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!

Monday, 14 September 2015

Gatsby Annual Network Meeting Day Two - From ancient history to cutting edge science

Nine 'o clock on Friday and we were back in the auditorium for day two of the meeting. Judging by the empty seats, some of the delegates were still recovering from a tour if Oxford's pubs last night...

We started with a topic which, unfortunately, preoccupies many researchers - the money. Or, more accurately, where can we go to get funding? Bizarrely, only 4% of the UK public spend on scientific research goes to Plant Sciences - a proportion which hasn't changed since the 1970s. This despite  the question of how we will feed everyone in a world undergoing climate change, environmental degradation, water scarcity - and so on and so on! 

Of course, the competition is fierce - every scienctist believes their project is fabulous, game-changing and ultimately worthy of a pot of money! So what is the solution for UK-based plant scientists? Cast your net wider and look for international opportunities, particularly those from philanthropic organisations. Perhaps the best known of these is the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation which - with an endowment of $44 billion - also happens to be the wealthiest. "Plant science used to be the poor relation in international development" said Gatsby Mentor Nick Talbot, but that is starting to change. Now plant science is being promoted alongside high profile campaigns, such as providing mosquito nets to combat malaria. Even the biomedical giants, such as the Wellcome Trust, are beginning to take note. "After all, it doesn't matter how much you vaccinate people - if they don't have enough to eat, they will never be well" as Ottoline Leyser, another of the Gatsby Mentors, put it. Such organisations are particularly keen to support programmes that facilitate the exchange of scientists - and hence knowledge - between different countries. This includes both UK institutes inviting foreign scientists to their labs, and UK scientists spending time in overseas labs. Given the size of the problems mankind faces, it makes sense to disseminate ideas on as global a scale as possible. 
Another beautiful morning at Queens

But even when the money IS there, UK scientists - particularly early career researchers - can be afraid to go for it. "There is a tendency for early career researchers or newly established lecturers to be nervous and only apply for small grants" said Nick. "But really, you should be going for a large grant as soon as your CV makes you competitive". To make this less daunting, there are a number of grants specifically aimed at researchers just starting to climb the academic ladder. These include the European Research Council (ERC) 's Starting Grants, open to those who have 2-7 years of research experience after their PhD, besides the BBSRC* Future Leaders Programme and Marie Curie Fellowships. But even these are highly fought for, hence the Gatsby Mentors had some tips. "It is much better to have a consistent record of good solid research than one or two 'blockbuster' publications" said Liam Dolan. "And try to have a really exciting research plan that could potentially change the field". But Ottoline warned against overdoing the hyperbole. "One research proposal I read was going to shift four paradigms - I just got fed up! You don't need to keep spelling it out - it should be obvious that the research will make a difference". Having some preliminary data can also make an application stand out,although this isn't always necessary. I wonder if I ever be in a position to go for a pot of money myself, and put my own ideas on the table?

We then had an update from Ginny Page, from Science And Plants for Schools (SAPS), about the new IntoBiology website. This aims to firmly debunk the notion that 'plants are boring' and there is a wealth of inspiring lectures and resources available to all. It's not just for kids - if this blog has made you at all curious to learn more about plant science, do check it out! In particular, have a look at the 'film advert' to see what a media team can come up with when challenged to make plant science careers look exciting! See http://intobiology.org.uk

During the talks from the third year PhD students, Patrick Diaz described his progress using temperature insensitive  mutants in Arabidopsis to determine genes involved in temperature sensing. I was particularly interested in this, as I helped to identify some of the first of his mutants during an undergraduate summer placement at the John Innes Centre four years ago. His results suggest that the components of the temperature sensing pathway are linked to photosynthesis, a reaction that is itself temperature dependent. The rate limiting step of photosynthesis is the conversion of reduced plastoquinone. As the temperature increases, reduced plastoquinone accumulates and this forms a feedback loop with temperature sensing proteins. It seems an ingenious solution to me, to use a process that already varies with temperature to work out how hot it is!

Whilst we broke for coffee and the undergraduate poster display, I caught up with naturalist John Midgley to talk blogging. His blog (Dr M goes wild) is in a completely different league to this one however with over 1,000 hits on some days! I will be writing a separate post on his blog and further outreach work soon so stay tuned. 
The tree in the courtyard of the Fellows Garden

A couple more talks then a final 'treat' - two scientists from the Cambridge Sainsbury Laboratory described the fascinating research they are doing at this state-of-the-art facility. ( I had a tour once and it's true! They even have whole walls you can write ideas on). Amazing how quickly this lab - completed in December 2010 - has filled itself with pioneering research leaders. Dr Siobhan Braybrook, for instance, is investigating how plants, with their rigid cell walls, can perform delicate 3D movements such as the circling motions of young shoot tips ( known as circumnutation). Professor Yrjö Helariutta, meanwhile, is researching how undifferentiated root stem cells become  highly specialised sieve plate elements. These form part of the phloem vascular system which transports nutrients and carbon sugars around the plant. Seive plate elements are unique - unlike the xylem elements that transport water, they are living cells which form continuous channels connected by seive- like plates ( hence the name).  To do this, the nucleus and organelles completely degrade and the walls undergo thickening. To understand how this takes place, Yrjö is using the latest 3D root imaging systems to compile serial sections into exquisite images that document how the cells change over time. I wish I could borrow it to study how Striga gesnerioides infects my Arabidopsis plants. It would make for some pretty pictures for my thesis!

A priceless relic of British history .... The exquisite Alfred Jewel  © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

And then quite suddenly it was all over for another year. Farewell lunch, pick up bags, disperse to trains, cars and coaches.I just had time to pop into the Ashmolean Museum to seek out the Alfred Jewel. It was amazing how many people walked past it, despite it being one of the most significant finds of Medieval Britain, commissioned during the reign of King Alfred (871-899). The exquisite  jewel-work depicts a figure - said to be Christ or the personification of Sight - surrounded by the words "AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYCAN" - "Alfred ordered me to be made". It is all the more alluring in that no one is exactly sure what it was used for - part of a crown? A rod for coiling manuscripts around? A pointer to follow the lines of scripture? Either way, it marks the transition from pagan societies to a culture based on Christianity and learning.

And now it really is time to depart...until next year Gatsby and thanks for the memories!

* The UK Biological and Biotechnological Sciences Research Council

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