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 24 April 2015

It would happen when my supervisor was away...

I always knew a PhD would involve hard work.... But I didn't realise quite how frequently I would feel like a piece of washing wrung out by a Victorian clothes- drier.... I am used to unexpected things cropping up that put my experimental plans in disarray but this week has been exceptionally difficult!

For my PhD project, I am investigating if infection with parasitic plants ( especially Striga species) makes the host more vulnerable to above ground pathogens. For my model system , I am using Arabidopsis thaliana ( thale cress) as the host and Striga gesnerioides as the parasitic plant. I was very excited as this week I was due to challenge my first batch of Striga- infected hosts with downy mildew ( this is done by filling a perfume spray bottle with a solution containing downy mildew spores and spraying it as a fine mist over the leaves!). I had already prepared a living culture of downy mildew on a different host, ready to use when I came to challenge the Striga infected plants. First problem- the living culture wasn't producing spores so I had to find some elsewhere. Someone had a culture but it was ready to sporulate RIGHT NOW and not in two days time, as I had planned! So it was a rush to prepare to infect my plants. Second problem - my Striga- infected hosts were flowering! This was bad news as when Arabidopsis starts to flower , it stops putting so much energy into making leaves and I needed nice big leaves to score the extent of downy mildew infection. Fortunately I managed to scrape together enough non-flowering plants for a viable experiment.
My current experimental plan... You can see how often it gets changed!

But why WERE they flowering? My cabinet was supposed to be set to a short photoperiod ( 9 hours of 'daylight') so the plants should think they were in the middle of a ( mild!) British winter...I asked the technicians to check and , yes, the photoperiod was definitely 9 hours. So what was going on?

The next day, I was due to be demonstrating on an undergraduate practical investigating insect behaviour in response to changes in light and humidity. Demonstrating is a wonderful way for PhD students to develop skills in teaching and supervision... and you even get paid! Half an hour before the practical was due to start, I was having my morning cup of tea when I thought 'I'll just check my emails...' 
... And there was precisely what you do NOT want to find first thing in the morning! A chain of emails between my supervisors and the growth room technicians, all with 'URGENT' in the title. My growth chamber had completely broken - the temperature system had conked out. So that's why the plants had started to flower! My supervisor was away at a conference so it was up to me to move all my plants into temporary quarters. It was a mad dash to tell the lecturer leading the practical what had happened, then a sprint to the growth rooms to move my plants out. I was just in time - you could feel the heat coming out of the chamber, they were being cooked! With the help of the technicians,  I managed to find some temporary lodgings for them and just made it back in time for the practical. By the time the lunch break came, a new growth cabinet that was currently empty had been found so I went back to move my plants in. I took several thermometers with me and have taped these to the walls - I'm not going to be caught out again!
Fortunately, the practical - despite involving undergraduates, mealworms and beetles- went fairly smoothly with the students not as squeamish as I thought they would be!

Lesson learned - don't trust what computers or people tell you - listen to your plants. They never lie!
The plants never lie... This cabinet is definitely NOT 'winter conditions'!

Happier plants in their new growth cabinet - although the shelves are at a different height than the previous one hence why some are on the floor!

Sunday 12 April 2015

Two pieces of good news...

It's been a good week so far for two reasons. First - my Blog has had over 10,000 views! It has been a much bigger success than I could have hoped for when I started out on my online odyssey. So a big thank you to all of you for reading, commenting and sharing my trials & discoveries! I hope you will come back for more and help me to reach 20,000 views!

Secondly, I have had my first article published by The Conversation, a thriving  online newspaper where articles are submitted by academics and world experts. So how did I manage to smuggle something in?! As in so many things, it all comes down to contacts... A colleague of mine at work, Angie White, recently went down to London to do an internship in the Head Office of The Conversation and mentioned my interest in scientific writing. The editor there suggested that I could do an 'Explainer' article on the parasitic Striga weed. Several emails and a phone call later and here it is! 

It feels brilliant to have found another outlet for my passion and I am already trying to think what else I could write about for them. Stay tuned!

Gatsby Training Weekend 2015 - Last Day but plenty of time to learn ...

Where had the time gone? It seemed too sudden to be waking up on the last morning of the training weekend. Although we had a slightly later start today, some arrived at the first session a little worse for wear...apparently the Cambridge pubs did a good business last night!

The second year PhD students and undergraduates started with 'Communicating your work to the Public', led by invited speaker Harriet Truscott, who works for Science and Plants for Schools ( SAPS). This organisation provides free teaching resources for schools, to improve the quality of plant Sciene education at Primary, Secondary and A Level, besides examples of the latest plant- science research - hopefully these will inspire teachers so that they don't feel the need to 'apologise' to their pupils when plant science comes up on the curriculum! For more information see http://www.saps.org.uk

Harriet introduced us to the latest initiative called 'IntoBiology', an interactive website where students and early career researchers can submit their own podcasts, videos or blog posts to explain an aspect of plant science or their own research. We were encouraged to consider what the key elements of a good story are and to write out our own research int he form of a compelling blog post. For some people, working on very specific aspects of plant-science such as ion channel regulation or lead air spaces, it was a little daunting at first to envision how this would seem important to the wider public. By sharing ideas amongst ourselves, however, we were able to create compelling accounts of each other's work. It reminded me of my Media internship for the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) where I was constantly reminded of the need to capture the audiences' attention, the draw them in to the compelling climax!

After a final chance to sample the herbal tea collection of Jesus College, we all convened for the feedback session. We all agreed it had been a highly valuable and enjoyable week with particularly good choices for speakers in the careers session. It looks as though we will be visiting the Cambridge Botanical Garden next year, a place I would certainly like to see again.

 Then, the final flurry of activity as people collected cases, exchanged quick farewells then departed to their various institutes. It's always a bane to leave the 'Gatsby Crowd' but I inevitably carry away much with me; encouragement and support, visions for my future and practical ideas for my next experiments. 'Thank You' doesn't seem enough but I'll say it anyway: Thank You Gatsby for another brilliant weekend!

Saturday 11 April 2015

Gatsby Training Weekend Saturday afternoon - Ghosts, ghouls and aPROPER Field Trip!

The afternoon session was an appropriate one for me : 'Managing your Research'. All too often my head is whirling like a tumble drier as I desperately try to keep track of what I feel I should be doing - planning experiments, cleaning dirty rhizotrons, reading the latest literature, writing up my methods, starting my thesis...I particularly struggle with knowing how to store papers I have read and to make a system for keeping notes on them all. The best practical advice I got this afternoon was to use Mendeley - apparently a brilliant software to help researchers keep their banks of papers and literature in order. I'll let you know how I get on with it! We were also encouraged to start writing NOW and to do it regularly - even though the thesis submission may still be a long way off for us, Liam Dolan remarked that writing regularly helps to keep you fit, so that when the pressure comes, you can fly with it. 'No one thinks of running a marathon without doing any training' he told us 'but plenty of PhD students think they can write a thesis without doing any other writing during their PhD!' Other advice included using RS Feeds to give alerts when any relevant new paper comes out and setting self- imposed deadlines for tasks that may not get done otherwise...although it takes discipline to say 'Beyond this point I will NOT work on this any longer!' Apparently the most effective way is to work on trains, when you know you will have to get off at a certain time...
Off to Innovation Farm!

After such an intense morning, we were ready for a change of scene and eagerly boarded the coach for our 'Field Trip' to the Innovation Farm at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB). I was particularly looking forward to this as I did an eight week research placement at NIAB in 2012, when they were just setting up the Innovation Farm. NIAB, now an independent charitable company rather than a National Institue, was set up in 1919, at a time when food security was top of the agenda, in order to 'help farmers and fruit producers to be sure of their produce'. As Lydia Smith, director of Innovation Farm, explained, the naming of different varieties was 'in a hopeless mess' in those days and there was no systematic approach for testing and approving different crop cultivars. Hence NIAB was set up to address this, and now tests all the major crops, such as wheat, barley and potatoes, besides ornamental plants. Only when a variety has been tested by NIAB can it be marketed to UK farmers and, if particularly desirable, added to recommended lists. As a result, many of your supermarket staples will once have passed through the NIAB Fields!

Lydia met us at the very swish conference centre, built to the highest EU-level Eco-credentials, complete with a 'living roof' of Sedum. Despite having just had lunch, the group put a big dent in the array of pastries laid out on our arrival! Lydia then gave us an introduction to NIAB's work and some of the research they do alongside testing varieties sent from other plant breeders. She gave us the example of Buglossoides, a genus of herb like plants from the same family as to Viper's Bugloss, and which has high levels of Omega-3 and-6 fatty acids - feted for their health benefits for cardiovascular health. Almost a decade ago, it was decided to breed a high Omega 3/6 Buglossoides cultivar as a sustainable alternative to oily fish, the usual source of these compounds. 175 different lines were collected and planted out in field trials. Everything was going 'swimmingly' until disaster struck in 2007. The most promising line they had identified had an inbuilt dormancy mechanism and couldn't germinate unless the seeds had been exposed to 'winter' conditions. As a result, it was unmarketable - what farmer would want the added complication of storing seeds in set and cold conditions, which would probably make them go mouldy before he could plant them? So the search was widened across Europe until, at long last, a 'spring' cultivar was found. Breeding the spring variety with the high Omega 3/6 cultivar gave the result they had been working for. But you won't find 'Buglossoides' on the shelves - apparently the industrial sponsor didn't like the name and rebranded it as the 'Ahi-Flower', with 'ahi' meaning 'tuna fish' in Swahili! Meanwhile, the pioneering research continues...apparently one of the latest projects involves using compounds from daffodils to treat Alzheimer's....
The NIAB Conference Centre with it's living Sedum Roof

Lydia decided that we had sat still for long enough so we headed out to the giant greenhouses, which made my growth cabinets in Sheffield seem minuscule by comparison! The first was filled with an astonishing variety of ornamentals - roses, Delphiniums, Chrysantheums...it certainly made for a colourful display. Then onto the wheat glasshouses, of which I had happy memories! 
Modern wheat varieties are 'hexaploid' , meaning that they have six copies of each chromosome, instead of two. This is the result of two hybridisation events that occurred by chance in the ancestors of Modern wheat. The first was between two diploid wheats, Einkorn ( the 'grandfather of all wheat') and an unknown ancestor, to make a tetraploid with four copies of each chromosome - called Emmer Wheat. Later, this hybridised with diploid Goats Grass to make the modern wheat varieties.

Give the challenges that future crops face - pests, diseases, climate change, water scarcity, etc - we need all the genetic diversity we can get. Hence, some of NIAB's most interesting work has been to create new lines of 'synthetic wheat' by recreating the last hybridisation step using a large variety of different Lines of Goats Grass. I should point out that this is NOT a example of GMtechnology as it is recreating a natural event, however this has helped to widen the genetic pool that farmers can use to breed from. We were able to see this for ourselves, comparing the weedy Goats Grass, with its more 'meaty looking'hexaploid offspring! Curiously, this work is being coordinated by Professor Andrew Greenland, who supervised me for my own research placement at NIAB.
Goats Grass on the left and some of its mightier hexaploid offspring on the right!

We were also introduced to a personal favourite of Lydia's, called Sainfoin. This traditional fodder legume had declined in popularity during the 1950s as it didn't respond particularly well to fertiliser inputs. However, it has received a resurgence of interest lately due to its antibloat and antihelmenthic (i.e. It protects against parasitic worms) properties caused by compounds called tannins. Normally, these chemicals repel herbivores,but those in Sainfoin have an especially high molecular weight, causing them to have different effects. Their roots can also grow incredibly deep to reach water - which Lydia showed us by way of the largest rhizotron I have ever seen, one which made my tiny ones for Arabidopsis look like a postage stamp!

Then to the fields themselves...although there wasn't a great deal to see as most of the plants weren't flowering yet, we had a good wander around the neat plots, resplendent in the late sunshine. Lydia pointed out some of the other crops receiving high interest at the moment including Napweed, a favourite food of pollinators that flowers during the 'hungry gap' in late summer and also some particular Grass species, whose high sugar content apparently makes them easier to digest by ruminants. Some of the more daring ( and hungry!) members of the group tested this for themselves!

It was humbling to be reminded of the years of work and all the factors that are considered before a crop is bought to market - soil quality, pest resistance, flowering time, ease of harvest... How fortunate we are that the hardest decision most of us have is how to cook the crops we buy! And yet, although this work is so clearly important, Lydia starkly warned that 'The number of plant breeders is minuscule and dropping'. So - who knows?- perhaps I will come back to NIAB one day to work in the greenhouses once more...
Lydia Smith, director of NIAB Innovation Farm, shows us the impressive SainFoin Rhizotron

The fresh air had given us quite an appetite again, just in time for the evening meal. The starter tonight was feta, watermelon and toasted pumpkin seeds followed by corn fed chicken and some more of the abundant asparagus! To complement the sunshine, the pudding was Summer Eton Mess, although this had such a paucity of meringue and fruit, it was really just intensely-flavoured cream...still nice though!

The evening wasn't quite over yet as we were rounded up by natural showman David Hanke for the long- awaited 'Ghost Tour' of Jesus College ( specially requested in the feedback session at last year's weekend after David unwittingly let slip that he knew lots of ghoulish stories about the college...). The tone was a little more raucous than appropriate however, as several of the group had bought the remaining wine bottles from the dinner with them! Nevertheless, the scattered lights and shadowy corners set a spooky atmosphere as we trooped around, stopping to hear the enthralling tales of the seven resident ghosts. Perhaps the most macabre was that of 'The Everlasting Club', a group of seven 'Hellraisers' who made a pact to meet at the college every Halloween for a meal whilst any one of them was still alive. Over the years, various members began to pass on until eventually only one of the group remained. Come Halloween night, he ordered a meal for seven to be set out in the room and went up the stairs to take his place at the table... That night the porters heard ' a terrible racket' and when they ventured in the following morning, the crockery and cutlery was smashed and dashed to pieces and the one remaining member of the club lay there dead....another favourite story was the staircase rumoured to be so haunted that they college authorities had it bricked it up and gave the crypt to David for his office!

It was more than enough for me for one night but most of the group hadn't really started their evening yet, and went on into town whilst I headed to bed, fortunately for a deep sleep unplauged by not-so-departed souls...

Memorable Quotes: 

'And if you see a black cat round here, then it's either a black cat or the ghost of Thomas Allen!'

'Now come on people, a Ghost Tour is a really serious matter...you're all too drunk to take it in!'

Gatsby Training Weekend 2015 - Saturday Morning - Posters, Careers and How to be a Chair

'You don't NEED two hands to hold a laser pointer of course, but it does mean that if anyone tries to take it off you, they've got a fight on their hands!'

Just one of the many pearls of wisdom we received from Plant Geneticist and Gatsby Adviser David Hanke during the first session on Saturday morning. During this, we were shown a carefully selected suite of video footage from student presentations of previous years. David is particularly good at picking up on the more subtle ingredients that go into making a talk - eye contact, gestures, body stance- although he has plenty to say on slide design as well! Year on year, his sessions feel like a masterclass in public speaking. In the second session of the morning, 'How to be a Chair', he opened our eyes to the full range of responsibilities that come with this role - something which I have never been asked to do so far! I was intrigued to learn that the speaker should NEVER invite questions themselves but that this is the prerogative of the Chair. Mind you, I did attend a session at a conference once where the talks by the panel of speakers we're so unrelated that the Chair, instead of asking the audience for their questions, moved everyone straight to the bar for refreshments! I wonder if I will ever be in the position to make that call...
Punts on the River Cam in Cambridge

Afterwards we split up and the second year PhD students were with Gatsby adviser Nick Talbot for a session in Poster Design. At scientific conferences, poster sessions give students who have not been invited to give a talk a chance to present their work to others. Ideally, the poster should act as an 'advertisement' for your work, and be eye catching enough to draw interest out of a display of potentially hundreds. It is always worth making an effort on these; besides the chance to win the prize for best poster, you never know who might be looking round for their next post-doc to hire....
Some of us had bought posters and we had fun pretending to be at a conference venue and giving each other a hard time! Nick had also bought along some of his favourite examples of good and bad posters.. Some were so awful they apparently never made it to their intended conference! 

After a break to critique the pastries of Jesus College, we welcomed our invited speakers for the careers sessions. I was particularly keen to meet David Priest as I had long heard about his work developing sustainable agricultural practices for farmers in developing countries. Early on during his PhD, he realised that a career at the lab bench was not for him and so he began to look into other options. He was inspired to seek a livelihood that would benefit others but recognised that he lacked experience in this area, particularly working with farmers themselves. Hence, he took on a variety of different roles - including working with tea plantations and running a banana enterprise - before acquiring his current role at FIPs Africa, a not-for-profit company that works with farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. We were given plenty of opportunities to ask questions and David was frank about the realities of pursuing such a career. For instance, it can take a very long time to reach your 'dream job', and it is usual to take several other roles first with little or no pay. Furthermore, whilst knowledge of plant science is highly useful, there are many other skills that are crucial to such roles, including enterprise, languages, communication and simply being able to get on with people. 
Having fun in the poster session 

On a completely different note, Chris Surridge then gave us his account of a career spent in Scientific Publishing. He started by giving us 'the best interview tip ever...DON'T want the job!' When Chris originally applied to,an advertisement for an editor to,launch a new journal, Nature Structural Biology, he was looking for a new position for when his post-doc ran out. However, by the time the interview came round, his contract had been renewed and the pressure was off! But he went to the interview anyway, not caring about the outcome, and was offered the job. In the end, he took place at Nature 'because it meant I didn't have to move house... I am lazy!'
It seems perhaps an unlikely place for a biophysicist graduate to end up, and the job came with its own set of challenges: 'Looking back, there was NO WAY we could have launched a journal then' Chris said 'but it is still going so apparently we did'. Chris went on to work in various roles within Nature, including editor of the Brief Communications section and as web editor before moving to help set up the Open-Access journal PLoS ONE. 'One of the worst parts of my job at Nature was having to reject people's papers' he explained 'so I set up PLoS ONE so I could publish everybody's paper!'. His current role, however, is with Nature Plants, a journal I am sure many of his audience would aspire to publish in! During the questions, we grilled Chris on what he looks for in a paper and how the peer review system works. According to Chris,the most important features of a paper are that it is interesting, and addresses a problem that hasn't been thought of or considered before.  As for peer review, 'it's not a perfect system, but it's the best we have'. Ideally, a reviewer should have extensive background knowledge of the topic, be familiar with the experimental method used in the paper, be in no way biased ( as far as possible) and, perhaps most importantly, should help the editor to reach a decision as to whether to accept or reject a paper. Chris described how he envisaged that peer review would be a much more collaborative process in the future, done through online forums or conference calls. This could avoid the problem of editors having to make tough decisions when referees disagree with each other, and potentially speed up the process of getting a paper published! Many things to bear in mind should the day come when I am knocking on the doors of those exclusive journals...

The two very different career profiles had given us much food for thought...speaking of which, after such an intense morning, it was definitely lunch time!

Friday 10 April 2015

Gatsby Training Weekend 2015 - Day 1 Friday 10th April

Is it always sunny in Cambridge? Or was the weather just matching my mood as the train sped me southwards for the annual Gatsby Plants Training Weekend. I was looking forward to catching up with my fellow students in this network, which was originally founded to encourage young researchers to enter a career in the plant sciences. Each year, the undergraduates and PhD students of the Gatsby Plant Network are invited to Jesus College in Cambridge for a weekend of career development and training activities. I knew from last year that this wasn't going to be a holiday - they really know how to pack a lot into two days!

After a welcome cup of tea on arrival, the programme got underway with the first item being the student presentations. We each had to prepare a PowerPoint presentation, 8 minutes long with 4 minutes for questioning. These days, being able to give a presentation is just as important a skill for biologists as handling a pipette - more so for some! Usually, the talks are given alphabetically by speakers, so I am the last to go, but this year the organisers had decided to mix things up a little and I was first. This was probably a good thing as my nerves had less opportunity to build up into a panic... Although public speaking is something I do get nervous about, I welcomed this valuable practice to present before such a supportive audience. But knowing these talks are recorded for David Hanke's video archive of student presentations adds a certain aspect of pressure! You never know when he will dig out some footage of you to critique during his 'How ( not to ) give a Talk' sessions!

I had braced myself for a slew of technical questions but fortunately, many people seemed curious about my rhizotron system for growing plants so I was able to go into quite a bit of detail about this. I forget that they are quite unusual! Amongst the other talks, I was intrigued by Jakob Assman's presentation describing his project on Phytophra austrocedri, an oomycete pathogen that is a scourge of cypresses in Argentina and is now starting to attack junipers in the UK. But would this worry people as much if it didn't threaten the gin industry?!
The beautiful grounds of Jesus College , Cambridge

The talks over, we could then relax as our 'Before-Dinner Speaker' Deborah Charlesworth took to the lecturn ( we had voted for a before-dinner, rather than after- dinner speaker at the end of last year's weekend - it was generally agreed that it is more difficult to concentrate after copious amounts of fine wine and food had been consumed...). In her talk 'The Role of Science in Society' , Deborah described how too strict a focus on applied results can suffocate the love that draws researchers to their chosen field in the first place. Her career itself is a fitting illustration of a livelihood forged by following one's curiosity. Although perhaps best known for her work investigating plant sex chromosomes, Deborah 'came to plants in a very roundabout way'. Indeed, she originally graduated in Biochemistry and had hated drawing floral diagrams at school. But she was drawn into biology when she moved to a new area with her husband and 'started helping out in a laboratory because I was sitting in the flat, bored'. Here, she was investigating the genetics in Papilio butterflies that allows them to mimic the appearance of distasteful species. Although several physical changes - such as colour and wing shape - are required for each case of mimicry, the data suggested that these are brought about by a single set of linked genes, rather than multiple genes scattered throughout the chromosomes. This seemed improbable because, during cell division to produce new eggs/ sperm, the chromosomes undergo rearrangements ( meiotic recombination) that can split up closely situated genes. For the butterflies, this recombination would break up the mimicry phenotype. However, Deborah was able to help show that certain 'modifier' genes were acting on the DNA to suppress recombination events and keep the phenotype intact. Building on this work, she then went on to investigate plant sex chromosomes. Although the majority of plants are 'dioecious' ( meaning that they have both male and female parts), a handful are 'monoecious' - they have single sexed individuals- and these include kiwi, papaya, hops and asparagus. It is now thought that similar 'modifier genes' prevent recombination events in these plants that would disrupt the male and female phenotypes. 

Relating back to the title,of the talk, Deborah made the point that, just as she 'fell into' a career in plant science research quite by accident, sometimes scientists should be given the space to simply follow their own curiosity. Quoting Ogden Nash, she remarked 'Progress was a good idea once, but perhaps it has gone on too long'. These days, it can feel that we are 'being administered by the administrators of science'. But politicians and policy makers can be so focused on 'gathering facts' that they forget that there is 'a very intimate connection between pure and applied science'. Rather than being in a rush for results, we should value 'slow science'. In Deborah's view, cutting off pure research is akin to killing the goose that lays the golden eggs as it effectively cuts off the root that leads to beneficial applications. Furthermore, she argued that 'taxpayers themselves aren't just focused on results - they DO love flowers...and animals, plants, natural history...' After all, these are some of the most popular subjects for TV programmes! Scientists themselves have to have a love for their work and chosen organisms to study - it would be impossible otherwise to survive the ardour of a PhD or the multiple demands of being a Lab Group Leader...

Perhaps in the future we could try to strike a balance somewhere? Applied science may always be the key attraction for industry and funding bodies but maybe we can start to find room for a little more...love...in our science? 

Plenty of food for thought as we adjourned to the Upper Hall for our formal dinner. Tonight we enjoyed Asparagus soup with walnut oil followed by a pillow- sized breast of duck accompanied with yet more asparagus ( was there a glut in the Jesus College allotments?) and a mini gauge tower of potatoes. Many agreed that the pudding was the most impressive in appearance (see below), although, in my experience, a mouse should be more,like foam and less like rubber in consistency...at least it gave something for the pineapple tuile to,dig into! At this point, I was quite ready for bed so cannot regale you with merry stories from the vaults of Cambridge's' finest pubs....Goodnight!
Passion Fruit 'Mousse' with PiƱa Calada Sorbet and Pineapple Tuile

Quote of the day: From a student given just two minutes notice that he would be introducing Deborah Charlesworth: 'Deborah Charlesworth...yeah...she's a giant...'

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Trying times

'These tubes WILL drive you mad!' My second supervisor laughed as I failed, yet again, to roll the flimsy plastic into a tube. And why was I attempting to wrap cellophane around my Arabidopsis plants, turning them into a mad parody of a ornamental carnation for a florist? The answer : it is, apparently, the easiest way to collect seed from a flowering Arabidopsis to stop it getting mixed up with that of others.

I am nearly ready to use my interesting defence-signalling mutants for my first infection assay with the parasitic weed Striga gesnerioides. These could provide a clue as to what defence pathways in the host plant's immune system have a role to play in a resistant interaction. But first, I have to bulk up the seed for each mutant line, so that - if I find anything interesting- I can put on a very big experiment to collect some concrete data. But as these mutant lines each have different genes knocked out, it is ESSENTIAL that I keep the seed separate and carefully labelled so I know what is what! Hence the tubes: these should keep the flowers separate, preventing cross- pollination, and the seed should fall into the plastic bases where I can collect it later.

That is the idea anyway.

I don't think I can count on being a florist if the PhD doesn't work out, as it takes me an age to wrap and set up all my tubes. It sums up the general way of my work at the moment, with quite a few frustrations. After Striga failed to infect my first tobacco plants, I have the second attempt now underway: hopefully the combination of using a sandier soil mixture, a cooler growth chamber and more nutrient solution will do the trick this time. I have also swapped over my growth chambers this week, switching the long day ( 16 hours of 'daylight') to short day ( 9 hours of light) and vice versa, to give me more space for my infected rhizotron systems. So that was a stressful day heaving all my plants about! At least the cabinets are on the same floor! 

Today we had our first lab meeting for a while which resulted in more work for me, and all of us in the lab. The potting area in the annexe, where we keep our plants, is in disarray and we have all been told to keep on top of it and make sure it is tidy. We all received an email saying that 'an improtant guest' is coming to look round next week , so that will give an incentive! Our supervisor has also decided we need a rota to clean the big growth chambers full of the rice, maize, tomato, etc that the rest of the lab work on. Fortunately, as I don't really use these chambers, I haven't been out on the rota but instead I need to keep my two growth cabinets clean. Which is very tricky when the non- adjustable shelves have a good gap between them where the dust and dirt catches! I am thinking of investing in a little vacuum cleaner... But it is all part of the usual problem solving that being a researcher is all about.