Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Spotted Wing Drosophila present in Milton, Cambridgeshire

The soft fruit pest, Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii) has become established in the UK since my article back in 2012 http://www.miltoncontact-blog.com/2012/08/preparing-for-spotted-wing-drosophila.html. High resolution views of a male and female SWD were created from two specimens captured from my garden in Milton, Cambridge.


Results

This August, I set a fruit fly trap in my garden in Milton, Cambridgeshire, UK and captured my first Spotted Wing Drosophila. I found one male and two female SWD. In total the trap captured 39 insects, of which 36 were drosophila (fruit fly) species, three of which were SWD. High resolution views of a male and female SWD were created.

Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD)



Dorsal view: Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Ventral view: Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Ventral view: Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Lateral view: Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Lateral view: Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)

Female Spotted Wing Drosophila

Dorsal view: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Dorsal view: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Lateral view: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Lateral view: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Detail with serrated ovipositor: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Detail with serrated ovipositor: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)

Method

This August, I set a fruit fly trap in my garden in Milton, Cambridgeshire, UK and captured my first Spotted Wing Drosophila. I found one male and two female SWD. In total the trap captured 39 insects, of which 36 were drosophila (fruit fly) species, three of which were SWD. High resolution views of a male and female SWD were created.
The insects had been trapped in an apple juice/white vinegar mixture, spiked with a few drops of fairy liquid to kill the insects. The mixture was in a sealed plastic bottle, pierced with about 3 mm diameter holes. The bottle was suspended from an apple tree for a week from 22 August.

The insects were rinsed with water in a sieve and then stored in water with some white vinegar and 10% isopropanol overnight.

Individual flies were floated in a home made cavity slide (o-rings adhered to a microscope slide with paraffin wax), oriented just under the surface meniscus (dorsal side up/ventral side up/lateral view) and covered with a cover slip.

A series of between 130 to 190 photographs were taken through the focus from the base of the insect to the closest surface, using a Reichert Zetopan microscope with a 4x objective, 5x eyepiece and a mounted Nikon SLR. The images were used to create focus stacks with Heliconfocus software. Images were edited for contrast and colour balance an sharpened.


Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Films and fussy eaters at the University of Duisburg-Essen


Films and fussy eaters at the University of Duisburg-Essen Biofilm Centre. Impressions from a tour of their laboratories with Isabelle Heker and interesting conversations along the way. The department specialises in working on aquatic micro-organisms, which can range from pathogens to bugs that can clean up the environment. One of the features of many aquatic micro-organisms is that they live in Biofilms, strange and complex environments that can dramatically alter the properties of the organisms within them.

The initial intention was to visit my friends, the Hekers, for a bit of photography for an afternoon. Daughter Isabelle Heker invited me to come along and see the work that she and others were conducting at the labs in the University of Duisburg-Essen Biofilm Centre.

The obligatory safety talk with Dr Jost Wingender, Head of the Department of Pathogens in Biofilms, brought back memories of when I was a Biological Safety Officer for a biotech company! Inevitably, it segued into conversations about Dr Wingender’s work. One of his interests is viruses that attack bacteria, also known as phages, and their behaviour in biofilms.


An iridescent biofilm on the surface of a fish tank (Wikipedia)
Many micro-organisms, including bacteria, live in biofilms, making rocks slippery, furring the leaves of water plants or coating your teeth with plaque.

They are often surrounded by a slime, whose composition can vary according to the species and the substrate they are on. The scientific term for this slime is EPS, short for extracellular polymeric substances.

Just like there is a whole ecology and range of environments in a forest, that changes from the soil to the tops of the tree canopy, there is considerable variation in the EPS from its external interface with water to the bottom layer, adhering to a substrate. There are gradients of oxygen, nutrients and acidity.

In the wild, the ecosystems within the EPS are created by different microscopic species either helping each other by producing complementary nutrients or degrading toxins and natural antibiotics – or they can be in competition for food and resources.

Back to phages and viruses. The EPS also binds contaminants and viruses, concentrating them. As this can happen with human pathogens, it means that biofilms could be far more infectious than the more diluted pathogens free-floating in water. Suddenly, Dr Wingender’s work is a lot more relevant to us.

S.aureus biofilm on an indwelling catheter (Wikipedia)
On to the lab tour. Dr Martin Mackowiak led and also talked a bit about his work. Knowing what species of micro-organisms are present in a biofilm and how many there are is not that easy. Furthermore, the populations can change with age. Imagine being in a rocket up in space looking down on to the world below. With a high powered telescope you might just about make out moving shapes as tiny dots, it is hard to distinguish between say the people, pigeons and pets out in a city or between different farm animals out in the fields.

Fortunately, micro-organisms contain DNA. What’s more, the EPS, the slime also contains fragments of DNA, from dying cells or even deliberately secreted. The DNA will be present in very small quantities. However, using a method familiar from my lab days, quantitative PCR, you can get a good measure of how many of the scant DNA molecules from different species are present. Martin had just harvested a batch of biofilm he’d cultured over weeks in readiness for analysis. It was also fun to see equipment gathering dust that in my day we would have drooled over, like the Pulsed Field Gel Electrophoresis kit, and machines that were still very familiar to me in current use.

Most importantly, Isabelle was able to tell me about her graduate project. Of the myriads of species of bacteria in water, there are many fussy eaters, of which some are able to degrade pollutants, such as hydrocarbons. It’s vital to understand how they do this before scaling up any method. Isabelle’s project was to identify some of the breakdown products from one pollutant.


First, she had to purify and separate the different breakdown products by size and chemical properties using liquid chromatography – the basic principle is similar to separating the colours out of different felt-tip pens on tissue paper.

Image on left is an example of different leaf pigments separated by chromatography on a plate, CC Flo~commonswiki. Isabelle was using special columns in her work.

The mass of each separated breakdown product was then determined using a mass spectrometer. Each molecule is vaporised, ionised to give it an electric charge and then accelerated toward a detector through a magnetic field. The charged molecules get separated by charge and weight during their flight through the magnetic field and then hit the detector. You can very accurately determine how heavy a molecule is. Isabelle was now at the interesting stage of knowing what sizes of products she is getting.

The puzzle to be solved now is: WHICH is the most likely chemical formula of a breakdown product where there are several with the same mass? This requires a good knowledge of chemistry and logical problem solving. Fortunately, Isabelle is enjoying the challenge and hopes to go on to do a masters in the same department.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours catching up with the new field of water and biofilm biologies. Thank you to Isabelle and all at the University of Duisburg-Essen Biofilm Centre for sharing their time and interests.

Now it was time to go off to meet the others for a glorious walk along the beautiful transformed River Ruhr - full of aquatic life and, of course, Biofilms.


Sunday, 31 July 2016

Nicholas Alkemade and his Amazing Escape after jumping without a parachute

Sergeant Joe Cleary meeting Lieutenant H. Rokker, who shot down the Lancaster on that fateful night

Congratulations to Luke Aikins for his successful no-parachute jump. What follows is the tale of  Nicholas Alkemade who also survived jumping without a parachute, from a burning plane in 1944!

As Flight Sergeant Newman approached Berlin they could see the searchlights probing the sky. Soon they saw the red and green markers dropped by the Pathfinders and made their run-in to drop their 4,000lb ‘cookie’ and incendiaries. Turning for home through the searchlights, the crew kept a sharp look out for night fighters. The crew could see other Lancasters under attack and some going down in a great ball of fire. They were somewhere over the Ruhr when a series of shuddering crashes hit the Lancaster from nose to tail. Two cannon shells exploded on the ring mounting of the rear turret, shattering the plexiglass and sending a large piece slicing into Sergeant Alkemade`s right leg. Quickly he depresses his guns and saw not fifty yards astern, a JU 88 blazing away at the Lancaster. Sergeant Alkemade fired at the enemy aircraft and it peeled away trailing flame. It was now that he realised that flaming fuel was running past him, and he started to report to his skipper that the tail was on fire, but he was cut short when Flight Sergeant Newman said, "I can’t hold her lads, bale out! Bale out!" Alkemade flicked the turret doors behind him open with his elbows and turned to open the fuselage door beyond. There before him was a giant ball of fire. Flame and smoke came towards him and he pulled back into his turret coughing and blinded by smoke. Nicholas desperately needed to get to his parachute, which was always stowed in the fuselage, a few feet inside the second door. He opened the door again, but it was too late as the case had been burnt off and the silk was coming out in folds and disappearing in puffs of flame. It was decision time, the oil from the rear turret’s hydraulic system was now on fire and flames were now burning his hands and face, and it was only time before the plane would explode. He decided it would be better to die a quick death by jumping out, than die being roasted alive. Quickly he rotated the turret, flipped open the doors and in pain and desperation fell backwards into the night. His last recollection was the relief of being away from the searing heat, and the cold air on his face. Nicholas had no feeling of falling but could see the stars below his feet, so he knew he was falling head first. If this was dying, he thought to himself, it was nothing to be afraid of. His only regret was not being able to say goodbye to his friends and girlfriend Pearl, then he blacked out.

Slowly, Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade regained his senses. Above him he could see a patch of starlit sky. Slowly, the dark patch framing the area of sky turned into a hole in a thick group of fir trees. As he gained more of his senses, he realised he was laying on a deep mound of under bush covered in snow. He was very cold and his head and back throbbed with terrible pain, but he was all in one piece, and a feeling of total wonderment fell upon him when he began to realise that he had fallen over three miles, had his fall broken by fir trees and a snow drift and survived. He tried to sit up, but the pain was too much. Looking around, he found that his flying boots were gone and his uniform was scorched and torn. In his pocket he found a badly burnt tin in which he kept his cigarettes and lighter. He lit up a cigarette and looked at his watch; it was still going and the luminous hands showed 3.20am. It had been near midnight when the aircraft was hit.

Nicholas removed the whistle from his collar and from time to time gave it a blow. After what seemed hours, he heard a far off "Hulloo". He kept blowing the whistle and then saw flashlights approaching. Soon some men and boys appeared and ordered him to get up. When they saw he could not, they put him on a tarpaulin and dragged him across the frozen ground to a cottage where an old lady gave him a warm drink. Soon a car arrived and two men came in, dressed in plain clothes. Totally oblivious to his pain, they pulled him up and took him to their car and on to hospital. After coming out of the operating theatre, he learned that he had burnt legs, twisted right knee, a deep splinter wound in the thigh, strained back, slight concussion and a deep scalp wound, first-second and third degree burns on his face and hands, most of which had been received before he jumped from the aircraft. Cleaned up and installed in a clean bed, he was visited by a member of the Wehrmacht. Through an interpreter, Nicholas was asked the usual questions. "What was your target?" "Where is your base?" "How many aircraft are there?" Answering name, rank and number he said that he was not allowed to answer the other questions. The questioning then turned to his parachute. "Where is your parachute?" "Where did you bury it?" When Sergeant Alkemade replied, "I did not use one", the German officer nearly burst with rage, turned on his heels and stormed out. After three weeks, Sergeant Alkemade’s wounds were almost healed and he was taken to Dulag Luft near Frankfurt, and put into solitary confinement.

 A week later a young Luftwaffe Lieutenant led him into Kommandant’s Office. "We have to congratulate you, I believe, Sergeant", said the Kommandant in English, and asked Sergeant Alkemade to tell his story once again. After listening to the explanation, he said, "A very tall story I think Sergeant". Sergeant Alkemade said that the story could be proved if the wreckage of the aircraft was found, for the remnants of the parachute pack would still be there, just forward of the rear fuselage door, and also the parachute harness could be examined to prove that it had never been used. The Kommandant, who had listened to the story in silence said, "A really remarkable story, and I have heard many". He then gave the Lieutenant some orders, who then saluted and left. Fifteen minutes later the Lieutenant returned waving Sergeant Alkemade`s parachute harness, accompanied by three other officers, all shouting excitedly in German. The Lieutenant put the harness on the desk and pointed to the snap hooks that were still in their clips, and the lift web still fastened down on the chest straps. The Kommandant leaned back in his chair, studied each of them in turn and said, "Gentlemen, a miracle – no less". He then rose and offered his hand to Sergeant Alkemade and said, " Congratulations my boy, on being alive. Tomorrow I promise your Comrades will be told how you became POW.

 Next morning back in the Kommandant’s office, Nicholas saw that the Luftwaffe had been busy, for there on the desk lay some pieces of scorched metal, including the D-handle of a parachute ripcord and a piece of wire that would be the ripcord itself. "The remains of your parachute pack", said the Kommandant. "We found it where you said it would be; to us this is the final proof". The crash site of the Lancaster lay twenty kilometres from where Nicholas had landed. The bodies of Pilot Flight Sergeant Newman, Flight Engineer Sergeant Warren, Bomb Aimer Sergeant Hilder and Mid Upper Gunner Sergeant McDonough had been found in the wreckage. They had been buried with full military honours in a cemetery near Meschede. Later Nicholas was to learn that Wireless Operator Sergeant Berwell and Navigator Sergeant Cleary had been blown clear and had also survived. 

Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade was marched into the compound by a German Officer and two N.C.O`s, where two hundred captured alied flyers were assembled and was directed to stand on a bench. The Officer then recounted the story to the assembled men. Sergeant Alkemade was then surrounded by Airmen of all nationalities, all wishing to shake his hand, and offering cigarettes or chocolates. Sergeant Alkemade was then presented with a paper, signed by the Senior British Officer, who had taken down the German authentication in writing and had it witnessed by two Senior British NCOs. It reads as follows:

It has been investigated and corroborated by the German authorities that the claim made by Sergeant Alkemade, 1431537 RAF is true in all respects, namely, that he made a descent from 18,000 feet without a parachute, having been on fire in the aircraft. He landed in deep snow among fir trees. Corroboration witnessed by:

Flight Lieutenant H.J. Moore, SeniorBritish Officer.

Flight Sergeant R.R. Lamb, 1339582.

Flight Sergeant T.A. Jones, 411 Senior British NCOs.

Date: 25/4/44

After the war Nicholas returned to England and married his girlfriend Pearl. Geoffrey Berwell was their Best Man. Nicholas died in 1987.

Extract from 'Memories of RAF Witchford' by Barry & Sue Aldridge, published by Milton Contact Ltd. Visit the RAF Witchford Display of Memorabilia

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Tables made from 50,000 year old Ancient Kauri Wood

“You make tables from giant tree trunks and roots that are between 9,000 and 50,000 years old!?” was my astonished reply on the phone. Michael Beaupoil, a German master cabinetmaker had enquired if I could help with adapting his web pages for an English-speaking audience. How could I resist, with my nickname of ‘Mammoth Man” at the Norris Museum.
Table made from Anckent Kauri wood by Master Cabinetmaker Michael Beaupoil
Modern Kauri tree, indidual
 named Tāne Mahuta ('Lord of the Forest')
Stands of Kauri trees still grow to this day in New Zealand but are strictly protected (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agathis_australis). The island has a unique range of tree species that encompasses not only the Kauri but also other members of the podocarp family, with evocative names such as Rimu, Kahikatea, Miro, Mataī and Tōtara (http://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-plants/podocarp-hardwood-forests/). Originating back to the era when New Zealand was part of the supercontinent of Gondwanaland, more than 500 million years ago, they have evolved to be a vital part of the native ecosystem. Many of these trees are giants and the Kauri is enormous, with trunk diameters of up to 5m and reaching heights of 50m. The largest trees can be over a thousand years old.

So how do you get ancient Kauri, more than 9,000 to 50, 000 years old? New Zealand is a geologically active country and, with an age of up to 1,000 years, Kauri trees do succumb to natural disasters such as storms or the last ice age! Some felled trees slid down mountainsides into wet moor and bogs. If they were fully submerged, the lack of oxygen would prevent decay and preserve the immersed tree roots and trunks, known as Swamp Kauri or Ancient Kauri (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swamp_kauri).

There are bogs in New Zealand where several layers of such preserved tree trunks have been preserved. In certain circumstances, and with strict regulation, some of these giant Ancient Kauri tree trunks can be mined.

Due to its age, durability, fineness of grain and own distinctive golden iridescence, the timber from such trees is highly prized by craftsmen, cabinetmakers and wood-turners.

Master Cabinetmaker Michael Beaupoil is one such person that has dedicated his life and craft to lovingly reveal the inner beauty of Ancient Kauri wood in large tables. These grace the large conference rooms, office and homes of those who can afford them. They are also an investment as the Ancient Kauri Wood is a limited, high value resource.

As well as working on the text of Michael’s site (see http://goo.gl/yJ6IeX), I was intrigued enough to send off for seeds of such ancient trees. Kauris take a long time to germinate – I’m a month in and it could be another one to two months till I can expect to see a seedling, if I’m lucky. However, I already have two Araucaria (Monkey Puzzle) seedlings and will be planting some Ginko tree seeds soon too.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Story of Mary by the Masters of Aachen 1485

First set of 4 panes or Mary's story

Second set of 4 panes or Mary's story

I found a series of beautiful paintings particularly relevant to this Christmas period during a visit to the Treasury at the Minster in Aachen. It was a depiction of the life of the Virgin Mary, but represented using images and clothing familiar to the late 15th Century, including fascinating little details.

It doesn't matter whether you believe or not, the images tell aspects of the Christmas story from a mother's perspective and are rendered with loving detail. They give an insight to the magical ideal world as seen through 15th century eyes.

The pictures are named simply 'Marienleben – sog. Meister des Aachener Marienlebens, Köln, um 1485# (Life of the Virgin Mary – by the so called Master of the Aachen Life of the Virgin Mary, Cologne, about 1485).

Elements of the story are told in eight panels which appeared to be displayed slightly out of sequence.

The story is given below in the correct time sequence, Enjoy:

Joachim and St Anne (Mary's parents) meet at the golden gates to Jerusalem. This is after Joachim having done penance in the desert because they could not have children. Angels then appear to them both promising a child – the future Mary.
The birth of Mary

Mary visits the temple (her parents are the main figures on the lower left of the picture)

The Annunciation – the announcement to Mary by the angel Gabriel that she would concieve and become the mother of Jesus. There is both the dove over Mary and the spirit of the future christ child flying from the angel to Mary.

The Visitation or visit with both the pregnant Mary and the pregnant Elizabeth. I presume their rspective husbands are the men in the background.

Jesus as a baby in the temple. There is a figure on the right wearing spectacles or pince-nez.

Jesus appears to his mother Mary before his ascension. This was a belief that grew in the middle ages. I love the little elephant in the background!


Mary ascends into heaven (the Assumption), watched by the 12 Apostles – presumably Matthias had replaced Judas by this time.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Uncle Billy's Grave. A WWI memory by guest blogger Lesley Goad

When Lesley sent me this story about her WWI family hero, I thought you'd like to read it too.


I am writing this on a glorious June day, sitting in my garden surrounded by fragrant
roses in full bloom, reflecting on the events of last week while staying by Lake Garda in Italy. Thinking especially of the planned visit to  the World War 1 Cemetery at Montecchio Precalcino in the Province of Vicenza, hoping to find Great Uncle James William (always known as Billy) Goad's last resting place.

Born in 1890 the second son of  James Stuart and Mary Jane Goad, a dairy farmer of Swavesey, Cambridgeshire, he had served his apprenticeship locally as a carpenter and had left to seek his fortune at  Chalfont- St- Peter, Buckinghamshire where lots of new housing developments were happening at this time at the turn of the century. He was  accompanied by  his village school friend Wilfred Hepher, also a carpenter, whose brother Walter had married Billy's eldest sister Maud.

In August 1914 life as England knew it would never be the same, the halcyon Edwardian days were over, the seething political undercurrents taking place all over Europe came to a head with the assassination Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, culminating in Kaiser Wilhelm and the Central Powers, ie; Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria fighting against the Western Allies. Russia, France, Britain, Italy and Rumania, eventually being joined in 1917 by the U.S.A.
All this intrigue and sabre rattling created the turmoil of WW1.

When war was declared in August 1914 Billy immediately volunteered for war service and became part of 7th Division Train, Royal Army Service Corps as a driver and was sent to France in the September of 1914 to prepare for the early stages of fighting, of which it was generally thought by all that it would be over and resolved by the following Christmas.

When Billy came home to Swavesey on much needed leave he was welcomed by all, they, proud of the patriotism of one of their sons, he, the first of many, proudly wearing the 1914 Star, awarded in the first campaign for early combat services.

Billy served continuously in France, no record is found of his being wounded until while serving on the Eastern Front in Italy, on Sunday 28th July 1918 , Billy after contracting dysentery sadly died there. He was then laid in foreign soil, his life and sacrifice unknown by the present day generation of Goad's until I started my family research in 2012.

 He was an unknown uncle to us all and  also there was the unknown fact that their Grandfather Tom, Billy's elder brother, in 1922 called his last born son, William, obviously as a tribute to his memory. He was always known as Billy too when a boy.

This William was my husband Paddy's father, who is not remembered as ever having talked of his namesake Billy who never returned  home again.

My husband Paddy and I resolved to go to Italy to find Billy's resting place, so in June 2015 we found ourselves travelling in a hired car along the roads north of Verona our heads full of thoughts and emotions of our adventure ahead.

I carried in my bag a glass jar of soil, perhaps containing a seed or two, taken from the farmland of his brother Tom, where we now live to-day, to place on his grave, as a symbol of his  Cambridgeshire home.

While researching for my book I had found written in the local 'Cambridge News' 9th August 1918 newspaper Billy's obituary stating, “His body lies in sunny Italy, and his friends will always remember that, there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England .”

The car stopped outside the small village cemetery of Montecchio Precalcino, situated deep in the heart of the sunny northern Italian countryside, surrounded by  trees and hedges creating a  verdure green world. Beside this local village resting place were stone and iron gates with steps leading to our destination of some of the WW1 war graves of Britain. Paddy jumped out of the car, climbed the steps to open the closed gates, his first impression was of neat rows of memorial stones, 400 in all, individually engraved with tributes and regimental badges.

He stepped inside and just in front of him was his Great Uncle Billy, as if waiting to welcome him to Row A, Plot 1.

There are no words I can write to explain the feelings of the next moments.

We walked and talked and cried, we were his first visitors for almost a hundred years, Paddy told him the family news and we sprinkled our Hill Farm soil amongst the flowers growing by his white marble gravestone. Alpines of  a bright pink were flowering there, I bent to pull out what I thought was a weed from them and quickly stopping as I realised it was a random self-set forget-me-not growing and waiting to flower.

The symbolism of this was not lost on us and we smiled, suddenly time seemed to stand still, only the songs of the birds broke the peaceful silence within the stone walls of this small sacred patch of Italy, which for those buried there will forever  be a part of their homeland England.

A large stone cross mounted with a bronze sword  towered over the sleeping soldiers, with laburnum trees either side, we put our names in the visitors book situated in a small open roofed shelter. We walked through and read the names and poignant messages engraved on the stones from their families.

Billy's father James Stuart and mother Mary Jane's chosen words were “ Peace With Honour”. Plain and simple as their Bethel Baptist faith.
We photographed this beautiful resting place of men who had sacrificed  their lives in hoping to make the world a better place.

One last word with Uncle Billy and we left this beautifully kept holy ground of memories, feeling so grateful for the setting up of the International War Graves Commission and the work they do  to-day which enabled us to feel closer to an Uncle  and ancestor whose life and sacrifice has mattered and also to be valued by mankind.

Lesley Goad is author of "Fen Farming Family", a remarkable story of one local family, the Goads, living in Swavesey and Stretham - and the rest of the world! see http://miltoncontact.co.uk/fenfarmingfamily

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Shiny Star Leonora

Shiny Star Leonora
A busy, loud morning of conversation at the A14 Coffee morning. Clelia turned to me. “My mother’s writing a book…” was the start of a conversation that led to meeting Gloria Loring, skilled sculptor, beautifully expressive painter and enchanting writer.

We tended to have excited conversations over Skype between Cambridge and Spain. Now, I have a soft spot for magical and fantastical stories, so I fell in love with Star Child Leonora immediately when I read the script for this short story.

Leonora is a star who parts the clouds and wants to visit the beautiful garden she sees below. With her father’s permission, she alights a raindrop to come down and visit. There is beauty and there is death. But as a star, she can return and try again until she truly understands who she is.

Leonora parted the clouds
It was planned to be illustrated, so inevitably, there was a sense of caution about what might be coming my way. The first photo that came through blew away any reservations – I wish I could paint like Gloria!

Initially we had a set of five or six paintings. When setting the book, it evolved into facing pages of short text and a painting. Inevitably, there were a few parts of the story where more images where needed.

“Er, Gloria. Do you think you could do an additional painting or two?” Gloria agreed and I settled down to work on another book for a couple of weeks or so.

Except Gloria was back within a couple of days with an e-mail and more pictures. Full in the creative flow, ideas were rushing from thought to brush to canvas.

Asking the snakes 
The hardest part was waiting for the book to come back from the printer.

Last Friday, I came back from a hard days networking to find a package waiting for me. Inside was a beautiful 40 page book with 20 illustrations, for children from age 9 to 90 and beyond.

And Gloria? Even before receiving her copies of the book, she is well into the next one – about Leonora’s sister. I cannot wait to learn more!

This is a very limited first edition (less than 40 copies remaining). Visit http://miltoncontact.co.uk/shinystarleonora to order.

Author of Shiny Star Leonora,
Gloria Loring


Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Listening with Dame Evelyn Glennie

 When the thought “what should I wear?” crosses my mind, you know it must be a more serious meeting for me, a natural scruff. “Is Evelyn a Diva?” was another worry – after all this is Dame Evelyn Glennie, recent winner of the Polar Prize. Most of all, I kept repeating the mantra “her name is Eh-Ve-Lyn NOT Eev-lyn!”

Personally, I blamed Brenda Gillian. It turns out that the author of “Maiseerola and the Purple Sweets”, a lovely children’s story we published (see http://miltoncontact.co.uk/maiseerola), also happens to be business advisor to Dame Evelyn. She had arranged for me to attend a brainstorming session with Team Glennie.


From the first big welcoming smile and handshake, I knew that I needn’t have worried. Here was someone who, if they had a pedestal, was certainly not going to be on it because it would make a perfectly good stand for the drums over in the corner. That corner being in a room that had a veritable mountain of glittering awards in another niche and a significant part of Evelyn’s collection of percussion instruments extending into the vastness behind us.

Our discussion swirled around the creation of Evelyn’s legacy. Many readers will already be aware of Evelyn’s trailblazing elevation of the role of the percussionist. Some, like me, have also heard her as a public speaker (Ted Talk, Polar Prize talk). There are schools and young people who have been inspired by her educational visits. Add to that – composing and a film & video catalogue. It is therefore no surprise that Evelyn is thinking big. Her ambition is to create an internationally renowned, self-financing centre, around sound and listening that crosses multiple disciplines.

Evelyn has been raising awareness of the importance of listening over the past few years. As the first stage on the long journey to the successful legacy, Evelyn has decided it is her turn to listen. Whether at home in the UK or globetrotting to concerts, there will be conversations with colleagues, peers, illuminati and everyday people like us. She will be exploring how and when listening is an important element in our lives.

Every conversation comes to a close. After a couple of hours in heated debate, challenging ideas and looking at solutions, we found ourselves in that quiet at the end of a successful meeting.

“Can I ask you a favour?” Evelyn looked at me warily, as well she should. When I explained an idea for a photograph – her eyes twinkled. Adam had to kneel uncomfortably on a chair for the photographs above. All went well for the first few shots - till we fell about laughing after a chance comment by Adam – hence the last picture.

“So that’s Evelyn Glennie!” I thought as I left: Virtuoso; inspirational role model; human being.

For full set of larger images see: https://picasaweb.google.com/107595387761034666575/EvelynGlennie?authuser=0&feat=directlink

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Underground Canals to Solve Cambridge Congestion

City bosses have approved the first stage of a proposal by the Polish company KanałWODNY to construct an underground canal system to ease Cambridge’s congestion. 

Punting underground in Cambridge, April 2015

Discussions were initially stalled by University college concerns about the impact on wine cellars and crypts. Local punting companies are thrilled by the idea. One director revealed “We are in active discussion with local operatic groups to provide “Phantom of the Opera” tours”. 

The first canal is likely to be a link between Castle Hill and Addenbrookes, promising to become a major artery for the tourist and shopping attractions in the centre of town. Environmental organisations also praised this innovative initiative to mitigate future flooding. A branch to the Grafton centre is planned in 2020.

News by Kwietnia Głupiec, KanałWODNY 

Sunday, 1 March 2015

A14 Coffee Morning and HBN in Conversation at the Norris Museum

I’d invited both my Friday business networks to visit the Norris Museum and find out why I thoroughly enjoyed volunteering and working there, inbetween the two meetings. Gilly Vose, the assistant curator (and my mentor during the setting up of my Mammoth Exhibition)  had laid on coffee, tea and biscuits (and some cake!) for the weary travellers who had to make their way down St Ives’ Broadway.

The select A14 Coffee Morning crew had sauntered down around 11ish. Refreshments in hand, their interest soon quickened when fellow volunteer Rodney Scarle, currently cataloguing the coin collection, came by to show off some 1000 year old silver pennies from Edward The Confessor and King Canute. Few of us were aware that there had actually been a Mint in Huntingdon, licenced to strike coins for several hundred years. And to be able to hold a four hundred year old Gold Noble was an experience too.

The HBNers (Huntingdonshire Business Network) began arriving around 12:30 and were in full conversation by 1pm. Curator Sarah Russell dropped by to give us a brief introduction to the Norris Museum. In her hands, one of the treasures, the book of Edmund Pettis’ Survey of St Ives in the 1740’s. Not only did it include the first detailed maps of the town and surrounding fields, it also acted as an early blog on events and people. The fine handwriting-covered pages were interspersed with maps and illustrations that spoke immediately across the centuries to some of us who lived and visited the town.

Museums are increasingly interested in the stories surrounding objects on display. Memories were ignited and stories relating to the past through to the present began to emerge from all of us. Not only we were gripped, Sarah stayed on as we crossed back and forth in time, with objects, memories and technologies. We learnt from Richard Wishart that many of the high-technology industries still active today in Huntingdon were stimulated by the initial settlement of the Edison Gramaphone production in the town. Plastics, composites and radio-communication grew and expanded over the century.

Chris Whipple also introduced us to a long stick like tool used in old vetinary practice, to clear potatoes jammed in cow’s throats. Brian Williamson reminisced on how now many property deeds are held electronically, whilst recalling the scent of parchment from his first days in legal training. Scent could actually be an important addition to future collections as different smells can elicit whole sets of memories.

Luana Mattay commented on how she noticed technological change in the speed and ease of communication to South Africa over different trips. Sarah picked up on this as a pointer to another important role that museums are becoming aware of – I call it “the Recording of Now”. Generally, we look back and artefacts suddenly gain value or historical importance. But it is equally important to remember that what is happening today will be an important historical legacy in the future. The challenge for museums is how to tackle this.

With a couple of centuries of memories in animated conversation, this Friday’s visit by my friends and colleagues to the Norris Museum made my day.


The Norris Museum is always worth a visit - and my Mammoth Exhibition runs to mid April, so do come and visit.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Scanning the fields of a microscope slide

Q: Do you have a preferred method/pattern for ‘scanning’ the fields of a microscope slide?  I have seen numerous patterns listed, but (like a telescope I imagine) moving the stage is counter-intuitive to what my brain wants to do when I move the image while viewing it through the
objective.  Any tips?

Lily flower TS photographed in tiles 7 X 8
starting top left to right, row by row
A: I'm assuming you have a mechanical stage.

  • Start at a low power objective (10x)
  • Find a random subject to focus on somewhere on the slide to be scanned
  • Get your lighting set up correctly
  • Then go to the top left corner of the coverslip or area to be scanned (as seen through the microscope). If your microscope gives you an inverted image, it will initially feel strange and counterintuitive (ie. you move the slide to the left, but the image appears to move to the right). However, if you concentrate on what the image does, you soon adapt.

If just scanning by eye:

  • Scan towards the right across a predetermined width (e.g. coverslip width)
  • At the end of your first scan, go down about three quarters of a field of view
  • Scan back to the left across the slide till you reach the coverslip boundary
  • Go down about three quarters of a field of view and scan to the right again.
I tend to scan at lower powers, then when I find an object of interest, I centre on it and zoom in with the higher objectives.

Lily flower TS photo panorama created using
Panorama Maker 8 using tiles as above
If you want to create a photo panorama you need to:

  • Do one row scan from left to right, taking pictures every three quarters of the field of view
  • Once you reach the end of a scanned 'lane', go all the way back to the beginning on the left 
  • Go down three quarters of the field of view
  • Scan the next row from left to right, taking pictures every three quarters of the field of view.
  • Etc.

This ensures that your images are tiled in matching rows and columns. This makes for easier processing by a 2D panorama stitching program.

If you have a microscopy question, contact Chris at Chris@miltoncontact.com or go to www.usingthemicroscope.com


Finding low-contrast microbiological specimens under the microscope

My microscopy book, Understanding and Using the Light Microscope, has prompted some interesting questions, which we hope to address in later parts of the series. In the meantime, I thought I would share them on my blog.

Q: Do you have a preferred method on focusing on finding the focal plane of micro-biologic specimens when you can’t ‘see’ the specimen with the naked eye?  Do you prefer to begin by focusing on the upper surface of the microscope slide or lettering for instance?

Phase A contrast (a type of Phase contrast)
makes it easier to see very faint, transparent subjects

A: Well, there are several ways I might tackle this. In the absence of knowing what you are looking at, too many answers. But here are some to try:

Practice with a cheek scrape - you will have faint nucleated cheek cells, some of which will have bacterial colonies on them. Use minimal material and a coverslip, so sample mounted very thin in water (well, saliva actually).

1. Either
a) Focus on a known boundary (e.g. coverslip edge, dust on slide, scratch or ink on slide) and use the fine focus to search above or below that point to find your subject. OR

b) With a dried smear. Hold slide up so that you see light reflected on the surface with the sample - see if there is an area which looks less reflective due to more sample having dried there. Start trying to find something to focus on there. Then migrate away to a part of the slide where your sample is more thinly distributed.

2.  Use a method that increases the sample contrast against the background.

a) OBLIQUE ILLUMINATION: Start with a low power objective. Create oblique illumination by cutting off light entering one half of the condenser (a crude but effective way is to use a finger between the lamp and the condenser). Low contrast subjects are thrown in relief and stand out more. Once you find and focus on the subject, zoom in by going through to your higher objectives, again using oblique illumination. When at the highest magnification and focused on the sample, revert to standard optimum lighting.

b) DARKFIELD: Use of a central stop under the condenser creates a black background. Light hitting the samples from the ring around the central stop makes samples glow against the black background. You can create your own stops with ink or card discs on centre of a transparent filter. Many condensers have a filter holder. NOTE that the condenser iris diaphragm has to be opened wider to allow the ring of light outside the field of view to illuminate the sample.

c) If you have it, use PHASE CONTRAST at the higher power. Note that the phase contrast ring in the phase condenser for higher power will act as a darkfield illuminator with your lower power objectives.

d) Consider STAINING. Dilute fountain pen ink (a dye) stains protein (and fingers). Play. Samples stained against background.

e) Consider CONTRAST STAINING with drawing pen or other particulate ink. Ink particles are excluded by subjects, leaving them light against a dark background.

3. If your samples are too sparse and difficult to see - consider creating a new slide with more sample on it.

DO NOT SIMPLY CLOSE THE CONDENSER IRIS DIAPHRAGM TO INCREASE CONTRAST - YOU MAY APPEAR TO GAIN CONTRAST BUT YOU WILL HAVE LOUSY RESOLUTION!

If you need to go above a 40x objective to use an oil immersion one, life is a bit more problematic.

  • Find a visible sample using one of the above methods (oblique, dark field or phase contrast) until you get to the 40x objective (bacteria are visible as tiny spots or rods).
  • Centre on a good contrast object.
  • Move objective away from slide
  • Add small drop of immersion oil over sample
  • Swing in oil immersion objective (Make sure it is a sprung lens so you do not damage slide, sample or lens if you accidently go too close to sample and touch the slide).
  • Lower OI objective to touch oil drop on slide
  • Get objective as close as possible to slide/sample by looking from side and lowering carefully with coarse focus.
  • Look through eye piece and use fine focus to move objective away from slide.

Note that you should also use an oil immersion bridge between the condenser (if labelled with an NA greater than 1) and underside of slide for optimum resolution.

Do you have a microscopy question? Contact Chris at Chris@miltoncontact.com or visit www.usingthemicroscope.com



Monday, 16 February 2015

My brillig adventures in English

Guest Blog by Jane Thomas, Director, Milton Contact Ltd

Jane next to Betjeman
Holding a brand new book in your hand is like walking in newly fallen snow or perhaps like discovering buried treasure. You will be the first to open it up and discover the delights inside. Imagine how this must feel if you wrote the words printed on those crisp white pages.

It is said there is a story in all of us; that we are all able to tell the tale of our lives, or that of others, or use our creativity in ways only limited by our imaginations.

This is my story.  As every other little girl, I had thoughts of what I wanted to be when I grew up. Definitely not a ballerina (that was cissy stuff) and definitely not a fairy princess! At age 6, I wanted to be a poet.  Where this urge came from I do not know, but that was what I aspired to.

At primary, I remember having to write stories and do projects. I recall eagerly recounting the Christmas story over and over and writing vast amounts about foreign lands, their flags, main exports and landscapes. The urge to study geography was strong even then!

Any spare moment was spent outside, building bonfires, planting seeds or even with my head under the bonnet of my father’s car as he tinkered with this and that. Reading was for the acquisition of information; I’d spend hours ‘reading’ maps and atlases or scouring encyclopaedias just for the fun of it. I could probably count on one hand the number of novels I had read from beginning to end.

By secondary school I remember spending many an English lesson watching the sport outside the classroom. I could speak English perfectly well. Why would I need to learn it?!  Two lessons stick in my memory, however. One was learning Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’, with its amazing jumble of rhyme and nonsense and the other was reciting ‘The Tiger’ by William Blake – the first verse of which is still with me.

Thankfully, I passed my ‘O’ Level English language, despite an oral exam that asked three of us to discuss marriage in Victorian times. That I can remember the topic means it must have been traumatic. I was fifteen and knew nothing about marriage and even less about the Victorians (I gave up history at 13). Thanks in part to reading a library book the day before the essay paper and regurgitating the content as best as I was able, I added English to my list of exam successes, which later allowed me to pursue my real interest in Geography.

However, just like many an avid reader and book worm, I always had an insatiable love of books. As a child, my own collection of ‘Puffins’ lined the shelves in my room and each was issued with a carefully written library ticket; even if it was never read, it was treasured. Libraries and bookshops are still like heaven to me: Rows of colourful tomes just waiting to be picked up; waiting to take the reader on an adventure.

This love took me to a variety of jobs involving the printed word, from cataloging old regional newspapers in a Welsh library, to running the book department in a well-known stationers’ chain, to checking manuscripts and proofs for a learned scientific society.

I now find myself as a co-director for a small publisher and love helping others realise their dream to publish their own words; to create their own adventure. Whether fiction or non-fiction, the shared journey from initial draft, through editing, design and formatting to the final printed copy is exciting for author and publisher alike. And to see the face of the author when they first hold that brand new book with pride is always a moment to treasure.

Will I ever write my own? Will it be poems as dreamt of by that little girl? Who knows? At least it will be a journey full of discovery and adventure from start to finish.

Milton Contact Ltd has been helping people self-publish since 2006. Chris and Jane offer a wealth of knowledge from a wide variety of disciplines and pride themselves on their friendly and sympathetic approach to every new project.  Jane has been a co-Director at Milton Contact Ltd since 2013. 
www.miltoncontact.co.uk 

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Gig poster revival in Ely Creative

Am I showing my age? I remember the glory days of band posters and record covers, way back in the last century. Well, after a period of decline, gig posters are back. In this digital era, fans are looking for physical memorabilia - and printed T-Shirts and signed limited edition art posters fit the bill.



Tonight's Ely Creative (http://www.meetup.com/Creative-Ely/) meeting featured Alex and Chris White of the award winning design company We Three Club http://www.wethreeclub.com/about/. Both had found their interest in music leading to a creative outlet in designing gig posters. And incidentally found each other, professionally and passionately!

Their brash, often two tone posters shouted at us from around the room. My eye was particularly taken by the cheeky, provocative poster for Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes.

The rough, lively style is achieved through silk screen printing, where colors are applied individually by hand and using stencils. The print runs range from fifty to five hundred, ideal for a limited run product.

Rather than working in isolation, the duo joined with other gig poster artists. First in exhibitions, such as Poster Roast, then by creating the UK Poster Association http://ukposterart.com.

It was an interesting introduction to another successful creative business here in Ely.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Food, glorious superfoods, at the CETC September seminar

It was a positive delight to attend the September seminar by the Cambridge Enterprise and Technology Club, at the St John’s innovation Centre last week. We were treated to a veritable smorgasbord of talks at the cutting edge of super foods research. Three speakers introduced us to novel ways of producing three types of nutrients: long chain fatty acids, anthocyanins and Quorn.



Getting to the heart of the matter – the Ahi flower

When the agricultural revolution began some 7 ½ thousand years BC in the fertile crescent, it led to the gradual spread of cereals as a food source throughout Europe, finally reaching the UK around 5000 years BC. And with those cereals came a weed that would turn out to be an alternative source of the long chain fatty acids that we currently get in fish oils.

Dr Lydia Smith from NIAB introduced us to Buglossoides arvensis, now known under the more memorable name of the Ahiflower. The original plant produced reasonable levels of SDA (or steridonic acid), a nutrient that can be processed by the body into beneficial long chain fatty acids. The latter have been linked with a reduction in death from coronary heart disease.

But how do you turn a weed into a useful crop? Well, you have to learn how to consistently grow it and propagate it from year to year, producing enough of the valuable oils to be commercially viable. Only then can you get the farmers interested.

Lydia took us through some of the highs and lows that her team work through from the early years in 2004 to the present. It meant finding and identifying different Ahi flower varieties and crossbreeding to get the first commercially viable products. 10 years is a remarkably short timescale in agriculture. The use of modern molecular technology to characterise and identify the different varieties was of great assistance.

And as part of that work, we gained a glimpse of what might have happened, how the unassuming Ahi flower was brought to the UK during the past agricultural revolution, the spread of cereals in neolithic times.

Your five fruit for the day packed into one

It is said that the beneficial effects of drinking red wine are due to the high levels of anthocyanins, those purple pigments that give the wine its rich warm colour. You can find those same anthocyanins in many red and purple fruits, including the brambles in our hedgerows.

Dr Eugenio Butelli, JIC looked for a suitable existing crop plant that might be transformed to produce more of these anthocyanins. His choice was the tomato.

Yet rather surprisingly, the red colour in tomatoes is created by a totally different compound, also beneficial, lycopene. Eugenio took a combined approach of introducing additional enzymes into the tomato plants and finding tomato variants with altered biochemical pathways.
The result was a visual feast of colours from golden yellows through to the deepest purples. Tomato fruits could be produced enriched in a variety of beneficial compounds; from anthocyanins, isoflavones and phyto-oestrogens.

In fact, one JIC tomato could produce levels of anthocyanins equivalent to 50 bottles of red wine, but without the hangover. Indeed the levels are so high, that the tomatoes are more ideally suited to processing and extraction to extract the beneficial nutrients for use in other foods.

Trials are currently underway to ensure the plants overcome the necessary regulatory hurdles and safety checks.

Tasty protein without the guilt

As the world’s nations become increasingly affluent, aspirational diners are turning to protein. But most of this protein is in the form of meat, from cattle, pigs to chicken. Diet conscious Westerners have also been turning to protein as a way to control weight, for example with the Atkins diet.

Animal protein requires a lot of agricultural land, an increasingly valuable resource in a world with an expected population of 9 billion.

Yet for decades there has been an alternative solution, Quorn.

As Dr Tim Finnigan, Quorn Foods, ruefully quotes, Quorn is a 50-year-old overnight sensation!

What I hadn’t realised was, that the discovery of the filamentous fungus that is the basis of Quorn was driven by the foresight of Lord Rank in the 1960s. 

At that time there was already serious concern about protein shortages in the future. Lord Rank of Rank Hovis McDougall, initiated an in-house research programme. The aim was to find an organism that can convert the waste from cereal manufacture into a protein rich food. The fusarium fungus was found in 1967 and Quorn entered the UK market in 1993.

It is the filamentous nature of the fungus that makes it such a good protein substitute for meat; it can reproduce the texture and bite that the diner expects. And there are other benefits too, for example a much lower fat content.

Tim didn’t just want us to digest his talk mentally! He brought with him a whole buffet of tasty bites which were the signal for the networking part of the evening to begin.


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