Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.

This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!

Friday 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!

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