

So the holly and the ivy theme sort of disappeared.

After lunch, we moved onto stomatal control, looking at the effects of light, dark, CO2 and ABA on the opening of stomata. We had to peal epidermal layers off a leaf and then subject them to the various conditions. Results were rather disappointing not really leading to very solid conclusions. Some of them went the way the text book and tutors expected, but with quite small margins. Others went the opposite way. We weren't really clear what went wrong, or if we had discovered something new! However it seemed it wasn't the first time this had happened.

The tea, and a debrief on the days experiments, followed by a briefing on the next days experiment. Then a session roughing out a design for a scientific poster to be done tomorrow. Rachel the activity tutor was like a walking encyclopaedia of latin names for plants. She just kept reeling them off.

Then to the bar for further discussion!

Monday, 23 July 2007

SXR270 - day 3

Day three starts with us in breakfast consoling ourselves about not winning in the quiz last night.

Then - after the walk to the QMC, we're back in the lab, this time looking at cells from manduca sexta.
They eat a diet rich in potassium, so they get a lot of K+ in their diet, which they have to manage. A lot of this enters their system, and they have to get it out again before it messes up their internals.
We hypothesised that there was some sort of active transport going on here, to pump the ions back out.

We started our day by looking at the pH values of the various stages of the gut, food and faeces of the worm, and also its internal hemolymph system. This is because one hypothesis is that there is a H+/K+ antiporter. If this is the case then the pH should change as protons are pumped in exchange for K+ ions.

We then went on to measure electrical potential across the gut wall using a small piece of tissue held in a clamp between two solutions. We altered the potassium concentration to try and see what rate it could pump the ions, and we also used an electron transport chain blocking substance dinitrophenol to disable ATP synthesis and to see if that stopped the pumping and so gave evidence for an energy hungry transport reaction.

Another group look at sections of tissue under the microscope and also electron-micrographs to look for clues in the histology of the cells.

After lunch we had to prepare a five minute presentation with slides about some aspect of the work we had done over the past two days. Sue and I did a presentation on oxygen uptake differences between skin and muscle cells based on the data we found yesterday.
Others did similar sorts of things, or ones based around the manduca investigation. There was a lot of good stuff there, but with the best will in the world, by the time you'd heard the 10th presentation on oxygen uptake in muscle v. liver, it began to pale a little.

Once that was done and we'd listened to all the talks, we went back for tea, just beating the rain.

After tea, a briefing on the next days activity, photosynthesis. We also had a partner shuffle.
This was followed by a poster session where we had 20 minutes to make a poster based on a rather sketchy experimental report. We did it in 10! That probably wasn't the point though!

A night in the bar listening (and avoiding) to the karaoke, but chatting with our next lab partners and some friends.

A pretty early night really.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

SXR270 - day 2

Its day two on SXR270 - the day we get to do some real lab work.
It starts early. One of the discoveries at about 6am is how much a closing door echoes around the halls of residence. It appears we have an early riser in our block, so most of us awoke at around 6, and then tried to snooze in to a more reasonable hour.

After breakfast and a walk down to the QMC, we find our lab. Here Penny takes us through a pilot experiment that allows us to measure the oxygen update of a small piece of liver. This part is all about learning how to use the equipment, getting the procedure right, and learning how to interpret the results. The procedures are not too bad really - the data is all recorded on a computer which draws a graph of oxygen levels.

We basically leave it to respire for a while until it has used up all its glucose supply. Then we add some glucose solution which kicks off the respiration again. Then a bit later we give it a metabolic poison - potassium cyanide, which tends to stop it in its tracks.

That takes up the morning, together with some data analysis.

In the afternoon we start designing our own experiment. We chose to do rat skeletal muscle compared to rat skin. We figured the skin has very little metabolic activity and the muscle a fair bit. As it turned out the results weren't that different, although it was significant after running 5 replicates of each. Muscle really only uses oxygen quickly when its working, and this bit of muscle was just sitting around in a warm bath of buffer solution.

We spent a while interpreting our results and trying to work out if they were significant. We didn't have enough data for a t-test so we had to just compare things on a graph.

It looked ok, and we think we can make a convincing presentation of it in the 5 minute spot tomorrow.

After tea, we had more briefings and tutorials, which covered presenting the work tomorrow and what we shall be doing tomorrow in the experimental work in the morning. We get to meet a manduca hornworm catepillar and various bits of its guts.
We then proceed to see what its doing with potassium ions.

However that's another day, and tonight we have a quiz team to put together and win a quiz - or failing that at least not embarass ourselves too much!

Well what can I say? Our combined knowledge of cars seems to have been lacking, we didn't know who was the most popular children's author (no - we thought JK too - but its Beatrix Potter). It also took quite a while - we got there at 9:30, there were 30 questions and it didn't finish until nearly midnight. This is after we'd talked Cate into attending with the line "Well how long can it last?". Even Marks mobile phone tune I.D. gizmo didn't help. Still it was a good evening for getting to know people.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

SXR270 - day1

Its daaaay 1 in the SXR270 residential house.

I arrived at about 11:30 and got myself registered. The family had come with me to see what it was like. It was all a bit weird. I was in Cripps Hall where I spent 3 years as an undergraduate. What's more, I'm in D-block, which was where I lived, and I was almost in the same room!
Things haven't changed much in the past 20 or so years either. The rooms look the same, the doors now have keycodes on the outside but otherwise it all looked very familiar.

We decided to take lunch in the dinning hall at Cripps and that hadn't changed much either!
Even the bar looked much the same, though it now had TV's in it.

After the family left, I had a little time to get my bearings and a cup of coffee then it was off to the medical school, a 10-15 min walk to have the introductory briefing. After that we went with our group and activity tutors to the lab we would be starting in. The group was spilt into two so we had a group tutor each - Rachel for us. We also gained a second dot at this point to distinguish the two subgroups. After we'd had a few things explained we had to introduce ourselves and get to know out colleagues a bit.

Then back to hall for tea.

After tea, we had a briefing on experiments, hypotheses and then on energy production and experimental procedure. It all went pretty well and the S204 material really helped understand the details. So tomorrow we are going to look at ATP production in various cell types and see if we can tell the difference between ATP production in muscle and skin based on oxygen consumption.

Retire to the bar for a drink or two and a bit of socialising. Day finished!

Thursday, 19 July 2007

SXR103 revisited

I had such a good time at SXR103 in 2006, it seemed a shame that you couldn't do it all over again. However after I'd written my diary, and the Open University had used it for their web site, I inquired what it took to become a tutor. It seems you need a degree in a relevant field (OK - I have one), a lot of enthusiasm, a sense of humour, and some teaching experience.
Well I didn't really have the latter, but I hoped I would have enough of the former to be considered, so I put in an application to be a tutor at the beginning of the year. You have to apply each year as the time comes around.

I thought nothing more of it, and approached it with a sense of "Nothing ventured, Nothing gained". What's the worst they could do?

Some months later, when I had completely forgotten about the application, I received a note in the post, saying I was allocated to the reserve list for a week at Sussex University and for this I would get a small fee. I was quite pleased, I mean at least they were willing to consider me, and that I wasn't beyond the pale! It did come as a slight surprise as I'd already heard other people on the bulletin board telling students that they would be tutoring for this week or that, so I assumed it was all past.

I talked to the people at work, and ended up booking the requisite week off, just in case, so I would be able to go. If nothing came of it, I'd just go to work as normal.

The day crept ever closer, and I heard nothing further, and then finally it was the start of "my" week. It was a long shot, one of the existing tutors falling ill of having problems for that week, so I wasn't really surprised I heard nothing.

Tea time on the Saturday and just getting tea ready with my wife for the children, and the phone rang. It was a number I'd not seen before - so probably a double glazing salesman. But no, it was Dianne the course director for the week. A tutor had to go home, could I get there for tomorrow and tutor activity A? To say I was shocked was an understatement. The words wind-up did come to mind. I said I thought I could make it, and hung up in a daze.

The rest of the night was a bit of a blur. I looked out my last years course stuff, got some clothes together. I tried to remember what the tutors dressed in - I was hoping smartish jeans and t-shirt would be ok as I'd be wearing a lab coat when on duty. Dianne had said I'd get a briefing from the senior tutor on the Monday, where I could ask questions. I assumed as I was covering that the other tutors would be doing the main work, and I'd be an assistant to help out.


I left Nottingham at about midday, and immediately got caught in traffic leaving the city where there were some major roadworks. Fuming slightly, I sat in a jam for about 45 minutes where they were repairing a bridge. Once I got past that, I got onto the motorway, and the rest of the journey was OK, if a little long. I managed to get to Sussex University for about 4:30, parked, and after following signs here and there posted around managed to find the OU offices. They had a badge ready for me, a room and some papers to sign. I then went and found my room and at just after 5, went to the course directors office to meet up with Dianne and the rest of the tutors. It was slightly nerve racking meeting so many people, and I was glad of the name badges as names are not my strong point. I joined in the debriefing session for the days activity and was introduced to all.

I talked to Andy a bit, the senior tutor of activity A, and we agreed to meet up at 10:00 the following morning in the lab to just go over the experiment. Dianne then asked me if I had any tutorials I would like to give in the evenings. I hadn't really expected that, but I said I'd think about it (feverishly thinking I had no overheads, no computer and no ideas!). Andy mentioned over tea he was running a Maths help workshop/tutorial which I could help with.

We went to get some tea, and I thought a bit more on the tutorials. I suddenly thought I could write one on how life began almost from memory if I could get a computer. I went to see Barbara in the office to ask if there were any available computers. She took me over to the Pevensey building and gave me a login for one of them. I set to work. Luckily I had my pen drive in my pocket, and whilst browsing through it, found a powerpoint for an evolution talk I'd given a few months ago. Just the thing! It also had a collection of notes on it for the beginning of life I'd written last year. Things were really looking up. I made some adjustments to the evolution for the current audience, and roughed out a plan for the other one.

After I came out I ran almost immediately into Dianne and Barbara, so I told them I had two talks for them. Dianne said I'd do better with a more interesting title, so I changed it from evolution to "From Monkeys to Men" but stuck with the other one.

It was quiz night, and I joined an illegal tutors team (tutors weren't suppose to form teams with each other!). We all agreed it was a bit dire as quiz's go, but it helped me meet up with some of the tutors and get a bit more into the spirit of the thing. They turned out to be a really nice bunch of people.


Next morning I read through the tutor notes for the activity, and read my old copy of activity A worksheet. I called in on the computers on my way to the lab and did a bit more on the tutorials.
I arrived at the lab early and re-familiarised myself with the equipment. Andy came in and we went through a few things. I watched a safety video and played around a bit with the experiment.

The rest of the day I was notionally helping out with Activity-E, but there were few questions and I managed to do a fair bit on my tutorials. Tea and then the bar after sitting in on a couple of tutorials. When the bar shut at about 11, Diane lead us to another bar which was open until 1am, where we talked into the night.


I woke early on Tuesday, despite the rather late night. Had breakfast then went to the lab early to have a final run through. Andy asked me what I'd like to do as far as demonstrations and briefings. I agreed to do the 2nd experimental briefing so I had time to watch carefully what he did.
The morning session went pretty well - I was quick to admit my ignorance about rocks when pushed beyond the material that was provided in the notes and what I knew form S103. Usually this was a quick call to Nick who had a ready answer. I was quite relaxed by the time we got to lunch.

After lunch I watched carefully the demonstration to half the group, then repeated it later to the 2nd half with a few of my own additions. I forgot a couple of minor bits but it went ok. Nick told me I probably needed to speak a little louder.

I was more confident in the afternoon as I was fairly sure I could answer any tricky questions on physics. Andy suggested tomorrow I could do the final briefing, so I watched that carefully too.
My the end of the day my feet were hurting a little. There is no chance to sit down during the labs as you make a round of the students helping out.

The rest of the lab went well and we had all finished by 5ish. We went off to the tutors debrief and then to Tea. I attended a tutorial, and then gave one of my own - about 5-6 people attended. I think it went ok. A night in the slopes bar followed, but only until 11.


Another early start, breakfast and lab. This time I was more confident on the geology, and sailed through the morning mostly. I did the 2nd demonstration again, and finished the day with a debriefing session which is rather dry material and rather maths heavy for that time of the day.
I don't think that went too well - if I did this session another year, I think I would write my own slides.

After tea I went to help Andy out with a maths problem class - which with about 11 people present it was just as well, and then to a drugs tutorial.
An evening in the slopes bar, followed by another night in the 1am bar! I can't remember much of it, except Nick was really on form, and my cheeks hurt from laughing the following morning.


Much like Wednesday really, but it went a little more smoothly for me. I knew what I was doing by now and could also keep an eye on students progress with respect to time.

After tea it was time for my other tutorial, which went pretty well too. After that it was back to the tutors room to have a few drinks before entry to the disco at about 11pm. We stayed there until it finished at 2am, and then one of the tutors who had not been drinking insisted we find a room and drink some wine. She disappeared after a whip-round to the local all-night ASDA and we found a quiet room to sit and drink until 4am.


I still woke at about 7:30, despite the short night. In breakfast the rest gradually filtered in. Us activity tutors were now finished, so we said our good byes after breakfast.

I drove out of the campus, but my adventure was not over. Just as I got onto the main road, I found all was not right with the car, and pulled over. Just as I stopped one of the front tyres burst. It appears part of the suspension had somehow broken and dug into the inside wall of the tyre. So I had to call a recovery service, and get home on the train.

However - despite this rather miserable ending, I think I may be applying to teach again next year. Its every bit as much fun as doing the course.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

S204: TMA-4

Time to approach TMA-4. I must say the first time I looked at this it looked like gibberish! The essay question didn't look too bad, but the second question seemed impossible.


Write a report in which you discuss the statement ‘Extremophiles are only psychrophiles or thermophiles’ of 1200 words.

For this you have the books, but also a scientific paper was included attached to the question which summarised some of the different extremophiles. Extremophiles are organisms that live in extreme environments, psychrophiles being ones that live in cold environments, and thermophiles being those that live in hot, and when we say hot, we mean temperatures up to and above the boiling point of water.
Now I have to restrain myself, and not hand in an essay of
No. (1 word)

I've been interested in extremophiles for a while, so I knew there were a lot more types than the above. Writing 1200 words was difficult, as either you write a little about a lot of types, or a lot about a few of the types. Including diagrams was also not easy - there wasn't a lot to draw really.


A question about protein and gene analysis. The protein in question is spectrin, and the transcription factor GATA-1. I hadn't the first idea what to do with this question to start with. However - having conquered my fear a little, and had a longer look at the question, and also used the PDF search facility to locate spectrin in the text, I felt a little more confident.

The question starts off with getting you to define a few terms and come up with definitions for the protein and about transcription factors. There was also mention of luciferase which is a popular marker protein, as it comes from organisms like fireflies and so emits light.
Basically the start of the gene for spectrin had been glued onto the luciferase gene, and then tampered with in various ways, and you had to work out what it all meant. Along the way the GATA transcription factor is introduced and shown to affect the way the protein is produced, and you need to work out why, from graphical and tabular data.

I had to ask my tutor for clarification on one part, as it seemed to just be extracting numbers from a table, and describing a graph - both of which seemed rather simple.
I'd answered the whole question and was fairly happy with it mostly, when it occurred to me that the data we were given probably hadn't been just made up. After a bit of a pubmed search, I found the original paper they must have used for the question, including the same results. It wasn't actually that useful in helping to answer the question. It did make me feel slightly smug though!

As part of this work I also updated various of the wikipedia pages on various of the extremophile types, spectrin and GATA-1, which now includes this paper as a reference.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Space, alchemy, chemistry and throwing rocks.

Its another day out with the open university. This time its a day of talks, tutorials and other stuff happening at the Leicester National Space Centre.
We arrived at about 10, for a 10:30 start. The first problem showed up as we got there. I had thought to myself the last thing I should do is forget the piece of paper with the itinerary on it - and sure enough - that was the last thing I did - forget it!

Oh well, CR recognised me when we got to the front of the queue, and they had updated timetables so that was no problem! We also got our tickets to the various lectures.

The first talk was by Professor Barry Jones, and covered some of the block 12 material about extraterrestrial life. He covered a bit about how life might have started and the necessary conditions. He then talked about the chances of life on Mars and Europa. He also talked a bit about exo-planets and the search for earth like ones. I tried to stop myself from thinking "that would have been a good point to include in my ECA". I asked him a couple of question after the talk, as did a few others.

Then we had an S103 tutorial titled "The real Alchemy" on atomic numbers and radioactivity given by Dr Anthony Headley. It showed the difference between nuclear and chemical reactions, and the alchemists dream of changing one element into another. It was followed by a breakout session where we worked through some examples in groups. Things like, what would 14C decay into and what happens to the atomic number and mass.

After a brief lunch, we went to another tutorial on organic chemistry by the same Dr Headley. This was followed by another breakout session where we worked with chemical model kits, making up polymers. Tutors were on hand to help out and check our answers - I think our table made the longest molecule of polythene.

Then another talk by Dr Emma Taylor on crater impact research. She has the use of a very big gun to blast things at other things to try and reproduce craters on moons and similar. She also did practice drops of ball bearings into Sainsburies flour, which is apparently a lot less expensive to set up than a week long test on the big guns!

Finally we went to a talk about rocks from space by Dr Victoria Pearson. This looked at all the types of meteorites that come from space, and how you find them. She had brought along a suitcase full of samples - including a very heavy iron one which we were all much impressed by. Also she had a tiny part of a Martian meteorite, a very tiny lunar meteorite and a slightly bigger earth meteorite (having been blasted off the earth, floated around a bit and then come back into the atmosphere). She also had some very thin sections of meteorites which we could look at through polarising microscopes - from these you could work out some of the mineral content.
The talk was given in a sort of open area in the space centre which was rather noisy and subject to interruptions over the tanoy. However it was extremely good, and we attended the last of three talks she had given that day.

The organisers were a little disappointed that not many S103 students had turned up. I talked to a few people present, and there were a lot of short course students it seemed to me (on a rather unscientific survey!) who were looking to see if S103 would be a course they could do.
I got to look at a few of the 2nd and 3rd level courses I was considering - which was also useful.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

S204: Book 4 Microbes

At this point the course splits a bit. You have to choose with subjects you want to study. There is a choice of Microbes, Plants and Animals. You have to choose two of these to specialise in, and you have to read something about the other subject, bit not in as much detail. This will be reflected in the Exam and some of the later TMAs.

Anyway - this is quite an interesting book, Microbes. It covers:
  • The study of microbes
  • Microbial metabolism
  • Microbes in the environment
  • Microbes in animal disease
  • Genes and genomes
  • Exploiting microbes: biotechnology
It covers quite a bit, from how they work, where they live and their use in genetic and other experimental spheres. It starts off with the simplest forms of microbes, viruses and prions - both of which there is considerable debate on how to categorise them. There is a fair bit on the diseases caused by microbes and the acquisition of resistance. The biotechnology section ends up with genetic manipulation techniques for tuning microbes for production of things like Insulin and so on.

Friday, 1 June 2007

S103: Block 12 and the ECA

Block 12 is a little different to the rest. A number of people spent a while digging through their S103 collections (or in my case ill assorted piling system) looking for the block 12 book. Well there isn't one. What there is, is a collection of papers and articles about the origin of life and life on other planets. These all relate to the ECA (End of Course Assessment).

So you have to read the study guide, read the relevant papers that are associated with the ECA topic, and choose what are required.

The ECA is a bit like a bigger TMA, though not much bigger than a regular one. It does however have quite a lot riding on it. If you fail the ECA you fail the course.

Question 1 is reasonably straight forward. You are given some data on endangered species and you have to do a bit of maths with it. Work out averages, percentages that sort of thing. Also a histogram plot is required. 10 marks

Question 2 looks like geosciences, its about lava flow rates and things like that. You are given a graph of a lava flow plotted against time for a volcano. However really it is all physics. You have to calculate average speed, make predictions and calculate the mass of lava based on specific heat capacity, which requires some equation rearrangement. 21 Marks here

Question 3 is chemistry, and maths. You have to calculate a relative atomic mass based on a formula. Also balance a chemical equation, and finally rearrange a couple of algebraic equations. 10 marks

Question 4 some more data about rainfall and drainage. It has to be plotted as a graph and a best fit straight line found. The graph is used to work out a bit of information. Then you have to hypothesis about what happened to the missing water. 9 marks.

Question 5 is part II of the ECA and you have to write 1000 words on "What conditions would be required on an Earth-like extrasolar planet for carbon based life to evolve". You have to include in the account:
  • How the occultation technique can indicate the presence of a large extrasolar planet
  • Summarize the key chemical and physical factors required for the development of life on an Earth-like extrasolar planet
  • Discuss the stages of chemical evolution that would need to occur towards the development of life, giving the timescales that were thought to have occurred on Earth
  • Discuss how comets might have a role to play in life evolving on an Earthlike extrasolar planet in a distant solar system.
With the papers available, there is quite a lot of information to condense. Th advice from the tutor is to follow the points above fairly closely, as its a fair bet the mark scheme will be similarly structured. This is a little bit awkward as the last point fits in a lot better in context somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd points rather than tagged onto the end.

I found this essay quite hard to write. I have read up a lot about the origins of life over the last few years, so I knew a lot about the subject. However I needed to limit myself to the data available rather than go off in raptures about competing theories. Still - eventually it was all wrapped up and printed out, with the graphs drawn. They require 3 copies of this work as it is shipped around to various places to be marked and validated.

With the ECA finished, posted and an indication on my OU home page to say it had been safely received the 9 month epic had come to an end. There was a rather sad feeling on the conference as people said their electronic goodbyes, and we all wished each other well, and maybe see each other on future courses.