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!

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