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

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