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SAEON GSN student presents at international isotope conference

SAEON GSN committee member Ander De Lecea presents his work on the effects of preservatives on zooplankton.
Ander admires a sea turtle swimming past during a dive at the Great Barrier Reef.
- Ander M De Lecea, third-year PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and member of the SAEON GSN Committee


As a SAEON Graduate Student Network (GSN) committee member, I received funding from SAEON as well as the University of KwaZulu-Natal to attend the 11th Australasian Environmental Isotope Conference (AEI) and 4th Australasian Hydrogeology Research Conference1 (AHR).

Environmental isotopes represent key tracers, not only of the hydrologic cycle but of many other biophysical processes in the atmosphere, on land and in the oceans as well. Environmental isotopes are ‘fingerprints’ encoded in all materials and play a key role in interpreting the archives of natural and anthropogenic environmental change on timescales of years to millions of years.

"More people attended the presentation than I had expected and it was followed by a series of questions, ideas and suggestions from members of the audience."

The technique is slowly becoming more and more popular in South Africa. However, due to the costs involved the technique has not yet reached the levels of popularity it has attained in Australia, Europe and America. As such, it is impossible to attend isotope themed conferences in South Africa or on the rest of the continent. I made the most of the opportunity of attending a conference exclusively on isotopes and gave an oral and a poster presentation.

Some of the isotope conference “heavyweights” attending were Professor Rolf Kipfer from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Switzerland, Professor Thure Cerling from the University of Utah, USA and Dr Evelyn Krull from CSIRO, Australia as well as several other prominent scientists. The AHR conference also attracted highly renowned scientists, and with a total of 150 delegates there was no shortage of like-minded scientists to talk to and new contacts to be made.

On the last day of the conference, the delegates were taken on a visit to Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation, both part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage area, as well as the Daintree Rainforest Observatory, part of James Cook University.

The presentations

My poster presentation entitled “The effects of freeze-thaw periods and drying methods on isotopic and elemental carbon and nitrogen in marine organisms”, did not go as smoothly as one would have hoped for.

It all started by misplacing the poster at Sydney International Airport during the customs and immigration control. However, this did not dampen my enthusiasm to present this poster and once in Cairns I set off in search of printing facilities, only to find that the cost of printing a poster in Australia was almost 10 times that of printing it in South Africa! In an effort to reduce the cost I went back to my lodgings to redo the poster in black and white on a white background and reduce the total size, but it still cost Aus$30 to print (which more expensive than having it printed in colour and laminated in South Africa!).

The unfortunate sequence of events continued on the day of the poster presentation when I realised that the write-up in the abstract booklet was incorrect. To rectify this, a set of correct abstracts were printed at the last minute for me to hand out at the presentation. I was very relieved when the poster presentation session started and the poster gathered more interest than I had anticipated.

The oral presentation entitled “The effects of preservation methods, dyes and acidification on the isotopic values (d15N and d13C) of two zooplankton species from the KwaZulu-Natal Bight, South Africa”, on the other hand, went smoothly. Even though it was the second last presentation of the conference, more people attended than I had expected and it was followed by a series of questions, ideas and suggestions from members of the audience.

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