My Summer in the SML

I spent this summer, the second of my undergraduate degree, in the Royal Veterinary College’s Structure and Motion Laboratory, as I undertook a BBSRC-funded Summer Research Experience Placement. The purpose of the REP is to give undergrad students a taste of what research would be like as a career. In my case, I was given the fantastic opportunity to study giraffe locomotion. Mentored by Christopher Basu, a PhD student in the SML, and Professor John Hutchinson, my ten-week project began at the start of July.

First things first, I had some ground work to do. All the data had been collected prior to my placement, though I will be joining Chris next week to collect fresh data for his future work. Giraffes were recorded using high speed video cameras walking parallel to the edge of their enclosure, over concealed force-plates measuring ground reaction forces. I was provided with 3 days’ worth of data in raw video format, which needed laborious converting, cropping into individual trials and rating. And so went the first week.

Once the data was in a useable format, I had the process of deciding how to digitise the trials.  This process allows us to extract numerical data that can be analysed from videos by plotting coordinates on individual frames. Using a digitising script I had previous experience of, within the MATLAB suite, seemed like a good idea. Next was deciding where to plot on the giraffe. 15 points were selected, encompassing the head, neck, and the nearside fore- and hind-limb. I created a profile of reference for each giraffe to ensure consistent digitising. 7 weeks later, and with many lessons learned in my digitising method, it was done. 15 strides ready for analysis.

An example of a trial
An example of a trial

This bought about the opportunity for a new challenge: using MATLAB for data analysis. Having never used any language-based software in the past, I was keen to learn what I could in the short time I had left. Due to the relatively small size of my data set, I was able to do a lot of my analysis in Microsoft Excel, but I did learn enough to compose some plots in MATLAB.

Then came statistical analyses, which I view as the necessary evil in all science. Without stats, results are largely useless, but we’ve never seen eye-to-eye. Thankfully, Excel was able to help me again here with handy regression analysis tools.

I can’t share a lot of what I found, due to the data being as-yet unpublished, but here’s a teaser of my findings! The plot below shows how, at any particular speed, the hindlimbs have a longer duty factor (spend a larger percentage of the time on the ground) than the forelimbs. This is interesting because the forelimbs carry most of the weight in giraffes, so one might expect the opposite trend.

A teaser of some of my findings!
A teaser of some of my findings!

So that’s the science covered, which has been the best experience of my academic life. The chance to have my own research project is hopefully just a taste of what to come from the future, but there’s a long way to go yet. However, there’s more I’ve learnt throughout my summer besides just the science. The most striking of which are the importance of both science communication and networking.

If you don’t communicate your science, who is going to know about it? With the dawn of Twitter and other forms of social media, there’s no reason not to shout from the rooftops about your work. Within both the public and scientific communities, there’s so much happening that no one can keep track of it all. Posting a tweet about cool new findings, showcasing your data collection or asking for solutions to your next problem all help to bring awareness to your work. I’ve been working on keeping a Twitter presence throughout my ten weeks, and it helps keep a driving force there during the monotonous groundwork such as digitising.

Another brilliant feature of Twitter is the range of people you can interact with, which brings us onto networking. Learning as many names and faces as possible seems important. Not only because knowing someone’s name when you meet them is polite, but you never know who the next collaborator or contributor is going to be. Oh, and because finding out what other people are working on is so cool! Within the SML alone, there are so many different projects looking such a wide range of species, it’s staggering to try and think about them all.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be starting the third year of my undergrad degree, incorporating another SML project on felids. Stay tuned to the blog, or follow me on Twitter @averageginge for future updates!

I’m Luke, and this summer, I got to be a scientist.


3 thoughts on “My Summer in the SML

  1. Well, it certainly sounds like you rolled an 18 on the 3d6 of summer projects. Great that you got to make a real contribution to real research, and with such a good team. Also a very interesting teaser result. Keep up the good work — and do all you can to make sure the results get published, with you on the authorship.


    1. Thanks for the words of encouragement, Mike! I’m getting as much experienced as possible, post-grad application season is fast approaching!


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