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 15 November 2013

An exciting trip to Syngenta.... A vision of the future?

My first taste of travel as part of my PhD ( the World Conference on Parasitic Plants in the summer doesn't really count, being held in Sheffield!) ... A visit to the International Syngenta Research Station in Jealotts Hill, Reading. 

I admit it's not a huge distance but it felt long enough on the train and a worthy enough journey to break by spending the night at my parents  in Knowle. From cosy childhood bed to plush hotel ( on expenses!) where the Complimentary toiletries were so expensive they were bolted to the wall. It was a completely new standard for me at Stirrups Country House Hotel, themed even down to the room Key rings.

Next day, an early start - the taxi whisking us up the gates of the drive. Anne had warned me that the facility was 'in the middle of nowhere' - I hadn't appreciated that this was to the extent that most of the surrounding cottages were owned by Syngenta to house their employees! We were promptly met by Dr David Portwood, who led me on a tour of the site. Although not strictly one of my supervisors, I will be hopefully working with Dr Portwood considerably if I ever get to the stage of generating any data as he has written most of the statistics programmes for analysis. My whirlwind introduction was only really a peek at this company's research capacity: Syngenta employs over 27,000 people in around 90 countries worldwide. Here, the company vision of 'bringing plant potential to life' was realised in the enormous greenhouses and disciplined collections of highly specialised machines whirring away. Although I had hopefully taken my camera, I was warned that photographs wouldn't be allowed. It was quite something to see sugar cane for the first time- the pictures in books don't do the height justice. I especially liked the policy of placing labs next to offices with glass walls in between- a clever way to circumvent the 'no working in the lab alone' rule - as long as a colleague is working late in the office, they can keep an eye on you. 

Then it was back to the meeting room to discuss the 'nuts and bolts' of the project. The cultivars for study were chosen, time plans discussed... It is unlikely that I will get down to Jealotts Hill again in the near future as it will take a long time to perfect the MALDI-MS technique for root tissue...especially when it is infected with Orobanche or Striga. So until I get any data there is no real NEED for me to be there....

But I could certainly imagine it, taking a seat in the cafeteria amid the swirl of agronomists, seed specialists, plant breeders, biochemists, molecular researchers,etc discussing the day's progress. My PhD really is the start of a journey and at some point it will take me on to the next chapter. Who knows if it will be here, back at Syngenta? 

All  too soon, it was time to catch the train back to Sheffield. I really hope to return soon!

Monday 4 November 2013

Taking my life one section at a time...

Monday 28th October - Friday 1st November

This past week has been a particularly busy one for me. I had hoped to make real progress with the Literature Review but, as all my practical work seemed to come at once, this had to go on the back burner for a while. That is a recurring theme in scientific research - the importance of being flexible and to have plans leap out of the window (especially when your supervisor thinks of another useful assay to do)... nevertheless I have learnt many new skills this week, all of which I will need for my project to come.

I have been performing lots of germination assays on Orobanche and Striga, to see which will be the best races to use for the project. It was just as well; one strain of Orobanche was hopeless, with only about 1 in every 100 seeds showing any response to the germination stimulant, whereas another was really excellent, even though the seeds were actually older. I also had a long chat with Anne, whose PhD forms the basis of the work I will be doing, about the statistical methods she used to analyse her data. Oh dear, my head was spinning after that session...

My favourite part, however, was learning how to cut ultra-thin sections with the cryo-ultramicrotome. As I haven't got any infected rice or sunflower roots yet, I was practising on wheat seeds. It is cold work, as the knife is set at 14 degrees below freezing, and also slightly dangerous. "That Knife is so sharp" Professor Burrell (the Mass Spectrometry expert and one of my supervisors) "you will cut yourself before you know it". Such a fearsome blade is necessary to cut the ultrathin sections required for mass spectrometry - only 50 micrometres thick (where a micrometre = 1 millionth of a metre). After mounting the sample, the handle is turned and the sample slowly drops down onto the blade, which removes a section of the specified thickness. Turning the handle then advances the sample by the section thickness, ready to cut the next slice. It was tricky getting used to it - my thin sections kept curling up - but I did manage to mount some on sticky carbon tape in the end. These have been frozen in liquid nitrogen, to use on the MS later.

1. The cryo-ultramicrotome
2. Taking the section...carefully now
3. Final sections mounted on carbon tape

On Friday, I finally infected my young rice plants with Orobanche. This was a very simple process in the end - the seeds of the parasite are suspended in water and brushed on with a paintbrush. It took several hours though, leaving me exhausted at the end of it. Now the plants are back in their rhizotrons in the growing chamber and I shall leave them for two weeks, during which the unfortunate rice plants will hopefully be invaded by Orobanche. To finish this week, I popped back home to Solihull for the weekend to catch up with friends, family and neighbours, which was wonderfully restorative.