Hiya, I am Abhiraj Chakraborty, a first year PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Aberdeen. I am in cohort 5 of the QUADRAT DTP and my project is titled ‘Functional ‘omics for assessing resilience to environmental stress in the intertidal beadlet anemone Actinia equina’. I am studying how the A equina responds to environmental stressors using transcriptomics and epigenetics. I am especially interested in finding out if the different colour morphs of the species respond differently to stressors by looking at differences in their gene expression under stress. I will conduct fieldwork across Scotland and Ireland to sample different populations of the anemone, then conduct mesocosm experiments where they are exposed to a stressor followed by molecular work to determine which genes are responsible for resilience and or adaptation to the stressor. Then I will explore the genetic diversity at these genes across populations and morphs , to provide an insight into the molecular landscape of stress responses and variation of such responses between individuals, populations and morphs of this cute little anemone that you can find in a rock pool near you (gotta be a marine rock pool though). My research aims to build a foundation for developing biomarkers for assessing biodiversity and stress resilience in natural anemone populations. Which is well and good but today I wanted to tell you a bit about why I am doing what I am doing.

You see, I grew up in Eastern India and was lucky to be surrounded by nature and wildlife from a young age. Some of my earliest memories are of watching peacocks dancing in the rain during the monsoon season, while wild boars wallowed in muddy ditches. My family took me to wildlife reserves and safaris to see the elephant herds, and I still remember seeing a tiger in the wild for the first time when I was about eight. Needless to say, I developed a very profound appreciation for nature and biology. Tiger reserves were my Disneyland and nature documentaries were my, well whatever other kids used to watch back then. However, just like Disneyland, with each passing birthday, the magical illusion faded as I became more aware of how we humans have been treating the planet. Thus, my interest in conservation and research began. After completing schools, I decided to move to England to study wildlife biology at Manchester Metropolitan University. While I enjoyed the course, it was the events in my third year, that set things in motion towards this PhD. I was fortunate enough to land a placement at Timburi-Cocha Research Station situated in Payamino in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Six months in one of the biodiversity Hotspots of the world, working in at a research station convinced me to do a PhD.  While there, I planned and completed a research project studying the relationship between Snout-Ventral Length, weight and BMI of several Ecuadorean frog species while also assisting with several other research projects. My project highlighted the potential value of BMI models for the assessment of health in captive amphibian populations and made me realise that not only did I really enjoy research but also that I might just be crazy enough to do more of it.

During my time at the research station and in the Ecological Genetics Lab at Manchester Met, I became increasingly interested in population genetics and how organisms adapt to changing climates. Therefore, I decided to start a research MPhil, instead of returning home. My MPhil actively integrated genetics and conservation by investigating cryptic speciation and the impact of genetic diversity on an organism’s ability to adapt to environmental change. I got to use Nanopore sequencing to explore the taxonomic status of Vase sponge Ircinia campana in southern Belize where evidence suggests that the population in southern Belize in the Mesoamerican barrier reef system is strongly differentiated from all other Greater Caribbean populations. I also conducted mesocosm experiments to explore how genetic diversity affects the adaptability of sponges to ocean acidification, a well-known threat to marine reef ecosystems using Cinachyrella alloclada. Though challenging, I really enjoyed learning advanced molecular techniques and computational biology. My interests shifted from living animals to their molecular building blocks. DNA and RNA filled my thoughts (and my dreams) and I started working on improving my coding skills. Then I found this QUADRAT dtp project and it was a perfect match for my current interests and experience. Plus, I get to do field work too, and most importantly, I get to work with Sea Anemones!! Everyone loves anemones, although some do so after I tell them that an anemone was the home nemo himself, from the famous movie Finding Nemo (before he got kidnapped of course).

One of my Cinachyrella alloclada specimens looking healthy and very yellow

Apart from my research I enjoy being outdoors with my camara and I try to maintain a photography blog (you can check it out here). I love hiking and camping, to visit places outside the beaten path and have unique experiences out in the wild. When I am bound to the city, I like to practice some calisthenics (handstands really clear your mind, after the day’s experiments failing miserably) and a bit of kick boxing. I am glad to be part of the QUADRAT dtp, doing what I love, along with other amazing people all doing our bit to conserve this planet so that our future generations may experience nature’s magic that enchanted me all those years ago.

Please feel free to reach out to me on twitter @AC110598 and if you like, check out my Instagram blog @thewildcorners and thank you for reading.