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, 11 June 2018

Opportunity of a lifetime!

Most of my recent posts have had a slightly desperate, worried tone as I frantically try to finish my remaining lab work before my September deadline. So, it is extremely nice to have some very good news to share for once: quite simply, I have been offered the chance of a lifetime! 

People often ask me what I will 'do next' after my PhD. Whilst I can't give a definite answer beyond 'something else', I am fairly certain that I won't stay within academia. I appreciate that many jobs are stressful, but scientific research has a very particular set of pressures (finding significant results; publishing high impact papers; competing for funding and permanent positions) that I really don't want to be subjected to in the long term. What really excites me are science-policy and science-communication careers where I could help turn scientific research into real impacts. Globally we face many urgent challenges that we can only solve through wide-spread societal change, rather than just the personal decisions of well-informed and well-resourced individuals. For this to happen, science needs to come out of the laboratory. My dream job is likely to be working for a research funding body, non-governmental organisation, international charity…. or even parliament itself.

But careers in this area are competitive and it can be difficult to know where to start. Which is why, for several years now, I have had my eye on the Fellowship scheme run by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST). These offer PHD students the chance to work in parliament itself for 3 months, producing a briefing paper (POSTnote) for MPs and other policy makers on a topical issue. Against all other internship schemes, it stood out to me for several reasons:

1.       It is directly related to policy work as the POSTnote would be read by policy makers and could influence debate on the subject

2.       It would be in the very heart of policy making itself – including a security pass for the Houses of Parliament!

3.       The networking opportunities would be unprecedented: interacting every day with MPs, Select Committee staff and other parliamentary bodies such as the libraries of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
POST produces briefing papers (POSTnotes) on topical science issues which are greatly valued by MPs and policy makers without a scientific background. Photo: Science in Policy Group, University of Sheffield

I had thought that I wasn’t eligible as most of the positions are funded through research councils, such as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, BBSRC, and my PhD isn't funded by any of these. But then I was made aware that the Institute of Food Science and Technology, IFST, is also a partner of the POST Fellowship scheme. Given that I work on a parasitic plant that damages food crops, I thought it was worth an application. Amazingly, I was selected for an interview and suddenly had to organise transport to Westminster, where POST are based.

I prepared as thoroughly as I could and was fortunate to have guidance from both Dr Sarah Blackford, my careers mentor, and Dr Helen Hicks, a fellow committee member of the University of Sheffield's Science in Policy group who did a POST Fellowship herself several years ago. Nevertheless, I was still very nervous on the day itself when I arrived at POST's headquarters at Tothill Street in London, just a stone’s throw from the Palace of Westminster. Going through a security check didn’t help! The questions mainly focused the briefing paper I had submitted for the application: they seemed intrigued that I had chosen to write about edible insects as a future protein source. I have recently become very interested in the subject as I had been researching it for the last outreach activity I was involved with for the British Science Association (Food for the Future). Other questions asked me to describe my PhD work and experiences in communicating science to non-specialist audiences.

The time seemed to pass very quickly and soon I was on the coach ride home. I tried to put it out of my mind as much as I could. But the very next day, just when I was checking my emails waiting for some reagents to defrost, the news came through. Everyone in the vicinity was a little alarmed when I fell off the chair and started jumping up and down with excitement!

Westminster, London - where I will be working next year! Photo: Wikipedia Commons, Daniel Bron

So yes, a dream come true. It still doesn't feel real to say the words out loud but next year I will be working at Westminster!!!! It feels especially nice because all the activities and societies I have been involved with -the Science in Policy Group; the British Science Association; the Society for Experimental Biology; Pint of Science, etc- played a part in getting me through as I drew on all of these experiences in the interview. I have often felt guilty for spending time on these activities instead of my main PhD work, even if I try to make up for it by working evenings and weekends. It is also amazing to reflect on how far I have come from the schoolgirl who was too shy to speak in front of the class. Many times in the past I have gone for opportunities like these, only to have fallen short: there was always a slightly better candidate, with more experience, confidence, etc. But just for once, it was actually me.

I can't get carried away though as I still have to write my thesis up first.  After my lab work stops at the end of September, I will focus on getting as much written up as possible before starting at POST in February next year. At least it gives me some time to get a new wardrobe! It does seem slightly ironic that I will spend three months writing up the bulk of my thesis, which will only be read by 2-3 people, before going on to work on a policy briefing note which could be read by hundreds of people, including MPs and other policy makers. I will be proud of both of them of course but in terms of impact, it doesn't come close!

Right, better get back to the plants! Thanks for reading – I hope you have a great week ahead. 
Doing what I love best - Science Communication!  Photograph by Daniella Sasaki