Stay abroad in Seville/Spain in autumn 2016

Martin Roggenbuck

AAD RISE global research internship at the Estación Biológica de Doñana, Seville, Spain.

Overview

From 08/08/2016 to 16/10/2016, I completed a research internship as part of the "RISE weltweit" funding program of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). The host institution was the Estación Biológica de Doñana (EBD) in Seville, a large, public research institution specifically dedicated to the national park around the Doñana wetland. My supervisor was Ana García Popa-Lisseanu. She is part of the bat research group and studies ecological issues using stable isotopes (carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen isotopes) that can provide information about food and trophic level. My work was within a research project and consisted mainly of the preparation of samples for isotope analysis, whereby I worked very independently and was involved in the laboratory team. In addition, I took part in the regular measurement campaign, in which bats were also captured and sampled, and was able to gain a good insight into the life of the institute. Personally, I had enough time to discover the landscape and culture of southern Spain and to participate in the rich cultural life of Seville. I was able to organize my accommodation and e.g. sports courses privately on site.

BGW-Experiences-Roggenbuck-Sevilla-Spain BGW-Experiences-Roggenbuck-Sevilla-Spain Image: Martin Roggenbuck

The research project and my work in it

The project I was involved in is a basic research on the use of isotopic methods for ecological questions; with the aim to detect a "noise". Namely, in previous work Ana Popa-Lisseanu was able to find an annual cycle in the isotopic signature of her target organisms that did not seem to be ecologically linked. The hypothesis for this is that plants respond to summer aridity in the region with physiological actions (closing of stomata) that result in an altered isotope signature. This altered isotopic composition would then propagate through the food web via nutrition and would then also be detectable as a signal at higher trophic levels. With the help of an experiment lasting several months, in which the effect of irrigation and shading was tested, and regular sampling of vegetation, insects, and bats, this hypothesis was to be tested.

My job at that time consisted mainly of preparing samples for analysis, which is a labor-intensive process requiring a lot of concentration and care. A typical work step for a sample was, for example: the uniform selection of tissue per sample type, homogenization with the help of a vibrating mill, weighing to the nearest microgram. My main focus in the institute was therefore the stable isotope laboratory. Working there was very collegial and pleasant, and I was quickly integrated into the daily routine. The technician responsible for the lab, Susana Carrasco Congregado, was very welcoming and helpful and often gave me an insight into her activities and the other equipment in the lab. I also had a group of Brazilian exchange students as colleagues throughout. Since many PhD students and staff at the institute have to do work in the lab from time to time, I also had the opportunity to meet people from other areas and to get into conversation. In consultation with my supervisor, I worked largely independently and was able to determine my own time management and daily tasks in this respect.

Besides the work at the institute, I also took part in the measurement campaign in the national park, which was carried out by Detlev Kelm from the working group. There I was accommodated for several days in the field station, which is located in the center of the national park. Detlev was extremely accommodating and showed many aspects of the flora and fauna along the way. Sampling the bats - skin, hair, droppings - was very fascinating: the contact with the otherwise rarely so directly noticeable animals is quite special and there was the opportunity - or due to the time of year when adult and juvenile animals are hardly distinguishable, we were forced - to look at many subtle features. The capture method with gillnets went very routinely and efficiently, but of course there is a lot of skill, care behind it - an art in itself.
Outside the lab, however, I sometimes had a hard time integrating and had probably underestimated the hurdles that one encounters abroad. On the one hand, this was due to the language barrier, which I often felt in everyday life, but also ensured at the institute that I sometimes didn't get connected or couldn't define myself so well and contribute, be it at lunch in the common room (the comodoro) or when introducing myself to coworkers. However, my Spanish skills were not that advanced and English is less common than I experienced in Germany. On the other hand, the structures in the institute were somewhat different, e.g. there were fewer "formal" meetings such as weekly working group meetings or colloquia.

Personal, Living, Afterwards

The jump to another country was one of the important aspects for me to do this internship. Spain was already well known to me through some friends and then came to mind mainly because of the project.

In contrast to the mostly mountainous landscape of southern Spain, Seville is located in the middle of a large plain, which is characterized by the Guadalquivir River and intensive agriculture. If one reaches the city in the summer, one drives from all directions for about an hour over the dry, farmed hills of the province. You would get a different picture of the port city if you reached it - as in history - rather by water: Then you would cross one of the largest delta regions in Europe, meandering, green and lively, in the approximately 80 km between the estuary and the city. The city itself rises like an oasis from every perspective, with green riverbanks, large parks, streets full of orange trees and, on the other hand, the large buildings, tall towers and a maze of shady alleys. Apart from the insanely hot weeks of August, perhaps,- Seville is a very lively city, with many students, trendy neighborhoods, art festivals and many large employers. Life takes place outside and the streets and squares are green and cozy. In bookstores, cafes or notices on university buildings I often found good hints about interesting (usually free) events. Things like contemporary dance or flamenco appealed to me extremely well and had a high status in the city.

I first looked for my accommodation on site and it took about 2 weeks until I found one. I first lived with some incoming exchange students and then moved again into a shared apartment with two Spaniards. My supervisor also offered the possibility to find an apartment through the institute.

Finding my way around in the country was a long process and was partly due to a bias that I had and had to solve. I think I had relatively high expectations and too exact ideas about my time, regarding such exemplary images as that I would have liked to live with many locals, share picnics in the parks or interests like playing basketball. But even in the 21st century in times of Couchsurfing, Duolingo, Erasmus clubs, it is rather the chance encounters that create personal meaning in a foreign country.

After the internship, I planned to spend several weeks in the country and work at a country estate/farm and learn about Mediterranean agriculture. This was a very nice insight into rural Spain and also helped me a lot to improve my language skills. However, I had to return to Germany early due to dental problems.

Conclusion

It was very enriching for me to get to know another country and to have the time and distance to orientate myself. I would like to thank Ana Popa-Lisseanu and the DAAD for making this internship possible and for the very uncomplicated, friendly and supportive communication and organization. Working at the institute gave me a lot of pleasure and a broad insight into the scientific middle class and also strengthened my awareness in which way I would like to work. In particular, I realized that I really enjoy working in a team. I can highly recommend to make experiences abroad and I think the Rise program offers a very good opportunity for this.

Martin Roggenbuck, November 2016

Kontakt: Maroggen@web.de