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 25 December 2014

Merry Christmas!

Whether you read this blog regularly or stumbled on it by accident , I wish you a very Merry Christmas and may God bless you,over the year to come. It certianly has been a busy one for me and who knows what the next will bring?

Monday 22 December 2014

Can't see the roots for the trees.... and an update on POST

It's been a busy few days as the lab prepares for the great annual "Shutdown".... watering rotas, last orders, cleaning down benches... fortunately my second supervisor has kindly offered to water my plants over the Christmas Period itself so I can snatch a few days in Solihull with my family.

Meanwhile, I have been trying to perfect my rhizotron systems before I start working on valuable mutant lines. My main problem at the moment is that it is essential to see the roots of my little seedlings in order to measure the extent of parasite infection. But Arabidopsis plants have white roots... and I grow them on a delicate white mesh to stop the roots from penetrating into the growth medium (if they stay on the surface, it is easier to infect them with parasites).  Trying to analyse the photos gives me a headache so I have been trying a few alternatives. Attempting to dye the roots had some effect (see below) but this isn't really suitable as it could have an adverse consequence on the parasites, influencing the results. Dying the mesh didn't really work either so my first supervisor made a trip to that great supplier of scientific materials ... John Lewis! But the dark-coloured mesh she found there could be just the thing and I have just sown a new batch of seedlings which will be the guinea pigs to try this on. Watch this space!

White roots on White mesh... tricky

Arabidopsis roots dyed with Toluidine Blue

For those that read the  Post  "POST me a note as fast as you can..." (published on 23rd November), I am afraid that I am no longer in the POSTNote competition as my team literally disintegrated! Pressures of deadlines and experiments (in one case, even a Viva to prepare for) forced my teammates to pull out until I was the last one standing. As the competition is designed as a team effort, the organisers suggested it would be best if I withdrew. But with the amount of things that have been going on just recently, perhaps it is just as well...
The new Black Mesh - from a reputable supplier of scientific equipment!

Thursday 11 December 2014

What can we learn from Badgers?

It's an issue that crops up in the media again and again.... Badger culling to prevent TB in cattle. Dr Rosie Woodroffe (Zoological Society of London), whose research sits right at the heart of the debate, had been invited by the Science in Policy group to describe her attempts to ensure the government's policy on this issue is based on sound science.
'If anyone at DEFRA knew I was giving a talk on how to influence policy they would be laughing their socks off' she began. During her ten years as a Government Advisor, Dr Woodroffe has campaigned compellingly for culling practices to cease. But this is no horror reaction to the killing of cute, furry animals; as an impartial scientist, her arguments are based on sound evidence that culling simply doesn't work. In fact, it actually seems to make the problem WORSE.

When this 'surprising' result was discovered in 2007, 'the ministers didn't want to hear it and didn't believe it', especially as the researchers themselves were at a loss to explain the result. Since then, it has emerged that removing such highly territorial animals encourages the remaining individuals to disperse, effectively spreading TB across a larger area.  Eventually in July 2008, her reasoning prevailed and the government dropped impending plans for culls.

But it seems that contentious policies, even those based on sure facts, have a lifetime set to parliamentary elections. After only being in power for 'ten minutes', the new coalition government announced plans to reintroduce badger culling in May 2007. It seemed that Dr Woodroffe was back to square one.

In such a situation, how can one influence policy? There is a depressing trend in campaigning where the willingness of a person to talk to you decreases as their ability to influence policy increases. Dr Woodroffe found a clever way to circumvent this however, by enrolling badger fan and former Queen guitarist, Brian May. MPs were then queuing up to attend her sessions! She also got on side The Badger Trust, a campaign group with a powerful voice that isn't afraid to get legal. For instance, when the Welsh Assembly introduced a plan in 2009 where badgers could be killed under the Animal Health Act , the Badger Trust took the case to court and won - the plan was scrapped. Interestingly, TB rates are falling quicker in Wales now than they are in England...

Perhaps most importantly, however, was her 'community- based' strategy as opposed to a 'top down' policy enforcement approach. According to Dr Woodroffe, badgers can divide rural communities to the point of 'civil war', particularly between farmers trying to make a living and those who appreciate seeing badgers scampering across their garden lawns. By talking to farmers and discussing viable alternatives, such as vaccination, Dr Woodroffe was able to make some headway. 'People are people and don't like being told what to do' she said. 'Being told not to do something may not necessarily be enough to stop people...they need to understand and believe the evidence for it'. Could this be a lesson for improving the profile of GM crops? Instead of targeting ministers and MPs, should we be engaging with the very bedrock of the agricultural community - the farmers and agriculturalists who would actually sow the seed into the ground?

Dr Woodroffe's combined approach bore fruit in March 2014 when there was an overwhelming vote - 214 MPs against 1 - to halt badger culling in England. But the issue is certainly not settled, with new plans for culling expected to be announced soon.

From this roller coaster journey, Dr Woodroffe concluded with some wise points of advice:
1. There are lots of routes to influence policy makers - and you can think outside the box! ( in her case, inviting MPs along to badger tagging sessions where they could handle the furry beasts was another good strategy!)
2. Influence can take a LONG time to achieve
3. The media can be helpful....or detrimental. According to Dr Woodroffe, the medias' desire to achieve balanced coverage meant that she was frequently featured in articles and press releases. And yet her message wasn't always faithfully replicated.....'I could give a talk and have the journalist from. The. Guardian and a farmer sat in the front row and the stories they would write would be 100% different' she said.

Although badgers may be a specialist topic, the lessons here are applicable to many Science policy issues. Does anyone know a celebrity that would support a GM Crop campaign?

Friday 5 December 2014

A Christmas Lecture with a Difference...

'Incredible!' 'Amazing!' ''AWEsome!'

Just some of the reactions I heard from the young attendees of the Animal and Plant Science Department's Annual Christmas Lecture. Over a thousand schoolchildren left inspired by the lecture and interactive demos, beating each other with their free posters and still grappling with the puzzle they had each been given to demonstrate the importance of practice.

The APS Christmas Lecture is modelled on the Royal Society Christmas Lectures, with the theme this year being 'Animal Academy': a showcase of the intellectual powers of our fellow creatures. I can't imagine that the Royal Society has nearly as much fun as we did though...or that they make half as much noise! The classes fairly raised the roof when Head of Department, Professor Michael T Silva-Jothy, did a quick roll call to make sure all the schools were present. Then the lights dimmed, the crowd hushed and the show was underway. First, we were introduced to the incredible problem solving abilities of the crow family, demonstrated wonderfully by Vera the Raven. Though only nine months old, she had already learnt how to ring a bell, pick up rubbish and even sort out the recycling in order to earn a food reward. But then -just as the lecture moved onto the powerful sense of smell that dogs have - the police invaded! Apparently, a thief was suscpeted in the audience...enter Black Labrador Rocco who quickly swept the room to find the stolen article.

The excitement builds in The Octagon as the children and teachers take their seats
The culprit removed, we then learnt about the huge differences in the size of brains of different animals, a concept beautifully illustrated with entertainers in covetable animal onesies and giant, paper mâché brains! We were then able to test our memory against chimps using a number- recall exercise. For a brief second, an image with the numbers 1-7 scattered across it flashed onto the screen , to be replaced with the letters A-G in place of the numbers. The question: which letter is in the same place that number 4 was? I was hopeless and even the children struggled to get it right. Apparently, this is because we are trained to read numbers by their order: as soon as the image appears, we literally try to find them in series, first the 1, then the 2 and so on. Amazingly, a chimpanzee can recall the exact location of ALL the numbers, even if the image only appears for a QUARTER of a second! This is because the chimp doesn't attach any meaning to the numbers and instead takes a mental 'photograph' of the image, allowing it to recall every location from memory.
Police Dog Rocco searches the hall for the thief! 
Despite this, human brains are still powerful, as demonstrated by Callum, a young volunteer who joined a group of neuroscientists on stage to be fitted with an EEG device. This recorded the electrical impulses from neurones firing in his brain. Once the machine had been calibrated to recognise Calum's 'normal' brain activity, an image of a floating box was brought up onto the screen. Simply using the power of focused thought, Calum was able to move the box across the screen at will - without touching the keyboard at all. It felt as though we were delving into the realms of the science- fictional and made the audience shriek with delight as the box zoomed around before them.

For the grand finale, the children were instructed to open their mystery envelopes and retrieve their metal puzzles. A seemingly simple task - to separate the two interlocked pieces - but fiendishly difficult to accomplish! But on being shown the correct method, the children found that practice really could make perfect. And with that, the hall was once again invaded - this time by a marching samba band and a troop of circus performers keen to demonstrate just what humans are capable of learning with a bit of practice. I think the break dancing schools will be inundated with new recruits after the show we were treated to!

As the clapping died down, I had to zoom from my seat to get to my demonstration stall in time. A dozen or so different stands, all on the theme of 'Animal Intelligence', had been arranged outside the theatre to provide hands on activities for the kids. I was working with Duncan, Lucy and Camilla on the topic of songbirds, and in particular, how they learn their complex repertoires of songs. My fellow demonstrators had been inspired to construct a birdcage to surround our stall. Once inside, 'Alex the Friendly Parrot' would then play some recorded examples of birds that were taught to sing complex, human tunes and even mimic sounds as absurd as chainsaws and camera shutters. Whilst they were waiting to go inside, Camilla and I kept them entertained with a quiz on songbird facts - did you know that starlings can learn the songs of up to 22 different birds?!
Our stall ... featuring Alex the Parrot and the birdsong quiz

As the kids came thick and fast, it was a good lesson in adapting science to suit the audience. With their hyper energy levels, hundreds of distractions and teachers trying to keep order, our messages had to be succinct and memorable to make an impact. It was a far cry from the staid conference hall, where the audience is expected to sit still and keep quiet, no matter how dry the lecture! But the cage and parrot proved a hit, although I'm not sure if some of the children thought Alex was a REAL parrot...for most though, the glasses were a giveaway!

The children may only have been there for just under three hours but a phenomenal amount of planning went into this event, involving dozens of volunteer students across the department. It was a showpiece for the power of science to inspire young minds and something that all universities should aspire to. For students, my advice is to throw yourself into it and get involved! ( you don't necessarily have to wear a parrot costume!) As for me, I am already looking forward to next year and wonder what the theme could be next...fantastic fish? Brilliant bacteria? Marvellous mushrooms? Who knows?! But I do know...I want to be there!
Meeting Vera... a very clever Raven!