Research visit to St Andrews – SPP1833 Young Scientist Mobility Scholarship

In December 2021, I was fortunate enough to receive a Young Scientist Mobility Scholarship through the DFG-funded SPP1833 program to visit Dr. Eva Stueeken for three weeks at the historical University of St Andrews in the U.K.

Main St. in St Andrews, Scotland

The purpose of this trip was to measure the nitrogen isotope composition of modern and ancient stromatolites. These analyses provide important information about biogeochemical cycling in primitive microbial systems, the predominant life form on early Earth. Like any cutting edge research, this project is a collaboration between experts in various fields, including geobiologists (Dr. Stueeken), microbiologists (Dr. Michelle Gehringer at the U. Kaiserslautern) and inorganic isotope geochemists such as myself.

During the research visit, we analysed a series of modern and ancient stromatolites. The modern stromatolites were from the famous Shark Bay World Heritage Area in Western Australia and Lake Chew Bahir in Ethiopia. The ancient stromatolites were from a number of localities around southern Africa, including the Archean Kaapvaal and Zimbabwe cratons.

The main steps involved in the nitrogen isotope analyses of stromatolites involve acidifying the carbonate fraction to concentrate the nitrogen-rich organic material, drying and then accurately weighing out a small amount of the residue into tin capsules, which are then combusted and analysed by Elemental analyser isotope ratio mass spectrometry (EA-IRMS).

Aside from the scientific activities, I also took the advantage of the high latitude and coastal location to enjoy some stunning views of St Andrews on a few morning runs that involved more taking pictures than running.

The trip was also an opportunity to explore the local geology around East Fife, a land of Folds, Fire and Fossils. A highlight was the walk to the “Rock & Spindle” – a series of rocks formed by a volcano that erupted about 300 million years ago – that is located just ~2 km south of St Andrews on the coastal path and was well worth it, as was the entire trip!

View northwards towards St Andrews from the coastal path of folded Carboniferous sedimentary rocks
The Rock & Spindle, East Fife. The “Rock” part is a column composed of basalt that formed in the volcanic vent. This is easily visible and towers around 30 m above the surrounding sandstone . The “Spindle” was a bit harder to find, but I read it was supposed to resemble a spinning wheel formed by the radial cooling of the basalt. Looking back and comparing older photographs (left) compared to mine from December 2021 (right) with a warm coffee for company (rather than the winter winds of the North Sea), you can see there has been a landslide and the “Spindle” is now largely covered!

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