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 11 April 2015

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!

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