Published 11 August 2021

Summer School Spotlight: Daniel Marfiewicz-Dickinson

Tell us a little bit about yourself

My name is Dan, 23 years old, and I’m originally from Poland but have lived in Yorkshire for the majority of my life.

I have just recently graduated with a master’s degree in Chemistry, the Atmosphere and Environment at the University of York before joining the BioArchaeology team for my internship.

My research interests are definitely in the analytical side of chemistry: finding out what things are made of and looking at how we can discover those things. In my master’s project I used analytical techniques to study the amino acids preserved in ~150,000 year old extinct hippo teeth in order to date the remains found in an Italian cave.

I hope to perhaps one day be able to use similar techniques to study extra-terrestrial samples of astrobiological importance. That is to say: I want to look at space rocks to find aliens!

Outside of work my time is spent practising Kendo (Japanese fencing), enjoying any and all tea I can get my hands on (particularly Thai oolong, matcha and jasmine green at the moment!), playing and making video games, and cycling when I have the time.

Why did you apply to join the YorRobots summer school?

The reason why I applied for this summer internship was because I found myself at a career crossroads.

One the one hand, I’ve enjoyed my masters project and could potentially see myself doing that in the future but, on the other hand, I have been developing my programming and software development skills in my spare time as that was also something I found myself passionate about (especially with regards to developing small games).

This internship came like a bolt from the blue and allowed me to explore both sides of my current interests, programming and analytical chemistry, to see which I prefer and if it is something that I could see myself doing as a job.

Further to this, it seemed like an excellent way to start putting programming related experience on my CV, if that is a direction I wanted to go down (although such experience in this day and age is invaluable in and of itself), with real application and completed a project.

Tell us a little about the project you’re working on

The project that I am working on is called “RoboZooMS”, which is a nickname for automated Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry, in which researchers can gather tiny fragments of unidentifiable bone from dig sites and extract collagen from it (which makes up about 95% of the organic material in bone).

This collagen, after a series of very manual and time consuming steps, can be broken up and analysed on a machine (MALDI-MS). It has been found that it is possible to identify what species (or rather which genus) the bone fragments belong to simply by looking at the pattern generated from this machine! An easy way of visualising it, is sort of like getting a barcode and the presence of certain bars can tell us what the bone belongs to.

My small part of this amazing research is to use a robot, lovingly called “Odie”, to try to automate some of the very manual and laborious steps in the sample preparation.

I hope to be able to save valuable technician time, reduce possibility of human error and increase the throughput of samples. This is achieved by writing Python scripts to control the robot and tell it exactly what to do – so the first couple of weeks were spent getting familiar with the procedure and then trying to faithfully replicate it on the robot.

Later down the line I will be optimising it to save time and resources, and making it more customizable and robust so people won’t need any programming experience to use the robot.

The project is supervised by Dr. Nathan Wales (expert in ancient DNA, specifically related to our history of plant domestication, and a key figure in DNA analysis optimisation for ancient seeds and other ancient plant tissues) and co-supervised by Prof. Kirsty Penkman (expert in ancient amino acid analysis and a leader of the NEaar amino acid geochronology lab).

What would you like to achieve this summer?

My personal goals for this summer, aside from successfully completing my internship, are to develop my programming skills in a professional, academic setting and to have a nice completed project at the end.

Hopefully, by the end of the internship I will have a little more confidence with the direction that I want to continue on afterwards, although we will see where the wind takes me!

Even only three weeks in I feel like I have learned and developed so much, with amazing support from all the staff at the group, and I am very excited to see where this internship leads.

For anyone who is considering applying for a similar position: just go for it!