I went to see an expert of botany, outside my department and started talking about what potential groups of plants I should consider. I wanted to use landmark-based image analysis so we went to the library and looked at numerous books on trees, wildflowers and shrubs. We discussed biological questions relating to morphologically interesting groups of plants. When we arrived at brambles, we smiled. I had a list of 15 plant groups, I spent the following day reading articles about these groups, and I came across Newton’s article, Progress in British Rubus studies from 1980. It is a surprisingly informal article starting with the following sentence:
“The history of Rubus studies can be thought of as a 'tug-of-war' between diametrically opposed schools of thought- on the one hand recognition of increasing numbers of microspecies, on the other an attempt to group together members of morphologically similar entities as species collectivae.”
He writes of this field with genuine curiosity and excitement – in a way today’s journals may not agree to publish:
“What strategy, therefore, is the earnest student to adopt? First, he has to understand what everyone else has said on the subject. He has to evaluate and check previous authors' efforts. He has to study vast numbers of herbarium specimens to see if commentators' views can be sustained and are consistent. He has to avoid being browbeaten by august authority and not be afraid to challenge accepted views, but also honest enough to accept a contrary view as correct if the facts support it. He has to work from his own field and herbarium knowledge (separate skills, these) outwards, getting to know the plants fresh and dried, verifying all his conclusions and testing his hypotheses on other pundits. And gradually, painstakingly, a commonly accepted hardcore of evidence can be assembled.”
After this article, I went to look for brambles around Cambridge and started thinking of my research question.
Choosing the dissertation
behind the scenes
By Juniper Kiss, BSc Plant Biology
Universities have different ways of letting students chose their undergraduate projects. I was lucky with my (now former) university as we were free to choose a topic and find supervisors ourselves. Despite studying on the Marine Biology with Biodiversity and Conservation course, having no ‘official’ plant biologists at the university, I chose plants.
Moreover, I chose brambles (subgenus Rubus). Today, I am looking for potential universities and supervisors for a PhD to continue my project.
Finding brambles – chatting and exploring the library
Looking at brambles – asking for feedback
I began by visiting herbariums in Cambridge, Cardiff and Norfolk to look at hundreds of herbarium vouchers of brambles and talking to many scientists what they think of my project. The variety of these plants is truly amazing, the stem’s armature can be covered in huge prickles with yellow tips and broad bases and nothing else, or it can be covered by hairs and smaller pricklets around the whole cane. Their leaflets can be overlapping (imbricate) or can be spread out with narrow leaves. An important character is whether the leaflets are felted (have a dense layer of hairs on the underside of the leaves).
Their classification is as follows: Genus > Subgenus > Sections > Subsections > Series > Microspecies. As I was getting my eyes in for these characters, I started to doubt if these are reliable characters to use for identifying different microspecies. What if hairs, prickles, leaves are all just responding to environmental conditions (light, density, nutrients, intra- and interspecific competitions)?
After refining this idea, I came up with the following questions for my study: (1) how does bramble morphology correlate with abiotic factors (e.g. light, hill aspect, soil pH and nitrogen) and plant density; (2) which morphological characters are reliable for bramble characters compared to DNA analysis and (3) are herbarium collections reliable for identifying fresh bramble specimens?
Looking at actual specimens and understanding how to collect them, store them and analyse them is the most crucial points of a research project. It cannot be planned only in the library or writing a proposal. By visiting herbariums and actually pressing down brambles and growing one in my kitchen, I understood how I was going to approach this project. Little did I know that in the summer I would decide to transfer to another university to actually study Plant Biology.
Field work – understanding and communicating
I designed the conceptual framework, got the ethics approval and with the John Ray Trust’s Summer Research Grant, I went to collect the majority of my samples in North Devon.
One enviable side of studying brambles is that they can be found everywhere. Both at sandy beaches, around saltmarshes or old mining fields. When applying for travel grants, I picked one of the most beautiful parts of the UK where I cut down and pressed 200 bramble canes, walking along the public footpath, next to the sea.
By spending all day looking at brambles, climbing up and down and examining them, it is easy to notice patterns in their growth. The way leaflets can be 3-foliate or 5-foliate on one cane, seeing different kinds of plant pathogens and herbivores on them – gives an extensive ‘literature review’ in a way.
Also, it exposed me to talk to strangers who were looking at me suspiciously – with one meter long sheers, gardening gloves going up to my elbows and having protective trousers made me look unique. Once I explained that I am a science student, I suddenly became normal in their eyes and mentioning that they just passed three microspecies on their way, I was asked a lot of questions. I had the opportunity to chat half an hour to a German couple, showing different morphological characters and had two ladies who actually took pictures of me with brambles because they found all of this hilarious. My AirBnB hosts were all kind to me, letting me dry and press samples in their living rooms.
Lab work – making people laugh
After sample collection, I spent weeks in a dark corner in a lab, imaging my pressed samples. I had to re-mount all bramble samples at least twice as the paper underneath was stained because of moisture. This is a delicate process and I also had to take pictures of the whole plant, also only the leaflets, and then the terminal leaf. I spent hours of drying and remounting brambles, and then I was chopping them up.
Even though it was a monotonous task, required precision, I was always made to have a laugh at my diligent work – treating brambles as they were china dolls. Lecturers and classmates came to say hi as if I was a ‘study organism’, check if I am still enthusiastic (which I was) and I always had a couple of ‘show off’ vouchers put aside in case someone asked if I have found something interesting that day.
Data analysis – eye drops and good soundtrack
After weeks of imaging, this was going to be the most exciting part. However, the downside of image analysis is that I needed eye drops to keep up with spending 16 hours per day digitizing landmarks (clicking on the same part of the leaflets for hundreds of pictures), using outline analysis (for over 1,000 leaves) and then using different multivariate methods to discover what patterns I can find in my data. Every scientists has to go through this and some find it less enjoyable than the fieldwork (being a data nerd, I was having the time of my life though). My recommendation would be to keep your eye on the goal – this is your work and now you can translate it and justify it to others. And a good soundtrack will keep you in a good mood.
I decided to write this informal piece on how I chose my project because as I was reading many novel papers about plant physiological studies this week, and I would have just liked to ask the authors their actual story – how did they come up with this project, why and how long did it take etc. The motivation and the enthusiasm for brambles is my story behind them - how I got to meet and learn from the most amazing scientists, got help from literally around the world via many emails. I had the opportunity to go to Barcelona to learn how to do the geometric morphometrics part of my project - I not only learned from the author of the software I am using but ended up losing a bet and danced with old Spanish men along with amazing PhD students and professors. I got to do genetic analysis at Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary which has not only been a unique opportunity, but now I am loving my 'Applied Molecular Biology and Bioinformatics' module and would like to continue my project, looking at gene expression in brambles.
There is little (or no) room for informal story telling in high impact factor journals. Yet, the article that started my project was the most informal and therefore most memorable article that literally turned my professional life upside down. I hope to write articles about brambles that might inspire the next undergraduate student to take on these wonderful plants.
student to student advice
1. When you find the ‘One and Only’ topic for your project and everyone looks at you like ‘what the …’ – stick with your project! Justify every single step, read hundreds of papers and books and surprise the people who thought it is just ‘a child chasing a dream’. Even though my supervisors were kind enough to put with me and support me, they doubted my project. But when you have that gut feeling, the stubbornness to prove people wrong for the right reason is – healthy.
2. Let your project be data driven. I might have come up with questions but just I wanted to see the numbers and then come up with the real questions. People ask if I am really ‘in love with brambles’ and I say that no, not really – I am just extraordinarily curious how to translate brambles to a computer. How to code this plant, how to explain using maths and only then comes me coming up with the biological translation.
3. Be vigilant what others tell you. I talked to students and professors from around the world and gave presentations at workshops and symposium even before starting my project. When you show the process of your data-driven research and tell people that ‘please, really tell me how to do this’, people will bring up more and more questions what you need to answer to justify your research. Not just people in the field but scientists from any kind of background – I highly recommend external supervisors as well. You do have to keep on top of the communication but your research will become more solid once more and more people have a look at it.
4. Have fun – I am writing this as the last one as it is the most important. You need to be able to have a laugh at yourself when you are lost in a forest at 1 am, carrying sheers and three bags of brambles with yourself, missing your train and then – it starts raining. Spending weekends in the library clicking on pictures – put in a good audio book or music and just keep going!
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