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!

Friday, 7 July 2017

A blast from start to finish - SEB 2017 Annual Meeting Days 3-4

"No, sorry there are absolutely NO more mugs left - we've been cleaned out!!" 

Standing at the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) stand waiting for my nth interview of the day, I couldn't help feeling popular with all the hoards of people coming up to me... Even if they were only after the freebies.

Not that I had much time to browse the 'goodies' on offer at the various exhibition stands. The second half of the conference was carrying on much as the first had - a whirlwind of interviews, science sessions, meetings and plenary lectures. I only hope I can decipher my dictaphone recordings and scribbled notes when I get back! It's exhausting work yet it has also rekindled my love of research. Whilst a PhD does give you time to really focus and specialise on a specific question, they do tend to tunnel you into a niche that's blinkered from the rest of the world. You can forget that there's an ocean of research outside your model organism and the protocol you're working on. Writing for the SEB Annual Meetings - featuring the latest cutting edge research from across all animal, plant and cell biology - always feels like breaking out of my shell. 
Covetable freebies on the SEB stand

One story that particularly intrigued me came from the 'Palaeogenmoics and Ancient DNA session' - the quest to find out when exactly the last mammoth went extinct. Apparently, long after most mammoths had disappeared (due to climatic changes, human intervention or both) a tiny population remained on the minuscule St Paul's island in the Bering Sea. To find out how long these lone survivors clung on for, Peter Heintzman (from the Arctic University of Norway) has been retrieving ancient mammoth DNA from samples of lake sediment on the island. As these sediment layers form slowly and steadily over time, these form a 'natural time capsule' with favourable conditions for preserving DNA. I was amazed to learn how much information can be gleaned from such tiny, fragmented DNA samples, as well as the super sterile conditions needed to avoid contamination (a lot of the session speakers had photos showing very fetching full-body clean outfits!). And the result is quite amazing- the evidence suggests that the mammoths of St Pauls disappeared only 5,600 years ago. As Peter concluded "Mammoths were still living when the pyramids were being built."
Not a mammoth perhaps...but still a prehistoric sight in Gothenburg 

Being a plant scientist, I also couldn't resist covering the 'Carnivorous Plants' session, which featured some of the wackiest species on the planet. Carnovory has evolved independently at least 10 times across 5 botanical orders, yet many trap designs show remarkable similarities - a classic case of convergent evolution. This is particularly true of pitcher plants, whose leaves inflate to form cup shaped cavities filled with digestive fluid.  Nectar secreting glands on the rim of the pitcher entice insects to venture near, but the slippery surface causes them to fall to their doom. Ulrike Bauer from the University of Bristol investigates the tiny microstructures that make pitcher plants so slippery. Under high-powered microscopy, tiny ridges and furrows can be seen on the rim: these cause water to spread out as an even layer, rather than forming beads or droplets. This layer stops insects from getting a grip, rather like 'aqua planing' does to a car. Meanwhile, the inner sides of the pitcher plant's trap are covered in a waxy layer that sticks to the hairs on the insects legs, preventing them from escaping. A highly sophisticated system...but there was something odd about the species Nepenthes gracilis. This plant has its nectaries in the lid above the pitcher but .. Ulrike noticed that insects could walk across it without falling in. So how did the plant catch its prey? The answer remained elusive until a colleague mentioned that she 'thought she had seen an insect fall in when it was raining'. And so the world's first 'rain-powered springboard pitcher plant' was discovered! The lid of N.gracilis is made of a rigid material and is fixed at a single pivot point. When a rain drop falls on the top, the lid vibrates rapidly with such force that any insect on the underside instantly falls off into the trap. An ingenious system...I could have watched the slow motion videos for hours! And don't get me started on the other marvels on display - bladderworts, water wheel plants and of course the famous Venus Flytrap. It's all going to make for an exciting article! 
View from on high...Gothenburg from the upper reaches of Gothia Towers, venue for the 2017 SEB Annual Meeting

In my spare minutes, I have been trying to keep up with Alex Evans, the 2017 SEB Media intern, who has been writing press releases for the meeting. The most popular story by far has been that of PhD student Mouad  Mkamel who has designed a device that can automatically collect scorpion venom, without requiring human handling. The story has gone viral and  Mouad seems thrilled with the coverage - even if some of his phone interviews have lasted forty minutes!

It's been a blast of a meeting from start to finish - it seemed only yesterday when I arrived but suddenly it's all over: the exhibition stands packed down, the lecture rooms empty, and everyone heading off to the conference dinner. As someone who doesn't drink  and can't dance, I decide instead to head to Slottsskogen, a park on the outskirts of Gothenburg with woodlands, gardens, lakes....and apparently moose, seals and penguins. Let's finish as we started - inspiring encounters with the unexpected!

For more on the scorpion story see https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170703083304.htm

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