Norway!

It’s been over a week since last Ian updated this blog, so I guess its time for an update. No, Ian didn’t drop off the face of the Earth – even though he believes the Earth is flat and the journey would take him beyond the edge. Rather, Ian was at home in Australia for a week visiting family and not doing much (except electronically) for science. After flying into Brisbane, Ian spent a week in Noosa Heads, where the he (and Elliot and Kalia) had visited last December), then a couple of days in Canberra, Australia visiting family. On Tuesday last week, Ian flew from Brisbane to Norway (a loooong journey, which took over 29 hrs, stopping in Hong Kong, Helsinki, and Stockholm before making it to Bergen. By the time he arrived into this beautiful city, he was quite exhausted – but had to wait another 12 hours for his luggage to show up at the airport…

Why was Ian in Norway? Ian was invited to be an “opponent” on the PhD committee of Julia Storesund, a graduate student in the Department of Biology, University of Bergen, who worked with several colleagues including Ruth-Anne Sandaa, Jessica Ray, Lise Ovreas and Svein Rune Erge, on a project examining viral and bacterial dynamics in the nearby Sognefjorden. Ian had previously traveled to Bergen in 1999 in the middle of his undergraduate degree at the University of Queensland to learn techniques from another scientist, Gunnar Bratbak, so it was quite nice to return.

After a good sleep, Ian had a day to explore and see some of the local sites. He spent the morning doing a hike on top of Floien, a nearby mountain which is covered in gorgeous spruce forests and surrounded by dramatic mountains. It is not hard to see why these are home to trolls! The city of Bergen is the 2nd largest in Norway, and from Floien it is possible to get the most amazing view over the entire population. To get to Floien, there is a funicular (one of few in the world) which creeps up the side of the mountain and is packed with tourists.

View from Floien over Bergen – and gorgeous spruce forests.

In the afternoon, being a good scientist, Ian traveled to the Bergen Aquarium to see if he could see any local echinoderms. Part of the difficulty of being a scientist is that one finds oneself looking into the water at every opportunity, so much that one neglects the amazing UNESCO-listed sites!

The aquarium has an extensive collection of echinoderms, including many species that Ian is not familiar with. He began the visit with the touch tank, where there were many large specimens of Marthasterias, a common sea star in europe. In addition, there was one specimen of an asteroid which Ian was not familiar with (see photo).

Outside the aquarium, and inside the touch tank. The top right sea star is the species Ian isn’t familiar with…

After touching sea stars for about 20 minutes, he proceeded to the Rotunda and other exhibits to see the rest of the collection. What’s amazing is that, even though there are a lot of sea stars, there appears little interest from visitors since there were almost no identifying placards. Yet, they have a fantastic collection of species from shallow to deepwater habitats.

Some of the amazing echinoderms on display.

At the top of the rotunda, there is an exceptional set of aquariums representing the local habitats, including those living in Bryggen the world heritage listed site.

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In this display there were about 50 sea stars, primarily something that looked a lot like Asterias rubrens. Several of the animals looked like they had lost an arm or two, although it’s unclear whether these were due to stress or due to disease.

In the other aquariums there were several other cool specimens of sea stars, coexisting with fish. In the bottom of a salmonid (fish) tank, there were millions of black ophiuroids to be seen.

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What draws your eye? The fish or those spiny things on the bottom?

Finally, Ian saw a couple of multi-rayed species which he’s really never seen before, hopefully someone can identify. These were very large (about 40cm diameter).

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Unidentified, very large star in one of the aquarium.

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Another unknown sea star

After the visit to the aquarium, Ian went for a walk to the Fisktorget (fish market) near the center of town. There is an astonishing array of seafood on display including fish, crabs, shellfish, but what really caught Ian’s eye were the numerous tourist-oriented whale products. Norway is of course one of the only countries that still participate in this practice.

Snow crabs and whale meat on display.

After the tour, Ian met with Jessica and Ruth-Anne, along with the other opponent, Eva Sintes (from the University of Vienna) for a scrumptious and fun dinner at a local restaurant. The food in Norway is incredible, and that night included pickled fish, mushrooms, potatoes, and local wild onions. Local produce is very popular there, as is seafood.

On Friday, the defense took place, which was a very formal affair. There was a full academic procession, then Julia gave a 45 minute talk going over her dissertation results. Afterwards, Ian had the task of presenting her results in the wider, international context for 15 minutes (including many jokes about Norwegian cinema). He then orally examined the candidate for 30 minutes, which was more of a discussion about her work and how things could be done differently, then Eva Sintes examined for 30 minutes, before the opponents and the committee adjourned to the antechamber. After their decision was reached it was announced to the candidate and the audience (which comprised Julia’s family and colleagues) and there were many hugs since she was successful!

After the defense, the entire committee had a delicious lunch of smoresbrod (open faced sandwiches) before attending to paperwork and lab tours of the institute. Following this, in the evening there was a celebration dinner at a nearby house, which included many chants of “Skol!” – and it wasn’t until 10:30pm that Ian and Eva made it back to the hotel. Ian awoke at 3am to catch the 6am flight, which afforded one last, fantastic glimpse of Bryggen from the hotel.

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This is 3am. There is only 1 hour of night in summer – from 1 – 2am…

After a series of flights south (from Bergen to Amsterdam to Strasbourg to Ajaccio), Ian finds himself in Corsica, where he will be presenting in the 2016 International Parvovirus Workshop. More updates to come!


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