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!

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Preserving the packaged salad....

Picking up a healthy, pre- packaged salad from the supermarket can feel a virtuous thing to do... Until you find yourself throwing it out after a few days , the leaves wilted down to an unappetising mulch. Just why are the lives of packaged salads so habit, compared with, say, a whole lettuce? Actually, it's surprising that the leaves are still in one piece even immediately after packing, given that they have already undergone harvesting, transportation, sanitation, having excess water removed... Apparently, only the salad crops with the most 'robust' leaves can survive this. With such effort going in to bringing these salads from the soil to the shelf, wouldn't it be wonderful if they lasted just a little bit longer?
Researchers at the University if Southampton in partnership with Vitacress ( one of the leading salad producers in  Europe) are turning to genetics to find an answer. Salad leaves tend to last longer if they are small and thick, with lots of tightly packed cells. To understand which parts of the genome are responsible for these traits, the scientists generated a 'mapping population' between a wild and cultivated lettuce species. Breeding the offspring together causes the original parent DNA to break and recombine in random combinations in the progeny. This means that, in the F2 generation, some of the offspring may inherit two copies of the genes for the desirable characteristics displayed in the cultivated parent ( see diagram below). Using genetic markers that can distinguish between the two original parents' DNA, the researchers can select plants showing ideal leaf qualities and determine which areas of the genome are responsible for the phenotype. It takes a lot of work to generate a mapping population, but the results can be highly informative. In this case, the genetic markers have allowed a new breeding programme to select for longer lasting leaves.

Intriguingly, the scientists found an easier way to promote the development of small, tough leaves. Apparently, reducing irrigation by 20% encourages stiffer cells! whilst also saving water. Given that water use in agriculture is becoming an increasing concern, this can only be good news. So while we wait for the development of longer lasting supermarket salads, perhaps you should ask yourself if you really need to water your veg patch today?

For more information about the study, please see http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/research/impact/extending-shelf-life-packaged-salad.aspx

Thursday 17 July 2014

An interview with Professor Mary Williams – a pioneer for improving plant sciences education

Having taught hundreds of undergraduates over the years, Mary Williams was constantly frustrated by how few of them decided to study plants rather than animals or medical sciences. In 2009, she took on the challenge of writing the Teaching Tools in Plant Biology – an educational output of The Plant Cell Journal. This provides up-to-date, reviewed and downloadable teaching resources that allow University lecturers to integrate the most cutting-edge plant science research into their lesson plans. I caught up with her at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Experimental Biology to hear her views on the best ways to engage young people with plants. 

Please describe your own journey within Plant Science

I did a regular PhD and PostDoc in Plant Science and as I was finishing my PostDoc, I got interested in spending more time teaching. I took a position at what’s called a “Primarily Undergraduate Institution” (Harvey Mudd College) which in America is like a Liberal Arts College where students can get their undergraduate degree but they go elsewhere for their PhD. The nice thing about these places is that the faculty are encouraged to be innovative and put a lot of time and effort into their teaching. So, as opposed to teaching being a sort of “add-on” to your really important work in research, it’s actually a very valuable part of what a faculty member there does. They actually prioritise excellence in teaching over excellence in research which is pretty interesting, but that’s because these institutes are set up to specialise in undergraduate education. However, I felt that, although I was a really good teacher, we always had very small numbers of students interested in plants. I always found that frustrating because you can stand on your head and do cartwheels and say “Aren’t plants amazing?” and all the students say “Yes BUT…we’re interested in dementia and cancer!”
I was there for thirteen years and actually lots of different things happened including that I got married to a Scottish man! We were discussing if he would move to California or I would move to Scotland. At the time, the Journal that I worked for – The Plant Cell – had been exploring the idea of introducing an educational component to the journal. They envisaged a thing called “Teaching Tools in Plant Biology” and offered me the role of Editor. I was really excited by this for several reasons – one of which was that it would allow me to move to Scotland and continue to do something I really enjoyed! I was very keen on using my interest in education in trying to broaden the impact I was having beyond a small number of students to try and see if there was a way to disseminate plant science education more broadly.

Can you describe the Teaching Tools in Plant Biology?

These articles are written for distribution around the world and are used very broadly around the world. I write articles to try and bring the excitement of plant science research to undergraduates. They draw on current research as a starting point and they simplify it and interpret it so that students can see that plant science is very exciting and important. It’s a little different to starting with photosynthesis and saying “You’ve already seen this in high school, now we’re going to teach you as a University student.” We try and think of what things will get students really excited about plant science, how can we do it a little differently so they are motivated to learn it effectively as undergraduates and maybe even pursue it. There is an image that’s very pervasive in a lot of primary and secondary schools that plant science is boring. When students go into their biology class, there’s a jumping mouse and a plant and unless the plant’s a Venus Flytrap they don’t engage with it in the same way. We who appreciate plants and how sophisticated they are, we can look behind the surface and we’re aware of the amazing biochemistry that’s going on…but for kids who don’t know anything about that, they just see something which might as well be plastic - it seems inanimate.

So how can we get children and young people excited about plants?

Time-lapse movies that people make and put on YouTube are very good because you can see, for example, a plant spinning around as its trying to find a place for its tendrils to grasp…people are amazed to see how active a plant is, they can suddenly see that it’s alive!
There’s also a garden in Montreal, Montreal Botanic Garden, which was designed for sight impaired people and it’s a collection of plants which have particular qualities of either texture and smell. They let blind children touch the plants, get the oils on their hands and smell them… I think that’s such an interesting way of getting people to be more aware of plants by asking them to touch and smell them. So they’ve got kids experiencing plants in a different way to what we’re used to.

How can we get more adults interested in plant science?

For me the biggest problem plant scientists have right now is this GMO issue. When you say to someone “I do plant genetics”, it’s almost always the first thing out of their mouths: “You don’t do that GMO stuff, do you?” We’ve built this black hole of public relations that is really difficult to get out of. You can say “Yes but, there’s Golden Rice and that’s a very high-nutrient substance that can alleviate disease…” and they say “I don’t like Monsanto!” so you end up in this downward spiral when you try to talk to people about plant research. People seem to be much more accepting of the role of science in health and medicine than they are in food. It seems that the harder plant scientists try to talk to people about what they do, the worse it gets. 

How successful have the Teaching Tools in Plant Biology been so far?

The number of downloads is constantly increasing. It’s a young enough project so that people are still discovering it. When I go to a conference, I talk to a lot of people who find them incredibly helpful when they’re teaching, particularly for younger people who are moving into teaching – they can find a resource that’s ready to use as a starting point. The fact that there is primary research, pretty pictures and simple explanations makes it a nice way to build your own teaching – we envision these as a level in-between a text book and a review article so it’s particularly well suited for more advanced undergraduates. Graduate students also use these a lot for self-teaching, so when they find out that they’re going to start teaching about cytokinin, or even start researching about it, they find these are a very easy entry point for building their knowledge. Everything we’ve seen says they’ve been very successful in helping people teach and learn about plant science in a new way.
For more information about the Teaching Tools in Plant Biology, please see http://www.plantcell.org/site/teachingtools/

Friday 4 July 2014

Bioinformatics, careers, conference dinners...and NEWSROUND!

The final day.... But no let up in the science, with the morning covering a much maligned topic in research...

Bioinformatics.....it's a scary word for many but as the data sets generated by experimental research become ever more complex, skills in statistical analysis are increasingly valuable in the life sciences. And yet, bioinformatics training remains poorly represented on the university curriculum ( never mind GCSE and A Level!). This session gave an introduction to a new initiative, GOBLET. , which aims to act as a portal for training resources. It certainly makes sense; rather than having isolated training workshops and courses scattered about and not interacting, GOBLET brings these together into an online database which individuals, departments and institutes can sign up for. In small group discussions, the delegates discussed how such a portal could best serve their needs and what training methods they found most effective. And so a paradox emerged: it was felt that bioinformatics should be an established part of undergraduate programmes, yet students who are 'made' to study the subject are much less receptive than those who choose to attend specialist workshops. So should there be a drive to educate students as to the value and importance ( as well as CV enhancing qualities) of data analysis skills? There was also a feeling that, even if scientists receive bioinformatics training, they still lack the confidence to claim competence or teach others. Working through case studies, as a way to practice such skills, or receiving accreditation for completing courses, were suggested as ways to address this.
Fielding more press enquiries

We then moved into the main plenary hall to witness the President's Award ceremony. I was thrilled that Stephanie Johnson, a PhD student at Durham University studying drought resistance in sorghum, own Young Scientist of the Year for the Plant Section. I can't say I was surprised though; I did my final year undergraduate project under Stephanie's supervision so I have seen her diligence and attention to professionalism in action. But it is always nice to have such dedication formally recognised. It is another aspect of the Society for Experimental Biology that really resonates me; the commitment to providing opportunities for early career scientists to showcase their work, gaining recognition  and confidence in the process.

In the afternoon, I was sitting in on Sarah Blackford's career sessions as I hoped to cover these for a piece in the SEB bulletin. We were treated to a panel of four speakers who gave an account of their career journeys. Sarah made the interesting point that, whilst 'career' as a noun suggests an ordered progression through life, 'career' as a verb refers more to chaotic, uncontrolled movement! And it was clear from the speakers' accounts that their current position was the result of networking, chance occurrences, happening across advertisements in science journals, unexpected changing priorities ( including babies!) and even disastrous occurrences such as the department burning down. Sarah summarised it perfectly with the quote 'if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans'. But it was reassuring to find that, even for those who found themselves in a role far removed from what they imagined doing, they still found their jobs rewarding. As Tim Dawkins, head of the Imaging facility at a Durham University, said 'no one sets out to have a technical facilitator'. And yet such people are vital to research and a keystone within the department: take away their skills and expertise and many research projects simply wouldn't happen.
Vicki Roberts from CBBC NewsRound interviews Dr Trevor Hamilton and Erica Ingraham

Just then, an email came through; NewsRound were coming!!! Somehow they had picked up on the story about Cichlid fish being able to remember where they were fed twelve days later. I sped down to the reception area to meet Dr Trevor Hamilton and his student Erica Ingraham, who had been told that Vicki Roberts, a reporter for NewsRound was on the way. She turned out to be very friendly and enthusiastic about the work. I felt sorry for her though, lugging a tripod and huge camera through the rain, although she reassured me that she was used to acting as a pack horse. As I asked the conference venue staff if there was a suitably quiet place we could do the interview, they made an inspired suggestion: why not hold the interview in the museum across the road? Fortunately it was near closing time so the main exhibits weren't too busy and Vicki was able to set up her camera under the shadow of Stan the T- Rex ( who apparently is also very popular to officiate at weddings...). We found some suitable 'fish related' artefacts for Dr Hamilton and Erica to pose by as Vicki filmed them answering their questions. It was amazing to see how much kit she could fit in her suitcase; lighting, microphones and a highly technical looking camera. I felt very lucky to be able to watch. After all, I grew up with NewsRound. Could this inspire the next generation of marine biologists?

Me and Vicki Roberts

Afterwards I just had time to change into my dress before the coaches picked us up for the conference dinner. I couldn't believe how suddenly it had come, after all the weeks of wondering if my application would be successful....and here I was, at the end of it all. Our venue? Old Trafford! The first, and possibly the last, time I have stood in a football stadium. Dad will be disappointed it wasn't at the Villa!
Sorry Dad but it 'aint the Villa! Visiting Old Trafford Stadium

The conference was a true showcase of cutting edge research, the Professors and PIs of the future and professional networking. But scientists DO like to let down their hair... As I type this, ABBAs 'Dancing Queen' is belting across the dance floor and the bar is doing a cheerful trade. Having said that, a lot of people are watching the football World Cup on the big screen... After all we have A LOT of nationalities represented here! It's been a wonderful week, exhausting but in all the right ways. I feel so happy to be here but somehow, I don't think I will hold out till the last shuttle bus home at one ' o clock...

Thank you so much , SEB!

Thursday 3 July 2014

Life in the slow lane...

Today has felt rather more quiet ... Although our press releases have been picked up and are going live, there have been few enquiries for me to deal with and no telephone interviews today. My favourite 'reinterpretation' was for the article on scorpion burrows...Israeli scientists have found that scorpions design their burrows to include a long shelf, where they can warm up in the suns heat safely before going out to hunt, but also a cool, dead end chamber deep underground as a refuge in the heat of the day. This was summed up by Discovery News as 'Scorpions build mansions with sun rooms and cool beds!'

Attending a Plenary Lecture in the main Theatre

I also received my first piece of 'hate mail' in this position. A single lined response to Dr Hamilton's study on the memory powers of African cichlids - 'what a waste of tax payers money!'. I didn't respond but I was intrigued by the motivation behind this. What was this person looking for? Did they want me to agree with them? Did they want to be interviewed? Or were they just purely 'sounding off?' I also received a long account from an aquarium hobbyist detailing how they trained their Cichlid to feed from their hand. Again, I'm not sure if they are expecting me to respond to this.....

The SEB careers stand... my "home from home" during the conference!

I did use some of my "free time" to attend the WoolHouse lecture, given in memory of Harold Woolhouse, director of the John Innes Centre between 1980 and 1989.  George Coupland gave a fascinating account of the differences in environmental sensitivity between annual and perennial plants. Many plant species can only flower after being exposed to cold temperatures (known as vernalisation"). In annual plants, once the flowering process is underway, vegetative growth ceases and the plant dies afterwards. Perennials, however, revert back to vegetative growth after flowering and can survive for another growing season. By studying flowering mutants in the model organism Arabidopsis (thale cress), including plants that can flower without requiring vernalisation, researchers have identified a gene that appears central to controlling these differences. PEP1 - which stands for Perpetual Flowering 1 - acts as a transcription factor; a protein which controls the activity of other genes. Active PEP1 prevents flowering however PEP1 itself is inhibited by vernalisation. In annuals such as Arabidopsis, PEP1 remains stably repressed but in perennials, PEP1 is only transiently inhibited and becomes active again. However, PEP1 cannot be the only agent controlling the flowering transition as when very young shoots are exposed to vernalisation (causing PEP1 to be repressed) flowering still does not occur. Such shoots are described as "non-competent" - but what is it that makes them so? Recently, plant scientists have found that short transcripts of ribonucleic acids (similar to DNA), known as "micro-RNAs" determine the competency of plant meristems. In young shoots, miR156 seems to inhibit flowering, but this becomes downregulated by age. The whole flowering transition, however, requires both PEP1 AND mrRNA156 to be inactive, ensuring that only competent shoots that have been exposed to cold temperatures can flower. Just another of the exquisite control systems that plants demonstrate - which is partly why I am so fascinated by them!

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Frogs, telephone interviews and women in science...

Another early start...and even earlier for Dr Hamilton, who was picked up at 6.00 to be taken to the recording studio for his interview on the Today Programme. Unfortunately, I miss this whilst I was in the shower - after all the excitement it was only four minutes long! It certainly seems to have generated a lot of interest thigh, even being picked up by The Telegraph.
But, I have to look forward to the next lot of interviews; two this morning both for German Public Radio. I escorted first Dr Amanda Adams ( who works on scorpion burrow design in Israel) then Miss Lauren Nadler ( who investigates social recognition in tropical reef fish). Once again, the landline works fine and my German colleague, Michael Stang, seems pleased with the results. I tell the researchers not to be too nervous, after all their words will have to be dubbed over into German!

I feel slightly awkward about how few talks I have attended so far... There is a wealth of fascinating science being discussed here but I am hardly sitting in on any of it. One example was the Presidents Medallist talk this morning, on auxin dynamics in the root. I had hoped to attend this but ended up trying to arrange the room to do the phone interview in. Foiled! I made up for it in the afternoon by dropping in on the session on animal biomechanics. This covered a fascinating range of organisms but I was struck by a talk from PhD student Miss Marta Garcia- Vidal, investigating how the environment influences a frogs jumping style. I grabbed her afterwards for an interview and may be able to get another press release out of it. Watch this space!

Another highlight was Dr Christopher Clemente's talk describing his work on lizard locomotion. Larger animals put greater stress on their limb bones and Dr Clemente was investigating to see whether larger sized lizards adopt a more upright posture to compensate for this. Although the PowerPoint kept breaking down on him, he ploughed on with gusto, entertaining us with videos showing him running after the lizards to get footage of them in motion...and occasionally, they turned round and chased him! Further information on his research can be found on his blog: http://biomechanicsdownunder.blogspot.co.uk

Networking at the Poster Session

Meanwhile, I was excited to see that the BBC exclusive about dormice had gone live (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-28036330). I always think the 'BBC treatment' gives a very professional touch! After the main session finished, the poster session opened. This is an especially good opportunity for early career scientists, including PhD students, to showcase their work to a large scientific audience. It can also be an invaluable way to  network, make new contacts and find potential collaborators in research. It feels a bit like an eclectic art gallery, where one is free to wander and browse the 'advertisements' . It is much more enjoyable, if course, when you KNOW some of the scientists and can have a catch up with old acquaintances.

The Women in Science Dinner at the Palace Hotel

After checking in with friends and former lecturers from Durham University, I had to dash back to the Palace Hotel to be in good time for the Women in Science dinner. This has been an organised event at the SRB Annual Meeting now for 12 years and is designed as an informal chance to discuss the big issue of gender equality in science. The setting, in the Grand Room, was sumptuous indeed with chandeliers, towering marble arches, silverware and lighted candles. Our after dinner speaker was Sarah Dickinson, strategic director of Athena Swan, a award scheme by which Universities and research institutes can gain recognition for implementing strategies to promote gender equality. Encouragingly, their results suggest that institutes that are part of the award scheme see benefits for all their staff; when women are able to work more effectively and have greater support, the whole working environment improves, resulting in tangible results, including more papers. After dessert, the floor was opened up for questions with even the ( relatively few) makes attendees getting involved. In the end, the discussions moved into the bar area and I decided to head up to bed, fortunately in the same building. It was a thought provoking evening, but as one attendee noted ' How will such events have impact when so few men are present? Half of the decision makers are missing!'
A good point for the next meeting - women, invite your male colleagues!

Women in Science Dinner, Palace Hotel

Tuesday 1 July 2014

We're on the Today Programme...Tomorrow!

"If you just take a seat here Dr Clissold and German public Radio should be phoning you any minute now...'
I am alone in a quiet room with an academic I have had a lot of contact with over the past weeks but have only just met for the first time. The stillness in the room is at odds with the thriving hustle and bustle of the general conference. Yesterday I received an email request from a German Radio Station for a telephone interview with Dr Fiona Clissold, whose work on locust diets I covered in a press release. It feels slightly surreal but suddenly the phone rings and we are connected through to Deutschland...
Whilst Dr Clissold answers the journalist's questions, I field more enquiries on my iPad, juggling information and tasks; ask Dr Sagi for more photos, who wanted the video on the ants story?, is that the correct embargo date? ... Fortunately the conference organisers are as good as their word and we are not disturbed. My first interview to organise on behalf of the external media!

Dr Lauren Nadler has a telephone interview with German Public Radio

The morning passes in a similar stilted frenzy of answering enquiries, and I feel surgically attached to my iPad at times. The afternoons highlight for me is the 'Public Engagement' session, featuring a 'celebrity' - television broadcaster Alice Roberts- most famous for her appearances on Coast but also the face of the Don't Die Young series. She conveyed her passion for 'science storytelling' using the example of a carved ivory bison figurine whose origins she researched during time spent with aborigines. Unfortunately she had to dash off so I wasn't able to nab her for an interview! The following speakers then gave a series of 'quick fire' selling pitches of ideas for the future of public engagement - these included commissioning plays, having bioscience students run training sessions for journalists and 'citizen science' projects where the public can play a part in sorting through the masses of data generated by researchers. Although the ideas flowed and conversations thrummed with vibrancy, there was the nagging sense that SOMETHING else needs to happen to keep the impetus up outside these sessions....
Fielding press enquiries

Whilst sitting in on the 'bidder' lecture ( William K Milsom on the evolution of breathing control in vertebrates) a VERY exciting email comes in....The Today Programme want to feature one of the press stories on their show tomorrow! Cue a frantic emailing and texting session but we manage it! Dr Hamilton will be picked up early tomorrow morning at his hotel to be taken to the recording studio for the LIVE interview. I feel a bit sorry for him as he probably had no idea what he was letting himself in for when he agreed to do a press release... But he is very nice about it! Meanwhile the rest of the delegates are suddenly keen to explore the trade stands...mainly because they have been turned into a 'wine trail' with a prize for anyone who can guess the provenance of the entire selection on offer. This seems a little more excessive than 'wine tasting' judging by the size of the glasses... It gives me a good chance to catch up though with colleagues from Durham University, where I did my undergraduate degree. Instead of heading off to the bars and nightclubs afterwards though, I headed back to the hotel. Still three days left and I need to be on form!
The SEB wine trail