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…

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