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!

Thursday 25 December 2014

Merry Christmas!

Whether you read this blog regularly or stumbled on it by accident , I wish you a very Merry Christmas and may God bless you,over the year to come. It certianly has been a busy one for me and who knows what the next will bring?

Monday 22 December 2014

Can't see the roots for the trees.... and an update on POST

It's been a busy few days as the lab prepares for the great annual "Shutdown".... watering rotas, last orders, cleaning down benches... fortunately my second supervisor has kindly offered to water my plants over the Christmas Period itself so I can snatch a few days in Solihull with my family.

Meanwhile, I have been trying to perfect my rhizotron systems before I start working on valuable mutant lines. My main problem at the moment is that it is essential to see the roots of my little seedlings in order to measure the extent of parasite infection. But Arabidopsis plants have white roots... and I grow them on a delicate white mesh to stop the roots from penetrating into the growth medium (if they stay on the surface, it is easier to infect them with parasites).  Trying to analyse the photos gives me a headache so I have been trying a few alternatives. Attempting to dye the roots had some effect (see below) but this isn't really suitable as it could have an adverse consequence on the parasites, influencing the results. Dying the mesh didn't really work either so my first supervisor made a trip to that great supplier of scientific materials ... John Lewis! But the dark-coloured mesh she found there could be just the thing and I have just sown a new batch of seedlings which will be the guinea pigs to try this on. Watch this space!

White roots on White mesh... tricky

Arabidopsis roots dyed with Toluidine Blue

For those that read the  Post  "POST me a note as fast as you can..." (published on 23rd November), I am afraid that I am no longer in the POSTNote competition as my team literally disintegrated! Pressures of deadlines and experiments (in one case, even a Viva to prepare for) forced my teammates to pull out until I was the last one standing. As the competition is designed as a team effort, the organisers suggested it would be best if I withdrew. But with the amount of things that have been going on just recently, perhaps it is just as well...
The new Black Mesh - from a reputable supplier of scientific equipment!

Thursday 11 December 2014

What can we learn from Badgers?

It's an issue that crops up in the media again and again.... Badger culling to prevent TB in cattle. Dr Rosie Woodroffe (Zoological Society of London), whose research sits right at the heart of the debate, had been invited by the Science in Policy group to describe her attempts to ensure the government's policy on this issue is based on sound science.
'If anyone at DEFRA knew I was giving a talk on how to influence policy they would be laughing their socks off' she began. During her ten years as a Government Advisor, Dr Woodroffe has campaigned compellingly for culling practices to cease. But this is no horror reaction to the killing of cute, furry animals; as an impartial scientist, her arguments are based on sound evidence that culling simply doesn't work. In fact, it actually seems to make the problem WORSE.

When this 'surprising' result was discovered in 2007, 'the ministers didn't want to hear it and didn't believe it', especially as the researchers themselves were at a loss to explain the result. Since then, it has emerged that removing such highly territorial animals encourages the remaining individuals to disperse, effectively spreading TB across a larger area.  Eventually in July 2008, her reasoning prevailed and the government dropped impending plans for culls.

But it seems that contentious policies, even those based on sure facts, have a lifetime set to parliamentary elections. After only being in power for 'ten minutes', the new coalition government announced plans to reintroduce badger culling in May 2007. It seemed that Dr Woodroffe was back to square one.

In such a situation, how can one influence policy? There is a depressing trend in campaigning where the willingness of a person to talk to you decreases as their ability to influence policy increases. Dr Woodroffe found a clever way to circumvent this however, by enrolling badger fan and former Queen guitarist, Brian May. MPs were then queuing up to attend her sessions! She also got on side The Badger Trust, a campaign group with a powerful voice that isn't afraid to get legal. For instance, when the Welsh Assembly introduced a plan in 2009 where badgers could be killed under the Animal Health Act , the Badger Trust took the case to court and won - the plan was scrapped. Interestingly, TB rates are falling quicker in Wales now than they are in England...

Perhaps most importantly, however, was her 'community- based' strategy as opposed to a 'top down' policy enforcement approach. According to Dr Woodroffe, badgers can divide rural communities to the point of 'civil war', particularly between farmers trying to make a living and those who appreciate seeing badgers scampering across their garden lawns. By talking to farmers and discussing viable alternatives, such as vaccination, Dr Woodroffe was able to make some headway. 'People are people and don't like being told what to do' she said. 'Being told not to do something may not necessarily be enough to stop people...they need to understand and believe the evidence for it'. Could this be a lesson for improving the profile of GM crops? Instead of targeting ministers and MPs, should we be engaging with the very bedrock of the agricultural community - the farmers and agriculturalists who would actually sow the seed into the ground?

Dr Woodroffe's combined approach bore fruit in March 2014 when there was an overwhelming vote - 214 MPs against 1 - to halt badger culling in England. But the issue is certainly not settled, with new plans for culling expected to be announced soon.

From this roller coaster journey, Dr Woodroffe concluded with some wise points of advice:
1. There are lots of routes to influence policy makers - and you can think outside the box! ( in her case, inviting MPs along to badger tagging sessions where they could handle the furry beasts was another good strategy!)
2. Influence can take a LONG time to achieve
3. The media can be helpful....or detrimental. According to Dr Woodroffe, the medias' desire to achieve balanced coverage meant that she was frequently featured in articles and press releases. And yet her message wasn't always faithfully replicated.....'I could give a talk and have the journalist from. The. Guardian and a farmer sat in the front row and the stories they would write would be 100% different' she said.

Although badgers may be a specialist topic, the lessons here are applicable to many Science policy issues. Does anyone know a celebrity that would support a GM Crop campaign?

Friday 5 December 2014

A Christmas Lecture with a Difference...

'Incredible!' 'Amazing!' ''AWEsome!'

Just some of the reactions I heard from the young attendees of the Animal and Plant Science Department's Annual Christmas Lecture. Over a thousand schoolchildren left inspired by the lecture and interactive demos, beating each other with their free posters and still grappling with the puzzle they had each been given to demonstrate the importance of practice.

The APS Christmas Lecture is modelled on the Royal Society Christmas Lectures, with the theme this year being 'Animal Academy': a showcase of the intellectual powers of our fellow creatures. I can't imagine that the Royal Society has nearly as much fun as we did though...or that they make half as much noise! The classes fairly raised the roof when Head of Department, Professor Michael T Silva-Jothy, did a quick roll call to make sure all the schools were present. Then the lights dimmed, the crowd hushed and the show was underway. First, we were introduced to the incredible problem solving abilities of the crow family, demonstrated wonderfully by Vera the Raven. Though only nine months old, she had already learnt how to ring a bell, pick up rubbish and even sort out the recycling in order to earn a food reward. But then -just as the lecture moved onto the powerful sense of smell that dogs have - the police invaded! Apparently, a thief was suscpeted in the audience...enter Black Labrador Rocco who quickly swept the room to find the stolen article.

The excitement builds in The Octagon as the children and teachers take their seats
The culprit removed, we then learnt about the huge differences in the size of brains of different animals, a concept beautifully illustrated with entertainers in covetable animal onesies and giant, paper mâché brains! We were then able to test our memory against chimps using a number- recall exercise. For a brief second, an image with the numbers 1-7 scattered across it flashed onto the screen , to be replaced with the letters A-G in place of the numbers. The question: which letter is in the same place that number 4 was? I was hopeless and even the children struggled to get it right. Apparently, this is because we are trained to read numbers by their order: as soon as the image appears, we literally try to find them in series, first the 1, then the 2 and so on. Amazingly, a chimpanzee can recall the exact location of ALL the numbers, even if the image only appears for a QUARTER of a second! This is because the chimp doesn't attach any meaning to the numbers and instead takes a mental 'photograph' of the image, allowing it to recall every location from memory.
Police Dog Rocco searches the hall for the thief! 
Despite this, human brains are still powerful, as demonstrated by Callum, a young volunteer who joined a group of neuroscientists on stage to be fitted with an EEG device. This recorded the electrical impulses from neurones firing in his brain. Once the machine had been calibrated to recognise Calum's 'normal' brain activity, an image of a floating box was brought up onto the screen. Simply using the power of focused thought, Calum was able to move the box across the screen at will - without touching the keyboard at all. It felt as though we were delving into the realms of the science- fictional and made the audience shriek with delight as the box zoomed around before them.

For the grand finale, the children were instructed to open their mystery envelopes and retrieve their metal puzzles. A seemingly simple task - to separate the two interlocked pieces - but fiendishly difficult to accomplish! But on being shown the correct method, the children found that practice really could make perfect. And with that, the hall was once again invaded - this time by a marching samba band and a troop of circus performers keen to demonstrate just what humans are capable of learning with a bit of practice. I think the break dancing schools will be inundated with new recruits after the show we were treated to!

As the clapping died down, I had to zoom from my seat to get to my demonstration stall in time. A dozen or so different stands, all on the theme of 'Animal Intelligence', had been arranged outside the theatre to provide hands on activities for the kids. I was working with Duncan, Lucy and Camilla on the topic of songbirds, and in particular, how they learn their complex repertoires of songs. My fellow demonstrators had been inspired to construct a birdcage to surround our stall. Once inside, 'Alex the Friendly Parrot' would then play some recorded examples of birds that were taught to sing complex, human tunes and even mimic sounds as absurd as chainsaws and camera shutters. Whilst they were waiting to go inside, Camilla and I kept them entertained with a quiz on songbird facts - did you know that starlings can learn the songs of up to 22 different birds?!
Our stall ... featuring Alex the Parrot and the birdsong quiz

As the kids came thick and fast, it was a good lesson in adapting science to suit the audience. With their hyper energy levels, hundreds of distractions and teachers trying to keep order, our messages had to be succinct and memorable to make an impact. It was a far cry from the staid conference hall, where the audience is expected to sit still and keep quiet, no matter how dry the lecture! But the cage and parrot proved a hit, although I'm not sure if some of the children thought Alex was a REAL parrot...for most though, the glasses were a giveaway!

The children may only have been there for just under three hours but a phenomenal amount of planning went into this event, involving dozens of volunteer students across the department. It was a showpiece for the power of science to inspire young minds and something that all universities should aspire to. For students, my advice is to throw yourself into it and get involved! ( you don't necessarily have to wear a parrot costume!) As for me, I am already looking forward to next year and wonder what the theme could be next...fantastic fish? Brilliant bacteria? Marvellous mushrooms? Who knows?! But I do know...I want to be there!
Meeting Vera... a very clever Raven!

Saturday 29 November 2014

Curious and curiouser...

One of my little Arabidopsis seedlings appears to be a mutant! Out of the hundreds of seeds I have sown so far, one has germinated into a spindly specimen with curiously lobed leaves. This is a little unexpected, as my seed are all a 'wild type' genome. When a lab wants to identify new genes involved with a certain process ( e.g. Shoot development, drought resistance, defence against pathogens), the seed are treated with chemical agents or radiation that induces changes in the DNA. If the change is severe enough, the gene may become inactive. The seed is then germinated and the seedlings screend to identify any aberrant phenotypes. If a gene required for pathogen resistance is mutated, for instance, the resulting seedling may show greater susceptibility to nasty fungi or bacteria.  The mutant can then be used to identify and clone the gene in question.

But I shouldn't have any mutants! My seed didn't undergo any hideous treatment, so this must be one of those 'random mutagenesis' events which my undergraduate lecturers assured us do happen sometimes, and which from the basis of Darwin's theory if natural selection. It is part of what makes working in living organisms so interesting; there is always a degree of 'randomness' thrown into the mix. This can get a little frustrating, however, when it comes to performing statistical analyses and your data is skewed by one or two ridiculous outliers which clearly aren't 'normal'!

As this little plant is clearly an oddity, I can't use it for my experiments but I did enquire in a lab working in shoot development in the department if they might be interested. They seemed curious, but I was warned that the seedling probably wouldn't survive if may even 'grow out of' the phenotype. Indeed, since this photo was taken, my little mutant has indeed got progressively worse. The hypocotyl ( the stem of a seedling ) grew so long and spindly that it fell over and it has only weakened since then. But at least it served as a reminder that you can never take anything for granted in biology - who knows what will turn up?

Friday 28 November 2014

At the Offices of the JXB - Where it all Happens!

The ultimate aim of any research PhD is to break into the world of scientific publishing, presided over by those great journals of esteem. Whilst we may be familiar with the hours of lab work, note taking, analysing data and writing drafts that go into making a paper, the process where these get accepted into the scientific community are less obvious. So I was glad to accept an invitation to view the headquarters of The Journal of Experimental Botany (JXB), at Bailrigg House on the Univeristy of Lancaster campus.
Just some of the illustrious journals published by the JXB over the years

Although Bailrigg House is styled as an Edwardian country house, the interior offices were airy, mixer and remarkably paperless. Nowadays, the entire process whereby papers arrive, are checked, sent for review and edited, occurs wholly online but this wasn't always the case: I was told about the early days of the journal where everything had to photocopied and sent in triplicate. The must have kept the filing cabinet industry in business!

When a manuscript arrives through the online system BenchPress, it is first checked for any obvious formatting errors before being sent on to the editorial staff. If the paper is totally outside the remit of the Journal, it is classed as 'Rapid Reject';  this occurs for about forty per cent of papers. Otherwise, the paper is passed to two reviewers, chosen for having specific knowledge about the topic. Reviewers are typically post doctoral researchers or principal investigators who voluntarily give their time to assess the work of their colleagues. Getting reviewer comments returned is apparently the most difficult part of the process as researchers can be very busy people with lectures , conferences and their own papers to write. The JXB asks reviewers to return their comments within 12 days but this doesn't always happen!
The VERY FIRST Journal of Experimental Botany!

The editor makes a decision on the manuscript based on the reviewers' comments. The JXB has five categories: Acceptance, Minor Revision, Major Revision, Reject, Resubmit or simply Reject. Out of around 1800 manuscripts submitted last year, approximately 350 were accepted for publication. It is very rare though for a paper to be accepted immediately without any corrections required, about 1%. But I was heartened to hear that when a paper requires major revisions, the majority of these still make it into the journal. It is the 'Reject' category that must be avoided at all costs!

Chatting to the office team, it was easy to see the glamorous aspects of the job: travelling to conferences, having access to the latest cutting-edge research, interacting with scientists from around the globe. But it isn't without its downsides; never ending deadlines, new manuscripts constantly coming in and having to deal with researchers that take criticism harshly...
Given that so few PhD students make it up the Academic Ladder however, I shall certainly be keeping my options open for a career in scientific journalism.

Thank you, JXB, for a fascinating tour!

Sunday 23 November 2014

POST me a note as fast as you can...

Have I bitten off more than I can chew? For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to enter the Science in Policy Group's POST note challenge. But I am just beginning to realise the scale of the challenge I have taken on...

POST notes are produced by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology to provide MPs with enough up to date and relevant information for them to have a comprehensive grasp of key topics that could influence current policy ( for instance, aging populations, agricultural land uses, cybercrime...). These have to be balanced, impartial documents that are strictly factual, rather than advocating a particular policy. Furthermore, no matter how broad the topic, all the information must be contained within 4 A4 pages. Given how I struggle with word limits, this point is particularly daunting!

For the competition, we were given a list of topics to choose from and then sorted into groups. I was teamed up with a chemist, medical biologist and psychologist to produce a POST note on....ageing populations and increasing longevity. Talk about a broad subject! The competition is designed to push us out of our comfort zone and to have us consider areas outside our normal research. But with a topic that impacts on so many aspects of our lives ( health, finance, personal well being...), it is difficult to know where to start!

Fortunately, the competiton launched with a half day workshop on POST writing. Professor Lorraine Maltby started us off with some advice on 'Writing for a non-specialist audience'. She described how people from different scientific disciplines tend to approach a problem in different ways. Engineers are goal oriented and driven to find a solution; social scientists apparently don't see that there IS necessarily a problem or a solution - it's the journey that's more important, and natural scientists float somewhere in the middle. 'We are trained to communicate in the norms of our disciplines' Professor Maltby said 'which is fine if we talk to ourselves, but problematic if we talk to each other'. And this is just within academia - when non-specialists and policy makers are added to the mix, the fun really starts!

As scientists, we take a lot of knowledge for granted when communicating with each other. But given that only 13 % of the current lot of MPs has a science-related degree, a very different language has to be used. Professor Maltby urged us to 'know your audience' and 'write to be understood, not to impress'. This seems the very reverse of writing scientific papers- we presume the audience knows a fair bit about the subject already and we try our hardest to 'wow' them with our research! One also has to consider the time constraints of MPs - if they ask for evidence, it's no good directing them to a primary research paper - they wouldn't have time to read it and probably wouldn't understand it anyway. Apparently the key criterion if success for a POST note is 'The Breakfast Challenge'. If David Cameron reads your note whilst eating his morning wheatabix, will he be totally up to speed on the topic by the time he finishes? Conciseness is key, every word must count although we are fortunately allowed to use diagrams and images ( a JPEG tells 1,042 words)...but only if they are ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. Professor Maltby's final point was to 'revise, revise, revise'; show your note to anybody and everybody and be prepared to spend more time correcting it than actually writing it!

Further practical advice was given by Dr Helen Hicks in the next talk 'Writing a POSTnote – the process and the fellowship experience'. This was especially useful as Dr Hicks is an old hand at publishing POST notes, having authored POST note 418 (Balancing Nature and Agriculture) whilst completing a POST Fellowship scheme (12 week placements that allow early career scientists to get a flavour of Westminster and write a real POST note). She advised us to focus our notes on the IMPACTs that the topic had on people- apparently this 'makes the eyes of an MP light up'. We had to remember that what is important to scientists ( publishing potential, funding, etc) does not necessarily hold true for MPs, who are thinking about what legislation would be acceptable to the public and whether they have a chance of keeping their seat in the next election. Our mission was to consider as many angles as possible to produce a balanced document that summarised the full weight of evidence. But a scientific balance does NOT equal the BBC's view. A good example is climate change: although there is considerable evidence for anthropogenic global warming, on televised/ radio debates, the BBC will always give almost equal air time to a climate change denier, giving the audience the mistaken impression that there is still much uncertainty about whether this phenomenon is actually happening.

Given that we would be working in teams drawn across the whole faculty of science, Dr Nick Worsfold (from The University of Bedfordshire ) then provided some theory in 'Working in multidisciplinary groups'. Terms such as 'interdisciplinary',' multidisciplinary' and 'transdisciplinary' are bandied around a lot these days, especially in attempts to make grant proposals more attractive. But they don't all mean the same thing! 'Multidisciplinary' approaches have at least two different inputs, but these are purely additive and nothing new is gained. Dr Worsfold gave the example of having two scoops of ice cream, one chocolate and the other mint ( although perhaps you have your own preferences?). 'Interdisciplinary' approaches again have multiple inputs but these are combined in a way that adds something on top of these. In the ice cream analogy, this would involve combining different flavours with  additional ingredients to make a knicker bicker glory. As for 'transdisciplinary' methods, these are more focused on a process that can make a completely new product. Hence, eggs, flour, sugar, milk become...a cake!

Which is all very well and philosophical but why do we NEED multidisciplinarity? Quite simply, to solve real world problems. Dr Worsford argued that disciplines are not so very different if they approach problems in a similar way but working together allows new perspectives to be be brought together on complex issues. This is vital for comprehensive services, such as healthcare, which require the whole package to be considered, rather than individual strands, in order for any solution to be successful.
But working together requires a 'common language'. What a mathematician would describe with an equation, a biologist would prefer to see in a graph. As for politicians, very often the message is conveyed by words alone! Hence, the role of POST notes in translating primary research into terms that can be digested by the masses. Even when scientists can communicate successfully with public representatives, however, the result is not always what we, as researchers, would prefer. 'It is perfectly legitimate for elected policy members, representing their constituencies, to look at all the scientific evidence and ignore it' Dr Worsford argued. 'This is part of democracy. I would be really worried if the House of Commons was full of scientists - good science is only one part of the debate'.

That may be so, but weighing up the scientific evidence is quite enough for me to be getting on with in the meantime! After a quick brainstorming session in our teams, juggling diaries to squeeze in the next meeting and rapidly exchanging email addresses, we then departed back to our very real worlds of individual research. From the lofty palaces of Westminster, back to my growth cabinet to top up my Arabidopsis seedlings with enough water for the weekend. It's been a busy week!

Thursday 20 November 2014

Where are all the women? From the boardroom to the archives...

I didn't intend for this week to have an 'emancipation agenda' but I attended two lectures this week which filled me with a feminine fire by highlighting how women are still underrepresented in the upper tiers of scientific research - in both a historical and very modern day sense.

First up, 'TrowelBlazers: Tales of Pioneering Women Scientists and Activist Blogging', hosted by the Natural History Society. The speaker, Dr Tori Herridge, palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum, gave us an introduction to the 'TrowelBlazers' blog, which seeks to shed light on extraordinary women who had hitherto remained obscure, buried beneath the dust of history. It was one of the best kinds of lectures, where afterwards you feel that you have been on a long journey and that a corner of your mind has expanded somewhat with a new insight. She launched straight into the tale of Dorothea Bate (1878- 1951), a fossil mammal hunter who apparently marched into the natural history Museum aged only 19 and demanded a job! ( if only it was as simple nowadays...). Dr Herridge captivated us with tales of Dorothea's exploits in Crete, searching for dwarf elephant fossils. Far from being a lady of leisure indulging in a 'jolly fossil hunting trip', Dorothea was a committed collector, struggling against a harsh, unforgiving landscape ( without roads), bandits, political sanctions (she had to smuggle most of her fossils back home) and frustrating wild goose chases after being told misleading information. But she persevered and her efforts are now treasures in the Natural History Museum.

Which is where Dr Herridge comes in. As a palaeobiologst and mammoth expert aPplying modern techniques to these fossils, she found herself drawn in to the stories of the woman who collected them. Upon reading Bate's lively diaries,  Herridge began to form an intimate relationship with this pioneer from the past. But it became increasingly clear that Dorothea Bate was far from unusual - in fact, just a single node in a whole network of women geologists, archaeologists and palaeontologists. This raises a stark challenge to the traditional view that men were the workhorses of these fields, with their wives occasionally helping by dusting off their specimens! Indeed, the celebrated palaeontologist Mary Anning is always presented as 'the odd one out', as though she were the single woman fossil collector amongst an otherwise exclusively male club. Whilst excited to realis that this was NOT the case, Dr Herridge was disappointed that this wasn't more widely known. And so, the TrowelBlazers blog was born!  Just as the name suggests, this presents a gallery of feisty, trowel wielding women palaeontologists, archeologists and geologists determined to succeed in their fields and not prepared to let anything, ( and certianly not gender stereotypes) to stand in their way. The blog is now a comprehensive ( and growing!) gallery that makes for incredible reading. The full extent of Dorothea Bate's career, for example, just could not be made up and is worth checking out. See http://trowelblazers.com for more!

Meanwhile, it was also clear to Dr Herridge that, just as today, networks played an important part in fostering this community of women researchers. Dorothea Bate, for instance, spent some time digging at the Mt Carmel Excavations overseen by Dorothy Garrod, the first woman to be an Oxbridge professor. Garrod was instrumental in training a number of women who went on to become distinguished archeologists in their own right, such as Mary Kitson and Elizabeth Kitson Clark, thus leaving a legacy which extends beyond museum exhibits. To try and map these professional relationships, Dr Herridge showed us an impressive spider diagram - extraordinarily complicated and yet this was only a  'simplified' version! This brought home how scientists perform some of their most valuable work in training others to follow after them. But this often goes unrecognised; it is easy to measure a researcher on other merits (number of papers published, titles, positions on boards, funding garnered) but where is the data on the number of students a scientist nurtures? We are taught to dream of publishing a paper in Nature, with teaching often viewed as the 'necessary burden' of a position in academia. If teaching and training others was celebrated more (maybe through awards and honours?), perhaps this would change...

Dr Herridge also made the point that the evidence of a strong Victoria  female presence in these research fields debunks the notion that women are currently unrepresented at the highest tiers of Academia simply because they are still 'coming through the system' and that, now that more women are entering science, they will get to the top eventually. The TrowelBlazers blog shows clearly that women have already BEEN in science for long enough ... How much longer do we have to wait?!

This question of the 'Missing Women in Academia' was taken up again in a talk organised by the Women @ The University of Sheffield NET group. During her time as a leadership development professional in higher education, Dr Paula Burkinshaw, the invited speaker, started to question why so few women made the jump from middle and managerial roles to top positions of authority. This motivated her strongly enough to conduct a PhD focusing on the conspicuous lack of women vice chancellors. Although women now make up roughly 60% of higher education students and 45 % of academic staff, only 20% of vice chancellors are female. At the current rate of change, it will take at least SEVENTY YEARS for this gap to close ( and I was hoping to have finished most of my career by then!)

During her research, Dr Burkinshaw raised the question 'How DO we learn leadership?'. She suggested that, generally speaking, most of us do not wake up and 'decide' what sort of people we want to be, but 'slip into' the roles that best fit the community of practice which we belong to. We only notice this if there is some disconnect between ourselves and the community, such as a 'non- macho male' in a pub full of rugby players. And yet, how we fit ( or deviate from) these accepted roles helps us to forge an identity. For instance, would you describe yourself as 'quiet' if other people weren't more outgoing?

In terms of leadership, the dominant community is one of masculinity. Out of the 18 female vice chancellors that Dr Burkinshaw interviewed as part of her PhD, many had experienced pressure to conform and fit into this masculine ideal; it was only on becoming vice chancellor that they found their individual voice. Some even said that they felt pressure to 'put men at their ease' by reducing these differences and emulating the male leader stereotype, through power dressing, for instance. Many also identified that confidence and resilience were key traits for success and that having personal sponsorship from mentors was invaluable for their progress.

According to Dr Burkinshaw, catalytic change can only happen once women achieve a 'critical mass' of leadership roles. Until women make up 30% of top positions, their presence will continue to be seen as exceptional or 'the odd ones out' rather than normal practice. 'Like tends to breed like' Dr Burkinshaw explained; men are more successful at attracting personal sponsorship and support from senior mentors, allowing the masculine community to sustain itself. We need to expand the leadership gene pool!

Some might ask 'Why Bother?' Perhaps women simply don't want to be vice chancellors ( but just sit at home with the children...!)... To this, Dr Burkinshaw answered that it is only Democratic, for one thing, to have half the population represented at the highest level. Secondly, there is much evidence to show that organisations with more diversity of leadership are more successful and sustainable. Many Dr Birkinshaw's own interviewees reported that decision making processes were much more pleasant and constructive when women were present. 'It's hard to describe' as one responder said 'but very easy to feel'. For instance, men tend to be more aggressive and confident of what they say, whereas women soften the atmosphere by using words such as ''perhaps' and 'potentially'. There is a popular view, however, that all female groups dither too much, bicker and won't get anything done. In Dr Burkinshaw's experience, however, the very opposite was the case; women are more likely to roll their sleeves and get on with the job. I'm sure we can all think of examples from 'The Apprentice' and other reality TV shows...

This does present a bit of a conundrum though. Women are put off from taking up leadership roles because they feel that they have to fight against a prevailing culture of masculinity and that they would have to adopt a role that they are not comfortable with. But this culture WON'T change until a certain number of women establish themselves there. Perhaps this would then serve as a catalyst to bring others up the ranks. It seems that some will have to be prepared to move out of their comfort zone and enter 'the lions den' before it will get any easier. So if a colleague suggests you go for a promotion, do it! Perhaps one day, a woman can walk into a board room or a gathering of distinguished geologists and for it to seem nothing out of the ordinary...

Friday 7 November 2014

A conference with a conundrum: does Science drive Policy? Or does Policy drive Science...

One of the things I love about the University of Sheffield is the strong support for staff and students to set up their own initiatives for outreach. A great example of this is the Science in Policy group, founded by a group of inspired early career researchers and technical staff . Despite only being in existence since May 2013, they have lost no time in organising a brilliant series of seminars to date and today hosted their very first day conference.

And hats off to them! A diverse range of speakers, ample networking opportunities, brilliant food ( who would have thought it was all vegetarian...) and lively workshops...it certainly left me feeling inspired to consider moving into a science-policy career full time.

Dr Kate Dommet ( of the Crick Institute at the University of Sheffield for the Understanding of Politics) started the day by highlighting how it is essential for scientists to learn to demonstrate the impact of their work with the increasing pressure for 'impact-led' research. Which raises the question: is government policy driving science more than science is driving policy? Whilst it feels satisfying to work on a project that could obviously contribute to the greater good, I still believe that there is a need for 'blue skies' research where the ultimate benefit, if any, is not immediately obvious. My favourite example is the internet - an unplanned 'spin-off' benefit from the large hadron collider at CERN. Who would argue that this hasn't been useful?!

      For me, Dame Bridget Ogilvie's talk was the standout of the morning. Her entertaining account opened with a brief description of her career. She raised a gleeful chuckle from the audience when she recounted how, on joining an all- male cohort of rural sciences students within their second year, the average mark shot up by 15% ( men work better when there are women around!). From there, she went on to work at numerous establishments, including the National Institute of Medical Research, the Wellcome Trust and the Medicines for Malaria Venture Board. Since retiring, she has been particularly active in public engagement, serving as a trustee for the Science Museum and the AstraZeneca Science Teaching Trust, among other things. The variety of roles and projects she has taken up make for a career to aspire to- no wonder she has a Wikipedia page!
Professor Dame Bridget Ogilvie

          Dame Ogilvie then went on to describe some of the blunders that have occurred due to misunderstandings between the research community and national governments / businesses. Liquid crystal displays, for instance, were first invented by the company GEC, who had a contract with the UK Ministry of Defence to develop cockpit displays. The MoD however, did not recognise the potential of the technology and refused to patent it, allowing Japanese companies to rediscover and profit from it. Dame Ogilvie also highlighted how improper reporting by the media can damage progress in research, citing the example of how the MMR vaccine became erroneously associated with autism. The crisis now is GM crops; years of research into the potential benefit of these crops has done little to dent the 'FrankenFood' image purported by GreenPeace and other organisations. It felt like a call to arms and certainly demonstrated that results alone don't always speak for themselves; as scientists, we must develop healthy channels of communication to engage governments and the public. Reassuringly, Professor Andrew Watkinson (an environmental scientist at the University of East Anglia) later provided some successful examples of how research has influenced government policy, including in managing flood risks. This was partly due to the National Ecosystem Assessment being co designed with DEFRA, allowing policy workers to be involved from the very beginning of the evidence-gathering process. He cautioned, however, how it can be frustratingly difficult to get different organisations to work together - even when they share similar aims and sympathies.

       Professor Watkinson also highlighted the increasing need to demonstrate impact in order to secure scientific research funding. Even if we don't engage with the public or the media, every scienctist who fills out a grant proposal is effectively acting as an advocate for science! Typically, research acts as a 'linear pipe' model, with money shovelled in at one end and slowly, methodically, progressing through basic then applied research, development into applications and then technology transfer. All too often, governments are asked to keep throttling money in to this pipeline and just trust that some benefit will come out in the end. In a era of constant cutbacks, this isn't very sustainable. Professor Watkinson introduced the idea of Pasteur's Quadrant ? See below) , stating that too many scientists fall into the bracket where their work is 'not much use and not very interesting'! Whilst that feels a bit steep for me (who can kindle an interest in just about any biology related topic), I suppose MPs and funding bodies have different ideas on what makes for useful and interesting science!

Pasteur's Quadrant model for Applied and Basic Research:
Considerations of use?
Quest for Fundamental Knowledge?
Use-inspired basic research – including the work of Louis Pasteur: French microbiologist who contributed significantly to vaccination and pasteurisation methods
Pure  basic research – exemplified by Niels Bohr, a 20th century atomic physicist
Pure applied research – as demonstrated by the inventor Thomas Edison

      After a delectable lunch with delicacies as diverse as strawberries and sushi, Daniel Wood (an Outreach Officer for the Houses of Parliament) gave some practical advice about 'getting at' those all-important MPs. First of all, don't go to the MPs themselves, target their secretaries - the "gatekeepers of the diary"! Introduce yourself, state why your concern is relevant and say exactly what you would like them to do. Apparently, MPs receive hundreds of letters that express great passion for a subject, but do not suggest any course of action. Given that MPs are so time pressed, it can only help to give them a few ideas! And whilst it may be so easy to just fill in an online petition or send an email apparently the personalised letter is still the most effective way in.
A spot of networking...

      The most enjoyable part of the day for me though, was the activity session on 'How to Engage with Select Committees'. This answered many questions I had about HOW EXACTLY scientists can present their evidence directly to the government. I was amazed to learn that during a 'call for evidence' to help shape new legislation anyone, indeed ANYONE AT ALL- a PhD student, you, your neighbour, their dog- can submit written evidence - and the parliamentary office is obliged to read it! Only the best, most well reasoned accounts get called up to submit oral evidence however. Being able to see some real examples of submitted evidence certainly got me dreaming that I might one day present a scientific argument to a parliamentary committee....
Activity session - How to engage with Select Committees

A little more networking, a few more talks and then the day was rounded off with a lively panel discussion. The overriding message was that scientists frequently forget that they are trained to fundamentally think about the world in a different way - which means they run the risk of losing the ability to communicate to the general public. Hence, we were urged to take advantage of any media and communication training available and to take part in discussions and debates. So I have set myself the challenge of asking a question at the next Departmental Seminar! Meanwhile my mind is buzzing with possible activities and carer options...the civil service, POST notes, select committees, MEP shadowing.... For a creative and truly inspiring day, a big thank you to the Science in Policy Group!

Thursday 6 November 2014

Getting it off my Chest...

Today I had a chance to have my opinion presented to David Cameron, courtesy of the 'Your Voice Campaign'. This tours universities with a mobile video recording booth, in which students can rant and rage as much as they like before the videos are edited down and sent to our PM. I'll admit that I was originally lured over by the free basil plants but Jason soon talked me into going inside ( I would bet that he had a whole training course in talking people into it...).

So what did I decide it talk about? GM plants. I believe that it is irresponsible for the government to ignore the potential of this technology to address key concerns including food security, climate change and the energy crisis. I also feel that public opinion has been allowed to turn against GM technology on the basis of vigorous anti- campaign groups rather than a balanced representation of the facts. I do not mind if someone is against GM crops, as long as they have had all the information to make an informed judgement. And I agree that the technology needs to be demonstrated to be safe before applied on a commercial agricultural scale. So what do I want?
 * for the government to invest in transferring Gm technology from the lab to the field, including extensive field trials to evaluate safety risks, etc.
* for greater representation of he potential benefits of GM technology in public media outlets and also a platform for wider debate

No doubt, not everyone reading this will agree. For myself, I am surprised that the Green Party is so decided against GM crops when one of their manifestos is to reduce the application of pesticides on crops. Using GM technology to engineer plants with highly tailored, innate resistance against specific pests only, could avoid the blanket use of pesticides which devastate so much natural wildlife. Surely GM crops can't be an entirely bad thing if they help to preserve the native bees, bugs and butterflies that our biodiversity depends on?

Rant over! If you want to join in, comments below please!

Sunday 2 November 2014

The gentle art of tweaking...and an update on Green Tea

My seedlings aren't growing too well... from the amount of seed that I sowed, I should have a veritable little forest of happy little Arabidopsis. Instead, I have at the most thirty healthy plants, the rest weedy, shrivelled or simply vanished. So I will have to curtail my first experiment a little and try and figure out how to improve the chances of the next lot.

Unfortunately, research (at least with living organisms) is rarely a case of simply drafting a hypothesis, planning an experiment to investigate it and then just DOING it. So much time (especially for PhD students) is spent fiddling with different conditions, trying to coddle their model organism of choice into growing or doing what is required. In my case, I need my seedlings to be robust enough to survive being transplanted into the rhizotrons where I can infect them with the Striga parasite. My first suspect is the wind speed in the growing chamber - I can see the poor seedlings trembling with each blast of air and Arabidopsis is known for not liking wind. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to adjust the settings on the Conviron cabinet so my supervisor has said she will help me construct a windbreak! If that doesn't help, I will try altering the compost and also the vernalisation period - Arabidopsis seeds only germinate if they have been exposed to the cold (which allows seeds to remain dormant over winter) so we "wake them up" by putting them in the fridge for 48 hours. Perhaps this isn't long enough?

Meanwhile, following on from my previous post ("Ask for Evidence"), I have been investigating the merits of Green Tea. It turns out that there IS quite a bit of scientific evidence that drinking green tea could help prevent Alzheimer's. The disease is caused by accumulations of beta-amyloid protein which form plaques that cause neurodegeneration. Compounds in green tea called catechins, however, are thought to inhibit this process. Specifically, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) prevents copper and zinc ions from binding to amyloid proteins, which prevents plaque formation. In a transgenic mouse model engineered to display early-onset Alzheimer's, animals that received EGCG performed better in learning/memory tasks (such as finding a hidden platform in a water tank) and had fewer deposits of amyloid plaques in the brain. Even more amazingly, a further study found that, besides countering neuronal decay, EGCG can actually promote the generation of new neurones in the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with converting short-term memories to long-term ones).

So if you want to raise a glass to your health, make it Green Tea! Cheers!

For more information see:


Epigallocatechin-3-Gallate ameliorates learning and memory deficits by adjusting the balance of TrkA/p75NTR signaling in APP/PS1 transgenic mice. Molecular Neurobiology, December 2013

Green tea epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) promotes neural progenitor cell proliferation and sonic hedgehog pathway activation during adult hippocampal neurogenesis. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, August 2012

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Consumers unite! And - Ask for Evidence!

How many times has your grocery shopping been influenced by a product's health claim? Do you trust that Government policies are driven by rigorous, scientific evidence? Do you ever wonder where economists get their forecasts from?
And if you are unsure, how can you find out?

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to attend a highly entertaining seminar held by the University of Sheffield's very own Science in Policy group. The speaker was Dr Chris Peters, Scientific Liaison at 'Sense about Science'.

Every day we face a barrage of claims designed to make us spend money, change our behaviour or support a particular policy. But how can we tell if these are true? What is to stop me from inventing my own smoothie concoction, perhaps using some of my surplus Arabidopsis plants, and claiming that it increases concentration by 20% and improves life expectancy by 3.5 years?
In short, not a lot. It isn't illegal to make such claims and the Advertising Standards Agency, whilst powerful, is only a small organisation that can barely keep up with the unending flow of wonderful promises.
Ten years ago, a group of scientists led by Lord Taverne and Tracey Brown decided this wasn't quite right and set up 'Sense about Science'. This has since grown to a current network of over 5,000 scientists encompassing the entire breadth of expertise, from Nobel prize winners to PhD students and early career scientists. The main aim, in particular for the 'Ask for Evidence' campaign, is to hold companies to account for the promises they make about their products and policies. It involves, quite simply, asking where the evidence behind their claim comes from.  The beauty of this camping is its simplicity, which enables anyone, scientist or not, to take part.

Once you start asking where the evidence is, you'll find yourself questioning all sorts of things. In one case, the campaign questioned a bold claim by the Daily Telegraph that wind turbines could 'knock tens of thousands of pounds off the value of nearby homes' and that a nearby turbine could 'knock eight per cent off average home value'. After a bit of digging, it turned out that this very precise figure was merely based on a single estate agent's opinion. During his talk, Chris also outlined the case of a mother of two children who challenged her local leisure centre's policy that children under the age of eight had to be supervised in a 1:1 ratio. This strict rule, taken up by a number of facilities, was brought into being simply because the management 'just thought' it was a safe approach! Other examples have seen products pulled off the shelves and have debunked claims about health- enhancing properties. It is largely thanks to their work that newspaper articles do now usually provide a reference for their story. Further successes can be found on the website: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/a4e_examples_of_evidence_hunting.html

Me and Dr Chris Peters with the famous sign - last held by Jonathan Ross apparently!

But Chris is keen for more people to be involved. So if you spot an unqualified claim, why not challenge it? Send the company a letter, give their head office a ring or download the online 'Ask for Evidence' tool which allows you to upload photographs of the ( potentially bogus ) claim. Just think what you can expose and how satisfying it would be to protect the public from misinformation. On a serious note, the 'All Trials' campaign also seeks to improve the registering and reporting of clinical trials so that drugs companies cannot simply select the most favourable trial results when promoting their product. This is vital to ensure that patients don't pin their hopes and spend a fortune on a flawed treatment. As an example, the UK Government spent £424 million pounds stockpiling the Tamiflu drug as a precaution against Swineflu, even though it is now thought that paracetamol is just as effective. In such cases, a lack of evidence can cost a fortune, and even lives.

So next time you suspect that someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes, remember that it is in your power to act! Check out the website at http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/a4e.html
As for me, I have been led along by the claim that green tea can help prevent Alzheimer's. But DOES IT? I think it is time to...ask for evidence! Watch this space!

Thursday 16 October 2014

A bit of PLANT DIY...

Working in a lab involves a lot of sharing - of pipettes, bench space, chemical stocks besides skills and knowledge - but my wonderful supervisor has arranged for me to have a Conviron (Controlled Environment) Chamber all of my own! These take a lot of stress out of growing plants as everything, from the temperature, light levels and humidity can be precisely (and remotely) programmed. Hence, there are rice plants and all sorts of other tropical wonders growing under the department's car park!

Welcome to my chamber ...Conviron 502, waiting to be filled with plants

However, for all of the sophisticated, horrendously expensive fancy equipment, there are times when scientists have to engage in a bit of "do-it-yourselfery"... This year I will be working on the model plant organism Arabidopsis thaliana, unlike most of my lab, who work on crops. Consequently, whilst we have lots of rhizotrons (root observation chambers) perfectly sized for rice, I will need to make my own "mini-versions" using square petri dishes. In order for my plants to survive, they will need proper drainage... and the easiest way to introduce a drainage hole is using a hacksaw!

a) Don't give biologists weapons
b) Marking the place for a cut
c) Incision!

But why am I working on Arabidopsis when it is the effect of parasitic plants on crops that makes them so devastating? Simply put, it is a LOT easier to find things...especially genes potentially related to resistance. Arabidopsis has a weeny genome that has been well sequenced thanks to the efforts of a global network of researchers. Crops, however, have MASSIVE genomes, as many of their ancestors experienced "chromosome doubling" events. The maize genome, for instance, is approximately 2500 mega-basepairs, compared to 110 mega-basepairs in Arabidopsis. This makes looking for interesting genes (e.g. for drought tolerance, disease resistance, high yield) like looking for a needle in a haystack. However, many of these genes are present in Arabidopsis and can be found more quickly and sequenced. Cloned genes can then be used to find the related genes of interest in crops.

But first, I need my plants! I have 50 mini rhizotrons now but will need many more so I will be back at the workbench tomorrow!

Wednesday 24 September 2014

A different 'plant scientist' - Ron Finley, 'Gangsta Gardener'

The newly refurbished Sheffield Cathedral thrilled with anticipation as the packed crowd waited for the arrival of a speaker with a pioneering message about sustainability. On arrival however, it was clear that Ron Finley, dressed as a strawberry, was not about to deliver a moral, guilt- inducing lecture. Instead, the evening was an inspiring account of how one person can truly make a difference to their community, and ultimately the world.

A former fashion designer, Finley became exasperated at the impoverished state of the communities around his home in South Central, USA. Not that there was a lack of food - instead, streets of houses were shoehorned by fast- food outlets, supermarkets and diners. Nevertheless, there was a distinct lack of nutritious foodstuffs - fresh fruit and vegetables. To Finley's mind, this food imbalance was the key underlying cause of the rise in chronic 'Western' diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. He saw that he and his neighbours lived in a 'food prison' , allowing themselves to depend entirely on others for food. But how to escape?

Besides fast food eateries, South Central also has a lot of vacant lots, areas of wasteland neglected by local authorities. On one such strip outside his house, Finley daringly planted tomatoes, carrots, mustard greens, sunflowers and more, turning the street into a garden. Despite the beauty and bounty this provided, a complaint from a neighbour led to Finley being arrested. This prompted a successful campaign which changed the local law, allowing citizens to grow produce on their parkways.

Finley was evangelical in his message that this was more than about growing a few vegetables to enhance his own meals. Instead, he deliberately planned the street garden so that neighbours would be able to help themselves as they passed. His vision is for neighbourhoods to feed themselves, growing and sharing vegetables on community land. To him, this is the ultimate act of defiance - fighting back against the reliance on mass- produced, processed food.

Since then, Finley and his 'gangsta gardeners' have worked with various communities to set up new street gardens. It is clear that these have had effects beyond improving nutrition, especially in helping children to engage with nature. 'Gardens can teach so many lessons' Finley said 'everything in life happens in a garden'. Time and again, he has observed young people become 'seduced by the soil' and    his gardens have proved therapeutic for those suffering from substance abuse, mental and physical conditions and the pressures of gang warfare. Once children start growing healthier foods, they also become much more enthusiastic about incorporating them into their diets.

Finley distinguishes himself from guerrilla gardeners ( those that plant seeds / gardens at midnight then vanish before morning), instead styling himself as a 'gangsta gardener'. The key difference, he says, is stewardship. He only works with communities that are prepared to take ownership of their garden and maintain it. During the question period that followed, a representative of a Sheffield Council also made the point that it was no good for the council to 'do things at people' but that sustainable community initiatives had to be undertaken by the people themselves. The overriding message appeared to be that councils are more supportive than the public may think and are prepared to back ideas that people are committed to maintain themselves. In fact, a new 'urban garden' is being planned for Sheffield City centre, called 'the Love Square'. Fingers crossed it will have the same effects as Finley's Garden! ( see http://lovesquare.group.shef.ac.uk )

According to Finley, ' they are telling us a lie, that we need them to feed us'. As a plant scientist, I found this a little hard to stomach, having been brought up to believe that sustainable, mass agricultural systems are the most efficient way to feed the global population. However, I believe that the world would be a healthier and happier place if most people did grow their own food. Perhaps a community in the UK could sustain itself on produce grown and reared by its members? Nevertheless, there is also a compelling argument that the 'delegation of labour' frees other people to become inventors, medical researchers, technicians, artists, poets... Perhaps a mix of both approaches is best?

So what do people think? Is mass produced agriculture a glory of the modern world or leading many to an early grave? Comments below please!

Click hear for a Reader's Digest interview with Ron Finley and a video of his 'Gospel Message' http://www.rd.com/culture/ron-finley-gangsta-gardener/#.

Thursday 18 September 2014

Genes for Jeans day tomorrow!

On Friday 19 th September, many people will be donning their denims at work or school to raise awareness and funds for research into genetic disorders. Some, such as cystic fibrosis, are well known, others - including the painful skin condition Icthyosis - less so, but all limit the ability of those affected to enjoy lives as full as their contemporaries. It can be easy to forget these conditions in the face of the global empires of cancer, HIV, malaria, etc, but as we gain increasing knowledge of the mechanisms behind genetic diseases, there is hope that one day there could be real treatment against these.

Jeans for Genes originated in the 1990s, as part of a family's efforts to raise funds for The Chronic Granulomatous Disorder Society. Two brothers within the family were affected by this condition which hinders the ability of the body's immune cells to kill pathogens. The idea has since grown into a national event to raise money for Genetic Disorders UK, which supports families affected by genetic conditions. This year, Jeans for Genes has worked with Edinburgh College of Art to produce a series of limited edition T-Shirts. To me, the design is a perfect combination of promoting my scientific interests whilst supporting a valuable cause. It is also brilliant to use science to make a fashion statement! Or should that be the other way around?

With so many pressures facing our world - food security, health, energy generation- scientists often have to stretch their creative powers to garner enough funds to persue their work. It is difficult when there are so many promising avenues of research for funding bodies to decide between them.
But the public can play their part so I shall wear my T Shirt with pride.
Jeans for Genes Day T-Shirt Design 2014

If it's too late this year for you to organise an event with your colleagues, why not resolve now to wear your genes on Jeans for Genes Day 2015?

For more information see http://www.jeansforgenesday.org

Friday 5 September 2014

Another year, another name badge! The Annual Gatsby Plants Network Meeting 4-5 th September 2014

Is it that time already? It hardly seems a week since the last Gatsby Plants Annual network meeting. Still, I'm of complaining as it is a lovely opportunity to catch up with friends and to stimulate ideas for my own research experiments.

This year the venue is Somerville College, Oxford. Although the grounds are lovely and bursting with an abundance of floral species, I am slightly disappointed that we are housed in a modern university block...I had got used to the quirky college rooms with their nooks, crannies and occasionally pianos. Nevertheless, it doesn't detract for the science, which- as usual- is top notch. Thursday afternoon is mostly dedicated to talks from Gatsby funded PhD students encompassing everything from micro compartmentalisation of the enzyme aldolase, chromosome recombination in Arabidopsis and resistance against the pathogenic oomycete Albugo laibachi. I always struggle to get my head around some of the development talks, particularly how polarity fields and hormone gradients can promote the growth of specific shapes. Some ingenious comparative models were used in the talks to explain such concepts, including pizza dough and lolly pops. Visual imagery always helps! I was also intrigued by an experimental method called FRET to determine if two proteins interact in a cell. By altering the encoding gene, it is possible to engineer proteins to have a fluorescent 'tag' which absorbs a certain light wavelength and re- emits some of the energy as fluorescent light. Some of the energy, however, can be transferred to surrounding molecules (known as Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer, FRET). So too see if two proteins interact, one can tag each with different fluorescent markers that are excited by different light wavelengths. When the first fluorescent marker ( say a green marker) absorbs light energy, it can transfer energy by FRET to the second marker ( eg.a red marker), but ONLY if they are very close together ( within 10 nm). So if the proteins are far apart, when the green tag is illuminated, it can only re- emit green light. If the proteins ( and hence the markers) are close together however, the green marker can pass on energy by FRET to the red marker, and red light will be seen. I am constantly amazed at the methods designed by biologists to answer questions!
The Delightful Grounds of Somerville College, Oxford

After quite a marathon of talks, with a short break for coffee, the evening gave way to a discussion on the future of publishing in plant science, chaired by a panel of journal editors. Professor Mike Blatt, editor of Plant Physiology, made the point that many people often assume that scientific journal editors are 'failed scientists' who couldn't handle the pressures of a research- based career. On the contrary, most journal editors are very much 'active' scientists, who manage to fit in editing and reviewing with their own research agendas. There was much debate on how the move towards 'open access' publishing can be financially sustained. Although there is great pressure for publicly-funded research to be made freely available, most journals receive most of their revenue from subscriptions. Without this income, how can we ensure that these remain high quality and rigorously reviewed publishing platforms? Eventually, the talk was pulled to a close and we tripped onto the lane for the drinks reception. The formal meal was very enjoyable, the highlight for me being 'Japanese breaded baby carrots' although the menu didn't specify what exactly made the dish 'Japanese' - were they Panko breadcrumbs? Did it refer to the way the carrots had been exquisitely julienned? Were the carrots themselves from Japan?
Guinea Fowl with those "Japanese" carrots...

The next morning kicked off with an open platform to discuss strategies to inspire plant science teaching in schools. I can remember from my GCSEs that my teachers were almost apologetic when we reached plant topics, with an air of 'I'm sorry but we HAVE to do this because it's on the exam...'. To combat this, Science And Plants in Schools (SAPS) have produced a stunning suite of freely available teaching resources ( including lesson plans, animations, work sheets) - the problem is now getting the message out there so that teachers actually use them!
Somerville College, Oxford

After more talks from the PhD students, the meeting closed with a presentation by Professor Cathie Martin of The John Innes Centre, to describe the potential of nutrient enhanced food to combat chronic diseases. Her work has mainly focused on the purple tomato; a GM crop with a introduced pigment gene from Antirrhinum ( snapdragon). This increases the production of anthocyanins, said to protect against a range of chronic diseases. To test this, the tomatoes were fed to mice genetically engineered to be deficient in the tumour suppressor p53. This dramatically reduces the lifespans of the mice to an average of 140 days. Supplementing the mice's diet with red tomatoes had little effect, however introducing purple tomatoes caused them to live 30% longer, up to 180 days. The tomatoes were also tested in atherosclerosis - prone mice, where it was found that, as the proportion of purple tomatoes in their diet increased, the area of fatty plaque on the arteries reduced. European regulations mean that these 'wonder fruits ' are currently only available as a juice in the United States. Professor Martin's group are currently seeking to develop tomatoes enriched in resveratol ( a compound found in red grapes claimed to promote longevity and weight loss) and phytoestrogens ( which could benefit women approaching the menopause). Having an abundance of bio enriched foods sounds wonderful, however Professor Martin pointed out one can't rely on these foods alone for good health. The plaque reducing properties of purple tomatoes for instance, would be severely negated by pairing them with melted cheese on a pizza!  It was interesting though, that the plums were the first fruit to run out over the leaving lunch....

How the years roll by... At least it means I can count on the next meeting being here before I know it! So long for now!

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Precious Peatlands...

I've been spending some time recently exploring the Hope Valley in The Peak District. I wasn't quite prepared for how captivating the scenery would be - everyone has heard of the sumptuous beauty of the Lake District, yet the Peaks remain relatively unheard of, although I think they are just as stunning, with a more rugged and rural quality.

The Heather on Win Hill

I was also unaware of the dramatic colour display that this time of year brings - the gentle eruption of the purple carpet of Heather. Besides it's visual splendour, however this landscape has a critical ecological importance, as it contains a large proportion of the Britain's Peat Bogland. Peat is an ancient substance that forms from dead plant matter under conditions where natural decomposition by bacteria is prevented. In the case of the Pennies, this was due to the glaciers of the ice age covering the terrain. Because the plant matter does not break down fully, peat has a high carbon value. So much so, that although peatlands cover only 3 % of the world's surface, they store twice as much carbon as arboreal forests. And yet, these precious reserves are under threat, suffering greatly from erosion. Although some of is is caused by severe rainfall ( which is though to be increasing due to climate change), much damage is also caused by enthusiastic walkers - so next time you see a polite notice asking you to keep to the footpath, please do heed it! Fortunately, the National Trust are well aware of this issue and are prepared to spend a considerable amount of time and money to address it. Of one of my rambles, I even met a ranger who works professionally to restore peat moorland in this area. Phase one involves planting 'stabilising vegetation' to hold the peat lands in place and prevent further erosion. Following this, gullies that channel rainwater are blocked up to limit the amount washed away by rainfall. The third phase involves more planting - plugs of typical bog species such as Eriophorum vaginatum at a density of 4,000 per hectare. Finally, in the 'Hydro- Seeding' Phase, a helicopter is deployed to drop seeds of species such as Caluna vulgaris, also called common heather. It seems almost perverse that so much manual effort and technology must be used to restore a completely natural landscape but, as much of the damage has been called by ourselves, I think we should feel some obligation. It also highlights the dedication of these organisations - restoring peat can't be as glamorous as saving rhinos but still, they quietly get on with the job. It is certainly worthwhile for views such as these and I hope it will compel others to support these charities.

It is also important because peatlands are the foundation for a unique ecological web. I have seen so much evidence of wildlife on my travels here - kestrels, rabbits, hares, moles... And so any wildflowers that I am constantly embarrassed by my ignorance of native flowers. That's one thing I am still working on!

For more information on Peat Land restoration in The Pennines, please see http://www.nationalparks.gov.uk/lookingafter/climate-change/moor-restoration-in-peak-district

Meanwhile, the best way for you to experience this natural palette of stunning colour is to come here yourself.