X Close

UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Grant Museum Show’n’Tell: Soda Lakes

By Dean W Veall, on 5 November 2014

Dean Veall here. Over the last year I’ve been hosting our new lunch hour event series Show’ n ‘ Tell, with PhD students from across UCL sharing some of their amazing research and choosing just one object from our collection of 68,000 to tell the the assembled audience what they know about it. If you couldn’t make it to our last event, fear not, Irrum Ali from UCL Communications and Marketing came along and here’s what happened.

Guest blogger Irrum Ali


The Grant Museum of Zoology is just one of UCL’s many interesting and engaging museums, conveniently located almost directly opposite the Quad, and so, perfect for a fly-by lunchtime visit.

The museum hosts plenty of events throughout the year including its exciting Show’n’Tell series. I took the opportunity to go along to an edition and hosted on Wednesday 22 October.

Home to no less than 68,000 fascinating objects, the museum’s collection covers everything from the Tasmanian tiger and Dodo to brain matter and skeletons from species right across the animal kingdom. I heard from a UCL researcher who was asked to showcase just one object from the vast options on offer and tasked with sharing all they know about it to a keen and inquisitive audience.

It was certainly a unique experience to be surrounded by thousands of specimens as the talk took place at the heart of the museum among the many exhibitions. The event began with a short welcome and introduction to the museum, including an overview of its 170-year history, by our host for the hour, Dean Veall (Grant Museum, Learning and Access Officer) who then introduced PhD student Antonia Ford (UCL Genetics, Evolution and Environment).

Four ifferent species of cichlid fish

Four different species of cichlid fish

In the form of a Q&A, we were taken on a trip to the east African soda lakes that straddle the borders of Kenya and Tanzania. Antonia’s research focus lies with two of these alkaline water bodies and their inhabitants: Lake Magadi and Lake Natron.

As they are part of the Great Rift Valley, the area has all the characteristics of a volcanic region and these lakes are uniquely surrounded by hot springs.

Antonia’s research centres on the speciation and diversity of the lakes’ cichlid fish. Much of this research has been focused on mapping the genetic differences between different species. Also explained was how this has informed understanding of how cichlids adapt to their environment, an environment which is subject to extreme conditions due to the volcanic climate. With a mix of lab-based and fieldwork techniques, Antonia and her fellow researchers have contributed to increasing knowledge of their complex breeding and living behaviours.

It was particularly helpful to have all this illustrated through maps and images so we could follow the description with useful pointers. Also interesting was a delve into the life of a PhD researcher: Antonia was asked to explain further the hard work involved with fieldtrips to east Africa (early morning starts and plenty of sampling, as well as angling). We also heard how in-depth analysis of carbon deposits and isotope traces are vital to her research in reaching any conclusions. Hearing about the collaboration with Kenya and Tanzania institutes and researchers was a nice addition.

Asked about how her work influences other future research, Antonia explained how this niche area of fieldwork and exploration can assist in a wider understanding of local and international fish farming and agriculture, as well as generally informing how species vary and evolve. The techniques used in her research would also be of use to other researchers and studies.

The talk concluded with a description of what cichlid fish are actually like. Two short videos gave us an insight into how these tiny fish behave, move and even mate, and usefully illustrated just now tiny and agile these creatures really are.

Proving that the Grant Museum continues be a hidden gem in the heart of London, Show’n’Tell events are an enjoyable and excellent opportunity to learn from some of UCL’s top academics and researchers.


Dean Veall is Learning and Access Officer at the Grant Museum of Zoology

Leave a Reply