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 21 October 2014

Consumers unite! And - Ask for Evidence!

How many times has your grocery shopping been influenced by a product's health claim? Do you trust that Government policies are driven by rigorous, scientific evidence? Do you ever wonder where economists get their forecasts from?
And if you are unsure, how can you find out?

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to attend a highly entertaining seminar held by the University of Sheffield's very own Science in Policy group. The speaker was Dr Chris Peters, Scientific Liaison at 'Sense about Science'.

Every day we face a barrage of claims designed to make us spend money, change our behaviour or support a particular policy. But how can we tell if these are true? What is to stop me from inventing my own smoothie concoction, perhaps using some of my surplus Arabidopsis plants, and claiming that it increases concentration by 20% and improves life expectancy by 3.5 years?
In short, not a lot. It isn't illegal to make such claims and the Advertising Standards Agency, whilst powerful, is only a small organisation that can barely keep up with the unending flow of wonderful promises.
Ten years ago, a group of scientists led by Lord Taverne and Tracey Brown decided this wasn't quite right and set up 'Sense about Science'. This has since grown to a current network of over 5,000 scientists encompassing the entire breadth of expertise, from Nobel prize winners to PhD students and early career scientists. The main aim, in particular for the 'Ask for Evidence' campaign, is to hold companies to account for the promises they make about their products and policies. It involves, quite simply, asking where the evidence behind their claim comes from.  The beauty of this camping is its simplicity, which enables anyone, scientist or not, to take part.

Once you start asking where the evidence is, you'll find yourself questioning all sorts of things. In one case, the campaign questioned a bold claim by the Daily Telegraph that wind turbines could 'knock tens of thousands of pounds off the value of nearby homes' and that a nearby turbine could 'knock eight per cent off average home value'. After a bit of digging, it turned out that this very precise figure was merely based on a single estate agent's opinion. During his talk, Chris also outlined the case of a mother of two children who challenged her local leisure centre's policy that children under the age of eight had to be supervised in a 1:1 ratio. This strict rule, taken up by a number of facilities, was brought into being simply because the management 'just thought' it was a safe approach! Other examples have seen products pulled off the shelves and have debunked claims about health- enhancing properties. It is largely thanks to their work that newspaper articles do now usually provide a reference for their story. Further successes can be found on the website: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/a4e_examples_of_evidence_hunting.html

Me and Dr Chris Peters with the famous sign - last held by Jonathan Ross apparently!

But Chris is keen for more people to be involved. So if you spot an unqualified claim, why not challenge it? Send the company a letter, give their head office a ring or download the online 'Ask for Evidence' tool which allows you to upload photographs of the ( potentially bogus ) claim. Just think what you can expose and how satisfying it would be to protect the public from misinformation. On a serious note, the 'All Trials' campaign also seeks to improve the registering and reporting of clinical trials so that drugs companies cannot simply select the most favourable trial results when promoting their product. This is vital to ensure that patients don't pin their hopes and spend a fortune on a flawed treatment. As an example, the UK Government spent £424 million pounds stockpiling the Tamiflu drug as a precaution against Swineflu, even though it is now thought that paracetamol is just as effective. In such cases, a lack of evidence can cost a fortune, and even lives.

So next time you suspect that someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes, remember that it is in your power to act! Check out the website at http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/a4e.html
As for me, I have been led along by the claim that green tea can help prevent Alzheimer's. But DOES IT? I think it is time to...ask for evidence! Watch this space!

Thursday 16 October 2014

A bit of PLANT DIY...

Working in a lab involves a lot of sharing - of pipettes, bench space, chemical stocks besides skills and knowledge - but my wonderful supervisor has arranged for me to have a Conviron (Controlled Environment) Chamber all of my own! These take a lot of stress out of growing plants as everything, from the temperature, light levels and humidity can be precisely (and remotely) programmed. Hence, there are rice plants and all sorts of other tropical wonders growing under the department's car park!

Welcome to my chamber ...Conviron 502, waiting to be filled with plants

However, for all of the sophisticated, horrendously expensive fancy equipment, there are times when scientists have to engage in a bit of "do-it-yourselfery"... This year I will be working on the model plant organism Arabidopsis thaliana, unlike most of my lab, who work on crops. Consequently, whilst we have lots of rhizotrons (root observation chambers) perfectly sized for rice, I will need to make my own "mini-versions" using square petri dishes. In order for my plants to survive, they will need proper drainage... and the easiest way to introduce a drainage hole is using a hacksaw!

a) Don't give biologists weapons
b) Marking the place for a cut
c) Incision!

But why am I working on Arabidopsis when it is the effect of parasitic plants on crops that makes them so devastating? Simply put, it is a LOT easier to find things...especially genes potentially related to resistance. Arabidopsis has a weeny genome that has been well sequenced thanks to the efforts of a global network of researchers. Crops, however, have MASSIVE genomes, as many of their ancestors experienced "chromosome doubling" events. The maize genome, for instance, is approximately 2500 mega-basepairs, compared to 110 mega-basepairs in Arabidopsis. This makes looking for interesting genes (e.g. for drought tolerance, disease resistance, high yield) like looking for a needle in a haystack. However, many of these genes are present in Arabidopsis and can be found more quickly and sequenced. Cloned genes can then be used to find the related genes of interest in crops.

But first, I need my plants! I have 50 mini rhizotrons now but will need many more so I will be back at the workbench tomorrow!