People, Soils, Microbes

by John Moriarty, 2019 Festival of Creative Learning Event Reporter

On Monday (18th February 2019), I headed over to the ASCUS Lab in Edinburgh for a workshop called ‘People, Soils, Microbes: the Evolution of Inhabited Landscapes’. Despite my background being in physics, I like to get out of that comfort zone whenever I can. That this event was part of the Festival of Creative Learning and was a hands-on workshop rather than a presentation was a major bonus!

ASCUS is a non-profit that tries to bring the arts and sciences together and to democratise science. The lab this session took place in was created so that anyone can have access to a basic wet lab with donated equipment from across Edinburgh.

The session was split into two parts. The first, delivered by Dr. Nikos Kourampas, was about geoarchaeology – applying geology to archaeological questions. The presence of humans and other creatures in an environment causes change in that environment, and those changes can be preserved in the ground – the geologic record. All sorts of things can be preserved, from bones and shells to tools and ash.

A sample of this sediment is like a slideshow of all the things that happened there, with more recent events at the top and older events at the bottom. If we can identify things preserved at different times, we can discover the story of a place and understand how people, other animals, plants or environmental forces have shaped the environment and in turn been shaped by it.

Perhaps the most fascinating example is bats in tropical caves. When bats roost in a cave, the CO2 that they exhale gradually dissolves the nearby rock due to its slight acidity. Over long enough time, the bats inadvertently ‘dig up’ through the rock, making more space for them to roost.

One way to study these samples is under a microscope. By injecting a sample with resin so it holds its shape and then slicing it into very thin (30 micrometres thick, about the same as a human hair) the samples become see-through. In addition to ‘normal’ microscopy, this lets us use techniques like polarised light microscopy, which makes features of the sample’s microstructure visible to the human eye.

This was our first activity of the session – to take a sample (or two, or more) and examine it under the microscopes and try and create a story to explain how the features we saw in it were laid down over time. Our experts were on hand to help with identifying specific things like bone or shell, but the idea was to stimulate creative thinking to tell the story of the places our samples were from.

For example, my sample had a central region in it that was much darker in colour and contained several fragments of bone (which by the way appears as a bright rainbow under polarised light), which I reasoned was a sign that this was an area that early humans had come to at some point in the past, lived there for a time leaving behind ash from their fires and bones from their prey or themselves, and then moved on as part of their hunter-gatherer existence.

I’ve no idea whether this is true, I’d need to know much more about the sample and others nearby to say that, but it gave me an appreciation for how geoarchaeologists use this kind of approach to investigate the ancient past before recorded history.

After we finished with our samples, we were treated to another short talk, this time by Dr. Jiří Jirout on the subject of microbes and microbiology. This was a subject we’d touched on earlier: once something has settled underground it doesn’t just stay there but rather keeps changing as microbes interact with it, much as it did above ground with humans, other animals and plants.

Microbes are amazing. They were the earliest life forms to arise on Earth and are the most numerous too – there are more microbes in a handful of soil than there are humans on Earth. If we could lay out all the microbes in the world out in a line, they’d stretch beyond the edge of the observable universe!

On top of that, most of those microbes are unknown to us. Only about 1% of microbes have been identified. From those we have identified though, we know that they serve an incredibly important function as the last step in a long chain of processes that break down organic detritus. Without microbes we’d be knee-deep in… well maybe better not to think about it.

Some of them are also incredibly tough, although if we’re giving out prizes the winner probably has to be deinococcus radiodurans.

deinococcus radiodurans

This little critter doesn’t care about acid, cold, vaccuum, starvation or – especially impressively – enough radiation to kill a human 1,000 times over! Maybe you’ve heard of tardigrades (a.k.a. water bears)? They’re kind of famous for being radiation-proof, but a dose that would kill even them doesn’t seem to phase our little friend up there. If you’ve heard of extremophiles – life forms that can thrive in extreme environments – deinococcus radiodurans is a polyextremophile – it can happily live in a mix of them.Wait, how does something evolve radiation resistance like that?

After the second presentation, we moved on to our other practical activity: making Windogradsky columns – a sort of microbial zoo! To do this we took a plastic flask, filled about a third with a pond mud and raw egg (to give the microbes some food), a third with soil (more and different microbes) and a third with pond water (more microbes and nutrients).

This forms an enclosed microbial ecosystem that over time will change as the different microbes thrive in different environments – air-breathing (aerobic) ones at the top and airless (anaerobic) at the bottom. After a long time these columns can become incredibly colourful and intricate as the microbes multiply. A great example of this is Bacteriopolis– an art installation at the San Francisco Exploratorium that is a giant Winogradsky column.

Bacteriopolis– an art installation at the San Francisco Exploratorium that is a giant Winogradsky column.
Image credit: Rhododendrites (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The pacing of the workshop was great, the talks were entertaining and detailed without ever seeming to drag and left plenty of time for the practical sessions where we could explore the concepts in more detail. The creative aspect of telling a story through the samples we examined was especially interesting to me, as it bears striking similarity to the first steps in a scientific investigation – you make your initial observations and form a working theory that you revise as more information comes to light. Being able to bring home my own little Winogradsky column was a nice touch too.

a microbe colony
My very own microbe colony! In a year or so it should be thriving in technicolour!

I found the combination of subjects in this workshop fascinating – soil forming the link between geoarchaeology and microbiology isn’t something I’d have thought of before, but like microbes soil is a near-constant presence beneath our feet. We are inextricably linked with the soil as we change it and it in turn changes us, and as we change things above ground, invisible hosts of microbes continue to shape and be shaped by the environment beneath it, gradually creating a record in the Earth that will persist for many millennia into the future.


References, Notes and Information for the Curious

1. Soil Analysis Support System for Archaeology – If you want to know more about geoarchaeological methods.

2. Geoarchaeology – Using Earth Sciences to Understand the Archaeological Record – Historic England’s guide to the subject.

Teaching Writing for the Web to Students

(c) Mihaela Bodlovic 2019 Festival of Creative Learning

Over the Festival of Creative Learning, I ran a workshop to teach Writing for the Web to students and had them demonstrate their newfound skills through a collaborative writing exercise.

Why Writing for the Web

We read online differently than we do in print, and because of this, we need to structure our content differently to accommodate for this.  

I first did Writing for the Web training as part of a web editing internship while I was an undergraduate, and it’s what led me to the role I’m in today with the University Website & Communications team. 

My hope with the session was to teach students a skill they wouldn’t be learning at university, but that could help them if they were looking to pursue a writing or communications-based career. 

Session format

The session was split in two halves – training in how to write for the web, followed by a collaborative writing exercise.

The collaborative writing exercise used a technique called pair writing, which got students to work together to write a web page about their student experience.

I was especially keen to teach pair writing to students as it introduces them to a more collaborative way of working that will be important in their careers.

When you write essays for university, your name (or identification number in the case of anonymous marking) is attached to your work and it must be in your own words. 

In the working world, though, you may be writing on behalf of a company where authorship isn’t stressed, and writing together can facilitate a shared sense of understanding and ownership of content in an organisation.

Creative effective content quickly with pair writing (blog post)

Pair writing results

I was absolutely impressed with the webpages the students wrote. 

After a short amount of training, the pages demonstrated web writing best practice, including: 

  • beginning with effective summary sentences
  • using lists with keywords pushed to the left-hand side
  • breaking up content into subheadings and short paragraphs
  • ending pages with calls to action

It was also great to hear the discussions going on between pairs as they worked together, including hearing how helpful they felt it was to have a second pair of eyes look at their work.

How it can help students going forward

On my feedback form, I asked the students how they would use these lessons going forward as I wanted to know more about what made them come to the session.

Answers included:

  • working with digital content in their career
  • making their personal blogs easier to read for their audiences 
  • making online job applications and cover letters more concise

There is no doubt learning about how to write for the web will help in all of these cases, so I’m happy I had the opportunity to deliver this training to students in person.

Want to try it for yourself?

Our official Writing for the Web course (called Effective Digital Content) is open to all University of Edinburgh staff and students through the Learn VLE.

Effective Digital Content course

Author bio

Lauren Tormey is a content developer in the University’s Website & Communications team. She leads on content projects including website builds and audits, while also providing editorial support for the University’s web publishing community. 

Walking with James Hutton through Time

2019 Festival of Creative Learning Event

© Mihaela Bodlovic 2019 Festival of Creative Learning

James Hutton (1726-1797) is one of Edinburgh’s great thinkers, and his insights have changed forever how we think about the world. Our walks in the 2019 Festival of Creative Learning followed in Hutton’s footsteps, through the streets that he called home, and allowed us to reflect on the passing of time: the time since Hutton lived here, the time that it has taken Edinburgh’s landscape to form, and the time we spend in Edinburgh.

© Mihaela Bodlovic 2019 Festival of Creative Learning

We visited the site of James Hutton’s house at St John’s Hill, where he spent the last three decades of his life, and the place where he died in 1797. The exact spot is now a memorial garden, created by the University of Edinburgh and other organisations. The garden includes several boulders that illustrate Hutton’s ideas about the natural processes that have shaped Scotland. There is a boulder of conglomerate, containing rounded pebbles that could have come from a beach or river today, but are actually 400 million years old. And a boulder of metamorphic rock from Glen Tilt, with cross-cutting veins of granite, demonstrating Hutton’s understanding that granite is an igneous rock, formed by cooling of liquid magma deep underground. You can find out more about the Hutton Memorial Garden here.

© Mihaela Bodlovic 2019 Festival of Creative Learning

Hutton’s great insight into how the world works, drawn from decades of thought and investigations around Scotland, was that the planet is shaped by slow, natural processes that operate on unimaginable timescales. And that these processes have not stopped: “the chain of physical events connected with the present state of things, sees great changes that have been made, and foresees a different state that must follow in time, from the continued operation of that which actually is in nature…”. Standing on the grass below Salisbury Crags, next to one of the boulders that has plunged down the steep slope in the last few years, we can glimpse the slow evolution of Edinburgh’s landscape and a “different state that must follow in time”. Edinburgh may have a big impact on us, but our individual impact on this landscape and this city is pretty insignificant – these crumbling hills will still be here long after we’ve gone!

© Mihaela Bodlovic 2019 Festival of Creative Learning

Angus Miller, Centre for Open Learning