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, 23 July 2018

Final countdown...

It really IS the final countdown now....as of today, I have 69 days left to get enough results to write up a ‘substantial and original price of scientific work’ - a.k.a. my thesis. It might sound a lot but I know it is going to fly by - especially as it takes just over a month to run a single one of my experiments from start to finish. That's the problem with studying plants - they need time to grow!

I can't afford for anything to go wrong if I am going to finish the ambitious amount of work I've set myself. Unfortunately, science attracts problems like a magnet attracts iron filings....  and really, it is only to be expected when you work on the very edge of knowledge, attempting things no one has ever tried before. This week has been a classic case of on-the-spot problem solving: just as I finished planning my final experiments, I realised I simply wouldn't have room in my growth cabinet to fit all the plants in. Fortunately, I discovered that my old growth cabinet (which I was using before it broke down) had been fixed and was now sitting idle. So I nervously suggested to my supervisor that perhaps I could start using it again, in addition to the current one all my plants are in...? Amazingly, she actually agreed! I daren't ask about how much it would cost the lab budget...

Space sorted, now to order the plants.... only to find that two of the interesting genetic mutants I hoped to test weren't available to order from the National Stock Centre. After some frantic internet searching, I managed to track down two labs in Germany that had used these lines recently and published papers on them. I sent off two begging emails without much hope but within the day they had replied asking for my address so they could send me some of the seed. Hooray for the spirit of scientific collaboration!

It's surely only a matter of time though before the next problem crops up...  but even when I am not  preoccupied with troubleshooting experiments, my head is a constant turmoil of conflicting emotions:
Doubling my production power! Cabinet 515 (left) full of growing plants in rhizotrons (root observation chambers) and cabinet 502 (right) full of plates of germinating Arabidopsis seed

Disappointment. I had hoped to have found something more conclusive by this point. At best, my results are suggestive ‘maybes’ as to what plant defence pathways are important for resistance against the parasitic weed Striga gesnerioides. For the past four years, I have been groping around in the dark but still have no idea where the light switch is. I do appreciate that facing uncertainty is all part of doing a PhD, especially in science. It could even be argued that if your project was something so simple that you could answer all the questions completely, then it isn't ambitious enough. And, at the end of the day, I am trying to decipher something I can't even see or physically take hold of - the intricate biochemical signalling that takes place between a host plant and an invading parasite. It’s a world that is almost too wonderful to imagine, and certainly more complex than the simplified diagrams in plant physiology textbooks. But I am, as my careers mentor told me, very much a 'completer-finisher'. I don’t like to leave a job with so many unknowns and open questions remaining. That's why I find writing so satisfying – once it’s done, it’s done! Perhaps I should just take it as another indicator that my future doesn't lie in research.

Nervous. I’m not just leaving the lab at the end of September - I will be saying ‘goodbye’ to Sheffield itself. As I won’t be able to come into the Department any more and won’t have any funding coming in, then it doesn't make economic sense for me to pay for my flat here. So, typical millennial that I am, I will be staying with my parents while writing up my thesis. But this is putting me under a lot of pressure to think of absolutely every possible little thing I need to do before I depart. There will be no more spontaneous conversations with my supervisors in the corridor, no popping in the lab to check the details of any equipment I used, no access to the university's statistics support centre or even the software I use to make my graphs and figures. I feel in a chronic state of anxiety and too many of my dreams are about trying to finish bizarre experiments!

Hope. It feels sad to have missed out on what has been, weather-wise, the best summer of my life so far. But hopefully this will be a watershed point of my life, after which things will be very different. Just possibly, clocking off at five really could be the norm, ‘leisure time’ could be spent on things other than reading journals and writing up methods, and bank holidays could be just that- holidays- not an opportunity to run as many PCR experiments in three days as I possibly can. The whole of last week, the University of Sheffield has been awash with proud families celebrating graduation day... I am determined that next summer it will be my turn!
Sheffield is so lovely when the sun shines! Catching a brief bit of sun in Weston Park during my lunch break

There’s nothing quite like a job in research, but the system is far from perfect. My original dream of being immersed in my own project has become tarnished by the pressure to find significant results that satisfy the remit of scientific journals, rather than my own curiosity. Measuring a scientist’s abilities by publications ignores the fact that so much of it relies on luck. Perhaps it is an inevitable relic of the olden days, when making scientific progress typically involved cultivating prestige and patronage. Evolution can only work on the existing material… if we were to wipe the slate clean and design scientific research from scratch now, I wonder what would it look like?
I'm looking forward to having a job where I can work hard at work worth doing, with confidence that I will at least have something to show for it. And also to having a life beyond work, opened up to friends, family and my wider interests. Who knows, I may finally get that novel written….
Better get back in the lab – the clock is ticking!