Mt. A student benefits from research abroad

Bio student Erika Maxwell shares her Finland experience.

Erika Maxwell is a graduating honours biology student. Under the supervision of biochemistry professor Doug Campbell, Maxwell’s project on diatoms has granted her the opportunity to complete research at the University of Turku in Finland.

Despite being a biology student, Maxwell’s research is more focused on protein biochemistry. Her research involved diatoms, a major type of algae, and a common type of phytoplankton. They are unicellular organisms enclosed within a cell wall made of silica. Diatoms are producers in the food chain, and diatom communities are a popular tool for monitoring environmental conditions (such as water quality). 

Maxwell is investigating a specific diatom species, and the thylakoid membranes of that diatom. Thylakoids are the membrane bound compartments inside chloroplasts and cyanobacteria, and are the site of the light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis. Her research involved quantifying a protease that plays a role in photosynthesis: photosystem II. She is also determining which isoforms of the protease are present within the thylakoid membrane (an isoform is any of several different forms of the same protein). 

Sunlight intensity can inhibit photosynthesis—the proteins that regulate photosynthesis will become damaged. When this occurs, photosystem II breaks down the damaged protein so it can be replaced. By investigating this,  one could link it to environmental concerns, and also how it plays a role in the survival of diatoms.

Working with Campbell opened the doors for Maxwell to research in Finland. Campbell has colleagues worldwide, with one colleague in Finland specializing in what Maxwell’s diatom research.

Turku is a city on the southwest coast of Finland, with a population of approximately 180,000. The University of Turku is the second largest in the country, and is affiliated with a community of businesses and educational establishments called Science Park. The facility consists of five buildings, each with a different technology focus. The building that Maxwell conducted her research in is called Biocity.

“The facility was amazing—there is nothing like that in the maritimes,” said Maxwell.

Maxwell was the only student from Mount Allison to conduct research at the University of Turku. Under the supervision of Irina Grouneva, Maxwell used the facilities’ state-of-the-art mass spectrometer to identify isoforms in the thylakoids of diatom species. Mass spectrometry is an analytical technique that produces spectra of the masses of atoms or molecules comprising a sample of material.

The research Maxwell conducted occured in a period of a week in January. Her study was completed for her honours project. 

“They wanted me to stay longer, but I couldn’t miss anymore of my semester,” explained Maxwell.

Although Maxwell views the experience as positive, Maxwell had her doubts:

“I was lonely at first, and sometimes uncomfortable—I was dependent on Irina,” said Maxwell, “she was so helpful; she showed me around the entire city. I got the experience of both doing [the research] and seeing [the city].”

The experience was greatly beneficial for Maxwell. As a biology student, Maxwell was not exactly comfortable working with chemistry and biochemistry equipment. She quickly adapted to the techniques, and claims that the experience was an “amazing learning experience.” 

“Having the experience working in such a large lab, as well as the international experience, was very beneficial,” said Maxwell, “I am extremely lucky.”

Originally published May 8, 2014.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles