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!

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

SEB PRAGUE 2015 DAY THREE - You've got to pick a Poster or Two...

Day three...its a beautiful day here in Prague but I don't think I will be getting much sun somehow...not when I have highlighted so many sessions to attend today!

But we get off to a great start with the President Medallist's Talk from the Education and Public Affairs section, given by Dr Gonzalo Estavillo, a plant scientist based in Australia. As he progressed in his career and found himself spending more time teaching undergraduate students, he became frustrated at the standard 'follow a recipe' design of the practical classes. This approach may teach students basic lab skills ( such as how to pipette) but doesn't really help them to become independent researchers. Gonzalo also wanted to integrate his own research, the work he was most comfortable teaching. So he came up with the idea of 'The Plant Detectives',  problem based learning where the students have to use their ingenuity and design experiments to identify mutants in the model plant Arabidopsis. Having to think for myself, rather than being told what to do, would have made the undergraduate me extremely flustered and uncomfortable, and indeed a lot of his students found it challenging at first. But the feedback was overwhelming positive - many said it was the best undergraduate practical they had ever done - and the take up of further plant science modules rocketed up. I manage to grab Gonzalo for an interview later on - I know of a journal on teaching methods in biology which might be interested in a feature article...

Over lunch, I'm eager to pop along to an informal bonus session entitled 'How to become an Academic'. There's a good turnout, despite the delegates having to balance their lunches on their laps. A panel of senior figures within the SEB briefly share their stories before the floor is opened up to questions. They come thick and fast - Is it always best to move to a new institution or can you make progress by staying put? How do you know when you are ready to apply for a permanent position? How difficult is it to move into a completely different field? It was reassuring to hear that when it comes to applying to join a new lab, personality and enthusiasm often counts more than how many papers you have published....although if you haven't got any credits to your name 'it suggests something is wrong'. There were also many inspiring anecdotes showing the value of flexibility... My favourite had to be the gentleman who had one night to write a grant proposal on a day when his wife was doing a night shift. His solution? 'Kids - we're going on a camping trip in my office!'

And now the afternoon sessions get underway...I have to practically force my way into the session on 'Emerging Models for studying the Cardiovascular System' - it's standing room only and there are bodies rammed against the door! Meanwhile, I am intrigued on a talk showing how MRI can be used to image the underground architecture of plants in the 'Roots for the Future' session. I also manage to meet Michael Stang, from German Public Radio, who wanted to interview one of the researchers whose work I had promoted during a press release. 

I need to sit down! But when I try to grab a break at the SEB Careers stand, my 'base' for the week, I am immediately besieged by delegates wanting me to sign their competition passport! ( see post from yesterday). 

The sessions draw to a close at around 5.00 pm but for some, the most nerve-racking moment of the meeting approaches.... It is time for the first poster session of the meeting. For early career researchers, including PhD students, whose projects have not yet progressed to the stage where they can be the subject of a talk, poster sessions give them the chance to present their work so far to the scientific community. 
The evening poster session

It is humbling to think how so many hours of experimental toil, frustrations, failed attempts, going-back-to-the-drawing board, etc. are behind each poster...and thee are hundreds of them! It seems as though every flat surface has been commandeered to show the results of a diligent researcher's efforts. I have drawn up a 'hit list' of ones I want to visit ( still dauntingly long!) but it is hard not to get distracted by the titles...Early exposure to hypoxia causes cardiac remodelling in trout...Investigating the hormone signalling pathway that controls the drought response in plants.....How silly walks can inspire school pupils to study biomechanics.....I even find a gentleman studying the same dwarfing genes in wheat which I worked on when I did a summer placement at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany three years ago. I just about manage to squeeze my way around them all - the narrow aisles are rammed, possibly because of the SEB's idea of giving everybody two tickets for a free drink during the poster session! But it is wonderful to give the students a chance to present their work to research leaders, to share ideas and even forge new collaborations. Many Professors admit to using poster sessions as 'recruitment drives' for PostDoc positions in their labs....It gives me a new determination to work hard on my own project  to get enough data to present a poster at the meeting next year. In the meantime, I manage to get several leads for my stories to chase up further when I get home.

I have one more interview before the day is done...I catch up with Professor Thomas Speck, a researcher in 'Biomimetics', who specialises in how the structures of plants can inspire designs of human products and even buildings. I'm very excited by the projects he tells me about, including a hingeless door based on the Bird of Paradise flower...I feel positive that we can work together to make an informative article. I'm certainly going to be busy when I get home! 

That's it for today - come back tomorrow for more talks, more posters and the exciting launch of SEB+!

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