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!

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Dream write your science, re-engineer life and network all the way: Day Three of the Society for Experimental Biology 2016 Meeting

I'm absolutely shattered and it's only the second 'official' day of the Conference. Trying to keep up with so much research - across the breadth of the sciences - is exhausting! But. That is one of the definitions points of SEB meetings; there is such a variety of research on offer. This was neatly illustrated by the President's Medallists talks this morning. First up, Oliver Castell ( University of Sheffield) described how building synthetic cell structures led him to a novel method to sequence DNA. This was followed by Jodie Rummer ( James Cook University), on how she was using her career as a distinguished fish physiologist to inspire others, especially girls, to develop a curiosity for science. 

Given that so many academics are also educators - of students and the public - the following session 'A Science Communication Toolkit' was a particular highlight. In a lively series of talks we learnt that poor drawing skills are no barrier to illustrating research with  cartoons; where to find appropriate video clips to illustrate lectures (https://biologyonthebox.wordpress.com) and how to give your PowerPoint the 'WOW' factor using SmartArt. I was intrigued by Gilly Smith's (University of Warwick) presentation on how 'Dreamwriting' can help academics and students to overcome writing blocks. This essentially invokes streaming your thoughts down automatically onto paper, an iPad, a voice recorder, etc. without ceasing or even thinking about it. It's well known that our most creative thoughts often surface when we stop thinking about the problem; hence, Dreamwriting allows new ideas to emerge because we stop thinking about whether what we write is right or wrong. It might not write your thesis, but it can certainly help you to grasp the full story of your research and work out how best to convey it to others. Something I shall definitely try on my return! 

The lunch break saw a new 'first' for the SEB meetings: an informal session called 'Meet the Young Academics', featuring a panel of speakers who are steadily climbing up the rungs of academia towards Professorship. Despite coming from a wide background of research fields, their advice contained several recurring themes: constantly be on the lookout for new opportunities, cast the net as widely as possible when looking for funding opportunities and above all network network network - starting with this meeting! It's all too easy to sit with your own lab group when you go to conferences, but who knows what chance encounters and conversations you are missing out on? As our panel could demonstrate, new connections can one day turn into collaborations, or even future supervisors...

My favourite 'freebie' today - what better way to encourage girls into STEM careers?

A lot of the afternoon's Synthetic Biology Session went over my head - very hardcore stuff, re-engineering the components of life! - but I was blown away by Giles Oldroyd's update on the ambitious project to introduce nitrogen fixation into cereal crops. Whilst most commercial crops rely on heavy fertiliser inputs, certain plants ( particularly legumes) can fix their own nitrogen through forming symbiotic associations with Rhizobia bacteria, which are contained in nodules on the plant roots. If this trait could be introduced into cereals, it could allow an exponential increase in yields, particularly in areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa where nutrient input is the main limiting factor on crop productivity. It was previously thought that only legumes were capable of recruiting Rhizobia but excitingly, Giles Oldroyd's research has shown that the signalling pathway for nodulation was derived from a much more ancient pathway ubiquitous across all plant species that is used to recruit Arbuscular Mycorrhizal fungi ( which assist in nutrient uptake from the soil). So the basic components for the nodulation pathway are present in cereals - with only a few pieces missing that are specific to the nodulation process. So far Giles has demonstrated that genetic constructs of these signalling elements that are present in legumes CAN be expressed in cereals : now his challenge is to put together the whole pathway in cereals. It may well take years to pull off but such is the potential impact of this work, that even the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are supporting it. 

Even when the talks stopped, the science kept on coming, in the form of the first poster session. The SEB has a winning strategy to boost attendance at these events : free wine! But it is wonderful for the PhD students and early career scientists to have a chance to showcase their work. Meanwhile it also allows me to catch up with several acquaintances  all at once, whilst scouting out new research to write about. 

More fun and games tomorrow! See you soon and thanks for reading.

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