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!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Gatsby Training Weekend, Cambridge: Day 2

 I had forgotten how beautifully quiet Cambridge Colleges were.... although perhaps staying outside the main term time makes a difference! Nevertheless, it made a nice change to the traffic of Fulwood Road.
View from my College window... no piano in the room this time!

It was just as well to have had some rest as the program promised a demanding schedule. First of all, we were privileged to hear insights of wisdom regarding delivering scientific presentations. After learning about the limited capacity of audiences to take in so much data at once (especially after sitting through a whole seminar of talks), I cringed as I looked at my "over-busy" slides. I realized that I had even included information that I didn't expect the audience to read - so why was it even on there?! My eyes were opened to the effectiveness of "building" slides - adding images and data one at a time rather than throwing it up all at once. "Unfortunately" the camera developed a technical error so I wasn't able to watch a video of myself presenting my talk from yesterday ...

After consoling myself over tea/coffee, we were introduced to the panel for the careers session. The Gatsby Supervisors were particularly keen to stress that a career in science is not limited to the bench so had invited Etta Collier, a patent attorney, and Tom Mentlak, who worked in management consultancy. It struck me that these roles, whilst not involved with direct research, allowed one to keep in touch with the latest scientific innovations and ideas. The two speakers did illustrate a real contrast in work/life balance however. Whilst Etta felt fortunate to have a flexible job which allowed her to dedicate time to her family, Tom frequently found himself working challenging hours (including ringing Californian clients at 3 'o clock in the morning) with the promise of an impressive salary (so impressive, he wouldn't even tell us what it was!). As for me, I'm still not sure what direction my career will take but will certainly not rule out a role in the patenting industry. After such a rigorous morning, we were grateful for the chance to unwind a bit over lunch in the upper hall.

For the second half of our session on giving a professional scientific presentation, our group took an excursion to the lecture theatre of the Zoology Department. It felt a little daunting to be hooked up to a proper microphone and to stand behind the bizarre array of technology arranged on the lecturers desk. To my surprise, however, I found that I preferred speaking in a large auditorium, compared with a small, cramped, echoing seminar room and even enjoyed it once I got into my stride... But I still need to work on my projection! I wonder, will I ever stand in that position again as a lecturer of plant physiology to hundreds of students?

And today's lecture.... will I be comparing this to a similar photograph in the future?

To make the most of the afternoon sunshine, the whole group were treated to a tour of the college and grounds by Dr David Hanke, plant biochemist and a Fellow of Jesus College. Our eyes were opened to how the innocuous looking buildings before us were really a hodgepodge of architecture that had been recycled, hidden, altered and rediscovered over the centuries. Apparently, out of all the Cambridge colleges, Jesus College has been continuously lived in for the longest although it was originally founded as a nunnery. After touring the chapel and cloisters ( and learning a little about the resident ghosts)' we took a circuit through the woods around the perimeter, stopping to hear extraordinary tales about some of the trees and the plant hunters who had bought them to Cambridge. Strangely enough, the walk finished by the local pub ' The Maypole' where it was decided to have a refreshment break in the beer garden!

Admiring the beautiful trees (and learning some of the tall tales behind them) in the grounds of Jesus College

We didn't have long to sunbathe however, and it was soon time to return to college to meet Dr Tina Barsby, our before- dinner speaker. This provided a fascinating insight into the operation of a large- scale agricultural research group, as Dr Barsby's role is chief executive of NIAB, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, located in Cambridge. Charmingly she remembered me from the summer research placement I did on wheat at NIAB in 2012 ( I remember crouching over the lab radio to hear Bradley Wiggins storm his way to Olympic gold). NIAB is the largest field trial operator in the UK, testing new varieties of both crops and ornamentals before they reach the commercial market. Her talk reiterated the challenge facing plant scientists to do more ( increase food production by 50% by 2030) with less ( water, fertiliser, energy inputs, etc) and described the role NIAB was playing in exploring the genetic potential of crop cultivars to meet this yield gap. I had no idea that crop yields could be quite so variable - although the current UK average for wheat yields is 7-8 tonnes per hectare, in some areas of the country ( such as the Cotswolds) this can reduce to 3-4 tonnes per hectare, whilst the world record is currently 15.6 tonnes per hectare ( achieved in New Zealand). Shockingly, unless the average wheat yield is significantly improved, we will need to cultivate an additional area of land equivalent to 24 United Kingdoms....one line of research being pursued at NIAB is to recreate the events that led to the development of modern wheat. originally, two wild gasses hybridised to produce Emmer Wheat, which later crossed with Wild Goats' Grass to form what we know now as 'modern wheat' ( see diagram below). Over time, much of the genetic diversity that resulted from these early events would have been lost as farmers repeatedly selected the highest yielding strains. To try and 'recreate' this genetic diversity, researchers are crossing Durum Wheat with Wild Goats' Grass (see below) with the hope that this will help to develop new cultivars. Early results suggest that one new cultivar may give yields up to 30 % higher, however this research is still in the first stages. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to hear from those who are directing the research to find the crops of the future.
A history of wheat and how this relates to modern efforts to increase food production

I always enjoy the formal dinners at Gatsby meetings - although they have the elegant presentation, wine, silverware, candles and waiter service, they are completely relaxed and don't require uncomfortable dressing up! Conversation flowed with topics leaping from the most inventive way to propose to ones fiancée, how the crusades shaped English history and how science should be delivered on the school curriculum. 
There was no after dinner speaker this time but I was too tired to adjourn to the bar with the others so retired to my cosy college room, passing under the silver spring moon as it shone on the ancient arches in the cloisters...

Networking, discussing science... the food is very nice too!

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