Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.


This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!


Monday, 11 June 2018

Opportunity of a lifetime!


Most of my recent posts have had a slightly desperate, worried tone as I frantically try to finish my remaining lab work before my September deadline. So, it is extremely nice to have some very good news to share for once: quite simply, I have been offered the chance of a lifetime! 

People often ask me what I will 'do next' after my PhD. Whilst I can't give a definite answer beyond 'something else', I am fairly certain that I won't stay within academia. I appreciate that many jobs are stressful, but scientific research has a very particular set of pressures (finding significant results; publishing high impact papers; competing for funding and permanent positions) that I really don't want to be subjected to in the long term. What really excites me are science-policy and science-communication careers where I could help turn scientific research into real impacts. Globally we face many urgent challenges that we can only solve through wide-spread societal change, rather than just the personal decisions of well-informed and well-resourced individuals. For this to happen, science needs to come out of the laboratory. My dream job is likely to be working for a research funding body, non-governmental organisation, international charity…. or even parliament itself.

But careers in this area are competitive and it can be difficult to know where to start. Which is why, for several years now, I have had my eye on the Fellowship scheme run by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST). These offer PHD students the chance to work in parliament itself for 3 months, producing a briefing paper (POSTnote) for MPs and other policy makers on a topical issue. Against all other internship schemes, it stood out to me for several reasons:

1.       It is directly related to policy work as the POSTnote would be read by policy makers and could influence debate on the subject

2.       It would be in the very heart of policy making itself – including a security pass for the Houses of Parliament!

3.       The networking opportunities would be unprecedented: interacting every day with MPs, Select Committee staff and other parliamentary bodies such as the libraries of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
POST produces briefing papers (POSTnotes) on topical science issues which are greatly valued by MPs and policy makers without a scientific background. Photo: Science in Policy Group, University of Sheffield

I had thought that I wasn’t eligible as most of the positions are funded through research councils, such as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, BBSRC, and my PhD isn't funded by any of these. But then I was made aware that the Institute of Food Science and Technology, IFST, is also a partner of the POST Fellowship scheme. Given that I work on a parasitic plant that damages food crops, I thought it was worth an application. Amazingly, I was selected for an interview and suddenly had to organise transport to Westminster, where POST are based.

I prepared as thoroughly as I could and was fortunate to have guidance from both Dr Sarah Blackford, my careers mentor, and Dr Helen Hicks, a fellow committee member of the University of Sheffield's Science in Policy group who did a POST Fellowship herself several years ago. Nevertheless, I was still very nervous on the day itself when I arrived at POST's headquarters at Tothill Street in London, just a stone’s throw from the Palace of Westminster. Going through a security check didn’t help! The questions mainly focused the briefing paper I had submitted for the application: they seemed intrigued that I had chosen to write about edible insects as a future protein source. I have recently become very interested in the subject as I had been researching it for the last outreach activity I was involved with for the British Science Association (Food for the Future). Other questions asked me to describe my PhD work and experiences in communicating science to non-specialist audiences.

The time seemed to pass very quickly and soon I was on the coach ride home. I tried to put it out of my mind as much as I could. But the very next day, just when I was checking my emails waiting for some reagents to defrost, the news came through. Everyone in the vicinity was a little alarmed when I fell off the chair and started jumping up and down with excitement!

 
Westminster, London - where I will be working next year! Photo: Wikipedia Commons, Daniel Bron


So yes, a dream come true. It still doesn't feel real to say the words out loud but next year I will be working at Westminster!!!! It feels especially nice because all the activities and societies I have been involved with -the Science in Policy Group; the British Science Association; the Society for Experimental Biology; Pint of Science, etc- played a part in getting me through as I drew on all of these experiences in the interview. I have often felt guilty for spending time on these activities instead of my main PhD work, even if I try to make up for it by working evenings and weekends. It is also amazing to reflect on how far I have come from the schoolgirl who was too shy to speak in front of the class. Many times in the past I have gone for opportunities like these, only to have fallen short: there was always a slightly better candidate, with more experience, confidence, etc. But just for once, it was actually me.

I can't get carried away though as I still have to write my thesis up first.  After my lab work stops at the end of September, I will focus on getting as much written up as possible before starting at POST in February next year. At least it gives me some time to get a new wardrobe! It does seem slightly ironic that I will spend three months writing up the bulk of my thesis, which will only be read by 2-3 people, before going on to work on a policy briefing note which could be read by hundreds of people, including MPs and other policy makers. I will be proud of both of them of course but in terms of impact, it doesn't come close!

Right, better get back to the plants! Thanks for reading – I hope you have a great week ahead. 
Doing what I love best - Science Communication!  Photograph by Daniella Sasaki

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

From plants to posters- It's time to get creative!


It’s been a long time since I last had to present a scientific poster and now, like the 120 buses here in Sheffield, two come along at once.

Unfortunately, it is not good timing. With only four and a bit months before my funding runs out and my lab work has to stop, it’s an added pressure on top of an already chaotic schedule. I am desperately trying to gather enough significant data for a credible thesis – which means most weekends are spent in the department as I try to cram in as many experiments as possible. I’m starting to lose track of everything I’ve currently got on the go: last week for instance, I set aside all of Wednesday to extract RNA (the coding molecule that is the intermediate between DNA and proteins) from eighteen leaf samples. Just before I began, I found the RNA already in the freezer: I had extracted it two weeks ago and completely forgotten. For those that are familiar with how long and fiddly RNA extraction is, that is a considerable amount of work to forget about!

I simply haven’t any mental energy left to be creative these days. But needs must! All PhD research students at the University of Sheffield are required to present a poster at the annual ‘Graduate Science Showcase’. This event brings students from across the whole Faculty of Science together to ‘showcase the excellence of the wide ranging research’ being carried out here. I don’t feel my project is worthy to be exhibited in this way, so it feels like a box-ticking exercise for me. But, not wanting to let my supervisors down (and mildly incentivised by cash prizes on offer for the best posters), I know I should put some effort in.
My poster with its fellows at the Graduate Science Showcase
So, in between the usual jobs of transplanting seedlings, infecting plants and molecular lab work, I squeeze in some time to sift through my data and cherry-pick the most interesting results. I wish I could say I was fluent in using Abode Illustrator or even a bespoke poster-designing software but sadly I am not, so Microsoft PowerPoint will have to do. Still, I manage to create my ‘vision’, with the centre dominated by an Arabidopsis plant being attacked by invading Striga parasites. I am just about to send it off to be printed when I reread the guidelines again (yes I realise that I should have done that first!) and realise – horror of horrors – that the poster boards won’t be big enough to accommodate my beautiful A0 Landscape poster. Luckily it doesn’t take too much fiddling to fix it into a portrait orientation. Phew!

When I go to collect it and see it life-size, I am disappointed; I can see straight away that there is far too much text. Even so, I hang it up next to its 203 fellows in the Octagon building. At least I am in the first judging session so don’t have to wait too long for a man with a clipboard to come round. He seems to take a genuine interest in my work (or good at pretending to at least!) but it’s clear my poster won’t be in the running for the departmental prize. I console myself by picking up some freebies from the sponsor’s stands…one day I must actually start using all these pens.
From plants to Alzheimer's disease - a very different poster!
Photograph by Ellen Bradley
Fortunately, the second poster I have to make doesn’t bring so much pressure. For the Sheffield Branch of the British Science Association’s latest event – ‘The Science of Multilingualism’ at Weston Park Museum – I had offered to run an activity showing the evidence that learning foreign languages can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a topic that personally interests me due to my grandmother having the disease, and it gives me a chance to explore something completely unrelated to my own line of research.
Once again, I probably put far too much text on it but when the topic is so relevant for today’s society, it is always difficult to know what to leave out. Still, many adults do stop to read them (unlike my poster for the Graduate Science Showcase!) before examining the model brains I had prepared to show the difference in pathology between mono- and bilinguals. I was a bit thrown though when one mum asked me “Does this explain why pregnancy can make you lose your memory?” !!!
One of my carefully-prepared brain models to show how being bilingual affects our susceptibility to Alzheimer's disease. Photograph by Ellen Bradley
Overall the event is a success, if a bit chaotic at times as we have experiments being performed in multiple languages, a buffet of international food samples and kids charging round the museum trying to find hidden words for our quiz sheet. In addition, it’s a welcome break for me from the lab and a chance to be reinspired by how scientific research can benefit the wider public. Doing a PhD can be like burrowing yourself into an increasingly narrow tunnel, so it is easy to get jaded with the whole process at times. Look out for my blog post on the event soon on www.bsasheffield.org! You can also view our gallery of photos from the event on our Facebook page here.
It will probably be some time – maybe never – before I am called on to present a scientific poster again. Maybe I will have a chance to learn how to use the Adobe Illustrator in the meantime….
Thanks for reading, I hope you are having a happy springtime!
Me volunteering at The Science of Multilingualism. Photograph by Ellen Bradley


Wednesday, 31 January 2018

White knuckle ride...


I always knew that a PhD would be a rollercoaster but now it's turning into such a white knuckle ride, I'm not sure I would ever have got on in the first place had I only known.

Science is full of ups and downs - that just the nature of it. You can spend months, even years  doggedly following a line of enquiry, only for it to end up fruitless or flawed. Or a whole day carefully setting up an experiment only for the critical machine to 'have an off day'. Working on living things, of course, adds a whole new dimension in which things go wrong. Problems are inevitable...but then you have those moments when a result throws up something completely unexpected, and sends your research off done an exciting, unforeseen new direction. Suddenly all the frustrations don't seem to matter.

Right now I could certainly do with some more ups. As I wrote in my last blog post, time really isn't on my side if I am going to get enough good data for a PhD. So as soon as the new year started, I began carefully setting up a HUGE gene expression assay, to try to work out what happens on the molecular level when my parasite of study, Striga gesnerioides, infects its host. I had over 120 plates of Arabidopsis seed squashed into my cabinet which took hours and hours to prepare but then - disaster! Almost every plate was contaminated with bacteria. The seedlings, now useless,  had to be binned. A whole month of work wasted. I really can't afford setbacks like this - a couple more could tip the balance in terms of whether I have any chance of finishing in time. 

Very poorly looking Arabidopsis seedlings! 


Fortunately, I have identified the probable cause. It seems that the tap for distilled water that I suspended the seed in after sterilising them,  is not as clean as it should be - when I put some water on an agar plate just to see what happened, sure enough bacterial colonies appeared. So from now on, I sterilise my water in the autoclave just to be sure. I have also tightened up any over potential entry points for nasties - using ultra sterile pipettes tips; irradiating my pipettes with UV light, autoclaving the Eppendorf tubes, even taking my watch off (surely a treasure trove of germs!). So far the next lot of (120 plus) plates seem free from contamination, so fingers crossed!

Then I had my second disaster, one which nearly made me made me walk out of the lab for good. One of my most interesting results so far has been with a certain Arabidopsis mutant that fails to produce a particular protein. For some reason it is much more susceptible to Striga, so I propagated the seed to give me enough to do more experiments to investigate it further. This requires care, especially if you have other plants in the same cabinet, to make sure that they don't cross fertilise each other and create hybrid offspring. But I was confident that I had used the special 'aracons ' ( plastic tubes used to keep  flowering Arabidopsis plants separate) correctly.  When I tested the protein expression in these plants however - disaster!!! The plants were still producing the protein! Somehow, the plants must have mixed themselves up and the mutation had been lost. I was devastated and spent a very low evening wondering what in earth I was going to do now for the rest of my PhD. 


Our distilled water tap - was this the source of the bacterial contamination? 

But then I had another look at the data - and it turns out that the protein exists in two different forms and my plants were actually one of these, but not another. When I checked the position of the genetic mutation, this made perfect sense : it should disrupt the disrupted the coding sequence of just one of the protein forms, but not the other. And in fact, given that these different forms have very different functions, it actually makes a really interesting result, which could set the direction of the rest of my experiments.... it certainly interested my supervisors anyway!
Lots of new plates of Arabidopsis seed crammed into my growth cabinet - so far, bacteria free!

So a typical week in science, traversing the whole range from despair and misery, to a minor breakthrough. Last week I also had the pleasure of interviewing an old friend for a careers feature I am working on for a magazine. Having completed a PhD investigating drought resistance in Sorghum, she decided to follow her passion for science communication and now works as a medical writer. One of the things that struck me the most was how refreshing she found it to to have a role where your hard work would always be rewarded with a physical output, rather than being derailed by things outside your control. I couldn't agree more!

Friday, 12 January 2018

2018 - A challenging year ahead...

"Your project has ended up being rather....challenging". 
So said my second supervisor during our progress meeting this week. We were surrounded by graphs, tables and scribbled on pieces of paper. I had come with high hopes that we work out a meticulous strategy for the rest of my PhD. Instead, I was despairing that I would ever be able to make sense of the data I already had, let alone make a plan for going forward.

The clock is rapidly counting down the remainder of my PhD. I have 9 months of funding left, then it will be time to leave the lab and somehow work everything I have done into an acceptable thesis. This ought to be a compelling body of work where my experiments elegantly prove or disprove the chosen hypotheses. But it currently feels like I am trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle without the picture, and not even being certain that all the pieces are in the box. 
Striga gesnerioides - a very effective parasite...

Mr project is a tricky system to get your head around. Basically, I am trying to work out why the parasitic weed Striga gesnerioides is so capable of infecting the model  plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, when other parasites, including the close relative, Striga hermonthica, are  barred entry. Is the parasite producing effector molecules that actively suppress the host immune system? Does the host lack a receptor for recognising the foreign organism? Does the parasite produce plant hormones that mimic those of the host, and thus hijack defence signalling pathways?

I still have no idea and the experiments I have done so far - including testing genetic mutant Arabidopsis plants and analysing changes in gene expression - haven't really shed any light on the problem. I'm beginning to panic. I can't see how this will ever impress a viva examiner. Do I really have enough time to turn it around? I'm not afraid of hard work - long, unsocial hours are par for the course in a PhD. What I worry about is getting enough data in the remaining time - and that will require careful experimental planning and no mistakes. Talk about pressure!
Filling my growth cabinet with plants...

I know what they say: Most PhD students get 90% of their data in their final year. I'd say it to anyone else in the same situation, but can't convince myself that it will apply to me. Especially when I am so good at sabotaging myself by a) not prioritising rest when I need to b) getting distracted and taking on too many other commitments and c) not giving myself adequate nutrition - a relic from the 'bad old days' of anorexia. 

In short, this year will need a really focused strategy. I have cut down on my extra writing projects and try to delete all of those emails starting with 'We are looking for volunteers...' without reading them. And in my growth cabinet are 120+ plates of germinated Arabidopsis seed on agar, for my next big assay. If it works, it could give me a shed load of data to occupy myself with for at least a month or two. If not....well let's not think that far.

So from me to you, here's hoping for a highly successful and productive 2018!


Friday, 17 November 2017

A Whirlwind Journey - The Science of Wellness

As a passionate science communicator, I love inspiring people with science – and I particularly relish the challenge of reaching out to those who normally have little contact with science. It has long been my ambition to organise an event specifically aimed at the mental health community. So when I saw the announcement for the British Science Association’s ‘Connecting Communities’ Grant Scheme, my brain went into overdrive. And that’s how ‘The Science of Wellness’ was born!

The idea was that the participants themselves would become the scientists and do their own experiment to try and boost their mood and wellbeing. Our role as British Science Association volunteers would be to present the scientific evidence for different strategies said to improve mental wellbeing and help them design a robust way to test one of them. But first we needed a partner to help us reach our target audience. Here we were lucky to find Sheffield Flourish, a local organisation that supports people with mental health conditions to live as full lives as possible. We wanted to make sure that the participants had an active role in shaping the project so Sheffield Flourish convened a focus group to decide the themes we would focus on. These became Foods to Improve Mood; Spending time with Nature; Exercise for Mental Wellbeing; Mindfulness; Creative Activities and Reading/Sharing Life Stories.
Learning how positive storytelling can improve wellbeing
 To present the scientific evidence in a fun and interactive way (no boring PowerPoint presentations!) we decided to use a ' speed dating' format, where participants spent ten minutes at each station before moving round to the next. During the planning meetings, we were amazed to find out about how much research has already been done – there are even journals on wellbeing and happiness!
Our hard work was rewarded on the night as we had an amazing turnout from the Sheffield Flourish community and also wider members of the public. The speed-dating format seemed to work very well: the audience were so engrossed that I had to shout to be heard over the hubbub. After all the talking, it was time for refreshments. We had carefully chosen these to include a range of super- mood-boosting superfoods including omega-3 rich mackerel pate, magnesium loaded almonds and walnuts, low GI pitta breads and hummus and the runaway favourite, homemade banana bread.
One BSA volunteer getting a bit excited over the refreshment buffet...

Having heard all the evidence, we then gave each participant their very own lab book and experiment planning began. From taking a daily brisk walk to knitting to dancing – a whole range of different activities were chosen. The evening ended on a real high, buoyed up with optimism and plans.  We couldn’t wait to hear how everybody got on!
A month later, we had our chance during our Follow-Up Event. There were some truly inspiring accounts, including the group of women who formed a creative writing club, the lady who practised gratitude with her children and the gentleman who brought along a stunning art work he had made out of drawing pins. Not everyone had managed to complete their experiments, with some feeling that they had been too ambitious. But we were keen to stress that this need only be the be the beginning of their experiments and that wellbeing should be seen more of a continuous journey.
Presenting the evidence that mindfulness works during our 'speed-dating' event
 This was clearly illustrated by our guest speaker Natalie Beevers, mindfulness practitioner and author of the Being Mindful Yorkshire Blog. Her frank and moving testimony demonstrated how making time for things that make us feel positive creates a firmer foundation for when things get tough. When her marriage fell apart, Natalie found herself thrust into a deep depression. As she put it: “My brain was like treacle but it wouldn’t stop talking…I was too exhausted and had no energy even to do the things I loved”. Things only started to improve when she came across mindfulness by chance at a work event: “It was a way of getting my thoughts to slow down my acknowledging them” she said. Other daily habits, such as yoga and walking through the park each day also had an effect. “The combination of small doses really seemed to work” she said. Whilst these could not prevent Natalie from having a relapse a few months later, crucially “they gave me the tools to get back out of the hole again”.
It’s an incentive to us all to continue to experiment in finding more tools to keep us on the road to wellbeing. As Natalie said in closing: “'No matter the catalyst for your down turning mood it should never be swept under the carpet”.
It may be the end of The Science of Wellness but really, the journey has only just begun! As for myself, I have learnt so much from this experience, including event management, applying for grants, event promotion ...even doing my first online grocery shop. And it's only made me hungry to do more.... where will BSA Sheffield go next?
My team of wonderful BSA Sheffield volunteers!
You can find more photos from The Science of Wellness and the Follow Up Event on our Facebook Page. Do Like it to keep up to date about future BSA Sheffield events! You can also follow us on Twitter @BSA_Sheffield




Sunday, 29 October 2017

A tale of two cabinets...


One of the amazing things about plants is how flexible their development is compared with animals. You can take two plants of the same species, even with exactly the same genetic code, but put them in different conditions and they can end up looking completely different. Whereas for animals, their development is much less sensitive to the environment and pretty much determined by their DNA sequence. It’s one of the things that makes plants so interesting to study – and also why it is so important to include all the appropriate controls when doing experiments with them!

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about my current seed crisis and my ongoing struggle to obtain enough seed of the parasitic weed I study, Striga gesnerioides, to finish my PhD. To do this, I grew some tobacco seedlings as these are very sysceptible to Striga: my hope was that the parasite would infect them well enough to produce an abundance of flowering shoots that would eventually form seed pods. Unfortuantely, the few parasite shoots that did appear withered and died – despite me following my supervisors instructions from when they did it before a few years ago “and it worked perectly”.  At this point, I was at the stage where my seed supplies were so low, I was having to seriously cut down the number of experiments I could do. So for round two, I couldn’t take any more chances.
The growth cabinet I used in the first attempt, Conviron Number 502, is set to mimic a temperate British climate, with short days at 25 degrees. However, Striga gesnerioides is actually native to Sub-Saharan Africa, where it devastates cowpea crops. I reasoned that it was more than likely that they would fare better in a slightly more tropical climate. So this time, half my Striga-infected tobacco ‘babies’ went in Conviron 502 and the other half went to joint the rice plants in our tropical walk-in growth chamber. Up to that point, they had been treated exactly the same.
Unhappy looking tobacco plants in Conviron 502
So what happened? After only a week or two, the two sets of tobacco looked almost like different species. Those in Convrion 502 were small and squat, with dark green leaves, almost dwarfed by their pots. On the other hand, those in the tropical walk in grew vigorously and probably would have kept going if they had been in bigger containers. As for the Striga…..it was no contest. At first lots of parasite shoots appeared on both sets of plants, putting me in hope of a super-abundant harvest. But the ones in 502 were weak and weedy, flopping over the side of the pot or withering away as before. Meanwhile, the Striga shoots in the tropical cabinet stood up as straight as soldiers with a healthy purple flush to their stems. And they just kept on coming….whenever I felt down, I would go and run my hands over the surface of the soil, delighting in the feel of their buds forcing their way upwards.  
Much happier tobacco plants growing in the simulated tropics - they are even flowering!
Over the weeks that followed, I visited almost every day, agonising over whether I was giving them too much or too little water. I was paranoid that I would somehow kill them all off. But the Striga shoots stayed healthy and in time produced quite a wonderful display of tiny purple flowers. Eventually this colourful show came to an end, the petals fell to the ground, and the seed pods began to swell. And finally the moment I had waited so long for - the pods started to mature, turning  jet black, indicating that they were ripe. It was a happy day last week when I delicately cut the first shoots, taking great care not to agitate the seed pods too much, causing them to burst open. After months of trying, my first harvest at last!
Not again! Withered, dead Striga shoots
There is still a long way to go - the seed pods have to dry out for a few weeks in the 30 degree incubator - and this first harvest is unlikely to see me through to the end of my PhD. But I already have the latest generation of tobacco seedlings coming through ...in fact, I have quite a conveyor belt operation now, with new tobacco seedlings constantly moving along the system to make sure I always have new Striga- infected hosts coming along!

That's better! A beautifully infected tobacco plant with lots of flowering Striga shoots
Photograph by James Bradley
Plants can be frustratingly complex at times, but that does make them fascinating to study. The more we find out about their molecular systems, the more layers of control, regulation and interplay we discover. Which simply means there will surely be no end to the legions of PhD students stepping up to these challenges!

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Prepare to be amazed - BSA Sheffield at Fun Palaces Weekend 2017!


No dictionary definition of ‘scientist’ mentions lab coats or googles, but many feel that only people who wear a white coat and work in a laboratory can call themselves a ‘proper scientist’. Similarly, many of us would hesitate to call ourselves an 'artist', even if we quite enjoy drawing, printing other creative activities. We simply don’t feel worthy of these titles.


The Fun Palaces movement is on a mission to change this attitude. Every year, during the first weekend of October, hundreds of temporary Fun Palaces pop up all across the UK. They vary in size, structure and theme, but all have the aim of engaging the public in science and artistic activities that celebrate the innate creativity in all of us – as befits their motto: “Everyone a scientist, everyone an artist”. This year, BSA Sheffield were invited to host our very own science themed Fun Palace.
Our 3D sound demos in our Fun Palace at DINA venue

It took us quite a while to decide the theme as there were so many possibilities – Outer Space? Dinosaurs? The Brain? What we really wanted was something that would thrill the imagination and stimulated all the senses....so what better than the five senses themselves? Once we'd settled on this, the suggestions for activities came thick and fast – it was hard to cut them down to a manageable number!

We might have the Fun but we still needed a Palace....fortunately , DINA a not-for-profit social enterprise stepped in. Besides the advantage of having a prime city centre location, we were given full use of the venue, allowing us to take over every nook and cranny (even the basement!).
The magical illusion cabinet!

I was very impressed and humbled by how my fellow BSA volunteers took ownership of their activities, giving up hours of their own time to research optical illusions, cut out thaumatropes, source craft materials and decorate the rooms. On the day itself, their hard work was rewarded as we welcomed a steady stream of visitors. Some were Fun Palace veterans who had sought us out specially, others simply wandered in off the street.... but everyone, young and old, found something to captivate them. We had 3D sound demonstrations, ‘guess the contents' boxes, jelly bean tasting and even a fruit orchestra! (I’m still not entirely sure how that actually worked but it did!) Crafting was especially popular for all ages - including making Victorian thaumatropes - a popular 19th century optical illusion made of a disk with a picture on each side, attached to string on either side. If the strings are twirled quickly enough, the two images seem to blend into one, due to the persistence of images on the retina. Simple but highly effective and fun to make – why not have a go yourself?

Learning how to play 'Mary had a little lamb' with a lemon,
a cucumber and an orange
Perhaps the biggest hit was the 'Illusion Cabinet' – those who dared to enter inside appeared to lose their body, with their head being suspended in the air. Built by an intriguing former Professor in the Biology Department where I work, it had been languishing in a store cupboard and I was determined to get it out. The lovely people in Research Outreach team had also lent us an Infra Red camera so that we could demonstrate the senses that some animals have but we don’t, such as 'snake vision'. It went down very well, although when I found out how much it cost, I nearly didn't dare to take it! Apparently, I have one of the coldest noses in England….


There is a curious phenomenon ( or is it an illusion?) that time simply flies by when you do science outreach and suddenly it was time to close the doors and pack everything up ...It had gone so fast, especially as we had been preparing for months. We’ll simply have to start preparing for the next one!
Who has the hottest cup of coffee? Playing with the Infra-Red Camera


And in the meantime – if you enjoy science or art, then dare to call yourself a scientist or an artist! You don’t need any further qualification than that.
You can find lots more photos of the event on our Facebook page.