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!

Monday 30 June 2014

A night at the museum...

Your pot of Earl Gray tea, madam?'
I could get used to this.... I graciously accept my tea, then return to my sumptuous breakfast from the buffet of the palace hotel. A text comes in I my phone: Sarah, my supervisor, is on the way. We discuss the plans for the day and I flag up some enquiries I have received from journalists. It seems that the press releases on fish are getting the most attention, although one writer seems very keen on the scorpion piece. Wifi is such a blessing, I think as I tap away at emails with one hand and finish my tea with the other. No time to dwardle though in the luxurious surroundings, and soon I meet Sarah back in the lobby where she is now weighed down with posters for her careers session. A short stroll along Oxford street in the early, weak sunshine brings us to the Conference Centre. Here we meet the team from SEB, who are busy decanting boxes of programmes, pens, delegate bags, etc onto the registration desk. We collect our passes ( including tickets for the conference dinner on the final night!), check the room venue then leave the team to get stuck into a delivery of wine for the social events.
SEB notebooks ready for collection by the delegates at the conference venue

The conference proper doesn't start until tomorrow, but today Sarah is hosting a careers day for young scientists, to give them an opportunity to network and meet people before the 'established researchers' arrive. I give her a hand setting up the room and putting up posters as the younger delegates begin to arrive. And so I meet one of the researchers whose work I wrote up as a press release, Miss Lauren Nadler, studying how rising carbon dioxide levels inhibit the ability of fish to recognise one another. Sarah soon has everyone mixing together, pairing off to perform one to one introductions, then 'presenting' each other to a larger groups. I check my emails for media enquiries, flit about taking photos and grab a few delegates for quotes over lunch. In the afternoon, Mary Williams, an American plant scientist passionate about developing teaching aids for universities ( see interview in a later blog!) and Jennifer Sneddon, a researcher on equine injuries gave a master lass on getting papers published. Although I have attended many sessions on this theme, Jennifer provided a rare insight into the review process, whereby papers are sent by journal editors to be assessed by fellow scientists in the field ( so called 'experts'!). It was encouraging to hear that even young scientists are often welcomed to become reviewers, as it certainly gives invaluable insight into the publication industry. Meanwhile, Sarah ran a concurrent session on alternative careers in science; given that only 3.5% of PhD students ultimately continue in academia ( with only 0.45% making it as a professor) , it is important to consider different avenues. Rather than seeing scientific careers as a 'pyramid', with a broad base narrowing to a tiny elite, Sarah encouraged us to think of a 'tree of scientific careers', with innumerable interconnected possibilities.
Young scientists practice their presentation skills

Getting to grips with the "review process"

Meanwhile I was receiving email requests thick and fast for telephone interviews for the researchers whose work had been featured in a press release. First priority tomorrow, get a phone set up! Suddenly it was time to move to the 'science with impact: big data' session. The talks were varied, including the important of using the ORCID citation system, and the incredible power of the latest genome sequencing technology. It is incredible to think that scientists once had to select which organisms should be honoured with the immense effort required to sequence a genome and now there is currently a project at IRRI to sequence 120,000 varieties of rice... The most entertaining talk was given by Rory Wilson from the Swansea Laboratory for Animal Movement, which demonstrated how far remote animal tracking devices have come. From early moving-dot outputs (similar to "pac-man" style pinball games), to sensors so sophisticated that it is now possible to recreate moving simulations of animals as large as Whale Sharks (and why not?! Everyone loves Whale Sharks...). It was a timely session to have - big data is only forecast to get even bigger!

After the science, the social! Although this involved more learning on my part: how to juggle canapés whilst carrying everything else... Our venue couldn't have been more appropriate, in the Manchester Museum. Animated conversations, networking, and catching up with friends was overseen by a soaring T-Rex skeleton, ancient plants, spider crabs, mammoth teeth... Why ever do people have their wedding reception in a hotel? A museum is much more romantic!

Canapés and networking in Manchester Museum (with Stan the T-Rex)

I feel that today has even busy enough but the conference hasn't even kicked off properly yet. So it is an early night for me...whatever everyone else plans to do in the bar this evening!

The marble staircase in the Palace Hotel

Monday 16 June 2014

A visit to London......

The BIG city.... home to our capital, historic palaces, the Olympic stadium, the hub of industry, shopping galore... and also where the head office of the Society of Experimental Biology (SEB) happens to be located!I had been invited down to the SEB office at Charles Darwin House to discuss my duties as the official media intern for the Annual meeting in Manchester, to be held in July.

Traveling from Sheffield to St Pancras late morning meant that I avoided the worst of the commuter traffic and I arrived in good time to meet my supervisor Dr Sarah Blackford (who had only just landed in the country after a week running a summer school in Germany) at the Goodenough Club Hotel. Due to a mix up in the bookings, Sarah had been upgraded into the Master Suite - an opulent room complete with balcony, chandeliers, generously proportioned sofas and a table large enough to host a boardroom meeting. After a quick introductory talk about the internship, we headed out to Charles Darwin House, conveniently just around the corner. I hadn't realised just how pleasant London could be - far from the smog and traffic I associate with the capital, here was a district of quiet and broad streets, expansive leafy plane trees and hidden parks & gardens. Perhaps the sunshine helped to set it off though! I was similarly impressed with the headquarters- the open-plan office had a buzzy, stimulating atmosphere with the other societies that shared the building (including the British Ecological Society and the Journal of Experimental Botany) close at hand. Imagine having daily access to all of that expertise! It was nice to meet the faces behind the emails that I receive as a member of the society, including the head of membership and the conference organiser.

As it was absolutely sweltering, we decided to make use of the refreshment facilities and spacious room back at the Goodenough Club and decamped there to spend the afternoon looking through the abstracts. Dr Blackford had sent me these a week ago - a dossier so large I had to have it delivered to the Department as it would never have squeezed through my letterbox! - so I had already had a chance to read through the abstracts for the talks that would be presented at the meeting and to pick out the ones which I thought had public appeal. Between us, we managed to whittle these down to a shortlist with most of the talks coming from the "Animal" section, rather than the Plant or Cell talks (people will always be more interested in Koalas than Thale Cress...). By this time, the heat of the day had passed and an evening breeze was rippling through the long curtains. We were both in need of an early night so after an excellent meal at Caluccios' Itallian in Brunswick Place, we headed back to our rooms.

Tuesday morning and a bright and early start to plan the day's activities over breakfast. We took our shortlist over to Charles Darwin House where Sarah had booked one of the small suites for us to work in that morning. Having identified possible press stories, our job was now to contact the researchers and ask if they would like me to write an article about their work. We first had to check to make sure that none of the stories had already been reported by science media streams. I had been quite interested in a group which had produced a "transparent soil" so that plant root growth could be observed non-invasively (this was different to agar medium as the texture resembled soil particles). But would you believe it? It had already been picked up! (see http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23823-lasers-watch-plant-roots-grow-in-transparent-soil.html#.U58wALSgp_c). Enough stories hadn't been spotted by the media yet for us to have a fair list to work on. After a busy morning compiling and sending emails, we joined the other members of the SEB office to head back to Carluccios for lunch.

By the time we returned, the first replies had come in! Unfortunately some of these were to say that due to the work being under review for publication, a press release would not be suitable at this stage. But some people had said yes ... and were pleased that we were interested! It reaffirms how most scientists love nothing better than to pass on their passion for their research.

All too soon, it was time for me to catch my train back to Sheffield. Since then, I have had more positive replies and have been compiling lists of questions to help me shape the press articles. It is like having a full time job! As thew conference gets closer, I find myself getting increasingly excited. It's all happening now!