Final Year Zoology student Sanni Hintikka describes her four years in UCD and how Zoology in UCD has changed her….

From the moment I walked into UCD I knew I made the right choice to go back to education, having spent six years travelling in Europe, working with horses as a groom and a rider (this is where my love of animals comes from), never staying for more than a year in one place. I had been to Ireland before, and despite its rainy climate and cold houses, I enjoyed the warm atmosphere that surrounded me whenever I walked on the streets or went for a pint. Going through the course choices on UCD’s website was exciting, although a little scary to be honest, as I was going to commit to living in one country for at least four years! But when I saw “Zoology” as a course choice, it was like love at first sight.

First coffee on campus, man it was tasty!

First coffee on campus, man it was tasty!

Without any deeper knowledge of what I was getting into, I fell head over heels for the ruggedly handsome title superficially promising a lifetime of monkey play and sunny safaris. Having said that, choosing modules for my first year was tougher than I thought. Zoology, is part of the common entry Science programme in UCD. This meant that even though I had my sights set on a Zoology degree filled with furry animals, it wasn’t all deer watching and zoo visits, but a mixture of Chemistry, Biodiversity modules, Genetics and Maths. I know what you’re thinking: “I want to study animals, not do calculus!”. However, as I found out, Zoology is a hard science with lots of experimental planning, detailed measuring and excruciating statistical analysis, and thankfully there are some excellent computer programs to help with that (and their use is taught as a module, how convenient!).

The obligatory photo for the folks, lest they forget where I study...

The obligatory photo for the folks, lest they forget where I study…

In the first semester of year 1, one of the modules we did was called “Principles of Scientific Enquiry”, where I for the first time in my life laid my eyes on a real scientific paper. Abstract, introduction, methods, results, references…it was all very structured, yet so very confusing. The language was my biggest issue, as I had only used common English and some office terms before, so I decided to invest in a good biological dictionary (my first language is Finnish). I spent hours during the first couple of months getting to grips with terms that were used like sugar in soft drinks in some of the papers, as well as in lectures. I always thought I had a near native level of English, but the scientific language was a new acquaintance, one that I would learn to use fluently in the coming years. So fluently in fact that at times I had to check myself when excitedly describing a project to a colleague in my part time job as a bar tender…if someone had gone on a rant about the power of PCR to me a few years ago I probably would have swatted them away and told them to come back to me when they spoke English again.

It's healthy to take a break every now and then, especially if the sun is shining!

It’s healthy to take a break every now and then, especially if the sun is shining!

For the second year we were asked to pick subjects, three in total if only picking from the Biological pool of courses, and two if branching out to Chemistry. I toyed with the idea of doing chemistry, as I had found I had a knack for it, but genetics had stolen my interest. A field of science so complex and powerful it could rewrite relationships between species we thought to be true for decades, but also a subject beautiful in its inherent simplicity. All organisms alive have DNA – plants, bacteria and animals alike – and by mapping their genomes we can deduce their evolutionary development to what they are today. We can even pin-point genes that are responsible for certain behaviours, like bird singing.

I was in awe of what I was learning, and hungry for more, so I picked Zoology, Genetics and Neuroscience as my subjects for second year. The choice for Neuroscience came from both an interest in the way we function, but also from sincerely enjoying the few lectures we had had in first year introducing the subject. Second Year was filled with lab work and reports, from a module concentrating on essential laboratory skills (Biomolecular Lab skills) to using videos to observe and analyse deer rutting behaviour. We learnt about biological systems, the form and function of animals, plant and animal genetics, how metabolism works.

By the end of year two I was torn between my interest in Genetics and my love for Zoology, so I went looking for guidance from experienced people in both fields. I remember vividly one wise man asking me a question I never thought of asking myself: “Well, do you want to work in a lab, or do you want to be out there, in nature?”. I never even stopped to think about my answer. As much as I believed in the power of Genetics in Zoology, I realised majoring in Zoology would give me more of a chance to do both. I could do population Genetics, by studying a species in their natural habitat, be it in a forest or on a coral reef, and use genetics to figure out if populations of that species are mixing and to what extent. Or I could use environmental DNA, to find out a distribution pattern of a species, again, in their natural habitat.

: Essential biomolecular lab skills vol 6: finger pricking. Hey, whatever will get me an A without effort

Essential Biomolecular lab skills vol 6: finger pricking. Hey, whatever will get me an A!

In year three, we got more hands on than ever before. There had been labs before, of course, dissections of invertebrates and analyses on a molecular level, but we had never been out there, in nature, conducting science. One of our first field trips was to the rocky shores of Sea Point, using quadrats (it was the first time I even saw one!) to try and calculate the biomass of algae and the abundance of marine organisms on the shore. Working in groups to simulate real life research, we gathered data, divided the workload and wrote a report in the form of a scientific paper. Sure, things were a little more relaxed than in proper research, as we had a very tight timeline (2 hours is not much when you are trying to get accurate data!), but the experience was what really mattered. To get to grips with what it could be like, working in research, what are all the steps to be taken in order to produce a viable project and the time it takes to write a solid report. The next big trip was the trip to Bolonia, Spain.

Limpets, whelks, limpets, barnacles, limpets... Never even heard of them until this lab!

Limpets, whelks, limpets, barnacles, limpets… Never even heard of them until this lab!

Keep probin' probin' probin'... For freshwater pH measurements

Keep probin’ probin’ probin’… For freshwater pH measurements!

A field trip combining Environmental Biology and Zoology, we spent two intense days learning about the marine diversity present on the rocky shore, how weather patterns can affect what we see any given day and what insects and other organisms might lurk in the terrestrial environment of the maquis shrubland of the Mediterranean region. On the third day we got to visit the Barbary Macaques of Gibraltar, and we did an exercise that taught us common methods for observing and recording behaviour of animals generally seen as active and social. Mostly teaching was done by sending us out and about to observe, collecting organisms from algae and limpets to spiders and centipedes, but we also had lectures each day, highlighting the differences between the biodiversity of Spain and Ireland.

For the remainder of the trip, we were free to create our own mini project on whatever topic we wanted to explore. Choosing to do a marine project, I again found myself branching out from what I had always thought I was into – pure terrestrial. Everyone found themselves a suitable project, some working with beetles trying to figure out if their torso size is indicative of their strength in battle, and others observing pollinator visitation rates on shaded vs unshaded flowers. The options were endless, and we chose to do a project on hermit crabs, mainly because they were extremely cute! I know, it is not a very scientific reason, but again this felt like an opportunity to develop our experimental design skills, group organization and presentation abilities, regardless of the topic. Granted, we did not score highest on “relevance”, but we enjoyed doing our project and I’d like to think we all learnt something new doing it! Spain was also The Trip for me to get to know all my class mates, as well as the professors and lecturers we most spend time with during our studies here. As far as studying goes, Spain taught me an important lesson in connecting lectures and theory into reality.

Limpets, whelks, limpets, barnacles, limpets... Never even heard of them until this lab!

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A Barbary Macaque contemplating life vs. an octopus trying to hide from me. Can you see it?

Now, it is time to begin my fourth and final year of undergraduate study, and I was lucky to be able to go and do the data collection for my dissertation abroad during the summer, hopefully freeing me some time during term. My three years in UCD have shaped me profoundly, awakening an interest in marine biology I never knew I had. I always thought I would end up working with large mammals, you know, the “Big Five” in Africa, or in a zoo trying to get endangered animals to reproduce successfully. Never in my wildest dreams did I end up doing my dissertation on Caribbean long spined sea urchins in Honduras, and what is more, finding myself thoroughly enjoying observing the behaviour of a primitive invertebrate I never even heard of before! Zoology is a subject with a multitude of paths, you just got to find the one(s?) that will lead you home.

May I introduce the star of my undergraduate thesis: Diadema antillarum

May I introduce the star of my undergraduate thesis: Diadema antillarum

Sanni has also written a blog detailing her summer in Honduras. This is available at itsseaurgent.blogspot.ie/.  

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