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 3 July 2019

What I learnt from studying plastic waste for three months

Between March- June, I was fortunate enough to do a 3-month placement at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which advises UK Parliament on all scientific matters. My task: research and publish a four-page briefing paper on policy options to reduce waste from plastic food packaging. After visiting trade shows, touring recycling plants and conducting over 40 interviews with stakeholders across the food supply chain, my paper has now been published and is freely available here. Here’s a summary of the wider messages this experience has left me with:

We can’t recycle our way out of this mess

Recycling may be presented as an endlessly circular process but this doesn’t really work in practice. Food-contact regulations mean only a few plastics (PET water bottles and HDPE milk bottles) can actually be recycled again for food packaging, so the remaining types are ‘downcycled’ into other applications (and how many park benches do we need?!). Besides this, during my visits to the recycling plants, I saw just how energy intensive and dirty the processes are that recover some value from the mountains of our plastic waste. Recycling is also highly inefficient due to incorrect disposal; contamination with food residue and confusion over what can be recycled.

Deposit-return schemes could be more trouble than they are worth

Many people argue that we should follow the example of European countries where customers are reimbursed for bringing back glass, metal or plastic drinks containers for recycling. Indeed, the UK Government has proposed to introduce a deposit-return schemes (DRS) nationwide from 2023 and Scotland have announced they are going ahead with this. But it is not clear if DRS could be seamlessly integrated alongside our existing kerbside collections. As one stakeholder argued: ‘Why should we force consumers to go out of their way to recycle, when they could just leave it in the recycling bin outside their house?’ It could also place a huge burden on retailers who are required to collect, store and sort the bottles – or pay £30,000 for a reverse vending machine. An impact assessment by the Institute of Economic Affairs concluded that introducing DRS in the UK would be ‘highly inefficient’, with any increase in recycling rates achieved at ‘a disproportionate cost’. 
Mounds of plastic waste at Bywaters Recycling plant in East London

There are no ‘quick fixes’

Switching from plastic to ‘traditional’ materials such as glass, paper and metal may seem like a ready-made solution, but this could be a bad move when one considers all the environmental impacts across the value chain. One study concluded, for instance, that replacing plastic packaging in Europe with traditional materials would increase GHG emissions by a factor of 2.7, equivalent to the annual CO2-emissions of Denmark[i]. Glass is a particular problem because it is so heavy, increasing CO2-emissions from transport. Indeed, Garcon Wines are so concerned about climate change impacts from glass that they have moved their product into a flat, plastic bottle that is 87% lighter than the average glass version and 40% spatially smaller. And yet I encountered many retailers who were determined to move away from plastic at all costs. When I mentioned issues such as carbon emissions, the answer was always the same: ‘It doesn’t matter as long as it’s not plastic’.

Compostable packaging may only work for ‘niche’ applications

A big trend in the packaging arena is compostable packaging; materials designed to break down alongside food waste into CO2, water and biomass inside an industrial composting facility. Their real selling point is that contamination with food residue isn’t a problem: if a takeaway meal is served in a compostable container, both the packaging and any food residue can be disposed of together. But this requires separate food waste collections, which aren’t yet in place across the whole of the UK. Furthermore, most collected food waste in the UK is sent for anaerobic digestion, rather than composting. Because compostable packaging doesn’t tend to break down in the right timeframe in anaerobic digestors, it tends to be removed at these facilities and landfilled or incinerated. Some compostable packaging looks so similar to conventional plastics that consumers can easily be confused and dispose of it incorrectly. I’ve concluded that the UK waste infrastructure isn’t’ yet ready for compostable packaging, but they can be effective in well-managed, enclosed environments (such as canteens or sports events). See my bonus briefing paper on compostable packaging for more!
'Unpackaged' shops show we can ditch the plastic sometimes...

Going plastic-free would take some compromises

It’s often said that a hundred years ago, fewer food products were packaged and we were used to buying products loose. But food systems have fundamentally changed, moving towards convenience, on-the-go eating and self-service payment methods. We’ve also become used to having products from around the world at all times of the year, and for fresh fruit and vegetables to last for ridiculously long periods. In theory we could ditch the packaging, as the growing number of ‘unpackaged’ shops shows, but will consumers really make the change? Are we willing to weigh out produce, remember to bring our own containers and accommodate massively reduced shelf-lives? Perhaps there is a space in the middle (after all, who needs a cucumber to last 6 days?) but it is unlikely we could go without packaging completely.

Extended Producer Responsibility is the best solution I’ve heard

One of the most promising proposals from the Government is introducing extended producer responsibility, where manufacturers and importers of plastic packaging pay the full cost upfront for the cost of collecting, transporting, sorting and recycling the waste from their products, besides educating consumers on how to dispose their waste correctly. At the moment, these producers only pay for around 10% of these costs, with the rest being borne by local authorities. The idea is to have a modulated fee, so that easy-to-recycle materials pay less than those which are difficult or impossible to recycle. Ultimately, this could ‘design-out’ poorly designed packaging, by forcing manufacturers to consider what happens to their packaging at the end of its life.

Taking care of our own waste should be just the start

Even if we revolutionised the UK waste management system so that all packaging was recycled, composted or reusable, the problem of plastic waste wouldn’t end there. Most (55–60%) plastics enter the ocean from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, with the shores of the US, UK and Europe only accounting for less than 2%.[ii] As big food companies move into developing countries and the Western diet becomes more widespread, the packaging burden on these countries’ already struggling infrastructure will rapidly increase. Only by developing infrastructure, policies and best practices in these countries can we start to make a real dent in the mountain of plastic flooding into the oceans. Whilst the government has a role here, we can play a part too. For instance, donating to charities that fund clean drinking water could help reduce plastic bottle usage. Or why not start a petition to the big brands to invest in waste infrastructure in emerging markets?

As consumers, we have the power to argue for the future we hope for - but we need to be brave if we are to be heard. So arm yourself with knowledge and spread the word! Please do read my briefing papers and share on social media. The Twitter handle for the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology is @POST_UK and my own is @sciencedestiny. Thanks for reading!
Switching to plastic-free alternatives like glass may be the 'easy option' for retailers, but is it the best approach for the environment?

[ii] Jambeck, Jenna R., et al. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science 347,6223, 768-71, 2015

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.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Science collides with awesome music at Festival of the Mind 2018!

Who says that the arts and sciences should be kept separate? It’s an idea that Festival of the Mindcertainly doesn’t subscribe to. This biannual ‘celebration of ideas, culture and collaboration’ teams up University of Sheffield researchers with artists, animators, musicians and more to deliver a programme of intriguing, mesmerising and sometimes downright bizarre events. A highlight this year was The Sound of Science: a high-energy performance show combining 3D effects, live demonstrations and explosions …. Oh and did I mention a live electronic music band?! It was a combination I couldn’t resist, so I bagged a ticket for the evening performance on Friday 28th September.

Could there be a better way to begin than asking ‘What exactly is light?’ - the ultimate driving force behind our existence. Starting from our caveman ancestor’s fires to the LEDs in our mobile phones, the team used a range of demos (and plenty of music!) to explain the properties of this intangible, unphysical substance. Presenters Professor Duncan Cameron and Dr Nate Adams complemented each other perfectly; the more serious 'proper' academic alongside an overexcited boy-who-never-grew-up who simply loved setting things alight. Indeed, the take-home message of the evening could well have been: “If you want to make it interesting, set fire to it!” We were treated to some dazzling displays from plasma balls to the beautiful pink flames of lithium. Perhaps more impressive than the firepower, as Nate explained, is the fact that lithium is thought to be one of only three elements (alongside hydrogen and helium) that were created just minutes after the Big Bang, even before the first stars and galaxies began to form.

An excited crowd gathers in Firth Hall, University of Sheffield (Image Credit: University of Sheffield)
Coming back to earth, we were then introduced to RoboPlant- a giant robotic plant made by a team of students at the University of Sheffield- for a whistlestop tour of photosynthesis. The team explained how we depend on this complex series of reactions in plants for the glucose that powers our food chains. Ultimately, we convert this into energy during respiration: much of the biochemistry of which was investigated by Nobel-Prize winning scientist Hans Krebs right here in Sheffield. 
Moving seamlessly from chemistry to physics, the team then set about calculating the force of gravity using a giant pendulum (that looked suspiciously like a disco ball…) and an iPad. As an abstract concept, gravity can be a tough subject to grapple with, potentially turning many a young mind away from physics. But seeing it in action here through simple, accessible equipment gave a powerful message that the unseen forces governing our universe can be understood by all.

It wasn't all fun and games though: the evening took a serious turn as we moved to the topic of global warming. Even when presented in a rock song, the facts are stark and a clear call to action to develop more sustainable ways of living. It was a good demonstration of how scientific research and innovation will be critical for us to address the urgent, global-scale challenges we face. Nevertheless, the evening ended on a high, as the presenters sought a way to illustrate what sound really looks like. Forget slinky springs - not surprisingly the answer was fire, this time in the form of a Ruben's tube. As a speaker blasted sound waves down a tube of flammable gas, a row of flames on top responded to the pressure wave passing beneath by dancing higher or lower, beautifully describing the shape of the wave – very impressive!

An endless array of mesmerising demonstrations kept the audience captivated
(Image Credit: University of Sheffield)
There are some who believe that science engagement has become too much about creating spectacular explosions and 'Wow!' moments, rather than conveying meaningful information, or explaining what is really going on. In my view, The Sound of Science shows that this approach still has its place. After all, it is also argued that a teacher cannot teach anything to their pupil unless the latter is in a receptive, 'learning' state of mind. I lost count of the number of times the kids sitting behind me gasped with delight 'This is so so cool!' Surely these memories will follow them into the science classroom and make them more ready to engage with atoms, forces and even plant science. Highly fitting then, that this memorable evening took place in Firth Hall, with the portraits of the University of Sheffield’s benefactors looking on. As patrons of learning in the Steel City, they would no doubt approve of the spectacle of wonder and fascination that unfolded that night - surely one that inspired at least some of the audience to consider a career in science. 
Serious scientific messages were set to awesome music
(Image Credit: University of Sheffield)

Tuesday 4 September 2018

Fifteen minutes of fame!!! My debut on BBC Radio Four

It's no secret that I love BBC Radio Four. Or to be more accurate, I ADORE it. Alongside the various things this PhD has given me (including lab skills, time management ability and the resolve to keep plugging away when absolutely nothing is working) is a lifelong love of the self-described “Speech based news, current affairs and factual network”.  I couldn’t count the number of hours spent transplanting, making up rhizotrons and infecting my plants that have been made less painful – and even enlightening – by the comforting presence of this national institution. Even though I stand hunched over my plants, through its programmes I range across the world, filling in all sorts of knowledge gaps the school curriculum never touched and picking up countless quirky facts.  

One of my favourites has to be Women's Hour (10.00 am weekdays and 4pm on Saturday) as it demonstrates how radio is so appealingly approachable compared to say, television. If you have a story that fits the topic of the day, they really do want to hear from you and you have a chance of having your voice recorded for prosperity. Back in the days when my heart was set on becoming a Professor, I used to dream of being invited on the show as a distinguished expert, perhaps to talk about GM crops or a fascinating new discovery in plant development. Whilst that particular ambition has died, two weeks ago I did realise my dream of getting on BBC Radio Four....and it had absolutely nothing to do with my research!

Until now, a significant part of my life has been mostly invisible to others. Not because I am ashamed of it, but because most people aren’t familiar with the concept. I am asexual. I do not experience sexual desire AT ALL – not to men, not to women, nothing, nope, nada. As a young child, I naively assumed that everyone felt the way I did: sex was a terrible ordeal that you would only force yourself to go through if you really really wanted children. It was only through novels and films that I realised that – for most people – there was actually a pleasure aspect to it.  My time as an undergraduate student was a very isolating experience, with the overriding culture seeming to be “If you've got even just one drop of red blood in you, you'll be lusting after at least someone, so get your free condoms here!”. I felt very miserable, concluding that either a) I was truly weird and would never be accepted by society or b) At some point I needed to change and 'catch up' with everyone else in terms of sexuality....and I wasn't sure I could be comfortable with that.
In my 'broom cupboard' waiting to go live on air!
Fortunately I stumbled across a magazine article that described people who felt exactly like I did. They had a name for themselves even a community. Isolation transformed into elation. I was not alone! Since then, I have only become even more sure about my identity as an asexual, but it was still something that I felt a bit nervous about telling anyone. Would judge me as a prudish and think I was making a moral judgement, squashing down my sexual desires so I could look down on others? Or would they completely miss the point: “You just haven’t met the right one yet! Have you tired Tinder?” or “It’s probably a hormonal imbalance, your GP can give you something” or even “You’ve just been too focused on your work! ' Just to be clear, I do still appreciate beauty and romance – I even have my own opinions on who is good looking! And ‘finding the right one’ is ultimately a different issue to feeling sexual desire towards others. Surely if I had any drive in me, it would be aroused by those Hollywood actors on screen, or the ‘fine specimens’ I encounter at the gym?!
With asexuality being so unknown and misunderstood, it just seemed pragmatic not to mention it. Yet part of me slightly resented never having a box to tick on all those surveys and forms that, for some reason, need to know your sexual orientation. If your viewpoint isn’t recognised by society, it can suggest that it isn’t valid or can’t be possible – putting pressure on you to change to be like everyone else. So when Women’s Hour announced that they were looking for contributions for ‘Listener’s Week’, it sparked an idea and I sent off an email.

'My' episode, available on the BBC Women's Hour online archive

I wasn’t really expecting a reply but just a few days later one of the producers was in touch. Not only were they interested in asexuality – they actually wanted to interview me live on air! The following week was a whirlwind of phone conversations, arranging logistics and mentally rehearsing what I would say. With such a crowded labwork schedule, it wasn’t feasible to go down to the BBC studios in London and meet Jenni Murray in person (a dream for the future perhaps…) so we arranged that I would be interviewed remotely from the studio at BBC Radio Sheffield. On the day itself, my initial excitement began to tip over into nervousness: what if I blundered and said something utterly appalling? Not only would thousands of people hear it, the programme would be available on the internet for prosperity! Fortunately, my confidence was bolstered by good luck messages from the few people who knew what I was going to talk about. I arrived early, hoping to have a proper look round the studios but alas, I was shunted into a room barely larger than a broom cupboard containing just a chair, table and headset. I ended up reading a magazine for half an hour, with the sound engineer at the London studios occasionally checking in to check I was still there! 

Suddenly the time had come: “The next voice you hear will be Jenni Murrays’”.  Women’s Hour had begun and I was the lead item. I cringed slightly as Jenni started by reading out the original email I had sent, then it was over to me to elaborate on my experiences. Thankfully, my preparation kicked in as I described how isolated I had felt, particularly during my undergraduate years, and my relief at finding out that I wasn’t alone. Between my responses, Jenni also asked the perspective of my fellow guest on air, Sam Rosen, who is researching the online asexual community as part of her PhD at the University of Nottingham. Bizarrely enough, Sam and I used to share a University flat in Sheffield but had no idea we were both asexual at that time. We kept in touch and I managed to persuade her to come on the programme with me to represent the academic perspective. Although we only made up the first 15 minutes of the show, we felt that we managed to cover the main points about what it means to be asexual. But even as I spoke, part of me was wondering how people would react to me now that it was all out in the open.

“Well Caroline, I have to tell you…” Jenni was drawing the topic to a close and my heart tensed – what was coming next?! “You are NO LONGER invisible!” Relief flooded through me: what a lovely way for her to end the discussion!

Since then, I have been touched by the number of people who made time to listen and even get in touch afterwards with messages of support. Best of all, perhaps, was the email read out at the very end of the programme from a grateful mother whose son had just identified himself as asexual. If the show helps others out there to realise who they really are, and that there is nothing strange or abnormal about being asexual, then it will have done a good service. At the very least, I hope it raises awareness that asexuality really does exist. Maybe one day, even the National Census will realise…

You can learn more about asexuality on the AsexualityVisibility and Education Network (AVEN) website. You can also listen to my debut on Women’s Hour on the programme’s website here.