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in TOUCH May 2012

Issue 6

Swiss-Cubed – An adventure to CERN!

Students share their experiences abroad

Air traffic of the Avian kind

S-Cubed - A year in Review The rationale for the conservation of bats

Ripples Makes Waves


S-Cubed – A Year in Review

Ripples Make Waves

After yet another jampacked year, S-Cubed revisits some of its most notable activities.

The rationale for the conservation of bats.

8 Air Traffic of the Avian Kind

Swiss-Cubed – An Adventure to CERN!


S-Cubed’s trip to Switzerland and the Centre of European Nuclear Research!


An Erasmus Experience in Antwerp

Be Careful what you Fish For!


Fish4Tomorrow’s campaign towards a more sustainable local fisheries industry.


Bringing together the leading scientists worldwide, working in quantum mechanics and its fundamental problems.

Address: Office number 6, Science Students’ Society, Students’ House, University of Malta, Tal-Qroqq, Msida MSD 2080 E-mail: Telephone: +356 7943 3453 Design: Printing Unit, University of Malta

Two postgraduate students tell of their experience studying Chemistry in another European university.

Value Research, dear young Scientists

Quantum Malta 2012


An insight into the regular migratory patterns of birds over Europe.


Research keeps our University alive – see why!

S-Cubed Committee 2011-2012: Julian Bonello Katrina Grech Marie Claire Gatt Jonathan Muscat Martina Mizzi

Michael Buhagiar Jonathan Schembri John Gabarretta Eman Mifsud Jake Spiteri

recycle Please recycle this copy after reading it.




John Gabarretta is currently in his final year of studies and is the outgoing President of S-Cubed. He is also a Student Representative on the Board of the Faculty of Science and has been recently elected as the new KSU Education Commissioner.

t’s been a long way. I remember my very first day of University as if it were yesterday – a bustling quad, huge commotion around the freebies stands, hundreds of students flocking to get their KSU diaries… you know, same good old Freshers’ Week. But among the hustle and bustle, I visited a stand which changed my University experience thoroughly – the S-Cubed stand.

As I sit here writing this editorial at 3am, I wonder what University life would have been like without my participation in S-Cubed. Three years on, I feel that it has changed me and moulded me into a whole new person. I’ve participated in so many activities, met so many different people and gotten so used to University life that I feel that it has become my second home, with the organisation being an extension of my family. Since then, I have always believed that an active participation in University life is key to making your academic experience complete. For this reason, I have always tried to involve myself in as many activities as possible, contributing ideas and helping out whenever I could. This was, in fact, exactly the way I was introduced to In Touch. The magazine I had been given during my first Freshers’ Week impressed me – it was full of varied articles written by students and produced by students themselves. A remarkable achievement I thought, which is why I took up the offer to contribute in the subsequent issue of the magazine later on that year. Once I had joined S-Cubed, the responsibility of taking care of the magazine eventually fell into my hands. I soon found it to be not only a challenge, but also an enjoyable experience


– as a science student, it empowered me to get in touch with my artistic side (the little that there is, at least). From then on, I was committed to maintaining the series while slowly improving its aesthetics and the variety of articles it contained. S-Cubed publications have in fact come a long way from the older In Situ magazines which used to be published a few years back. But I’m not tooting my own horn here – it is because of the countless students who contribute content to the magazine that has caused this development. Occasionally, students have also helped in the compilation of the magazine itself. An honourable mention also goes to Mr. Ian Farrugia from the University Printing Unit who has constantly provided insightful design advice. Even so, there is still much that can be done. The series is ranking up for a revamp in terms of design and needs to become more financially sustainable, a growing issue in today’s world of online social media and financial crises. I am confident, however, that the series will continue – it can only get better. Likewise, I am sure S-Cubed will continue to keep up the good work which it has been doing and help to continue promoting unity among science students. They say you should do what you love to love what you do - I couldn’t agree more. I have become so attached to this student organisation that I think letting go is going to be a bit of an intimidating experience. Nevertheless, I can look back and say that I’ve got some really good memories and experiences. It’s been a long way, and it’s been totally worth it.

S-Cubed A Year in Review


s Summer approaches and the academic year comes to an end, so does the term for the current S-Cubed executive. It’s been a hectic year for the committee, which has strived to promote what it has always stood by – promoting unity among science students. As always, the year kicked off with the muchawaited Freshers’ Week. Many students are new to the University scene at this time and S-Cubed went to significant lengths to ensure enough relevant information was provided to students to help them familiarise themselves with the campus environment. Leaflets with useful information about several Universityrelated issues were handed out and information about our international affiliate networks was also available. This year, S-Cubed also initiated a number of tours around the University grounds to familiarise themselves with the campus and the distribution of the faculties around University. Useful initiatives such as a second hand book database were also made available to facilitate the sixth form to university transition. The 7th Annual Science Seminar which followed served to bring together a record

number of nearly 100 students, mostly first years, from across several departments in an informal environment. The weekend activity was packed with activities, talks and social events, which gave room for the participants to socialise with each other while still gaining new knowledge about a variety of topics: • Welcome Keynote Presentation by Mr. John Gabarretta (S-Cubed President) • Student Representation at the University of Malta by Mr. Jonathan Falzon (KSU Education Commissioner) • Dielectric Properties of Body Tissues by Ms. Lourdes Abdilla (University of Malta PhD student at Physics Department)


• DNA Forensics by Dr. Marisa Cassar • Closing Talk by Prof. Charles Sammut (University of Malta Dean of Faculty of Science) An ice-breaking session held partly in conjunction with IAESTE was held in between the coffee breaks and talks. This allowed participants to get to know each other in an informal atmosphere and also focused on team-building. The Friday night activity was included a Karaoke and Wine night, which had the whole group going into uproar during the chorus of each song! The event on Saturday night featured a themed party: Rave On, complete with glowsticks, fluorescent facepaint and glow in the dark decorations. Later on in the year in December, S-Cubed organised yet another one of its well-established outdoor activities – On

The Trail. This one night camping event included a BBQ and a variety of ice-breaking activities, the focus of which was the challenging Treasure Hunt - clearly not for the faint-hearted! Yet, beyond these somewhat customary S-Cubed activities, several other events aimed at targeting other individuals within the Faculty of Science were organised. Possibly one of the most ambitious projects S-Cubed embarked on this year was the Careers Week for Technical Students. The week-long activity, held in collaboration with IAESTE Malta saw the participation of around 25 local companies. These were present for a Company Contact Session, which offered students the chance to meet and discuss freely with potential employers from across the spectrum (from Pharmaceuticals and Engineering to Statistical Analysis and IT). Employers also joined students for the IAESTE Wine Night were they could converse in a more informal setting. This is apart from the several site visits to a plethora of companies as well as relevant talks given by professionals to convey important skills and shed light on less-considered options. For those who wanted an even more unique experience, there was Swiss-Cubed. The trip to Switzerland saw a handsome number of 50 students travelling together across five awesome locations in total, most importantly a visit to the European Centre for Nuclear Research – CERN. Nearly everyone who attended agreed that the experience was mind-blowing and S-Cubed will surely be visiting some other part of Europe for another amazing trip. The Annual Science Gathering also proved to be a huge success this year. Boasting an attendance of nearly three times that of last year, this year’s event was bigger and better. Both staff and students from across the Faculty attended to enjoy a relaxed night out in each other’s company. The addition of a


photo exhibition of impressive photos by NASA – From Earth to the Solar System – helped to add a new dimension to the venue. It was really great to see people from so many different backgrounds and ages mingling together and sharing a conversation. Along the way, there were several other activities which S-Cubed organised. A rather unique event this year was in fact the one-night seminar SUSTAIN, which featured several talks about the conservation of our natural resources such as water and fish stocks. The highlight of this event was, however, the Astronomy Night organised with the help of Dr. Sandro Lanfranco at Ahrax, Mellieha. Many students were remained in awe when they viewed planets such as Saturn and Jupiter up close through sophisticated telescopes. As the summer months now approach, S-Cubed is set for a new intake of executive members who will be working hard to bring you another year of entertaining and educational events. For those of you who wish to help out or give your ideas, now is the ideal time. Remember, if you are part of the Faculty of Science, then you are part of the Science Students’ Society – contributing means strengthening your way forward.


Ripples Make Wa

The rationale for the conservation of


Nathan Adams is the Honorary President |Youth For The Environment (Y4TE), Group Leader of Operation Wallacea | Malta Volunteer Research Assistant | BICREF (The Biological Conservation Research Foundation)

ur chiropteran companions; bats. The order ‘Chiroptera’1 is a distinctive group of mammals among the animal kingdom for an array of reasons, including: • They are the only mammals capable of true flight. • Besides cetaceans, they are the only mammals capable of highly sophisticated echolocation.2 • They represent a fifth of all known classified mammalian species globally. • They can be found worldwide except in polar regions. How can an animal, so widely distributed and scarcely seen, possibly be so important to our everyday lives? What makes the conservation of bats significant from both an ecological and economic aspect? As science students, we should all know what biological controllers are…. Biological control is a method of pest control which strictly relies on natural mechanisms rather than artificial ones. Bats operate as biological controllers of insect populations globally and affect both human beings and the environment in ecological and economic ways. For example; locally, the Grey long-eared bat (Plecotus austriacus) is known to eat Mediterranean fruit fly which is a pest to local harvest. This is one of the most destructive fruit pests in the world due to its larvae which feed upon fruit pulp. It has also been recorded that P. Austriacus alone eats twenty three local moth species, of which eight

Brown Long-eared bat


1 Chiroptera, originating from cheir – hand, and pteron – wing 2 Echolocation is the method through which bats, and other mammals, make use of sound generated at ultrasonic frequencies to pinpoint their location and observe their surroundings in the absence of sufficient light.

are pests (Falzon, 1999). Bats also defecate on the wing (no need to keep an eye out though!) – some are capable of travelling over 500 kilometres in search for food. Bats forage at different times and locations to birds, in turn adding nutrients to multiple habitats. Safeguarding bats is key to maintaining ecosystems influenced by the recycling of nutrients made possible by them. We can consider bats to be keystone species in these circumstances. Local bats are also known to eat mosquitoes. Sustaining bat population levels in Malta would keep summer mosquito nuisances to a minimum too. Everyone’s experienced those long, sleepless summer camping nights due to mosquito bites! A more noble reason to contribute to bat conservation is of particular importance vis-a’-vis human health in malaria hot spots in Indonesia for example (which are not as infrequent as we may believe!). One may say that we are ethically bound to spread awareness; we’ve got to think outside of our 25x15 km island we call home! Why ‘Ripples Make Waves’? One would presumably imagine an article related to aquatic organisms with such a misleading title. But think of the negative impacts, both environmentally and financially.... We’ve established that bats are biological controllers of insect levels. Locally, high levels of insecticides have been detected within our local bat populations (Baron, 2006). These insecticides include DDT and PCP (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane and pentachlorophenol - for the chemistry lovers). • DDT and PCP are non-specific insecticides. They can be hazardous to wildlife at sufficient concentrations once released into the environment. • The fact that DDT and PCP have been found in high levels of bats indicates that other local wildlife probably may have too. These compounds may eventually manifest themselves enough to become toxic to our fauna (leaving ‘Silent Spring’ author Rachel Carson gobsmacked!) White Winged Vampire Bat


Operation Wallacea

f bats

Being unaware of the importance of bat conservation locally (and internationally for that matter) can lead to the positive feedback of this cycle. As bat populations suffer in numbers, farmers may h a v e to resort to increasing DDT and PCP use locally, continuing the counterproductive cycle of unsustainable practices. Keeping bat populations at healthy levels both protects our environment from unsustainable amounts of insecticides and saves farmers’ budgets in the long run. (An example of a selective insecticide, harmful only to invertebrates would be pyrethrin). So are bat species classified as ‘vulnerable’ in Malta? According to the Distribution and status of bats in Europe (Natural Environment Research Council Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, 1986), of the ten species recorded, six are categorised as vulnerable whilst 4 are regarded as endangered! Ecological research on local bat populations is now on the increase in attempt to better preserve them.... But what is leading to bat population declination? ‘Ghar il-Friefet’ in Birzebbugia is a cave which used to be a nursery for the bat species Myotis punicus. In 1990, only 12 individuals of bats were recorded as opposed to the 100 previously recorded (Borg, 1998). Disturbances such as deliberate fires and vandalising the roost sites with material preventing the bats from hanging from cave ceilings properly are the causes of such callous bat population decline. What is being done? ‘EUROBATS’ is an agreement made for the preservation of bats in Europe. All of the bat species in Malta fall under this agreement which reinforces legislation for their conservation. Legal measures are now being taken which include the ‘’Flora, Fauna and Natural Habitats Protection Regulations, 2006’’, prohibition of capture/killing/attempted killing of bats, deliberate destruction/keeping/transport/sale of all bat species as well as the deliberate destruction and deterioration of any breeding sites. Effectiveness of this agreement can only be supported by data collected by scientists locally (which are not infinite in number!). What can you do to help?.... Educate! Inform your family and friends about the importance of conserving our bats and our natural environment!

Operation Wallacea is a series of biological and conservation management research programmes that operate in remote locations across the world. These expeditions are designed with specific wildlife conservation aims in mind - from identifying areas needing protection, through to implementing and assessing conservation management programmes. What is different about Operation Wallacea is that large teams of university academics who are specialists in various aspects of biodiversity or social and economic studies are concentrated at the target study sites giving volunteers the opportunity of working on a range of projects. The surveys result in a large number of publications in peer-reviewed journals each year, have resulted in 30 vertebrate species new to science being discovered, 4 ‘extinct’ species being re-discovered and $2 million levered from funding agencies to set up best practice management examples at the study sites. These large survey teams of academics and volunteers that are funded independently of normal academic sources have enabled large temporal and spatial biodiversity and socio-economic data sets to be produced, and provide information to help with organising effective conservation management programmes. This year three Maltese science students will be getting involved – Nathan Adams, Dawn Grech and Anthony Sant, all following a course in BSc. Biology and Chemistry, and will be visiting the Republic of Indonesia to work together as jungle and coral reef research assistants. Other non-science students will be going to Honduras, Central America and South Africa! “I think my trip Indonesia shall be one of the most adventurous quests I’ve done so far and I’m hoping it’s not my last. My opwall expeience shall not only serve as an educational trip but also as a cultural experience. I’m counting down the days!” Dawn Grech – BSc. Biology & Chemistry 3rd Year Should you wish to get to know more about Operation Wallacea or even get involved, feel free to contact Nathan Adams on or 99 484 075.


Swiss-Cubed – An A


fter a successful trip to London last year, the students wanted yet another adventure; this time S-Cubed looked towards offering the students something different and something special. After months of planning, the executive finally managed to come up with a complete package at a good price. The day finally arrived. We left Malta straight for Geneve and after a day of travelling we had some free time to eat, rest and enjoy the lovely promenade and jet d’eau of Geneve. The next day we all woke up excited to see what the largest machine in the world had to offer. For those of you who still don’t know what I’m talking about - this is CERN. We arrived and were given a warm welcome from the people who make CERN a success. In fact after a brief introduction we were lucky enough to have 3 scientists who showed us round the place. In this tour we got to see the permanent exhibitions along with the LHCB and ATLAS. Once again after the visit to CERN we had some free time to enjoy the evening. The next day was rather long - we left Geneve and headed to the lovely city of Zurich. On the way to Zurich we stopped to visit the historic salt mines which were the first of the kind to be discovered in Switzerland. These salt mines go by the name of Bex. The tour of the place took us deep into the salt mines and some of us were also lucky to get a taste of what the miners actually do. Finally we could spend some time shopping from a wide variety of products which are produced in the mines we


Adventure to CERN!

visited. After a splendid time in Bex we had a two hour drive to our final destination. The next day we woke up and headed towards Technorama - a science centre with a difference, with over 500 hands-on experiments. Although some were rather simple, it was great to see undergraduate and postgraduate students dig into their knowledge and discuss what they were doing. After this we all relaxed as we went to see the lovely Rhine falls which are the largest waterfall in Europe. Here we all got on a boat and one can say that we were practically immersed into the lovely falls and we even managed to climb up a rock right in the middle of the falls. This brought us to the end of the trip but before it all ended, on our last night, we enjoyed some traditional Swiss food and enjoyed each other’s lovely company. Then it was back to the bus for a total of 7 hours travelling at the end of which we were back to one of the smallest islands in Europe.


1. Why did you choose to apply for Swiss-cubed? If there is one place any physicist would want a tour of, its CERN. Given the added bonuses of visiting Technorama and going to a country I’ve never been to before, there was no doubt I would apply. 2. What was your best memory from the whole trip? It is common knowledge that part of the CERN facility is located in Switzerland, while the other in France. However, only when actually crossing the border during the tour to go from the main building to LHCb, does one really realize the immensity of this laboratory.

1. Why did you choose to apply for Swiss-cubed ? Seeing the name CERN definetely made it an opportunity not to miss, it was going to a be a once in a lifetime experience besides the adventure of travelling with your/ my friends. 2. What was your best memory from the whole trip? Apart from visiting CERN which it was everyone’s favourite, the scenery was extremely beautiful, surely not something you see in Malta ! 3. Do you think such trips abroad help bring science students closer together? It sure does, it gives us the opportunity to get to know each other in a different environment.

marija cini

4. Did the experience help broaden your horizons on what opportunities are available for science students beyond their course? Yes, being exposed to such high level of technology, inspired me to work in a similar environment. If you want to change anything, feel free to do it :) 5. Would you recommend S-Cubed activities such as this trip abroad to other science students? Of course ! It was an eye opener to get to know more people from different courses within the science faculty.


3. Do you think such trips abroad help bring science students closer together? Definitely. Normally, the scientific exchanges between students of different departments within the same faculty are rather limited, let alone inter-faculty exchanges. Such events bring us ERIC PACE students together in one group, regardless of the degree we are reading. This is not only important socially, but is of paramount importance on the scientific level, since it is through communication that scientists can further the pursuit of knowledge. 4. Did the experience help broaden your horizons on what opportunities are available for science students beyond their course? We hear a lot about research opportunities abroad. However in being there first hand to experience the daily ongoings of the various members, one can get a much clearer picture of what it’s all about and that finishing a degree is only just the beginning. Thus, if I had no intention of furthering my studies abroad, this has definitely changed! 5. Would you recommend S-Cubed activities such as this trip abroad to other science students? I would recommend these activities to any science student, even if the programme of events is biased towards a certain particular area of science. This is because as science students we should understand that the boundaries separating chemistry, physics, maths etc are superfluous as in reality we all study one subject: science. Even if the student has no intention of pursuing further studies, these trips help to give insight to the ongoing research occurring at an international level.

1. Why did you choose to apply for Swiss-cubed? I’ve always thought Switzerland was one of the most beautiful countries on earth and visiting CERN was on my bucket list ever since I learnt about the ground breaking research they are doing so there was no question I was in. 2. What was your best memory from the whole trip? My best memory has to be when we got to Mont Blanch at Chamonix, the view was just breathtaking. 1. Why did you choose to apply for Swiss-cubed? I chose to go because it was a great opportunity to visit CERN which is of particular interest to me as a student of Physics. Aside from this I felt that it would be a wonderful experience to travel to Switzerland with a group of other students. 2. What was your best memory from the whole trip? My best memory is going around the interactive displays in the Science Museum in Zurich (Technorama) with my friends, as it was both entertaining and interesting.

3. Do you think such trips abroad help bring science students closer together? For sure, I met so many new people from different courses and we bonded over cheese fondue and wine, I’m sure I will stay friends with the people I was with for years to come.


4. Did the experience help broaden your horizons on what opportunities are available for science students beyond their course? It got me thinking about how many opportunities there are and that with some dedication you can get anywhere you want to go.

3. Do you think such trips abroad help bring science students closer together? I agree entirely. During the trip I got to know others students and made new friends. Being a first year student I found it very valuable to hear about the experiences of older students. 4. Did the experience help broaden your horizons on what opportunities are available for science students beyond their course? This is an area of Bernard Valletta some concern to science students in Malta as it is not that clear what opportunities await us once we graduate. This trip did help me understand that opportunities to work in a scientific environment with an opportunity to further one’s learning do exist. The fact that there are two Maltese working at CERN is good evidence of this.

5. Would you recommend S-Cubed activities such as this trip abroad to other science students? For sure, I went to London last year and Switzerland this year, both of them where a blast. Everything is very well planned and organised I can’t wait to see where S-cubed is taking us next. It is in this by attending these activities that you get to know people and make the most of your University experience.

5. Would you recommend S-Cubed activities such as this trip abroad to other science students? Absolutely! It is an experience not to be missed and can only be truly appreciated once you take part in it.


Air traffic of the T wice a year around the world, air traffic hits a peak – and I’m not talking about aeroplanes. At the start of autumn and spring, multitudes of birds take to the sky to escape seasonal hostile environments and exploit favourable ones elsewhere.

Marie Claire Gatt is currently in her 3rd year of studies following a course in BSc. Biology & Chemistry. She is an avid bird watcher and has been active in S-Cubed for the past three years. She has also been recently elected as the new KSU Social Policy Commissioner.

In the Western Palearctic, birds leave their breeding grounds in the north, triggered by the forecast of resource shortage, and travel south within Europe and to Africa for the winter where the conditions are milder and, as a result, resources are more readily available. As spring starts approaching it’s a race back up north, especially between males who want to establish breeding grounds to have their best chance at passing their genes to the next generation. Migration isn’t the exclusive type of movement in birds. Some birds, pelagic birds especially, undertake daily foraging ventures that may span over several hundred kilometres from their breeding sites. But in most other avian groups, such large distances are traversed during migration. The Sedge Warbler, a small land

Sedge Warbler - Acrocephalus schoenobaenus (Photo courtesy of Ray Galea) A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush? Bird ringing is a method of studying migration by capturing, ringing and releasing wild birds. The light metal rings carry information on the bird and location of capture. The recapture or recovery of a ringed bird gives an indication of the movements of the species. Bird ringing is carried out with the bird’s interest in mind, with no harm or discomfort caused.


bird that only measures around 12cm in length, travels over 3000km every autumn from its breeding grounds in Britain to its sub-Saharan wintering grounds. This jaw dropping feat can be done in a single bound after stocking up on fat resources from Plum Reed Aphids in Britain and Northern France.

Migratory routes are not necessarily the most direct. Along the way, birds may encounter boundaries which would be more sensible to avoid. Sea birds avoid flying over land, while land birds avoid flying over sea (although some small songbirds are known to traverse oceans!). This is especially true for thermal soarers, such as some raptors, which make the most of warm air currents rising from the land to aid their passage. This is one of several physical mechanisms practiced by birds to use energy efficiently while undertaking long flights. While some species can travel independently of geomorphological and landscape features through broad fronts, others use specific flyways or migration corridors. This can lead to a great concentration of birds at bottlenecks, such as chains of oases, connecting land masses and valleys.Three such bottleneck flyways are observed crossing the Mediterranean region between Europe and Africa; the Western Flyway traverses the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco; The Eastern Flyway collects from eastern Europe and Asia and passes through the Middle East and down East Africa; The Central Flyway crosses the Mediterranean over land masses such as Italy and Sicily to cross to North Africa. With the Maltese Islands falling in the way of the Palearctic Central route, a vast array of avifauna provides a biannual spectacle as birds fly over or stop over to roost or refuel. Buskett is a magnet for migrating raptors that arrive on our islands in the evening, gliding low above the woodland in search of a roost before continuing their journey at dawn. The benefits of choosing to migrate over staying put must be rather significant, not only due to the immense energy expenditure required for migration but also when weighing in the risks at stake.

Avian kind “A small land bird

that only measures around 12cm in length, travels over 3000km every autumn from its breeding grounds in Britain to its sub-Saharan wintering grounds ” Juvenile Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus) flying over Buskett (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Galea)

Weather is a main actor, with day-today conditions affecting the migration patterns of individuals or populations. Strong fliers, such as waterfowl, are not as fazed by poor weather conditions, but for other birds, misjudgement and attempting to migrate in poor weather may mean sure death. The smaller birds also risk being predated upon along the way. Colonies of Eleonora’s Falcon across the African shore time their breeding to coincide with migrating passerine passage to ensure that there is enough food available for their young. An anthropogenic barrier to migrating birds is human persecution. Increased land use for agriculture, together with its increasing intensity and efficiency, leads to the destruction of habitat for some species as well as a rise in deaths related to environmental contamination by biocides and industrial effluents. This is resulting in an overall decline in the population

sizes of Europe.




With technology making tools for hunting and trapping more efficient and affordable, the number of birds lost has undoubtedly had its effect on population numbers. In Europe, it was recorded that 11 million ducks and geese are shot annually by 3.2 million hunters, while 175 million birds are affected by hunting and trapping in Italy alone. Hunting seasons also disrupt migration by disturbing birds from staging areas, causing them to leave sooner. Malta has, by far, the highest density of hunters and trappers in Europe, with over 15 000 registered individuals covering 316km2. The illegal hunting and trapping of protected species remains an issue. Interestingly – and rather unfortunately – a large proportion of Honey Buzzards that migrate over Malta are juvenile birds that have not yet reached sexual

maturity. On travelling from Europe to Africa in September, adult birds tend to fly west across Sicily to cross the narrowest part of the Sicilian Channel to Cape Bon in Tunisia. First year birds travel later than adults as it takes them longer to accumulate sufficient fat scores and, relying more heavily on compass orientation, take a more direct north-to-south route over Malta, which is a longer over-water passage they learn to avoid with age. This means that it is more likely for immature birds – that have not yet had the chance to contribute to a new generation – to be shot over Malta. Man’s fascination with bird migration has been recorded in history as far back as ancient Greece, where Aristotle raised ornithology to the rank of a science. Today, ornithologists study these movements, their indications of global change and the relationships of birds with the habitats they encounter along the way.


Be Careful what you


Anthony Debono is currently reading for an MSc. In Chemistry and is actively involved in Fish4Tomorrow and Greenhouse Malta.

here’s nothing I enjoy more than a nice steak of Bengal Tiger. It’s not so easy to find tiger steaks in Malta, but I know a guy who imports them through the black market and he often reserves a good cut for me. I like to marinate the steak in red wine, garlic and a variety of herbs. I smack them on the BBQ and leave them flame grill for just 5 minutes. Why is it that you are so shocked when you hear somebody talk about eating a tiger? The popular Maltese food magazines are filled with recipes of endangered predators. The Bluefin tuna is the most well-known of the critically endangered predators in the world. The same can be said about swordfish. Dogfish are also landed by the local fishing industry. This is quite shocking because some dogfish species are highly protected by international conventions. Being top predators, sharks reproduce and grow very slowly and play a very important part in keeping the ecosystem in check. Instead of being allowed to spawn, they are caught as by catch when fishing for tuna and swordfish and sold to you as a counterfeit fish. Yet, every summer evening Maltese are over-cooking tuna steaks, munching away at baby-swordfish and eating shark-flavoured soup. In addition, the method used to catch most swordfish results in huge amounts of by-catch. This is the accidental capture of other species such as sea turtles and sharks. In 2008 alone, it was estimated that 11,000 turtles were caught by accident by Maltese fishing vessels and thrown back to sea injured and many of them die. Greenhouse have recently grouped up with four other NGOs - Nature Trust Malta, Din L-Art Helwa, Get up Stand up and Sharklab (Malta) - to launch the fish4tomorrow campaign, which aims to promote wellmanaged fisheries locally. About two years ago, we carried out a small consumer survey, to try and gauge what kinds of fish the Maltese eat and to get an idea of their eating habits. What we found was that, although most respondents were found to eat fish frequently and generally liked eating fish,


Fish For! they knew very little about how fish is caught and where it comes from. There are huge public misconceptions. Not many people realise that the bulk of our fish comes from the wild. This creates a major difference between land-based agriculture and fisheries. On land, we can see the animals. More importantly, we can count them fairly easily. Most of our meat comes from “farms” which are more like “factories” nowadays. In effect, the only large scale hunting goes on at sea. The misconception that the oceans are endless is rooted deep in the tradition and psyche of man. But they are not endless. Not anymore. With satellites, spotter planes, 1.4 billion hooks per year and enough long lines to circle the earth more than 550 times we have made the oceans into a very tidy manageable place for our fisheries. We have much more fishing capacity then the oceans can afford to give us – in fact the fishing capacities of some EU fishing fleets are 2-3 times greater than their permissible quotas. In Malta, fisheries are over-exploiting a very narrow list of species. And this is where the problem lies. In 2009: • 1,234 tonnes of fish were landed at the fish market in Valletta • 237 tonnes of this was swordfish (19%). • 185 tonnes was blue fin tuna (15%) – this doesn’t include those caught by purse seines for ranching, which by far overweighs all the other fisheries put together! • 332 tonnes were lampuki (27%) • 59 tonnes were shrimp, bogue and stone bass • 19 tonnes were dogfish/mazzolla. The really sad part is that there are some species of fish that have less delicate stocks. There are fish that are very common, very tasty and also very healthy! Take the Mackerels for example: Kavalli and sawrell, which are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids. They’re caught by Lampara fishing, an old technique which involves going out at night with a lamp and fishing with a line with several hooks. This method eliminates the bycatch of turtles or sharks. The impact is small and mackerels are quite low in the food chain,

reproducing relatively quickly. The key point is management. It has to be controlled to make sure that industries don’t catch more than they should catch. fish4tomorrow is a long term campaign. We’re here to stay. We’re doing our research properly to be able to pass on vital information for the public to take responsible decisions on their seafood eating habits. If you follow up on what we do you will gradually learn more about the issue and hopefully be empowered to take small everyday actions which will eventually lead to a more environmentally-oriented industry. Together we can turn the industry into one with a long-term economic vision and not the short-sighted mess it is in now. We can influence the EU to make fundamental improvements to its fisheries policy which is due for reform this year. Ask Questions - Ask WHAT, WHERE and HOW your fish is caught. If you are unable to get answers, politely refuse to purchase seafood items. Remember you have every right to know these answers! If someone refuses to answer it shows that they’ve got something to hide. Money Talks - Support retail stores and restaurants with responsible, publicly available sustainable seafood policies. Right now, businesses are afraid to take the step towards more environmentally-friendly menus and supply because they think it would be bad business…prove them wrong! Size Matters - Avoid undersized fish. It’s quite intuitive that eating fish not given time to reproduce is bad for fish stocks. Buy Local and Seasonal - Support Maltese fishers taking bold steps to conserve our fish while maintaining their livelihood. Small-scale artisan fishing takes guts, skill and can be considered an art. Fishing methods that have been used for hundreds of years have proved themselves sustainable by definition. Use your voice - Share your commitment to sustainable seafood and healthy oceans with others in your community. Tell your friends, families and political representatives about the impact that they, too, can make by supporting this initiative.


An Erasmus Experience in


arlier this year we were fortunate to attend a 2-week Intensive NanoChem Program between the 4th – 18th March at Plantijn University in Antwerp, Belgium. This programme was co-ordinated by Prof E. Sinagra.

Sophie Briffa graduated in BSc. (Hons.) Chemistry with Materials in 2011 and is currently reading for a Master’s degree by research in Mechanical Engineering. Funded by STEPS, she is looking into Nano-particle based silanes for the treatment of local Globigerina Limestone.

On the first day, after a long day of travelling, we were greeted with a welcome drink and given the opportunity to mingle with lecturers as well as the other students from Austria, Lithuania, Finland, Poland and Belgium. The actual program started the following day with an introduction from every country’s students. The students presented themselves, their country, university, and a NanoChem topic. The subject title which we had to present was ‘Nanomaterials and Electronics’. The Austrians who spoke before us mentioned what a small country they live in whilst the Poles dared to say that they live in a warm part of Poland! Following these presentations we did not miss the opportunity to inform them what a small country really is as well as numerous photos of our warm and sunny island!

Matthew Grech graduated in BSc. (Hons.) Chemistry in 2011 and is reading for a Master’s degree by research in Chemistry. Funded by STEPS, he is researching the interaction of divalent surfactants with gelatin.

The polymers which were synthesised at Plantijn University needed to be characterised. This was done at the University of Ghent, which was just an hour away by coach and to which a visit was organised during the second week. On that day coffee and pastries were waiting for us upon arrival (Yum!) before we proceeded to listen to Dr. Peter Dubruel giving a welcoming speech and an overview of the day’s programme. The day was planned with 15-minute demonstrations on a number of instruments as well a very interesting talk and demonstration on electrospinning and its applications. As a souvenir each student was allowed to take home with them a sample of the nanofibers that they had produced. We were shown freeze drying and spin coating which are methods of sample preparation. Polymer characterisation


A typical weekday consisted of a 20-minute walk from the hotel to the university followed by a morning of lectures which began at 08:30. The lecture topics included polymerisation, solar energy, room temperature ionic liquids and proteins. We had the chance to listen to some guest lecturers from different companies. One representative from Sysmex spoke about Zeta potential and Particle Size Analysis, another from IMEC gave us an overview about solar cells, one from Umicore introduced us to nano-synthesis and two representatives from Phenom-World briefly explained and demonstrated the use of a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), which unlike any SEM we have seen until now was very student-friendly, easy to use and the size of a PC tower! One thing that was evident, and which we thoroughly enjoyed, was the emphasis on the practical aspect of the programme. Every day we had a three-hour lab session which consisted, amongst other things, of polymer


synthesis, FT-IR, UV, fluorimetry and agarose gel electrophoresis. The lecturers were always ready to lend a helping hand but at the same time we had the chance of trying out everything on our own.

The NanoChem IP 2012 group – Sophie back row 7th from L, Matt

n Antwerp

demonstrations included dynamic light scattering (DLS), gel permeation chromatography (GPC), differential scanning calorimetry (DSC), thermogravimetric analysis (TGA), nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and tensile testing. The NMR room was very impressive, having 3 NMRs with the largest one having a resolution of 700 MHz. All the students looked forward to 5pm when, after the long hours in the classrooms and lab were over, we could head to a pub to enjoy a ‘Bolleke’, a traditional Antwerp beer. The local lecturers were even kind enough to sponsor some of our drinks. The weekends were a luxury. Catching up on sleep, shopping, sightseeing and clubbing were amongst the main highlights. We also got an opportunity to

see the smallest waffle shop in the world. We both feel that we have broadened our horizons through the experience of working with foreign students, even more so when many of these students were studying different science areas (e.g. biotechnology, engineering etc.). We had the opportunity of using certain instruments which unfortunately are not available at the University of Malta and return back with valuable knowledge which we are now able to share with our colleagues as well as our lecturers. Preparations for the coming NanoChem intensive programme are already underway. Next year it will be held at the University of Malta and we would strongly encourage any student who has the opportunity to attend this course to do so.

working in the lab.

thew front row 4th from L

Sophie working in the lab.


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Quantum Malta 2012: Fundamental Problems in Quantum Physics


Jackson Said is a Ph.D. student in theoretical physics at the University of Malta. His main interests include formation of a theory of gravity that doesn’t necessitate dark energy and bridging the gap with the foundations of quantum mechanics.

uantum mechanics tries to unify observations on the very small scale into one unifying theory however the currently accepted theory called ‘quantum mechanics’ has at its heart ideas that run counterintuitive to our common sense notions of the actual world. In particular instead of having a world made up of particles or precise ‘things’, microscopic objects are constrained to a small region where the particle is not exactly anyway in that region but smeared over that region in a probabilistic sense. Surprisingly this is the best way to describe the way the world works on the smallest of scales. On the other hand another problematic aspect of this theory is that in order to make real measurements we must accept an idea of ‘observers’ that are separate from the real things that make up the dynamics of the world, these observers can then collapse these regions over which objects are smeared into particles as we would imagine in our intuition. One interesting point discussed in the conference held in Malta last week is this very idea, what if the collapse is not complete and objects then are still just smeared over a background reality but with regions much smaller than an observer can investigate which would imply that the world is completely composed of unreal things in a real sense, in that there are no things known as particles and furthermore results

of experiments are probabilistic in their outcome implying that even the universe itself cannot decipher the future since any experiment can have a number of outcomes that only becomes intuitive when a large number of such experiments are made. This is not the only view in the community that stands to solve the problem of ‘what is the world composed of and how does reality work?’. A growing part of the quantum mechanics community is trying to realize the dream of Einstein in its entirety, that is on small scales particles exist and have a deterministic or exact derivable outcome. This is called Bohmian Mechanics and is much less well known due completely separate problems with its inventor, David Bohm, who had a few too many connections to communist circles at a time in the United States of America when communist-phobia was prevalent. Bohm introduced the idea that this notion of a wave over a region guides a particle from an exact position in space and time. This would solve the problem! It would mean a return to classical ideas of real particles described by precise positions however with the proviso that instead of motion along straight lines, they are guided by a wave, similar to a surfer on a water wave; over long periods of time the surfer will move in straight lines but in small regions the wave may move the rider one way or another. The solution in the end will lie with a full development of deep theory in order to describe much larger effects such as gravity and information transfer over long stretches of space and time such as in cosmology, and also a higher precision in experimental observations so that the different models can be tested against reality. The current opinion of the community can be best described by a quote made by Einstein in a 1926 letter to Max Born, “Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us closer to the secret of the ‘Old One.’ I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing at dice.”


Value Research, dear Young Scientists


henever we see toddlers, we tend to look and visualise what they will look like when they are older. As they start attending nursery school, we immediately start firing the usual questions about what they want to be when they grow up. Invariably, this same trend keeps accompanying them all through their way in the whole educational system.

Jonathan Falzon is a student representative on Senate at the University of Malta and an Honorary President of the Science Students’ Society. He is also the outgoing KSU Education Commissioner while reading for a B.Sc. (Hons.) degree in Biology & Chemistry.

This inquisitive nature is a trait common to us all. It is in our psyche that we try to plan ahead. Personally, I would really like to know what I will be doing in ten years time if possible. However, I think that as young scientists, we have a bit of a problem here. First of all, being in such a small country, we have admittedly less possibilities from which we can choose to further our careers. Secondly, there is this perception, at least locally, that scientists are only those who either lecture at university, or else work in industry. The concept of having groups of scientists working in research groups is almost alien to us, except for maybe three or four specific examples, which are not well known locally anyway. This brings me to realise that the role of the young scientist is not really appreciated, let alone encouraged. I have seen various instances where promising students after completing the science course, end up working for the first company that offers them a decent salary, even if the job is relatively unrelated to most of what they had studied. Few realise that after all these years of undergraduate study, they could give a much more worthwhile contribution to society. I firmly believe that as young scientists we should have higher aspirations which ultimately befit the course we chose to enrol in and complete after four years of hard work and stress. Being young, hopefully full of enthusiasm and new ideas, we need to find our role in the science community. If one takes a look at the international scenario, various young scientists in research groups serve as a link between the budding students and the established academics. Locally, we can in fact note that


the link between students of different years within our faculty is very limited, and it is only thanks to some few dedicated students that a number of contacts exist. The lack of a communication network is particularly noted between the undergraduates and postgraduates. Fortunately, postgraduate research in our faculty is gathering pace, giving the opportunity to young scientists to have a first-hand and more personal experience of the scientific world than the one we come in contact with in the lecture halls. I do believe that some opt for postgraduate research because they have found nothing else to do but I am hopeful that these students are the exception. With the various grants available, I believe that such type of research should be better promoted and the faculty should ensure that the ranges of postgraduate studies available are diversified even further. Ideally, a framework should be created where even after students finish their postgraduate studies, they will be given the opportunity to keep doing research for university projects, from which they can earn a living. This will strengthen the research at our university, increase funding obtained through grants and create job opportunities for young scientists who do not want to change their field of research just because no other jobs in industry are available for that particular field locally. Let us all work together to show the value of science and the opportunities available within it to the decision makers. Many times one realises that people outside the science community have really no idea what research is about, let alone be aware that very important research is being carried out, at our university, every year. As young scientists, we cannot simply let the time pass and hope for the best. We must strive to create more opportunities, through which we can improve our present and future prospects, which ultimately benefits the whole country.


C wa aves slo ter ar wl flo e f y d w or m iss ing e olv th d b es rou y s th gh ligh e ro lim tly ck es ac to ton idi fo e t c rm ha vo t id s.

Ke ha vla s r, Th MP a te whe e a, ns n po a il sp lym nd e s un e a tre , t th r ow rela ngt he r e m es tive h of esu an its d a lti y i h en bo ng nt igh sit ut fib er y -c str of 3,62 er ha en 1. 0 in gt 44 bo h t . nd o s.

Gr av ph itat en ion om , bo en or g pr die on rav op s by ity or att w , i tio ra h s a na ct ich n l t wi ph atu o th y r th a si al eir fo ca m rce l as s.

Every picture tells a story...........

we focus on the scientific side of it The Malta Council for Science and Technology is a public body established by central government in 1988. The Council tasks include the responsibility for National Strategy in the field of Research and Innovation (R&I) and the ownership of the National Strategic Plan in the area of Research and Innovation. The Malta Council for Science and Technology represents government in EU fora related to R&I and is the national contact point organisation for the EU Research Framework Programme (FP). The Council is also responsible for Science Popularisation amongst young students in the Maltese Islands through a dedicated unit. The Unit’s primary responsibility is to set-up the National Interactive Science Centre. Additional science popularisation activities include: developing new project proposals, implementing current and future EU funded projects, as well as carrying out science popularisation activities in the community. Photo: MTA/Paolo Meitre Liberatini

In Touch Issue 6  

S-Cubed's 6th issue of In Touch

In Touch Issue 6  

S-Cubed's 6th issue of In Touch