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!


Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The most difficult thing I've ever written - and it isn't my thesis....


What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever written? As a PhD student, I’m expected to say ‘my thesis’. But during the thesis-writing I’ve done so far, I haven’t found myself counting the letters in individual words or trying to work out how to squeeze three lines of text into two. When you are writing for policy makers, being concise is critical! Here’s my latest update on my internship at the ParliamentaryOffice of Science and Technology (POST), researching a briefing paper (POSTnote) on reducing waste from plastic food packaging. 

Seeing the Plastic Waste problem first hand: on location at Bywaters London material recovery facility (MRF) 

After two months of research and a gruelling internal review from the POST staff, my POSTnote is now at the external review stage where the academics, businesses and organisations which I interviewed can critique it. Given the diverse range of perspectives they cover – from packaging manufactures to plastic-free lobbyists – I hope their comments won’t conflict too much … It certainly wasn’t straightforward to write. Plastic pollution is far from a purely environmental problem, having social and economic impacts, and is now also a political hot topic. Trying to convey these layers of complexity within the strict four-page limit was certainly challenging. Besides this, the world of packaging certainly doesn’t stand still! It seems that every day new innovations are launched onto the shelves (edible coffee cup made of wafer anyone? Or a fruit punnet made from cauliflower leaves?) or a law passed to try to curb the plastic tide. My own opinions have swung dramatically from one extreme to the other as I uncover more information and try to keep up with this tide of invention and action.

London living. From left: Meeting dinosaur researchers at the Royal Veterinary College; the view from The Shard; handling 200 year-old botany specimens at the Natural History Museum's Friday late

In the end, there was just so much information that I cheated a little (although my supervisor did suggest it!). Because I love making more work for myself, I am writing two supplementary, shorter briefing notes to provide more background on some particular issues. One of these is the potential role of compostable packaging to replace non-destructible plastic packaging. Some see it as a perfect solution since it could both reduce plastic debris and divert food waste from landfill (a source of methane, a greenhouse gas). Compostable packaging certainly seems to work in countries like Italy that have well managed food waste collection and composting facilities. But I’m not convinced that the UK infrastructure is currently up to dealing with compostable packaging properly. Without the proper waste disposal route, compostables may be at best ineffective or worse a contaminant of existing recycling streams. But with the right political will, I like to think it could be an option for the UK. The second of my briefs explores the current government proposals for reducing plastic packaging waste – included the hotly debated ‘deposit return scheme’ for on-the-go drinks containers. This has wide popular appeal, since it is already used in many European countries such as Norway and Germany. But one thing I have learnt through my research is that any waste-management policy is heavily context-dependent: we can’t expect to cut-and-paste solutions from other countries. Germany, for instance, introduced deposit-return for drinks containers before kerbside collections: the question is, could a deposit system be compatible with our existing household collections?

Natural escapes in London. Clockwise from top left: The dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park; the cacti house at the Barbican Conservatory; swan at St James's Park

So much has happened in the last few months that it is difficult for me to unravel it all in my mind. I can hardly believe that I am over two-thirds of the way through my placement. And despite my love of the countryside and Peak District, I will actually miss living in London! I’ve changed a lot – in my knowledge, writing, self-confidence and Tube-navigating skills. But one thing that hasn’t changed is my career ambition; I now feel only more strongly that science policy is the field where I will be most happy. Particularly if I can carry on indulging my thirst for learning! After packaging, what’s next?!

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Can you measure it? - A stimulating trip to the home of measurement science

How do we know exactly how much a kilogram weighs? Who changes the clocks when we move to British summer time? Who could you turn to during a food-safety dispute? How do you know if a radiotherapy machine is delivering the correct treatment dose?
You can find the answers to all these and more at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and National Measurement Laboratory(NML) based in Teddington, Middlesex. Last week, I visited as part of a trip organised by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology with whom I am currently undertaking a 3-month Fellowship. NPL and NML, the ‘home of measurement’, deliver world-leading solutions for governments, businesses, industry, the medical sector – just about anyone who measures anything. Our tour began at NPL, who help validate many of the fundamental units we use every day including the second, the ampere and the kilogram. One can imagine the chaos if these varied across the globe… (fun fact; the original Kg, against which all others have been measured, lies in a vault outside Paris). NPL’s work also covers more ‘trivial’ matters; for instance, checking that the balls in the National Lottery were of equal size and weight so that it is just that – a random lottery. Increasingly, their remit is including digital technologies: with AI advancing so rapidly, it is vital we can trust autonomous decisions made by algorithms, for instance in controlling traffic flows. One conundrum NPL is working on is being able to replicate machine learning, since this is effectively rescrambled with each run, creating issues with transparency. 
The National Physical Laboratory, based in beautiful Teddington (copyright National Physical Laboratory)
NPL also play a vital role in standardising medical treatments such as radiotherapy, which destroys cancer cells using high-energy radiation. As this can also damage healthy cells, it is crucial that the dose is the correct dosage and applied at the right area. So how can hospitals (safely) find out if their machines accurately scan their patients and then deliver the correct treatment? The answer: hospitals are sent a 3D-printed ‘phantom’ tumour, which they scan and treat before sending back to NPL to compare with the results from the reference scanner. Most of us only get to see the front-line of hospital treatment, so it was intriguing to learn more of the ‘back-end’ operations that keep them functional.


Besides their static laboratories, NPL also has mobile facilities which travel around the globe. Currently they are involved in Breathe London, an ambitious project to create a ‘hyperlocal’ dynamic air-quality map of London. Over 100 low-cost air quality sensors have been distributed across the city – but are they any good? NPL is calibrating these using two Google street cars which rove the city, checking the local sensors against an on-board reference, to ensure the measurements aren’t picking up other factors such as water vapour. If successful, this could pioneer similar systems in other cities across the world to deliver better air-quality management programmes.


Checking hospital radiotherapy equipment is just one of NPL's areas of work (copyright National Physical Laboratory)

On a bigger scale, the Differential Absorption LIDAR facility (essentially a laboratory contained within a lorry) has travelled the world to measure atmospheric composition. It works by firing lasers into the sky and measuring the pattern of laser light scattered by dust particles. Beams targeting specific gases are compared to a reference standard to decipher the proportions of different gases. Capable of scanning up to a Km away to a resolution of a few metres, this facility has detected harmful emissions from sites such as oil rigs and landfills which may otherwise have been missed. 
The groovy GoogleStreet cars used in Project Breathe (copyright National Physical Laboratory)

In the afternoon we toured NML, the designated institute for chemical and biological measurement, which works with global organisations to standardise measurement science. In the Organic and Inorganic labs, we awed over mass spectrometers costing over half a million pounds, capable of detecting compounds in parts per trillion. Since these are a tad bit pricey for the average police station, we also saw prototypes for cheaper, portable versions that could reduce drug detection times from days to seconds. In the brand-spanking new Molecular + Cell laboratories, we learnt of NML’s work in monitoring the spread of anti-microbial resistance, eradicating infection diseases and improving cancer treatments. Much of this relies on cutting-edge genetic techniques: accurate gene sequencing, for instance, can divide cancers into subtypes to allow more targeted treatment. But rigorous standards are needed to prevent false interpretations; a negative result, for example, could result either from the cancer not being present or an error in the sequencing process. On display were the latest in next-generation mini-sequencing machines: highly compact yet capable of doing in 2-3 days what it took the Human Genome Project 13 years and 20 countries to achieve.
NPL's impressive Differential Absorption LIDAR mobile lab (copyright National Physical Laboratory)


We then had a brief overview of the role of the Government Chemist, an independent arbitrator for disputes over spurious sample results. Although the role was originally established in 1842 to help prevent tobacco adulteration, the present responsibilities include solving disputes in the food and feed sector advising Government and industry on measurement science matters and conducting research. Currently one priority is validating the accuracy of personal data devices, such as apple watches, that promote the concept of ‘consumers as analysts’.

Over tea and some rather moreish coconut cake, we finished off with a round table discussion on how NPL/NML and POST could collaborate in the future. It will be exciting to see how both institutes can work together towards the shared aim of ensuring policy decisions are based on accurate science. Meanwhile, I have a whole new appreciation for measurement science, and realise how we truly take for granted that a second (or metre, or ampere, etc) is always the same, wherever we are in the world. With thanks to POST and NPL/NML for such a stimulating day out!

Monday, 25 March 2019

London life - bursting at the seams!

Is that Theresa May? Is it really safe to cross the road? What are they protesting about? Which tube station is this? Where’s my Oystercard gone…I’m sure that bloke is Jeremy Corbyn…
They say a week lasts a long time in politics. But working in Westminster, I’ve found that even the days are often a marathon full of new experiences!

I am just starting the third week of my 3-month internship at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), which provides MPs and policy makers with accurate, impartial evidence of all matters scientific. My specific task is to research a briefing paper titled ‘alternatives to plastic food packaging’ which will become a publicly available document (a POSTnote – see previous examples here). As this will be read by members of Parliament, there is a real chance it could help progress current proposed legislation that would reform waste management in the UK - largely a result of the public outcry over plastic pollution following Blue Planet II
The halls of Parliament...St Stephen's Hall
Yes – it’s a very different topic to my PhD studying parasitic weeds but it is exciting to work on such a timely subject. Even though I suggested the topic to POST’s board of directors, I’ve found the issue to be hideously more complex than I originally thought. What I envisaged to be mainly a critique of different materials, such as glass, aluminium and compostables, has rapidly expanded to consider kerbside collections, deposit-return-schemes and even extended producer responsibility. I’m currently in the research phase so no two days are the same: so far I have interviewed a director of Veolia at their head office, toured a waste recovery facility, visited a packaging trade show and attended the launch of a ‘plastic waste innovation hub’ at University College London. It has been eye-opening to realise the sheer scale of the problem, yet this has inspired a phenomenal amount of innovative research at all levels, from using novel materials (chicken feathers anyone?) to changing consumer behaviour (for instance, via a recycling bin that makes burping noises…). But it’s one thing to come up with brilliant-sounding solutions and quite another to fit them into existing infrastructure. I’m sure if we could come up with a new waste management system from scratch it would look very different to what we currently have!
Visiting Pro2Pac packaging tradeshow to immerse myself in the world of all things packaging!

Even if my subject wasn't so topical, just working in Parliament is incredibly stimulating, particularly with the atmosphere supercharged over Brexit. I’ve got used to passing protestors on the way to work and nodding hello to security guards wielding very large firearms. My Parliamentary Pass gives me access to pretty much all areas and I even managed to get into Prime Ministers Questions in my second week. And of course, outside work there are all the appeals of London itself – during hours off duty I am frantically working my way through a ‘bucket list’ which has so far included various museums, markets and art galleries, watching a live BBC recording and attending choral evensong at St Paul’s. As the weather improves, I’m hoping to explore some of London’s greener attractions: as a plant scientist, Kew Gardens is of course top of the list!


Strong feelings during the People's Vote protest on 23rd March
Whilst I’m certainly living in the moment, I also have an eye on my future. So far, this placement has convinced me more than ever that my ideal career lies in science policy rather than actual lab-based research. I love diving into different sources of evidence, critically analysing them and pulling out themes. For someone who was so shy at school it is amazing how much I now enjoy meeting new people and conducting interviews. I thrive on collecting knowledge and learning about areas I previously knew nothing about. And of course, there is the thrill that comes with producing work that could ultimately influence new legislation. I can only hope that this placement will give me a stronger chance of landing the job I dream of.  

Better get back to work! Until next time…
Plastic waste - a clearly growing public concern


St Paul's Cathedral in cherry blossom

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

The quagmire of writing up....


I know I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog lately…my main excuse is that for the past 5 months most of my days have been exactly the same, mired in the quagmire of writing up my thesis. (Although I did have one escape – see link below *) I haven’t even had the usual non-stop whirl of public lectures, cultural festivals, quirky events and jaunts to the peak district to distract me because I am sadly no longer living in Sheffield. Since my funding ended and I was told my lab work had to stop, I decided (as a typical ‘millennial’) to save a bit of rent by moving back in with my parents in the West Midlands.

Continuing to follow modern trends, I Googled for advice on managing this double-uprooting: leaving both the lab and my adopted home. I found plenty of advice on the actual writing (the best being: GET OFF THE INTERNET!) but not a lot specific to being cut off from your research support network. So for what it’s worth, here are some of the thoughts I’ve accumulated over the past months. Since they have been hard-earned, I felt I had to get them down…who knows, they may even benefit someone else one day!

Bring people on board: If your housemates don’t work in research, it may be worth specifying what would and wouldn’t be helpful to you. People generally mean well, so expect them to ask how things are going (or even ‘Haven’t you finished yet?!’). If you tend to spend more time browsing the internet than actually writing, it might actually be a good thing to have a friend/family member you are officially accountable to. On the other hand, these innocent enquiries could be the last straw for your nerves after a frustrating day on the thesis. To avoid outbursts of rage, consider investing in a ‘Don’t ask about the thesis badge’, or use a code word to refer to it (‘unmentionable’, ‘You know what’, ‘gremlin’, etc.)
A worthy investment - my favourite badge!

Version control: However you do it – meticulous file names, Google Drive, Cloud services – decide on a system of version control before you start. After every meeting and round of feedback, a lot of things will change. And often end up being changed back again. Knowing instantly which is the most recently updated version of your chapter/data/figure can save a lot of headaches. Which brings me to…

Don’t get precious. Writing a thesis is not like following a recipe to make a cake: a step-by-step process with no going back. It is more akin to chiselling away at a huge slab of marble to liberate the sculpture hidden within ….. in a darkened room. Your idea (or at least your supervisor’s idea) of the finished version will change and develop over time. Those experiments that took forever to optimise, that graph you spent ages perfecting, that long-winded analysis…don’t be surprised if it doesn’t make the final cut. Your supervisors may well be as ruthless as Hollywood directors in this! At the end of the day, your examiners won’t know what you left out but they will ask why data is there if it doesn’t add anything to the overall flow and message. Always refer back to your objectives.

Get it right first time: There’s only one place for waffle and it’s the kitchen. When attempting to sound ‘scientific’, it is too easy to compose vague, rambling prose that doesn’t actually make much sense. Imagine you are a journalist and can only write one draft before the work is published- you have to get it right first time! Don’t be afraid of using simpler language and shorter sentences. And be on the lookout for the unnecessary of e.g. ‘expression of gene X varied enormously’ compared with ‘gene X expression varied enormously’ – ruthlessly eliminate! (your word count will thank you)

Expect it to be a rollercoaster. Some days you will love what you are doing – here you are, living the PhD dream: crafting your own magnus opus of original research to add to the body of human knowledge. You remember why you applied for the project in the first place. You may even be compelled to share your discoveries with complete strangers in the street. Then depression hits and you are in the doldrums of despair: your data doesn’t add up and instead AirBnB and Booking.com beckon, with their shiny promises of escape to places where it is still possible to find someone who has never read a scientific paper. It’s not you, it’s the process. Grit your teeth, find a sympathetic ear to rant into, but keep persevering. And talking about Booking.com…

Focus: Ah the allure of the internet… one click or two might seem harmless but before you know it, you’ve become completely derailed, losing a whole hour scrolling through social media. What works for me is setting an alarm (90 minutes to 2 hours), working solidly till it rings, then allowing myself a short break to check for any urgent emails / status updates. Focus is like a muscle: it can only get stronger if you exercise it and push it out of its comfort zone by not giving in to distraction. It DOES get easier. And after all, do you REALLY need to know ‘Fifty alternative uses for biro pens”?!

Give yourself time off. Even if you are writing up ‘full time’, remember that doing the same thing day after day blunts your thinking and makes it more difficult to make connections and spot patterns. Plan rewards and days out into your schedule – preferably something that doesn’t relate to your work. Not only can you look forward to them during your ‘down’ moments, but afterwards your thinking will be refreshed. Keep time aside for exercise and creative activities (making music, drawing, even cooking for your housemates) so you don’t become jaded. 

Deadlines (hahaha!): By all means, break your thesis down into smaller goals with a deadline for each. But don’t be surprised if things take longer than you had anticipated– and don’t judge yourself too harshly if it happens. Give yourself a day or two ‘slack’ time after each deadline, so you can overrun if necessary, without throwing your whole plan out of the window. And if you are on schedule, give yourself a treat day out!

Don’t worry – my next blog post promises to be much more interesting as I am shortly moving to London to start a 3-month internship at the Parliamentary Officeof Science and Technology!!!! Very very excited …. And also nervous. Can I SURVIVE in the big city? We will have to see…

* In the meantime, you can read my summary of the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s FoodNetwork+ annual meeting in January, where I learnt about some fascinating innovations being investigated to make food supplies more sustainable – find my blog post here.