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!

Wednesday 27 May 2015

Crushed hope...

Those of you who have been following the saga of my attempts to bulk my rapidly dwindling supplies of seed of the parasitic plant Striga gesnerioides would have shared my delight when it appeared that my tobacco hosts had been successfully infected ( see last blog post ). However, in a cruel twist of déjà vu, the emerged parasite shoots have turned black, withered and shrivelled to almost nothing...just as they did before. Failed again.

It just goes to show how much of research is pure guesswork. After my first attempt was unsuccessful, my supervisor and I decided that the conditions in the climate chamber had been too hot, practically cooking both the tobacco and the Striga parasites. Convinced that this was the main reason for failure, I was buoyened with optimism as I prepared Round Two, in the cooler controlled environment cabinet. But clearly the heat wasn't the issue after all. My supervisor now believes that the cultivar of tobacco we have - which we thought was a Striga susceptible 'Samsun' variety- isn't actually Samsun after all, but a resistant genotype (which wouldn't be too surprising as Striga gesnerioides normally parasitises cowpea, a different host completely). In order to check this, I am preparing some tobacco seedlings to grow in rhizotrons ( root observation chambers) where I can infect them with Striga myself by painting on the seeds with a paintbrush. If the parasite attaches , then we will know that the tobacco can be infected after all. If not...then it will be back to the drawing board. 

It is a great worry as my seed stock is getting lower and lower and this makes me hesitate to set up more experiments. If ONLY I had a whole vial of seed, enough to see me to the end of my PhD, then I wouldn't have to worry and could just plough ahead with as many experiments as I could manage... Having said that though, even if I did have gazillions of Striga seed, I would doubtlessly find something else to worry about in my research! 

PS I have also been blogging for the University of Sheffield's Science in Policy Group. To read my summary of our latest seminar - Dr Aaron Thierry on why climate scientists should advocate for action against climate change - click here! http://www.sheffieldscienceinpolicy.com/blog 

A very dead looking parasite shoot

Wednesday 20 May 2015

My Brilliant 'Bonsai' Tobacco!

I must admit, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to my supervisor's plan for my second attempt to bulk up the seeds of my model parasitic plant - Striga gesnerioides - using a susceptible tobacco host. In my first go, the tobacco were grown in the controlled environment rooms, where the climate is set to resemble the tropics. They thrived under such treatment and grew to nearly six foot, but sadly, the parasites failed to survive long enough to flower and set seed. My supervisor declared that it had probably been just a bit too hot in there, so this time I was to grow them in my growth cabinet, where I could keep the temperature much cooler.

Sounds great!

But one problem...

My growth cabinet is...well...not very big. Positively TINY in fact, if you are trying to squash in six foot tobacco. 

My first tobacco plants, in the controlled environment rooms.

But, I was assured the plan would work - 'We've done it before, years ago!'- so germinated several seeds and selected four healthy seedlings to transplant into big, Striga-infested pots. And I waited and watered them and watched nervously as they rapidly stretched towards the ceiling. 

Then - stop! The tobacco plants abruptly stopped growing and burst into flower. In plants, flowering is a key 'decision point' and marks a transition from vegetative to reproductive growth. So they are not going to get any bigger. ( Although some plants produce inflorescences on the side of their stems, each flower head is considered as a separate stem - once the meristem produces a flower, it will no longer grow taller). I was amazed! It was as if they simply knew that they were in a smaller cabinet this time. Plant intuition?

When I asked my supervisor, she explained it all with a single word: 'Light!' I should have known - only last week, I was helping to demonstrate on an undergraduate practical investigating how light conditions during development affect the growth of pea plants. But I hadn't appreciated HOW different the light intensity was - only a sixth of the level which the first tobacco plants experienced. It made me wonder - when we admire the twisted and tortured shapes of mature trees, and wonder at the conditions which caused them to assume such shapes, what part did light have to play? Needless to say, I was very glad that I didn't have monster tobacco plants bursting out of my cabinet...

One of my new 'mini-tobacco' plants, next to my growth cabinet

And it seems, small IS beautiful...for my parasites at least. A single Striga shoot has erupted in one of the pots. I could believe it when my supervisor gave me the news as I had only checked them myself three hours before. It's a shame I didn't leave a camera running as it must have been a dramatic breakthrough! I can only hope it is the first of many. Fingers crossed!
I hope there will be lots more - the first Striga gesnerioides shoot to emerge.

PS I have been doing some writing for the Univeristy of Sheffield's Science in Policy Group's blog - click here to see my review of a talk by Dr Simon Wilcock on how data on ecosystem services should be used to influence policy

Friday 15 May 2015

A visit from a "Great Thinker" - Professor Ottoline Leyser, WorldExpert in Plant Development

Last week marked a happy event for me – the first “seminar” I have officially co-organised! Having recently been invited to join the committee of the University of Sheffield’s very own Science in Policy group, it was wonderful to make myself useful when Professor Ottoline Leyser – a renown researcher on plant development who has also acted as a government advisor on topics including GM crops – came to Sheffield as the speaker for the prestigious Margaret Savigear. As I know Ottoline well from the Gatsby Plants network, she kindly agreed to my request to host a “bonus” session to discuss her work with policy makers. Hence, the session “A conversation with Ottoline Leyser How should science inform policy?was born!

It would take almost a thesis to describe all of Ottoline’s positions and achievements. Suffice to say, she is busy enough to require a personal assistant! Besides contributing standout research about the mechanisms of branching in plants to the scientific community, she is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences and editor of two journals. In addition, she has an active role in science policy and communication, with her articles for the online scientific newspaper The Conversation being some of the most read on the site. For a fuller background, see http://www.slcu.cam.ac.uk/directory/leyser-ottoline.

Although all of these facets of her career would make for a thrilling session, it was Ottoline’s work with policy makers that particularly interested us. She began by describing her work with the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge, which works to “make a more porous interface between science and civil servants”. For the last six years, she has also served on the Nuffield Council of Bioethics, “a very interesting body that looks at the policies that drive behaviour in scientific research, for instance, the huge rush into biofuel research that meant the right paths weren't always chosen'.  She is also active in the Royal Society's Science Policy Centre, whose work encompasses “a huge portfolio of projects”, including comprehensive reports on topical issues. Although the Centre works closely with the Government, often reacting to Government calls for information, Ottoline stresses that “the independence of the Royal Society is crucial to deliver in this space. This doesn't mean not taking input from the Government to what we should do - if this work can be useful - as long as what we say is independent”.

The audience were especially keen to hear of Ottoline's experiences serving on Parliamentary Select Committees, particularly one on the topic of Genetically Modified crops. “It's quite intimidating as it is set up as a jury with a horseshoe of MPs in front of you but once it gets going, you're just doing your job”. And is there likely to be a change in the near future regarding the Government's current reluctance to engage in GM technology?  
“There might be. The Select Committee was quite supportive of a shift toward a new approach, and on top of that, many policy makers do not want to be seen to be dictated to by Europe.”

When asked if she found it frustrating that scientific research doesn't always drive policy, Ottoline was frankly realistic. “Science is only one line of evidence in evidence-based policy and it is completely legitimate that other factors drive policy. This includes political expediency - what actions would be good for poll ratings? But it IS frustrating when scientific evidence is abused to support certain policies. Complete transparency should be the basis of a policy, not 'fudging' to make all the evidence say the same thing”.

The discussion moved on to how science could be better communicated to the public - should jargon be jettisoned to make science more accessible? “There is too much emphasis that science is complicated and difficult. We need to deconstruct the idea that science is really hard and most people can't understand it and that scientists are 'special' people. I have a big problem with TV coverage of science - it is very dumbed down and increases the anxiety people have that science is really hard. Perhaps we need something more like The Great British Bake Off where random members of the public come in and do experiments?” After all, argues Ottoline, everybody performs science every day, whether they realise it or not. She gave the example of choosing the best route to get to work depending on whether it was raining, you had to visit the shops, if you had a lot to carry, etc. “Somehow we have built a system where science is done by boffins” she said. "The answer is not to dumb down but to bring people in".

Professor Ottoline Leyser
Does the problem stem from the education system? "I have a big problem with how science is taught in schools" she said. "There is even a separate part of the curriculum called 'How science is done' - this should be integrated with the rest. Most of it is taught as a set of facts you have to memorise, but there is no such thing as a scientific fact. Data is data and forms the facts, science is the interpretation of it and that can change." It can be very tempting to simply blame the teachers but according to Ottoline "many teachers would love to do a better job but they are constrained by a focus too much on grades and not on a broader education".

With that in mind, she encouraged the audience to get involved in public outreach and policy activities.  Apparently select committees are very keen for more early career researchers to respond to calls for evidence, especially as they tend to be more passionate and have less demands on their time than their supervisors!  However, she urged us to consider the viewpoint of the public before simply wading in with our facts and knowledge. "One of the things that messes up science in policy is not understanding how people think" she argues. For instance, researchers would make more progress in allaying the public's fears about GM crops if they understood why exactly people are anxious about the technology." Ironically, most people usually want things to be better, they just have different ideas on how to get there”.

My hand fairly ached afterwards with all the frantic scribbling I made of her advice and thoughts. It was certainly a privilege to hear the views of a truly “great thinker” and has set a benchmark for any session I help organise in the future! Now…I wonder who else is in my address book?


Saturday 9 May 2015

Tips from the Top - How to make it as a Research Fellow!

This week, I was privileged to hear some words of wisdom from a researcher who had 'made it' up the greasy pole of Academia when I attended a seminar given by Dr Katie Field, research fellow in plant-fungal relationships at the University of Sheffield's Animal and Plant Science Department.

Katie's opening words, however, were not very optimistic: "My career has been one of blood, sweat and tears". Curiously, both Katie and I completed our degrees at Durham University, however Katie graduated in Plant Science , a course sadly no longer offered by the time I enrolled there. From here, Katie ended up doing a PhD almost by accident as her heart was originally set on doing a Master's course in Tropical Agriculture ( mainly for the field course abroad!). However, one of her late PhD applications went through to the interview stage and she "went along for the experience". As a result, she decided to undertake a doctorate at The University of Sheffield instead. Speaking from personal experience, I know how an invitation to visit the Animal and Plant Science Department at Sheffield can be life changing!

During her PhD, Katie clearly made the most of every opportunity to widen her contacts and broaden her experiences. For every student in the audience considering a career in academia, her advice was stark: "It's not enough to be good and work hard, you have to talk to people and do other things", whether this be demonstrating on undergraduate practicals, serving on departmental committees, organising seminars or even hosting a quiz for new PhD students. She also urged the audience to make the most of any grants available to give another dimension to a PhD project. For herself, this involved travelling to Australia to work for four months as part of a University of Sheffield Excellence Exchange scheme. Adding value to your CV is imperative for anyone considering a career in academia, particularly now every PostDoc position typically attracts around 30 equally qualified applicants. Even Katie, who managed to publish three papers (!) as part of her PhD describes herself as "not extraordinary" and struggled at first to secure a PostDoc position. Fortunately, she eventually succeeded and took up a position ( again at The University of Sheffield) researching the role mycorrhizal fungi played in helping plants to colonise the earth. "Postdocs are good fun - hard to get but really nice" she enthused. "You don't have to write a thesis and have more freedom to research what you want". But if getting a PhD is tough , and a PostDoc even tougher, then the next stage - a Fellowship - is "incredibly, incredibly difficult. The competition is so intense as a Fellowship can unlock the 'Holy Grail' of a permanent position". The application process is an order of magnitude more difficult, involving days of interviews for each post. As one who has succeeded in this area, however, (including a University of Sheffield Patrick Packington Fellowship,and a Leeds University 5 year Fellowship), Katie had five key tips to those hoping to break through:

1. Work REALLY REALLY hard ( but even that is not enough!)
2. Talk to people. Be collegiate and network, especially at conferences. Get involved with activities and committees in your Department
3. Prepare to be flexible. You may have to move, change your interests of field of study or even consider alternative careers.
4. Publish, publish, publish. Papers are currency. If you haven't got enough, it doesn't matter how good you are, you won't even get a look in.
5. Hang on in here. You WILL get rejected, it WON'T be fair, you WILL cry. Grow a thick skin and don't take things personally. It's not how long your fingernails are that matters, but how deep you dig them in!

A lot for me to consider when I come to planning my next stage of experiments.... And more pressure to work even harder! But even then, will it ever be enough if I do decide to try to make it as a researcher?

Saturday 2 May 2015

Time to breathe...

This week has been a little more restful compared to the last but busy nevertheless! My growth cabinet is still broken but my plants seemed to have settled into their new home, cabinet 602, and, much to my relief, they have stopped trying to flower. This means that the cabinet settings - for short days and a colder temperature to simulate winter - are correct and my latest experiments have a chance of working!
It did make me think, however, that ( when the cabinets are behaving) my plants do have a very boring life...no sweet showers of spring rain, no spontaneous breeze to stir their leaves, no patches of shade cast by passing clouds..instead, everything controlled, fixed and the same day after day. But if they have water, nutrients, light - all that they need to survive - could they really 'want' anything else? I guess the ones I infect with Striga can't be too chuffed about that though...

Speaking of which, one of my latest experiments involves taking a 'time course' of the infection process to work out at which point the parasite successfully gains entry to the host root. This has been well documented for the parasite Striga hermonthica but not Striga gesnerioides, the species I work on and which seems to act more slowly. So every two days I have been cutting off root sections from my latest batch of infected plants and using them to prepare samples to view under the microscope later. I have so many samples now that I have had to give them all an ID and put their details into a spreadsheet so I can keep track of what time point they represent. It will take me a while to work through them all and slice them up thinly enough to examine under the microscope but hopefully I can take some good images from them to illustrate my thesis...exciting idea!

Every tube represents a sample... And I still have many more to collect!

I did manage to escape the lab for an afternoon though by heading over to a local secondary school, Westfield School, to give a presentation on 'Parasites'. This was part of the Univeristy 'Kreb's Fest', a celebratory event to be held next October to which several  participating schools have been invited. The idea is to send young researchers to each school to present a scientific topic on the theme of 'Hidden Worlds'. The pupils, inspired by the talks, then work with an artist to produce a video to be shown at the Krebs Fest. My talk was on 'The Hidden Wirkd of Parasites' and I was lucky to have been able to team up with Carly, another PhD student in the department who works on parasitic worms that infect elephants. It was heartening to meet young pupils already so interested in science and they seemed just as curious to know what being a PhD researcher is like, as they did about the parasites. On reflection, however, I don't think I had much idea at that age of how one trained to be a scientist - the gap between going to university and becoming a 'doctor' seemed very murky indeed... I had bought along some of my rhizotrons so the students could open them up to see the Striga parasite but we decided it wouldn't be very hygienic to open Carly's box of elephant poo! I'm looking forward to seeing the ideas they come up with for their video.

I have also been trying my hand at growing something new for a change... Parsley! Having signed up to Sheffield University's recent 'Big Herb Giveaway', I was able to collect some seeds and compost for free. I wasn't very confident as, outside of my growth cabinets I don't have very 'green fingers', but I found a nice sunny spot in the kitchen much to my surprise, they germinated! Given that I love fish so much, I am hoping they will develop into healthy, bushy adult plants which u can use to supplement my dinners!
Growing something new...

That's all for now - hope you have a great a Bank Holiday weekend. As for me, I will be in the lab most of Monday, infecting the next lot of unwilling Arabidopsis hosts...