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!


Saturday, 11 April 2015

Gatsby Training Weekend Saturday afternoon - Ghosts, ghouls and aPROPER Field Trip!


The afternoon session was an appropriate one for me : 'Managing your Research'. All too often my head is whirling like a tumble drier as I desperately try to keep track of what I feel I should be doing - planning experiments, cleaning dirty rhizotrons, reading the latest literature, writing up my methods, starting my thesis...I particularly struggle with knowing how to store papers I have read and to make a system for keeping notes on them all. The best practical advice I got this afternoon was to use Mendeley - apparently a brilliant software to help researchers keep their banks of papers and literature in order. I'll let you know how I get on with it! We were also encouraged to start writing NOW and to do it regularly - even though the thesis submission may still be a long way off for us, Liam Dolan remarked that writing regularly helps to keep you fit, so that when the pressure comes, you can fly with it. 'No one thinks of running a marathon without doing any training' he told us 'but plenty of PhD students think they can write a thesis without doing any other writing during their PhD!' Other advice included using RS Feeds to give alerts when any relevant new paper comes out and setting self- imposed deadlines for tasks that may not get done otherwise...although it takes discipline to say 'Beyond this point I will NOT work on this any longer!' Apparently the most effective way is to work on trains, when you know you will have to get off at a certain time...
Off to Innovation Farm!

After such an intense morning, we were ready for a change of scene and eagerly boarded the coach for our 'Field Trip' to the Innovation Farm at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB). I was particularly looking forward to this as I did an eight week research placement at NIAB in 2012, when they were just setting up the Innovation Farm. NIAB, now an independent charitable company rather than a National Institue, was set up in 1919, at a time when food security was top of the agenda, in order to 'help farmers and fruit producers to be sure of their produce'. As Lydia Smith, director of Innovation Farm, explained, the naming of different varieties was 'in a hopeless mess' in those days and there was no systematic approach for testing and approving different crop cultivars. Hence NIAB was set up to address this, and now tests all the major crops, such as wheat, barley and potatoes, besides ornamental plants. Only when a variety has been tested by NIAB can it be marketed to UK farmers and, if particularly desirable, added to recommended lists. As a result, many of your supermarket staples will once have passed through the NIAB Fields!

Lydia met us at the very swish conference centre, built to the highest EU-level Eco-credentials, complete with a 'living roof' of Sedum. Despite having just had lunch, the group put a big dent in the array of pastries laid out on our arrival! Lydia then gave us an introduction to NIAB's work and some of the research they do alongside testing varieties sent from other plant breeders. She gave us the example of Buglossoides, a genus of herb like plants from the same family as to Viper's Bugloss, and which has high levels of Omega-3 and-6 fatty acids - feted for their health benefits for cardiovascular health. Almost a decade ago, it was decided to breed a high Omega 3/6 Buglossoides cultivar as a sustainable alternative to oily fish, the usual source of these compounds. 175 different lines were collected and planted out in field trials. Everything was going 'swimmingly' until disaster struck in 2007. The most promising line they had identified had an inbuilt dormancy mechanism and couldn't germinate unless the seeds had been exposed to 'winter' conditions. As a result, it was unmarketable - what farmer would want the added complication of storing seeds in set and cold conditions, which would probably make them go mouldy before he could plant them? So the search was widened across Europe until, at long last, a 'spring' cultivar was found. Breeding the spring variety with the high Omega 3/6 cultivar gave the result they had been working for. But you won't find 'Buglossoides' on the shelves - apparently the industrial sponsor didn't like the name and rebranded it as the 'Ahi-Flower', with 'ahi' meaning 'tuna fish' in Swahili! Meanwhile, the pioneering research continues...apparently one of the latest projects involves using compounds from daffodils to treat Alzheimer's....
The NIAB Conference Centre with it's living Sedum Roof

Lydia decided that we had sat still for long enough so we headed out to the giant greenhouses, which made my growth cabinets in Sheffield seem minuscule by comparison! The first was filled with an astonishing variety of ornamentals - roses, Delphiniums, Chrysantheums...it certainly made for a colourful display. Then onto the wheat glasshouses, of which I had happy memories! 
Modern wheat varieties are 'hexaploid' , meaning that they have six copies of each chromosome, instead of two. This is the result of two hybridisation events that occurred by chance in the ancestors of Modern wheat. The first was between two diploid wheats, Einkorn ( the 'grandfather of all wheat') and an unknown ancestor, to make a tetraploid with four copies of each chromosome - called Emmer Wheat. Later, this hybridised with diploid Goats Grass to make the modern wheat varieties.

Give the challenges that future crops face - pests, diseases, climate change, water scarcity, etc - we need all the genetic diversity we can get. Hence, some of NIAB's most interesting work has been to create new lines of 'synthetic wheat' by recreating the last hybridisation step using a large variety of different Lines of Goats Grass. I should point out that this is NOT a example of GMtechnology as it is recreating a natural event, however this has helped to widen the genetic pool that farmers can use to breed from. We were able to see this for ourselves, comparing the weedy Goats Grass, with its more 'meaty looking'hexaploid offspring! Curiously, this work is being coordinated by Professor Andrew Greenland, who supervised me for my own research placement at NIAB.
Goats Grass on the left and some of its mightier hexaploid offspring on the right!


We were also introduced to a personal favourite of Lydia's, called Sainfoin. This traditional fodder legume had declined in popularity during the 1950s as it didn't respond particularly well to fertiliser inputs. However, it has received a resurgence of interest lately due to its antibloat and antihelmenthic (i.e. It protects against parasitic worms) properties caused by compounds called tannins. Normally, these chemicals repel herbivores,but those in Sainfoin have an especially high molecular weight, causing them to have different effects. Their roots can also grow incredibly deep to reach water - which Lydia showed us by way of the largest rhizotron I have ever seen, one which made my tiny ones for Arabidopsis look like a postage stamp!

Then to the fields themselves...although there wasn't a great deal to see as most of the plants weren't flowering yet, we had a good wander around the neat plots, resplendent in the late sunshine. Lydia pointed out some of the other crops receiving high interest at the moment including Napweed, a favourite food of pollinators that flowers during the 'hungry gap' in late summer and also some particular Grass species, whose high sugar content apparently makes them easier to digest by ruminants. Some of the more daring ( and hungry!) members of the group tested this for themselves!

It was humbling to be reminded of the years of work and all the factors that are considered before a crop is bought to market - soil quality, pest resistance, flowering time, ease of harvest... How fortunate we are that the hardest decision most of us have is how to cook the crops we buy! And yet, although this work is so clearly important, Lydia starkly warned that 'The number of plant breeders is minuscule and dropping'. So - who knows?- perhaps I will come back to NIAB one day to work in the greenhouses once more...
Lydia Smith, director of NIAB Innovation Farm, shows us the impressive SainFoin Rhizotron


The fresh air had given us quite an appetite again, just in time for the evening meal. The starter tonight was feta, watermelon and toasted pumpkin seeds followed by corn fed chicken and some more of the abundant asparagus! To complement the sunshine, the pudding was Summer Eton Mess, although this had such a paucity of meringue and fruit, it was really just intensely-flavoured cream...still nice though!

The evening wasn't quite over yet as we were rounded up by natural showman David Hanke for the long- awaited 'Ghost Tour' of Jesus College ( specially requested in the feedback session at last year's weekend after David unwittingly let slip that he knew lots of ghoulish stories about the college...). The tone was a little more raucous than appropriate however, as several of the group had bought the remaining wine bottles from the dinner with them! Nevertheless, the scattered lights and shadowy corners set a spooky atmosphere as we trooped around, stopping to hear the enthralling tales of the seven resident ghosts. Perhaps the most macabre was that of 'The Everlasting Club', a group of seven 'Hellraisers' who made a pact to meet at the college every Halloween for a meal whilst any one of them was still alive. Over the years, various members began to pass on until eventually only one of the group remained. Come Halloween night, he ordered a meal for seven to be set out in the room and went up the stairs to take his place at the table... That night the porters heard ' a terrible racket' and when they ventured in the following morning, the crockery and cutlery was smashed and dashed to pieces and the one remaining member of the club lay there dead....another favourite story was the staircase rumoured to be so haunted that they college authorities had it bricked it up and gave the crypt to David for his office!

It was more than enough for me for one night but most of the group hadn't really started their evening yet, and went on into town whilst I headed to bed, fortunately for a deep sleep unplauged by not-so-departed souls...

Memorable Quotes: 

'And if you see a black cat round here, then it's either a black cat or the ghost of Thomas Allen!'

'Now come on people, a Ghost Tour is a really serious matter...you're all too drunk to take it in!'

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