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 15 May 2014

It only happens once a year: SUGS - Sheffield University Grad School!

I didn't really know what to expect when the coach delivered us to the door of Kenwood Hall, a luxury hotel on the outskirts of Sheffield. Career development activities certainly, however the terms on the programme were ( deliberately?) vague: team building, commercial awareness,  interview workshop....

The first day was clearly designed to help us to 'get to know' the other members of our group through immersive team activities...the first being to balance a marshmallow on a free standing tower of spaghetti.... Besides helping me to appreciate just how heavy a marshmallow actually IS, this served as a good introduction to the Belbin model of team roles.
Reading the outline of these roles, I was struck by how often I felt 'Yes! That's me, I do exactly that!'. Understanding the Belbin model is particularly useful for spotting the weaknesses associated with each role. For instance, "Co-ordinators" can have a tendency to "off load" work onto others and, if they are not careful, may even take credit for work done by others. The Belbin model also provides advice for how to approach different team members - for instance, "Resource Investigators" are brilliant at suggesting new approaches or contacts, but one mustn't suppose they will deliver on every promise!I have decided that whilst I would love to be a 'Plant' ( creative source of ideas), I am probably more of a 'Monitor Evaluator' ( takes care of details, tries to be practical).

We had plenty of opportunity to apply our new insight during the afternoons onslaught of challenges... These included herding blindfolded sheep, directing workers across a chessboard with moving obstacles and defusing a nuclear reactor using string and inner tube tyres. The last benefitted enormously from the engineers in he team! My favourite task was 'colour blind' where we were each blindfolded before being given a set of shapes, in different colours. However two pieces were missing! Somehow, without passing the pieces between us, we had to work out which colour and shape combination was absent. This stressed the importance of establishing a common language when working in a group as the shapes were very imaginative and hard to define : ' has anyone else got what feels like a back to back letter C with two knobs on the end?!'

After all that, I was in need of an early night back home ( the course wasn't residential) but it was an early start again tomorrow and on arriving through the door it felt like we didn't stop once! I had bee quite daunted when reading through the preparation notes for the 'commercial awareness' task the night before. Somehow, split into different groups ( univeristy officers, research departments, legal officers, etc) we had to come up with a research funding strategy for a fictitious univeristy in dire straights. This involved networking, arranging meetings with companies, consulting legal advisors on intellectual property, sealing deals.... Meanwhile our eyes had to constantly be on the time so that we didn't miss the crucial deadline - reporting back to the pro- vice chancellor! It was a real lesson in how difficult it can be to formulate a strategy when different groups have access to different information. The task also involved a lot of running around as different offices were scattered across the whole building. It was almost like being in an episode of the apprentice and cluedo at the same time. But I was pleased with helping to secure a deal between the ministry of defense and the polymer materials group; using low weight molecules to develop greater wing stability, using additional input for the paleobiology group into the evolution of wing structures in pterosaurs.... You could almost imagine it happening, couldn't you?

The afternoon wasn't quite so rushed and hectic but we were still faced with rebranding SPAM for the modern generation. We decided to play on the product's convenience and rapid accessibility, creating an advert where busy people, in need of emergency nourishment, were saved by spam! There was an imaginative range of products between the groups, including British Weather, Fax machines, traffic wardens ( who now became traffic support officers), celery and estate agents. I think the group tasked with rebranding 'chess' did well with their idea of 'performance chess', perfect for X-Factor wannabes!

Day 3... All too soon the Interview workshop was upon us. I had asked to be considered for a research fellowship position and anxiously looked over my cv, which I knew the other members of the group were also studying! The arrangement was very formal, and despite having done so many fun activities together, my fellow tea workers took their role seriously and gave me quite a grilling. Their feedback was incredibly useful however, and I was surprised to hear that I spoke much louder towards the end than at the start, as far as I was aware I hadn't changed volume at all! I found it harder that I expected to be an interviewer myself and can now appreciate the pressure this role generates.

The final afternoon was given over to a spot of career planning, which included suggesting careers for our fellow team members. I was pleased when my group suggested I could make it as a writer, but surprised that they suggested roles with authority , including mentoring and teaching. Suddenly it was time to fill out the feedback sheets, take a last group photo and collapse on the coach for the last time.

I would like to thank the Univeristy of Sheffield's Career Service for organising the event and highly recommend it to any postgraduate researcher. You will be inspired!

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