Ground-breaking research earns Ruth ‘student of the year’ accolade

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A COLINTRAIVE student’s ground-breaking summer holiday research into shellfish toxins has won her the ‘student of the year’ prize at the Scottish Association of Marine Science – part of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Ruth applied for a grant from the British Phycological Society (BPS) to carry out a two-month project looking at alexandrium, a species of algae which can make shellfish poisonous to humans.

Ruth set out to determine whether toxic and non-toxic strains are capable of consuming tiny algal cells as toxin-producing strains may gain competitive advantages from this in the environment. The work could help to prevent illness and the loss of shellfish farmers’ crops in future.

Ruth conducted the research during her summer break in 2011 and was so successful that her initial findings have been included in international marine conferences and publications.

She has also received more BPS funding to continue the project this summer, with her latest results due in October, when she’ll attend the annual meeting of the BPS courtesy of financial support from the University of the Highlands and Islands development fund.

Dr Keith Davidson, head of the department microbial and molecular biology at SAMS UHI and Ruth’s research supervisor, said: “Ruth demonstrated excellent working with minimal supervision in the laboratory. The work proved to be challenging, but she displayed excellent scientific credentials.

“The quality of her work is evident from the further funding she’s received.

“Ruth has also presented her work at a range of scientific meetings, at a considerably higher level than one would expect from an undergraduate. Such presentations are potentially daunting, but Ruth carried them off excellently.” 

Professor Laurence Mee, director of the Scottish Association of Marine Science UHI, added: “Alexandrium is becoming a massive problem for the shellfish industry. Ruth showed huge confidence and dedication by undertaking this work and this is a great success story for research-based teaching; she’s a wonderful example to others.”

Ruth said: “I’m overjoyed with the award. I continue to love my time here at the marine institute and look forward to a stellar fourth year completing my honours degree.

“My project showed me what it’s really like to work in a research environment by communicating with and working in close proximity to scientists - it’s totally different from the student experience.

“I’m so lucky to have the SAMS UHI facility on my doorstep! Attending an international research conference has definitely been one of the highlights and it showed me what hard work can bring you. It was very inspiring to be amongst many like-minded phycologists getting excited about algae!”