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!


Friday, 10 April 2015

Gatsby Training Weekend 2015 - Day 1 Friday 10th April

Is it always sunny in Cambridge? Or was the weather just matching my mood as the train sped me southwards for the annual Gatsby Plants Training Weekend. I was looking forward to catching up with my fellow students in this network, which was originally founded to encourage young researchers to enter a career in the plant sciences. Each year, the undergraduates and PhD students of the Gatsby Plant Network are invited to Jesus College in Cambridge for a weekend of career development and training activities. I knew from last year that this wasn't going to be a holiday - they really know how to pack a lot into two days!

After a welcome cup of tea on arrival, the programme got underway with the first item being the student presentations. We each had to prepare a PowerPoint presentation, 8 minutes long with 4 minutes for questioning. These days, being able to give a presentation is just as important a skill for biologists as handling a pipette - more so for some! Usually, the talks are given alphabetically by speakers, so I am the last to go, but this year the organisers had decided to mix things up a little and I was first. This was probably a good thing as my nerves had less opportunity to build up into a panic... Although public speaking is something I do get nervous about, I welcomed this valuable practice to present before such a supportive audience. But knowing these talks are recorded for David Hanke's video archive of student presentations adds a certain aspect of pressure! You never know when he will dig out some footage of you to critique during his 'How ( not to ) give a Talk' sessions!

I had braced myself for a slew of technical questions but fortunately, many people seemed curious about my rhizotron system for growing plants so I was able to go into quite a bit of detail about this. I forget that they are quite unusual! Amongst the other talks, I was intrigued by Jakob Assman's presentation describing his project on Phytophra austrocedri, an oomycete pathogen that is a scourge of cypresses in Argentina and is now starting to attack junipers in the UK. But would this worry people as much if it didn't threaten the gin industry?!
The beautiful grounds of Jesus College , Cambridge

The talks over, we could then relax as our 'Before-Dinner Speaker' Deborah Charlesworth took to the lecturn ( we had voted for a before-dinner, rather than after- dinner speaker at the end of last year's weekend - it was generally agreed that it is more difficult to concentrate after copious amounts of fine wine and food had been consumed...). In her talk 'The Role of Science in Society' , Deborah described how too strict a focus on applied results can suffocate the love that draws researchers to their chosen field in the first place. Her career itself is a fitting illustration of a livelihood forged by following one's curiosity. Although perhaps best known for her work investigating plant sex chromosomes, Deborah 'came to plants in a very roundabout way'. Indeed, she originally graduated in Biochemistry and had hated drawing floral diagrams at school. But she was drawn into biology when she moved to a new area with her husband and 'started helping out in a laboratory because I was sitting in the flat, bored'. Here, she was investigating the genetics in Papilio butterflies that allows them to mimic the appearance of distasteful species. Although several physical changes - such as colour and wing shape - are required for each case of mimicry, the data suggested that these are brought about by a single set of linked genes, rather than multiple genes scattered throughout the chromosomes. This seemed improbable because, during cell division to produce new eggs/ sperm, the chromosomes undergo rearrangements ( meiotic recombination) that can split up closely situated genes. For the butterflies, this recombination would break up the mimicry phenotype. However, Deborah was able to help show that certain 'modifier' genes were acting on the DNA to suppress recombination events and keep the phenotype intact. Building on this work, she then went on to investigate plant sex chromosomes. Although the majority of plants are 'dioecious' ( meaning that they have both male and female parts), a handful are 'monoecious' - they have single sexed individuals- and these include kiwi, papaya, hops and asparagus. It is now thought that similar 'modifier genes' prevent recombination events in these plants that would disrupt the male and female phenotypes. 

Relating back to the title,of the talk, Deborah made the point that, just as she 'fell into' a career in plant science research quite by accident, sometimes scientists should be given the space to simply follow their own curiosity. Quoting Ogden Nash, she remarked 'Progress was a good idea once, but perhaps it has gone on too long'. These days, it can feel that we are 'being administered by the administrators of science'. But politicians and policy makers can be so focused on 'gathering facts' that they forget that there is 'a very intimate connection between pure and applied science'. Rather than being in a rush for results, we should value 'slow science'. In Deborah's view, cutting off pure research is akin to killing the goose that lays the golden eggs as it effectively cuts off the root that leads to beneficial applications. Furthermore, she argued that 'taxpayers themselves aren't just focused on results - they DO love flowers...and animals, plants, natural history...' After all, these are some of the most popular subjects for TV programmes! Scientists themselves have to have a love for their work and chosen organisms to study - it would be impossible otherwise to survive the ardour of a PhD or the multiple demands of being a Lab Group Leader...

Perhaps in the future we could try to strike a balance somewhere? Applied science may always be the key attraction for industry and funding bodies but maybe we can start to find room for a little more...love...in our science? 

Plenty of food for thought as we adjourned to the Upper Hall for our formal dinner. Tonight we enjoyed Asparagus soup with walnut oil followed by a pillow- sized breast of duck accompanied with yet more asparagus ( was there a glut in the Jesus College allotments?) and a mini gauge tower of potatoes. Many agreed that the pudding was the most impressive in appearance (see below), although, in my experience, a mouse should be more,like foam and less like rubber in consistency...at least it gave something for the pineapple tuile to,dig into! At this point, I was quite ready for bed so cannot regale you with merry stories from the vaults of Cambridge's' finest pubs....Goodnight!
Passion Fruit 'Mousse' with PiƱa Calada Sorbet and Pineapple Tuile

Quote of the day: From a student given just two minutes notice that he would be introducing Deborah Charlesworth: 'Deborah Charlesworth...yeah...she's a giant...'

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