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, 4 July 2016

Bees, Birds and Badges - Society for Experimental Biology Annual Meeting Day Two

Good morning Brighton! Everything already seems a lot busier today, with a noticeable bustle in the hotel and around the conference centre. Breakfast is spent answering journalist's enquiries, arranging meetings and marking up my programme for the day. It's going to be a busy one...
Not such a sunny day today

The morning kicked off with proper 'hard science' in the President's Medallist talks. In the plant session, Dr Matt Johnson showed us his ingenious technique for seeking out the protein complexes that make up photosystems in chloroplasts. In Atmoic Force Microscopy, an ultra- fine needle moves across the surface of the object in question ( such as a leaf) and sketches out the tomography with nanometer-scale resolution. But this isn't fine enough to distinguish the different protein components of photosystems so  designed a 'baited' needle, which was covered with proteins that bound to the complex in question. The needle was also fitted with a sensor to measure the force required to pull the needle off the surface of the leaf. So when the needle touched the complex, the proteins on it would transiently bind to the complex causing the needle to stick slightly, until the force increased enough to pull it off. A bit like pulling a stubborn cork that's stuck in a bottle! By seeing where the probe got 'stuck', Dr Mohnson was able to map the distribution of the complexes. Next up were the Young Scientists. Despite only being PhD students, their projects were clearly tackling relevant issues for food security: manipulating Giberellic Acid levels to improve wheat grain quality, improving water use efficiency by modifying  stomatal pores and working out how plants sense the cold.
Marking up my programme

I couldn't resist popping along to Professor Mandyam Srinivasan on how visual processing in bees and birds are helping to develop better automated aircraft. Apparently both bees and birds use the balance of optic flow between their eyes to steer themselves. So if a bee flys through a tunnel where one of the walls is static and the other is moving forward, it will fly closer to the moving wall because to the bee's point of view the image on that side appears to flow past more slowly. A similar mechanism monitors the level of the far horizon, to control rolling and stop nose diving. As we saw in a rather entertaining series of videos, these principals can be converted into algorithms for automatically flying model aircraft -  accurate enough even for  'loop the loops'!

After that, I spent most of the day in the Biology Education session, hearing about the latest ingenious ways lecturers have come up with to engage apathetic undergraduates. My favourite had to be the University of British Columbia's idea of 'Digital Badges' : similar to Guides and Scout badges, these are awarded to students once they complete a set of objectives, only here they feature topics such as Microscopy, Molecular Biology Techniques, and so on. Besides having clear aesthetic appeal and motivating independent study, these online badges can be put on LinkedIn profiles and CVs, boosting employability. The only negative feedback was that the students lamented they wanted real badges. So the lecturers promptly had a series of badges made which they could iron on to their lab coats - and this made the students 'very happy' indeed! It seems that even in these 'Digital Days', we can't resist the allure of a physical collectible...
A brief pause between sessions...

The final lecture of the day was a tribute to Profesor Roger Woledge, clearly a scientist of great dedication and thoroughness. From starting out investigating the mechanical versatility of fish muscle, he went on to demonstrate that  there is a clear trade off across animals between muscle power and efficiency. So tortoises have highly efficient muscles ( in that they convert the highest proportion of energy input to useful work, rather than heat) but have limited power output - hence their strategy to evade predators is to hide rather than run away! Even after officially 'retiring', Prof Woledge carried on pioneering new research inquiries, including asking why it is that the elderly are so at risk of falling. Tragically, he died in a riding accident just days after accepting the invitation to give this lecture, thus it was poignantly fitting for his colleagues to present his work in his stead. 

After so much science, my eyes are drooping. The wine trail is at full flow around me and the atmosphere is becoming increasingly ebullient with animated conversation. I'm giving it a miss and will head off for an early night instead. After all, there is even more to come tomorrow!

Goodnight and thanks for reading!

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