Computer games and Prymnesium parvum?!

Nikola Medić, MixITiN ESR 2, reports from Swansea, UK

March 2019

In February 2019, I left my cultures and laboratory equipment at the Københavns Universitet Marine Biological Section in Helsingør (Denmark) and travelled from one of the happiest cities in the world – Copenhagen, to one of the wettest cities in the UK -Swansea. I was on my way to my first secondment, as ESR2 of the MSCA ITN MixITiN. During my secondment I was going to use system dynamics modelling to try and simulate the ecophysiology of Prymnesium parvum, a species which I consider as my special Constitutive Mixoplankton (CM). I am working on P. parvum as it is an ecologically important species; blooms of this toxic mixoplankton species cause fish kills and economic losses.

My background is in marine science and ecology; my skills are thus primarily laboratory based and include algae culturing techniques and ecophysiological experiments. I have never been in touch with modelling until I joined MixITiN. My first modelling encounters were in the early months of my starting as ESR2 during the workshops in Roscoff (France) and Helsingør (Denmark). So I was really excited about the new working environment during my secondment, looking forward to using a different research approach and the opportunity to collaborate with Swansea MixITiN colleagues. Many times, I asked myself, what the modeller’s working life looks like? Could I still consider myself a biologist without a laboratory full of research instruments?!

As homework, prior to my trip to Swansea, I started “playing” plankton computer games using the models from Professor Kevin Flynn’s book “Dynamic Ecology: an introduction to the art of simulating trophic dynamics” and worked with the variable stoichiometric model (Chapter 15). So when I turned up at Swansea University, I was equipped with my laptop and the modelling software Powersim. This is where I learnt, under the supervision of Professor Flynn, how to perform in silico ecophysiological experiments. Through the computer simulation work I also learnt about things that I should take into consideration during designing my laboratory experiments. During this time, I worked closely with Anna Anschütz (MixITiN ESR8) undertaking data extraction from the literature, and running steady state sensitivity and dynamic risk analyses.

My overarching aim was to configure a generic protist model to specifically describe Prymnesium and therefore to have an in silico set up to inform my laboratory experiments at Helsingør. While doing this I also gained an awareness of the challenges in extracting data as I started to create a data bank from published literature to ultimately configure my P. parvum model. At this time I also got a chance to work with Dr Mitra on the social media side of the project. We set up an Instagram account for, considering it a good way to communicate our research through social media.

Besides science, secondments are a good opportunity to explore the history and culture of the visited place. Between building models, interrogating data and setting up Instagram, the “local” members from Team MixITiN took me on various trips onto the Gower Peninsula. I climbed Rhossili Down, saw the beautiful view of Llanrhidian Sands and Loughor Estuary.

We walked through the village of Reynoldston and enjoyed some good local food at the King Arthur Hotel.

St David is the patron saint of Wales and every year the 1st of March is celebrated as St David’s Day in Wales. This year Team MixITiN celebrated this special day by visiting CADW‘s Carreg Cennen Castle. We explored the castle and walked down into a natural cave that has a spring which was a source of freshwater.

We also walked in the woodlands around the castle and played Poohsticks. We had a picnic by the river and I had an opportunity to try some Welsh “Dragon” sausages. And, no these sausages were not made from real dragons!

My conclusion from my first secondment is that these secondments are important for research efforts to bring mixotrophy into the 21st century through team working; they also help in personal and cultural development.