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, 12 December 2015

SIP hit Westminster!

Sorry it's late in coming, but finally here is my write up of the Science in Policy's trip to Westminster last month!

Although the London traffic tried to thwart us, we just made it through security in time to meet our Blue Badge guide in St Stephens hall. This is the oldest part of Westminster Hall and originally a residence for the king: one could feel their presence lingering still in the stark medieval grandeur complete with the original oak hammerbeam ceiling - the oldest of its type in Europe. These days, it forms a spectacular setting for official banquets and speeches from visiting dignitaries, including President Obama and the Pope. But we didn't have time to linger  and were immediately whisked up to the main lobby to catch a glimpse of the procession bearing the speaker's mace into the House of Commons Chamber. As the main junction between the Houses of Commons and Lords, this area seemed like the central nervous system of the building with media teams hovering about, MPs and ministers hurrying to and fro and groups of tourists  milling about. Despite being the heart of our modern democracy, however, the room was sumptuously decorated in the Victorian ornate style - think carved stonework, gilded mosaics and beautiful floor tiles. To continue this theme, we proceeded through the State rooms, following the route that the Queen herself takes when she visits Parliament. My favourite was the 'dressing room' where the Queen pauses to swap her tiara for her official crown, brought specially from the Tower of London. A commanding throne took centre stage whilst the surrounding walls seemed to groan under the weight of the monumental artworks, depicting tales from the Arthurian legends. When I asked if they ever used the room during the rest of the year, I was assured "Oh yes, it's a popular venue for parties!"
Because the Lords weren't sitting that morning, we were able to enter the Chamber itself and tiptoe between the benches ( red for the Lords, green for the Commons) where so many decisions of national importance have been made. I was surprised - it was a lot smaller than I had imagined - but apparently many of the Lords aren't particularly active in their political duties, so it is rare that they are all in attendance at one time - just as well! 
The Houses of Parliament, complete with festive decoration. ( I'm afraid we weren't allowed to take any photos inside!)

After a speedy lunch in the Jubilee Cafe, we moved from the ancient sphere of tradition to the modern machinery of Parliament. Paul Blomfield, MP for Sheffield Central met us and escorted us along the underground tunnel to Portcullis House on the other side of the road. This had a much more cosmopolitan atmosphere -  lots of glass and silver fittings, white marble tiles and even an indoor garden of fig trees - and in each direction, very important- looking people were ploughing through stacks of papers, crouched over their phone or huddled together in discussion. In one of the meeting rooms, Paul patiently fielded our questions for an hour and gave us an insight into how difficult it can be to effect changes through Parliament. "I hate the Punch and Judy show in the Chamber" he said. "Politicians are very good at saying things which aren't true but with  confidence". Nevertheless, he assured us that, behind the scenes, it can be possible to make a difference. "Some of the big changes that you make will never reach the headlines". He believes that engaging with the public through select committee is a more effective strategy and encouraged us all to get involved. "MPs are keen to reach out. When they are elected, they are expected to know everything about everything and they can only meet that challenge by drawing on expertise".

Appropriately, we then sat in on a select committee discussion - most people opted for the 'anti-terror strategies' session but I decided to stick with a science theme and joined the group in 'the challenges of big data'. I was surprised by how friendly the atmosphere was and the positive flow of dialogue between the Science and Technology Committee and the invited panel of experts. It was a far cry from Lord Sugar's boardroom in the Apprentice! One of the Committee members even joked " I organise a local book club and often have to buy a lot of cheese and wine in one go - what conclusions will Tesco make of my health from the data they collect from the checkout?!"
It was a long day but utterly worth it!

We then headed back through the tunnel to Westminster Hall - nearly getting trampled by a stampede of MPs who were being summoned by a bell to rush to the Chamber to vote. We decided to follow them and headed to the public gallery in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, by the time we had queued for our tickets, there wasn't much action going on - just a very calm discussion about transport networks ( apart from one gentleman becoming very excited about ferry boats). But it was worth the experience to be look out over such an iconic setting and it put me in mind of the Suffragettes, who sat here so many times in hope as each new bill for a Woman 's Vote was discussed ( although the giant bullet-proof glass screen wasn't there then).

A final call in the gift shop to stock up on House of Commons wine, then it was time to reach our coach and struggle back through the trials of London in rush hour and Storm Barney. It was an epic (if exhausting!) day and a big thank you to the Science in Policy Committee for organising it!

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