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, 23 March 2016

Kathleen Drew-Baker – Saving the Seaweed!

As promised, here is the blog post about a truly inspiring plant scientist, which I produced during the University of Salford's Leap into Science Blogging Event on 29th February:

 How is it that Kathleen Drew-Baker, a Lancashire lass virtually unknown in the UK, is revered in Japan as the “Mother of the Sea” and even has a National Day of dedication? It's a story about curiosity saving the day, international networking and inspired thinking – and one that was nearly jeopardised by archaic ‘anti-feminist’ rules at the time…

 To understand the significance of Kathleen’s work, you first need to grasp just how BIG the edible seaweed industry is. In Japan alone, over 230 square miles of coastline are dedicated to nori farming, producing the 350,000 tonnes necessary to keep sushi restaurants in business. But even in the 1940s, the lifecycle of Poryphyra yezoensis (aka nori), was practically unknown. Farmers literally trusted that it would be there, as it always had been. But in the 1948, it wasn't there –a combination of typhoons and pollution had collapsed the nori harvest. And as no one knew the first thing about how the seaweed reproduced, there was no way to get it back.

 Meanwhile, in Manchester, Kathleen was following her dream, conducting her own research into the lifecycle of the red alga Porphyra umbilicalis – the component of the Welsh delicacy laverbread. Having won a scholarship to study Botany at the University of Manchester, she graduated in 1922 with first class honours, and then progressed up the tiers of academia to Lecturer and Researcher in Botany. Seaweeds were her specialist subject and such was  her expertise that she co-founded the British Phycological Society in 1952. Yet this stellar career was almost cut short when she married her sweetheart Henry Wright Baker – and was promptly expelled from the University due to their policy of not employing married women! However, her scientific skills were saved when she was awarded a more acceptable Honorary Research Fellowship. She was lucky too that her husband – a lecturer in mechanical engineering – also supported her work, even building her a special tidal sea water tank for her investigations.

Her critical discovery came when she realised that a tiny alga called Conchocelis was NOT in fact a separate species to Poryphyra, but a different stage of the same lifecycle. In fact, Conchocelis is the spore- producing powerhouse that generates new Poryphyra filaments that grow into mature seaweeds. But to do this, Conchocelis needs old seashells to grow in. In a historic example of very – modern collaboration and strategic thinking, her work, published in Nature, came to the attention of Japanese scientist  Professor Sokichi Segawa, who immediately realised that these results were also likely to apply to the closely related Poryphyra yezoensis. With this insight, the Fisheries Station were able to develop methods for artificially cultivating the spores on strings – techniques that proved so effective, that they form the basis of modern nori farming today.

And so the industry was saved, thanks to one pioneering woman who didn't let convention stand in her way. Sadly, like another great female researcher Rosalind Franklin, Kathleen did not live to see the full impact of her work, falling victim to cancer in 1957. But the Japanese were determined not to let her name fade into the dusty archives and erected a shrine to her in Osaka, where industry representatives still meet each year to bestow garlands to her memory.

 So on April 14,why not raise a glass of Sake to Kathleen and have a sushi feast!

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