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, 24 April 2015

It would happen when my supervisor was away...

I always knew a PhD would involve hard work.... But I didn't realise quite how frequently I would feel like a piece of washing wrung out by a Victorian clothes- drier.... I am used to unexpected things cropping up that put my experimental plans in disarray but this week has been exceptionally difficult!

For my PhD project, I am investigating if infection with parasitic plants ( especially Striga species) makes the host more vulnerable to above ground pathogens. For my model system , I am using Arabidopsis thaliana ( thale cress) as the host and Striga gesnerioides as the parasitic plant. I was very excited as this week I was due to challenge my first batch of Striga- infected hosts with downy mildew ( this is done by filling a perfume spray bottle with a solution containing downy mildew spores and spraying it as a fine mist over the leaves!). I had already prepared a living culture of downy mildew on a different host, ready to use when I came to challenge the Striga infected plants. First problem- the living culture wasn't producing spores so I had to find some elsewhere. Someone had a culture but it was ready to sporulate RIGHT NOW and not in two days time, as I had planned! So it was a rush to prepare to infect my plants. Second problem - my Striga- infected hosts were flowering! This was bad news as when Arabidopsis starts to flower , it stops putting so much energy into making leaves and I needed nice big leaves to score the extent of downy mildew infection. Fortunately I managed to scrape together enough non-flowering plants for a viable experiment.
My current experimental plan... You can see how often it gets changed!

But why WERE they flowering? My cabinet was supposed to be set to a short photoperiod ( 9 hours of 'daylight') so the plants should think they were in the middle of a ( mild!) British winter...I asked the technicians to check and , yes, the photoperiod was definitely 9 hours. So what was going on?

The next day, I was due to be demonstrating on an undergraduate practical investigating insect behaviour in response to changes in light and humidity. Demonstrating is a wonderful way for PhD students to develop skills in teaching and supervision... and you even get paid! Half an hour before the practical was due to start, I was having my morning cup of tea when I thought 'I'll just check my emails...' 
... And there was precisely what you do NOT want to find first thing in the morning! A chain of emails between my supervisors and the growth room technicians, all with 'URGENT' in the title. My growth chamber had completely broken - the temperature system had conked out. So that's why the plants had started to flower! My supervisor was away at a conference so it was up to me to move all my plants into temporary quarters. It was a mad dash to tell the lecturer leading the practical what had happened, then a sprint to the growth rooms to move my plants out. I was just in time - you could feel the heat coming out of the chamber, they were being cooked! With the help of the technicians,  I managed to find some temporary lodgings for them and just made it back in time for the practical. By the time the lunch break came, a new growth cabinet that was currently empty had been found so I went back to move my plants in. I took several thermometers with me and have taped these to the walls - I'm not going to be caught out again!
Fortunately, the practical - despite involving undergraduates, mealworms and beetles- went fairly smoothly with the students not as squeamish as I thought they would be!

Lesson learned - don't trust what computers or people tell you - listen to your plants. They never lie!
The plants never lie... This cabinet is definitely NOT 'winter conditions'!

Happier plants in their new growth cabinet - although the shelves are at a different height than the previous one hence why some are on the floor!

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