Summer internship at LJMU: Fighting climate change one Miscanthus experiment at a time

A student summer is usually spent visiting family and working part-time, just to tide us over until September. Although working is necessary, part-time work often lacks the chance to develop skills related to the degree that you’re studying for. Every year students have the opportunity to apply for an internship within LJMU. There are placements across several areas, and many of them are paid. These placements not only provide a reasonable source of income, but also give the opportunity to learn invaluable skills that you can’t get from being in a lecture theatre.   

In the summer of 2023, I decided to apply for an LJMU internship in plant biology, increasing crop production for biomass. I was lucky enough to be accepted and I was so excited to become a research assistant. I was nervous, as even though I had volunteered to help with research before this, I had never worked with plants. I had a chance to get to know the team, the lead researcher, Dr Danny Awty Carroll, a PhD student, Joseph Obaje and a plant biology lecturer, Dr Richard Webster. They were all enthusiastic and knowledgeable about different areas of plant biology. I was treated as an equal right from the get-go and they taught me everything I would need to know to help with their research. From how to effectively measure the height of a plant to measuring chlorophyl content in a leaf, I felt like a real research scientist.     

The research focused on using temperature and a range of plant growth regulators and microbial inoculants to increase early growth and crop establishment in Miscanthus plants. Miscanthus are species of tall grasses that originate from sub-tropical and tropical regions of Asia, but they are extremely adaptable and able to grow in colder climates too (like in the UK). I had never heard of Miscanthus before this summer, but I learnt that not only are they good at absorbing carbon dioxide, they can also be dried and combusted to produce heat and electricity.  

Our research contributes to the OMENZ (Optimising Miscanthus Establishment through improved mechanisation and data capture to meet Net Zero targets) project. The research is funded by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, as part of the Biomass Feedstocks Innovation Programme. This programme is led by Terravesta, a biotechnology firm and the world’s lead Miscanthus specialist. Their aim is to reduce global dependency of fossil fuels and instead use miscanthus as a biofuel.  

Miscanthus can be grown from seeds or rhizomes. Rhizomes are thick, nutrient dense, root like structures that I thought looked like woody ginger. Our rhizomes came in huge white woven bags and had to be stored in a cold room to keep them dormant until they were planted. We had to sort through hundreds and hundreds to find ones that were likely to grow. The cool thing about miscanthus rhizomes is that even when they’re growing adult plants, they grow buds under the ground over winter, ready to sprout again next spring.  

We sorted through and planted a total of 300 rhizomes for two trials. It was my job to measure the tallest plant from each rhizome, twice a week over two months. This proved challenging when they began to grow over one metre tall and their leaves became very sharp. My supervisor advised me to wear long sleeved shirts, however, as I was working outside under the summer sun, I felt that a few papercut-like scratches and a nice suntan would be better than over-heating.  

After two months of work over a period of three weeks, we harvested each of the 300 planted rhizomes and washed the soil from their roots to get an accurate weight. This was very messy and I usually went home covered in mud (and not the relaxing mud-bath kind!). Some of the root balls were so dense that we switched from using a hosepipe to a pressure washer to effectively clean the roots. I’m not sure why pressure washing is so satisfying, but it was pleasing to see those bright white roots after blasting away the soil. The roots and stem of each plant were cut and weighed separately. Then they went into a huge oven to dry out and were measured again in a few days when all the water inside had evaporated. The difference in weight indicated how much water each plant stored and how much biomass is produced.   

We also did experiment using Miscanthus seeds with different genotypes. The most tedious job of these experiments was counting the seeds. Have you ever tried to count tiny seeds? Trust me, it’s not as easy as you’d think. But once they were sorted and planted, we could measure growth rates of differently treated seeds and compare them. When these seeds germinated and started to grow, we measured their heights, levels of chlorophyl and photosynthesis in each seedling. Before this, I didn’t even know you could do that! The seedlings were kept in the dark for 30 minutes then put into a great big fluorescence imaging machine called a closed FluorCam. This machine flashes LED lights and measured the chlorophyl content and photosynthetic efficiency. In other words, the amount of light energy that can be converted into chemical energy through photosynthesis.  

It was a great opportunity to learn how to use this kind of technology as an undergraduate student. The internship confirmed for me how much I love being involved in research and I hope to be able to work in scientific research in the future. For the months I spent working in this team, I gained not only invaluable scientific skills and knowledge, but also communication and teamwork skills that will help me in the future. University is not just about getting your degree – there are so many opportunities for you to seize along your journey. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here and would recommend anyone thinking of applying for an internship at LJMU to go for it. What have you got to lose? 

For more information, visit the LJMU BSc (Hons) Biology course page or go to our Placement Learning Support Unit web pages for details on placement and internships in the Faculty of Science. 


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