Labwork complete, finding food shops from Sart Tilman and heatwave

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Samples waiting for injection into the GC-MS machine. Each sample takes several hours to inject and run through the column.

With two working days to go before I’m due to fly home, I’ve finally completed all my laboratory work! I’m very happy and relieved to have got all our samples ready for analysis in the month I’ve had here, it means all the people here at CART have to do now is run the samples through the Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) machine and they can do that without me. As it turns out, the analysis will probably happen once I’ve left anyway as this week the summer has finally arrived here in Belgium and all the GC-MS machines are overheating because its so hot! So I will have to wait to actually get our results from all this work, the people at CART will just have to email the complete dataset to me once the analysis is finished.

Our samples will go through various GC-MS machines three separate times to detect different types of persistent organic pollutants (POPs),  once for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), once for polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and once for pesticides. We already have one set of results, all the samples have been successfully run for pesticide concentrations. If the machines start working again I also may have some PCB results before I leave. In the last two days I have at the lab, I will hopefully get to discuss what the concentrations mean with my supervisor here, Dr Gauthier Eppe. Then I will head back home to St Andrews, ready to get back to work at the Sea Mammal Research Unit. That next field season is fast approaching after all…!

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Poor overheating GC-MS machine!

Meanwhile, back at the student halls… life has got a lot quieter now that the conference has finished, and the few people left are all trying to stay cool and avoid the thunderstorms that seem to roll round every few days. I’ve had to try and explain to a few people how to get to the nearest food shops to the halls over the last 3 weeks, so I’ve made a map of how to get to the two nearest supermarkets from a ‘google maps’ image. I’m sharing it here in case anyone else needs it! You take the 48 bus towards town from the main campus road outside the halls (take a right from the halls, then at the crossroads take a right again and the bus stop is just opposite RCAE- CRU building. Bus tickets are €2.10 for a single journey and its valid for several bus rides for 60 minutes). Then after a 10ish minute bus ride, get off at the stop opposite a Lukoil petrol station at a big intersection. Then follow the directions in the map below to get to either a medium sized supermarket (the ‘mini market’, which is acutally pretty big and has most things in it in terms of food supplies) or to get to a mall called Bell-Ile which has a big Carrfour inside. The Carrfour has everything you could ever need for supplies, including cutlery if you need to get kitchen equipment for using the cooking facilities in the halls. There are also loads of clothes shops and a pharmacy in the mall, and two good chocolate shops, Leonidas and Darcis. Belgium is of course famous for its chocolate so these two shops are great places to start sampling some! Darcis also sell the most amazing macarons, which I have become addicted to. The walk is only a 10ish minute walk from the bus station to Belle-Ile, so its a good idea to have a big bag you can sling over your shoulder to carry food shopping back in.

How to get to Bell Ile from Sart tilman
Directions to get to food shops from the 48 bus stop from the university halls

I went to the other local restuarant at the Sart Tilman roundabout this weekend as it’s now re-opened after the owners were on holiday. Marco Polo is a large, italian style place and the food there is really good! Its very affordable too, so I really recommend it to anyone at the halls. Its also the only place on the roundabout that is open at the weekends, and has quite late opening hours (open until at least 10.30pm, sometimes later depending what day it is) which is a nice change from everywhere else on the roundabout. It was really busy when I went so service was a little slow but everyone was really nice and made an effort to understand my terrible french and talk in a little english to help me order.

With only a few days left of my visit its almost time to start packing and trying to work out just how much chocolate I can fit in my luggage to bring home. Can’t believe how quickly time has gone, but it will be good to be back in Scotland!

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Ahh macarons, I think I will miss you the most…

GC-MS success, POPs in the marine environment and Sart Tilman life

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Fat extracts from our seal blubber samples after purification being concentrated under nitrogen gas so they can be injected into the GC-MS machine

To my great relief, the Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) analysis we ran at the end of last week worked and we detected PCBs and pesticides in all of the samples that we ran. This means that I could throw myself completely into churning through all 55 of my remaining samples, to try and get them extracted, purified and analysed before I am due to go home in just under 2 weeks time. I am making good progress so far and everything seems to be on track to meet this deadline, fingers crossed this week’s lab work goes as well as last weeks.

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‘Cells’ containing my blubber samples ready to go through accelerated solvent extraction (ASE) to get the lipids out of the blubber tissue ready for analysis. ASE uses high temperatures or pressure to recover the analyte of interest, and takes far less time than manual methodologies. Different solvent combinations can be used for different sample matrices or to extract different components.

Agreeing with previous studies on pollutants in high trophic level organisms like marine mammals, our study seals contained high concentrations of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Many species of marine life have high levels of these chemicals in them, as despite the widespread ban on the industrial use of such substances, they continue to linger in the environment and all kinds of organisms, from low (like shellfish) to high (like tuna or dolphins) levels of the food chain. Perhaps most disturbing from our study is that our seals, at the time, had never been to sea and had never eaten any fish, yet they still have some of the highest POP concentrations CART (the laboratory I’m working with) have detected in a living creature. This is because, unfortunately, female seals must convert the fat in their blubber into fat rich milk to feed their pups, and the POPs they have accumulated in their blubber while they were at sea feeding gets transferred into their milk, which the pups then consume. POPs are a problem which are not going to disappear any time soon and studying the species which have the highest pollutant burden helps us understand how organisms are exposed to these chemicals and what the fitness consequences can be for individuals or exposed populations.

On a lighter note, life in the University of Liege student halls has got a lot more lively as its currently being used to house a lot of people who are here for, I think a conference but I’m not entirely sure. In preparation for this, the hall kitchens were all cleaned and are actually usable which is a massive plus, although walking up two flights of stairs with all my food/utensils is still less than ideal. I had a ‘room mate’ for all of 10 seconds too, well not a room mate but a person in the adjoining room who would have shared the shower with me (the shower with no door or way to close it off from the other person). She was obviously not thrilled with this idea or the room as she took one look at it and I haven’t seen her since, which is mostly funny but a little sad. I hope she managed to find somewhere else to stay that was better. It is hard to know what to expect before you arrive here, the university website is pretty vague about many aspects of the accommodation but they do have pictures of the rooms and state that showers are shared between two people (although they leave out the part where you better be ok with seeing each other naked all the time because there is no door). To be fair while things are extremely basic, everything does seem to work here, from the internet (although there is no wifi in the rooms, be sure to bring an internet cable) to the shower and if you do have a problem the 24 hour porters are extremely helpful, as long as you can get them to understand your God-awful attempts at french (some do speak some english and they all seem to be fluent in gesturing thankfully!).

I was listening to an obviously embarrassed student bringing an academic visitor to stay here this afternoon and heard them go through almost exactly the same thought process concerning food arrangements as I went through when I arrived, its good to know I wasn’t just being incredibly dense and/or demanding while trying to figure out the best way to feed myself. Their conversation could be condensed into the following:

  1. You could eat out, but all but one of the places that are walking distance to the university halls are closed on a weekend, and the one exception is also closed right now because it’s the summer holiday. So you should get a bus into town if you want to eat out.
  2. You could also cook your own food, because this place in theory has kitchen facilities, but actually what this means is it has hobs and sinks. That’s it. So as well as buying food from somewhere, you’ll need to buy utensils too. No, there is not a food shop within walking distance, you’ll have to catch a bus and find one in town somewhere. Oh and normally you can rent a fridge for your room but not right now, again because it’s the holidays and the students run the ‘rent a fridge’ service so they are only here on a wednesday night, for one hour.
  3. So what your saying is, I should stay in town, not here?

Having been here for 2 weeks now, I’ve figured out there are actually quite a few useful shops within walking distance but the opening hours seem very erratic and I’ve not been able to figure them all out yet (those listed online are not accurate!). Here are the places I’ve found useful in the last few weeks, they are almost all at the Sart Tilman roundabout just before you come into the university campus from town (if you are walking from the student halls, walk to the main road that goes through the university campus, go right and past the bus stop, take another right at the T junction and follow that road until you hit the small shops, cafes and the roundabout).

  1. The petrol station shop (technically called ‘station basri ozlu’). The people that run this petrol station clearly have the students in mind as their shop is full of essentials, no fruit or veg but there is fresh bread, a chiller with dairy and cold meats, canned things, snacks and a whole bunch of drinks from soft to alcoholic beverages. Good for when you’ve forgotten or run out of things and don’t want to have to catch the bus into town to get one loaf of bread. I can’t find out the opening hours but it’s never been shut yet when I’ve gone to buy things there!
  2. Le Campus. A nice little restaurant which serves tasty food at reasonable prices. The people are lovely and they took great care of me despite (or perhaps because of) the language barrier. Between the waitress, myself and my trusty french phrasebook I managed to order what I wanted and it was really good (yes the chips here in Belgium are amazing). Not open at the weekend, but open 10am – 8pm weekdays (I think?)
  3. The pharmacy. This is tucked away from the roundabout, if you’re looking at the church then there is a road to the left of it from the roundabout, take it and then take the next left to get to the pharmacy. Food shops in Belgium don’t sell anything remotely medical (no non-prescription drugs like paracetamol etc) so if you need anything like that, you need a pharmacy. Not english speaking when I went in, but very good natured and perfectly capable of understanding gestures (perhaps ‘plasters’ was an easy one though…).
  4. There is a good little flower shop on the roundabout to the right of the ‘tartines et chocolat’ bakery, perfect for buying bunches of flowers to take to give to people who have invited you round for dinner, which is a thing here in Belgium. The lovely lady who served me spoke good english and you can tell her how much you have to spend and she’ll just make something up for you.

Things I’ve not got to try yet on the roundabout include the bakery (tartines et chocolat) because every time I have tried to go there it has been closed and the ‘Marco Polo’ pizza restaurant, because its closed while the owners are on holiday. They are back next week though so I should get a visit in before I leave. There is also a burger/fries place (‘La Baguette Magique’) and a sandwich shop on the left as you walk to the roundabout which I’ve not tried, the fries place seems closed all the time too and the sandwich shop, while regularly open until 6pm, I’ve not needed.

So there are some options around if you know they are there! To finish, here is a picture of my room for reference. Only the bed, sheets, desk, chair, blackboard, bin and shelves come with the room, everything else you have to bring, buy or borrow.

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My home away from home at the university halls

Extraction, purification, concentration… and finally detection!

Solvent extracted blubber samples ready for purification from our scottish seals
Solvent extracted blubber samples ready for purification from our scottish seals

After a week’s worth of training and working to prepare a batch of our seal blubber samples, we’re finally going to get our first results tomorrow! It’s all very exciting, here’s hoping that everything has worked and we can actually detect some pollutants in them.

There is an incredible amount for me to learn here at the Center for Analytical Research and Technology (CART) at the University of Liege, but everyone at the lab has been fantastic. So many people are helping guide me through the numerous steps of sample preparation to clean up our filthy seal samples and concentrate them ready for analysis in the fancy Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) machine.

Essentially the protocol boils down to this. First you must extract the fat from the blubber sample (done using accelerated solvent extraction). Second you must evaporate off the solvent so you can find out how much fat was actually in your blubber sample. Third, you need to purify, or ‘clean up’ your sample so that as many of the unwanted substances are removed as possible before analysis (very important for dirty seal samples). Finally, you concentrate your sample into a small volume so it can be easily injected into the sensitive GC-MS machine. This description leaves out so many details of course, there are numerous washes, spiking with standards, evaporating and weighing steps to the protocols that I’m skipping over here for simplicities sake here. Needless to say after all the prep time I’m very keen to actually get some results tomorrow.

Purifying extracted fats from our blubber samples. It's not hard to see why the seal samples need cleaning up when you compare them to the quality control 'blank' sample that is on the left!
Purifying extracted fats from our blubber samples. It’s not hard to see why the seal samples need cleaning up when you compare them to the quality control ‘blank’ sample that is on the left!

Outside of the lab I’ve had a change of scenery. I have had to move into the University of Liege’s student halls for the rest of my stay, the lovely flat I was in last week is fully booked for the rest of July so I had to move on from there! It’s such a shame but oh well I’ll live. The halls are a big change, and to be honest they aren’t that well equipped or maintained; especially now it’s the summer holidays and most people have gone home. For example, there is nowhere to buy food from aside from a few vending machines outside of term times; the small canteen is closed for the summer. There are kitchens on every floor with hobs so you can cook things, but at the moment the majority are filled with dirty pans left by the recently departed students and aside from hobs, sinks and the occasional microwave that is it for kitchen equipment. That’s right, not even a fridge! Clearly the halls realised this was a problem at some point because they do run a ‘rent a fridge’ service, but again, it only really seems to run in term time. Thank goodness the team leader I’m working for at the university has a spare fridge he’s happy to lend me during my stay!

On the plus side the halls are less than 5 minutes walk from the university labs and the surrounding woods are very pretty to wander around in. I’m hoping to see some wild boar before I leave but they are pretty elusive when they want to be so I may not manage to find any.

I have also explored the city centre of Liege a little with the help of the lovely lab guys I work with, who kindly showed me around one evening and introduced me to as many Liege specialities as possible in one night. I had a great time eating Liege waffles, which are different to ‘Brussels’ waffles that come with tons of toppings so you need to sit down and eat one, Liege waffles tend to be coated or stuffed with chocolate or cinnamon so you can eat them on the go. We also visited ‘la Maison du Peket’ and I was blown away by the tasty Peket drinks they serve, Peket being a local type of fruit gin that comes in all sorts of incredible flavours and colours. Definitely try some if you are here and get the chance! For dinner we had ‘Boulets liégeois’, super tasty meatballs in a fantastic local sauce made from another regional speciality, ‘Sirop de Liège’ (an apple/pear/date syrup which I will try on my toast tomorrow). Of course this dish also came with the famous Belgian fries, so it was quite a spectacular supper. Finally we ended up in an ace quirky bar called ‘Le Pot au Lait’, another place to try if you are here for a night as the intricate, crazy decorations everywhere and the huge selection of drinks are not to be missed. I didn’t think to take any quick snaps while I was in the city enjoying myself, so I don’t have any to share which is a shame, no description would do all the extravagant artwork and sculptures in Le Pot au Lait justice.

It was good to get out for an evening though and see the city, especially as my workload is going to seriously ramp up next week as I tackle the bulk of my samples in the lab. Here’s hoping the analysis goes well tomorrow and I can get seriously stuck into prepping samples on Monday! Cannot believe I’m halfway through my visit already…