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, 30 June 2015

SEB Prague 2015 DAY TWO Talks, talks and far too many talks!

Ouch...I feel as though I have been sitting in a hedgehog all day. Why is it that three of the sessions I want to write articles about happen to be in the same day??! It's meant that I have had to pick and choose my sessions carefully, targeting the talks which have 'story appeal', rather than those describing new methods, etc. It also means I have to be very rude, constantly getting up just after a talk has finished and zooming off to another session! And when talks run behind schedule things get very complicated...

But today started straightforwardly enough with the plenary session to showcase the entrants for the 'Young Scientists Award'. The SEB has a strong commitment to supporting young scientists, which includes choosing six candidates from all of the abstracts submitted by early-career researchers to give an extended talk during the plenary session ( I.e. Taking place before the main sessions start, meaning that all the delegates can attend, giving a large audience!). Unfortunately, the talks were split between two rooms, so I was only able to see the entrants from the 'Animal' Section, and not the 'Plant' talks. I had to wonder though, what was it that set these apart from all the other students presenting work here? During their talk, it was clear that they all had a dedication to push deeper and deeper with their investigations, besides a real flair for communication. I couldn't help but feel, however, that they had also enjoyed a fair bit of luck in getting some significant results - so many PhD students slog it to the end only to be left with inconclusive data and a list of a thousand ways how NOT to do their experimental assay...I can only hope I don't end up being one of them!
The young scientists from the animal section: left to right: Craig Franklin, chair of the session, Dominique Roche, Heather More and Lauren Nadler. The Professors of the future?

First of all, Dominique Roche described how studies into behaviour, metabolism and stress responses frequently overlooked the 'personality' of the individual organisms. However, his own research on the Olive Flouder fish had unearthed two distinctly different personality types : 'shy' fish who respond to a threat by freezing and hiding, and 'bold' fish that dart away in a rapid 'flight or fight' escape response. Even more surprisingly, these differences extended to the metabolic level: bold fish responding to a stress by increasing their oxygen uptake whereas in shy fish, oxygen uptake decreases. Next, Lauren Nadler took to the stage. I had worked with her on a press release at the SEB meeting last year, on her reasearch into how rising carbon dioxide levels may affect the ability of reef fish to recognise one another. It seems she has moved on to greater things since then, investigating how the environment can affect how easily fish can escape,predators. Her evidence suggests that living in turbid, high- flow reef zones, hones the ability of damselfish to outmanoeuvre their predators.  Finally, Heather More posed an intriguing question: if larger mammals have longer neurones, meaning chemical signals have further to travel, does this delay their escape response? Whilst she concluded that this was indeed the case, this delay is partly offset by the fact that larger mammals move relatively more slowly ( I.e. Their feet remain on the ground for a longer period for each stride). The slight time delay remaining, however, could be problematic when running at speed if the mammal can't respond in time when it stumbles, potentially causing it to fall into the jaws of an enemy! It was a captivating series of talks and would have been even without the photos showing the speakers handling lively fish, diving on coral reefs and measuring reactions in elephants !

Getting up close and personal with DNA and enzymes... One of David Smith's fantastic models. To learn more about David's adventures in the classroom, you can visit his blog at https://davethesmith.wordpress.com/

After the plenary, the main programme got underway. Perhaps the most lively session today was the Education session : 'Innovations and Best Practice in Undergraduate Education'. It was a nice change to see teaching being considered as a worthy practice, rather than a lesser career for those who don't make it in research. And the session truly was a showcase in innovation! There was David Smith from Sheffield Hallam University, who 3D prints models of enzymes, proteins and DNA so his students can playfully explore how they physically interact. Meanwhile, Dr John Love, from the University of Exeter, described how he has done away with the traditional, 'follow-a-recipe' style of delivering undergraduate practicals. Instead he gives them a PROBLEM, three tubes each containing an unknown plant hormone at an unknown concentration....the students simply have to devise experiments to work out what they are!
Apparently it costs £50,000... But it can tell you anything you ever wanted to know about the plant in question...

Besides the talks, I also had an interview to record with Michael Berenbrink, who had co-chaired a satellite meeting on how Genomics has revolutionised the field of Comparative Physiology. He believes that studying the evolutionary lineage of organisms will open up new understandings of how adaptations help them to tolerate environmental challenges. And in any spare minute, I made a point of visiting the trade stands. The SEB have come up with a new idea for this meeting; each delegate is given a 'passport' in which they can collect stamps from the exhibitors. Completed passports can then be entered into a grand prize draw at the end of the week...A perfect excuse to drop by each stand and pick up the freebies.... So far I have a t-shirt, a coaster, a torch Keyring, a stress-squeeze mouse and more notepads and fridge magnets than I will probably ever need. Aside from that, there are some seriously cool looking pieces of kit for sale...I daren't ask for the prices though!
An artisan melon carver shows us his skill during the wine trail

After such excitement, I was a little too tired to try the wine trail in the evening.... Although I did sample some of the 'Czech themed banquet'. I once heard that cooks in French schools sometimes deep fry broccoli in an effort to persuade the children to eat more vegetables. After trying deep fried cauliflower tonight, I can see why!

Time to retire to bed...who knows what scientific and culinary delights tomorrow will bring?

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