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SAMS UHI student who traced ancient algal ‘family tree’ wins UK research prize

A student from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS UHI) has been praised by the UK’s marine research community after it voted his dissertation as the best in the UK.

Sam Black won the Tripartite Undergraduate Dissertation Prize awarded annually by the UK’s Challenger Society for Marine Science, the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology and the Society for Underwater Technology for the best project by a BSc student in marine science, engineering or technology.

The University of the Highlands and Islands student has also been named as Student of the Year at the Oban-based SAMS UHI, where the 22-year-old has been studying a BSc in marine science.

Sam’s dissertation used DNA analysis to study four Arctic populations of rockweed, in order to establish the species’ migration patterns in the North East Atlantic. Because the species has evolved and moved around the northern hemisphere over millions of years, the shape of its family tree is a complex one but Sam’s project aimed to resolve the 'Svalbard branch' of this family tree to help make the overall picture more clear.

Understanding how it has adapted and responded to a changing climate in the past gives scientists an insight into how this species, and others, may react to a rapidly warming Arctic.

“It was a wonderful surprise to be awarded the Tripartite Undergraduate Dissertation Prize by the Challenger Society,” said Sam.

“I undertook the project with little experience in the field so it was a steep learning curve and a challenge at every step. Being recognised by the society was extremely humbling and I would like to thank my supervisors and the staff at SAMS UHI and at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) for making it all possible.”

Sam, who is originally from Dunbar, East Lothian, will receive his award and a £500 prize at the Challenger Conference in Liverpool in September. By that time he will have started an MSc in Climate Change at the University of Copenhagen.

Sam’s project, entitled Origin of Fucus distichus in Svalbard, was supervised by Prof Michael Burrows, Dr Claire Gachon and Dr Tove Gabrielson and involved field work in Svalbard, followed by laboratory genetic studies.

Dr Gachon, SAMS UHI’s principal investigator in molecular phycology, congratulated Sam on his achievement, adding: “It is a huge challenge for a student to design their Honours project alone, and to assemble an interdisciplinary team of researchers based in different institutions. To his credit, this is exactly what Sam did, successfully completing field work in limited time in the Arctic, followed by molecular analysis at SAMS. All along, I have been impressed by his general curiosity, and the breadth of topics he researched to complete his dissertation.”

Prof Tim Jickells, President of the Challenger Society, said: “All the submissions received by the award committee represented some of the very best work done by marine science undergraduate students in the UK. The projects were reviewed by a committee and all were truly of an excellent standard, presenting the judges with a difficult task.

“Sam Black’s project stood out for the breadth of the work done, from fieldwork in Svalbard to laboratory genetics, and also for the clarity with which a difficult subject was explained within the context of its broader implications for our understanding of biodiversity. This was a really impressive project.”

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