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 25 July 2015

Time to consider the world beneath our feet...

Although I am a plant scientist, I rarely get to work with proper soil (my Arabidopsis seedlings are all grown on an artificial medium called vermiculite which looks a bit like muesli). But given that soil is so critical for growing crops - and thus underpins the base of all our food chains - it is something we should all take make seriously. To address my general ignorance, last week I went along to 'Building UK Soils - Political and Practical Opportunities', a seminar organised by the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures.
One of the Soil Association's roles is certifying farms that meet organic status, such as this one, West Town Organic ( photo - The Soil Association) 
Both of the invited speakers worked for the Soil Association, a charity formed in 1946 with the aim of 'demonstrating and promoting the link between healthy soils, healthy plants and healthy people'. You may have come across their logo during your weekly shop as they operate the British Organic certification scheme. Head of Horticulture Ben Raskin immediately debunked the popular misconception that soil is dull, inert and uninteresting by sharing some impressive statistics. For instance, it is thought that there are more organisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the planet - including Rotifers, tardigrades, mites, nematodes, Protozoa and around 4,000 million bacteria. So it's not just about worms and spiders! With all this diversity, it is not surprising that soils can vary considerably between regions, especially as they are also shaped by environmental factors such as pH, climate and water availability. All this, of course, has a direct impact on the crops growing on the surface. For example, the availability of essential nutrients for plant growth is highly sensitive to the pH of the soil. Over recent years however, it seems that farmers are attaching less and less importance to basic 'soil husbandry'  and are being increasingly 'disconnected' from the landscape. As agriculture becomes more industrialised and mechanised, farmers spend very little time actually handling the earth their livelihoods depend on. "Everything we do has an impact and that has to be considered when building a long term system" said Ben. But this is rarely considered - for instance, when farmers spray their ploughs with fungicides, this ultimately kills many of the beneficial fungi strains within the soil. According to Ben, these problems are aggravated by the trend towards short tenancy arrangements - a far cry from the days when farms were handed down between the generations. As a result, farmers are focused on "getting their crops in the ground, harvesting them and then getting out" - with little thought for the state they leave the soil in for the next occupant. 
Could ancient grazing methods save our soil for the future? ( Photo - The Soil Association) 

But there are some very creative ideas out there to help reverse this damage, including agroforestry, where introducing trees onto farmland can protect the soil and improve fertility. Another strategy, particularly for dairy farms, is 'mob grazing'. In this practice, rather than letting farm animals wander freely over the field, the animals are kept in fenced off blocks to completely graze one area before being moved to another. According to Ben "This is more similar to when herbivores roamed the land in ancient times, grazing one area before moving on and not coming back". However, more work is needed to translate these ideas into common practice. "University researchers are doing wonderful projects but they don't get anywhere - we need farmers and researchers to work together" Ben said. As part of a three year programme, The Soil Association, in partnership with the Duchy Future Farming Project, is funding a range of on-farm projects to investigate the potential benefits of altered practices. Meanwhile, 'Innovative Farming Clubs' are encouraging the agricultural community to communicate more about soil issues.  "If people are sitting in their own silos, doing their own thing, they can miss what's going on" Ben said, before giving the example of a farmer who was inspired by a football manager to install vertical drains on his farm. Hopefully, with more of this 'joined- up thinking', these innovations can begin to be disseminated on a wider scale.
Ben Raskin and Louise Payton from the Soil Association
It's one thing to get farmers excited about soil but what about the Government? Enter Louise Payton, Policy Officer at The Soil Association. She began by introducing the rather frightening situation regarding global soils: a quarter of all soil in the world is severely degraded with 10 million hectares ( an area the size of England and Wales combined) being abandoned every year. According to some estimates, we may only have 60 years of viable topsoil left to grow crops. Perhaps most dramatic was her slide showing a satellite photograph of the UK taken after the terrible floods of 2013-14. The waters hugging the coastline had literally been stained brown by the soil which had been washed off from inland. It seems that Governments are slowly waking up to the soil crisis, with 2015 being designated the 'International Year of Soil'. But unfortunately, this hasn't really amounted to much so far. In the UK, the  Government's soil policies are quite vague, along the lines that farmers should maintain soil organic matter and take steps to minimise soil erosion - particularly by planting cover crops instead of leaving the earth bare. But as Louise said, "The problem with these regulations is that when you look at the details, they don't really mean anything". For instance, maize stubble could be interpreted as a 'cover crop' even though this is pretty useless at preventing erosion. In addition, there is a convenient loophole which allows famers to avoid taking the effort to protect their soils 'if it would affect their business'. The EU has Directives for air, habitats and water - so why not soil?! As Louise explained, air, water and wildlife are seen as entities for the public good that are not owned by anybody. Land in the other hand, is most definitely owned by somebody and so governments are hesitant to impose legislation, feeling it is outside their bounds. The Soil Association is campaigning to move soils further up the government agenda although success has been limited so far: the last time they sent a letter to the Secretary of State, apparently the reply went along the lines of "Sorry, we're too busy right now, and soils aren't that interesting!" 
Living soil - so much more than dirt and vital for our future! Photo courtesy of 
 Ben Llewellyn

But perhaps things are about to change. Recently, The UK Climate Change Committee released a report describing UK soils as having 'red status', declaring that "the agricultural a community has been blind to what has been happening'. Meanwhile the Soil Association have focused their efforts on getting the Government to agree to a target of improving soil organic matter (SOM) across the country by 20% by the year 2020. This would have multiple benefits for soil health, beyond improving fertility and the microbial communities of the soil. For one thing, SOM helps to capture carbon, thus mitigating against climate change. In addition, "it acts a but like a sponge" - capturing water during drought and draining it away in times of flood. Another campaign is for greater research into how pesticides affect soil health. Louise presented the results of a study which found that, over the course of one year, 22 active chemicals were used on a single field of oilseed rape alone. The effects that these chemical cocktails have on soil communities is virtually unknown. Hence, as a first step, the Soil Association are commissioning studies on the most common insecticides: glyphosphate sand neonicotinoids. If I wasn't already studying parasitic weeds, I might be tempted to retrain as a soil scientist! But in the meantime, I will certainly have a greater respect for soils and will keep my eye out for campaigns to have their role recognised by our politicians also. 

Friday 17 July 2015

Dreams of becoming a Professor....

Under the noble gaze of the portraits of past benefactors of the University of Sheffield, an eager throng of young researchers gathered. Drawn from across all departments in the Faculty of Science, they had congregated together with a single aim: to learn what it takes to transform a supervised Post-Grad student into a confident, career-striding research leader. 

And we hoped to find answers at the 'Steps Towards Research Independence Conference' held at the University's very own Firth Hall and organised by the Research and Innovation Services Team. The ambitious programme included speakers at various rungs on the Academic Ladder, and representing a broad swathe of the University's research portfolio. For PhD students aspiring to become a Professor one day, the natural next step is to take up a PostDoctoral research position - which, like a PhD, is a research project typically funded for three or four years. Whilst PostDocs are great for consolidating practical research skills and project management, before the funding runs out you already have to be looking for your next position. After about three postdocs you might get lucky and be awarded a permanent position, sometimes called 'tenure'. This brings security and freedom from worrying about what to do when the grant money runs out but can also involve added responsibilities such as lecturing. A Fellowship position however, can act as a 'Fast-Track' to a permanent position, bypassing the need to spend several years as a PostDoc. Not surprisingly, these are notoriously difficult to get....so we were eager to seize any nuggets of wisdom on offer today!
Firth Court, venue for the Steps Towards Research Independence Conference 

In the first round of the morning talks, we heard from a variety of speakers who had made the break into a Fellowship position. It became immediately clear that one size definitely does not fit all. 'The route has not been the same for all of us' asserted Dr Iwan Evans, a Sir Henry Dale Wellcome Fellow in the Department of Infection and Immunity. I was surprised at just how many sources of funding there are for Fellowships but we were cautioned that these often have a very strict remit about the projects that they will fund. When it comes to making applications, it can save a lot of time and wasted effort if you read the application guidelines carefully and check out the profiles of researchers that have received funding in the past. Otherwise, you could spend months on a proposal that will simply not make it through the first round. 'The IDEA is the most important thing...' we were told '... so make sure you have a strong idea first before looking at funding bodies. Don't try and come up with a project by somehow 'fitting' it to the application criteria'.

But coming up with a suitable project is only half the battle. It was slightly galling to hear that having six or even eight rejections was commonplace. Yet, the speakers maintained that 'rejected applications are NOT a waste of time' - as long as you read the feedback! 'Try to have as many mock interviews as possible' Dr Evans advised, 'you may cry at the end of them all but you will be in a much better position when faced with a panel of experts ready to tear your application apart'. During the questions, one audience member asked how does one squash in time for making so many Fellowship applications alongside the day job of research? The speakers admitted it had been a struggle and a lot of juggling - supportive partners were a key help - and that their sleep had certainly suffered. 'A quiet weekend is the perfect time to crack on with some applications!' one speaker said.
Panel Speakers during the morning talks

After the coffee break, we received some practical strategies towards gaining independence. Once again, we heard the mantra that 'Papers are currency' and that it is difficult to get through the first round of applications if you haven't got many citations to your name. 'Especially if they have pretty pictures that get on the cover of the journal' said Dr Ashley Cadby, from Physics and Astronomy 'because this makes the science look a lot better than it is!' Another recurring theme was the importance of forging external collaborations. Apparently, this is a brilliant way to demonstrate research independence, especially if you apply for a travel grant to spend time in an overseas laboratory. 'After all, being totally independent is a myth' said Dr Stuart Hunt from the Department of Dentistry. 'Research funders want to see collaboration and a multidisciplinary approach'. We were introduced to several organisations that run internship schemes - such as the World University Network, which funds 1 week - 4 month placements that can be taken at any of the universities within the network. I really must set aside some time to investigate these - it would be wonderful to put my improving French to good use!

Over the lunch break, I had booked on to one of the 1:1 CV clinics and met with Professor Pete Sudbery from the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology who had been sent my achievement record yesterday. I was a bit embarrassed to find that, by accident, I had put on the same outfit I was wearing in my CV photo! Nevertheless, it was reassuring to hear that, if I was considering a career outside academia, I was doing the right sorts of things - science outreach, journalism, getting involved in departmental groups. But there was a major problem with how I had presented this on paper - "It's simply too dense!" Professor Sudbery said.  'If I have a hundred CVs to look through, I simply wouldn't have time to go through this and find out what you have done". As soon as he said that, my eyes were opened! Oh dear, it did look a veritable thicket of words. But Professor Sudbery showed me how I could drastically slim this down by focusing on the unique things that i had done and cutting out empty waffle words, such as 'team working'. After all, if you take part in communal activities, it is taken for granted that you can get on with people!
The 'Too Dense' CV

Unfortunately, I was unable to stay for the afternoon workshops but perhaps that is just as well as my head is now humming with new ideas for my work. I don't know yet if I want to stay within Academia but I DO know that I certainly don't want to become sucked into the dreaded 'PostDoc cycle' - unable to get a permanent position and constantly chasing new sources of funding every three years. So where am I going to go from here?
1. Chat to my supervisor about the possibility of collaborating with another lab as part of my PhD project
2. Look up some travel grant schemes that fund placements in other labs
3. Tear my CV apart!

Sunday 5 July 2015

An escape into "Bohemian Switzerland"....

Let me start by stating that attending the Society for Experimental Biology Annual Conference in Prague as a science writer was brilliant - an intense week learning of the latest research breakthroughs, networking with new and old acquaintances, filling my notebooks and dictaphone with content..... but it was definitely NOT a holiday. And at the end of it all, I certainly needed one!

Fortunately, I had forseen this and made arrangements.... I had decided to stay on for an extra two nights and make an excursion to the "Bohemian Switzerland" National Park on the Czech-German Border. Thanks to the Czech equivalent of trainline, and the advice of intrepid pioneers on TripAdvisor, I managed to get a train to Dĕčin and then a local bus to Hřensko.

Wow....now this really was another country! I realised that I had been spoilt a bit in Prague with English widely spoken and  appearing on nearly every sign, menu, leaflet, etc. Here, it was Czech or German only and I was slightly dismayed at how much my GCSE German knowledge has atrophied over the years. Fortunately, I met a young student who was fluent in English and happened to live opposite the hotel I had booked. 

So, what made me journey out here, to the back of beyond and outside my linguistic comfort zone? Before the conference, whilst Googling day excursions at Prague, I came across tales of a "magical, breath taking natural stone arch" - one of the true natural wonders of the world. Apparently it could be reached by a well-marked (Idiot Proof) hiking trail as part of a day walk. Even better, the walk also featured narrow gorges and ferry crossings....I was sold on the spot!

Hence, on Saturday - armed with my free map from the Tourist Info - I began my ascent to the

Pravčická brána, high up on the sandstone cliffs. I felt a great peace as I ascended in the dappled shade of the towering pine forests - my favourite sort of terrain to walk in. And it was worth the journey - words can't do it justice - a colossal edifice, 16 m high, looking out over the rolling ocean of forested hills. Needless to say, I brought a few fridge magnets for the collection in the lab!

                                          The stunning natural stone arch - Pravčická brána

But the delights continued as I descended into the Edmund Gorge. The scenery reminded me of Jurassic Park - towering rocks casting the path in deep shadow, every surface covered in mosses of deep emerald. It was amazing to see how the plant life clung on to anything it could - finding a way into every ledge, nook and cranny. The path followed the river as it forced a tortuous route through this stone jungle - however some sections were simply impassable without a boat. Fortunately, these had been provided, in the form of charming green "ferry boats". Because these were powered simply by a long wooded pole with no motors in sight, the journey was serenely quiet, save for the sound of birdsong and the gurgling river.
Traveling down the Kamenice river in Edmund Gorge
After the last ferry boat ride, it was only a short meander back to Hřensko. It was a wonderfully relaxing trip and a true break from the intense world of scientific research! But I did spot a floral curiosity - strange berry-like growths on the leaves of some of the trees. Having thrown a description into the incredible Google, I now believe that these were Lime Nail Galls caused by the mite Eriophyes tiliae. The mites spend the winter in the bark of the tree then move across to the leaves in early summer to feed on the leaves. Apparently, whilst feeding, the mites release chemicals into the leaves which cause them to produce hollow red, yellow or pink projections that look like berries. So I wasn't able to completely get away from the plant science  but it is wonderful to engage in "curiosity driven learning"!
Lime Nail Galls? If you know - get in touch!

It might have been a short visit but at least it has cleared my head before returning to the lab next week. So, to the beautiful Czech countryside I say  Na shledanou!

For more information of the Pravčická brána and the Red Hiking Route see http://www.pbrana.cz/en/ and http://www.nakovarne.com/en/canyon_hrensko.php.

Friday 3 July 2015

SEB PRAGUE DAY FIVE - The end already?!

After all the hours and days I have spent preparing for this conference, it seems unbelievable that the last day has arrived already. But this is certainly not the end either for me, or the many researchers here. Rather, this annual meeting serves as a catalyst for the next stage of work. Whether it is an idea sparked off during a talk, a new contact who is keen to collaborate on a project, a list of papers to look up on Google Scholar - each delegate will be taking back something to their lab. As for me, I somehow have to collate all my recordings, email correspondences and hurried jottings into comprehensible - and hopefully interesting! - articles. 
View from the King Charles' Bridge in Prague 

It seems that most people were very well behaved last night as there is a good turnout for the Cell Plenary Lecture. And it is just as well, for John Oxford - an Emeritus Professor of Virology and outspoken science communicator - gives a stirling talk. It is unusual to see human biology given such a high profile at this meeting and perhaps even more so for a talk to feature impressionist works of art, asides on the EU Parliament and references to 'a man with a big fig leaf'. But despite opening with such a varied meander through the history of pandemic influenza, Professor Oxford consistently returned to theme of how 'volunteers' have advanced the cause of science.  

Drawing on examples from the past, he illustrated how each of us can come across key 'decision points' in our lives where, by taking the selfless choice, we can act in the interest of the common good. Take Vera Britain for instance - after receiving the tragic news that her fiancé and brother had been killed in the First World War, she could have stopped being a nurse on the frontline and returned home to grieve. After all, she was a volunteer and not bound to stay. Instead, she remained amongst the soldiers and even accepted the task she had been given - to comfort captured German soldiers as they lay dying. A lesser known example is that of Phyllis Burn, another volunteer nurse during WWI, who realised she had contracted pandemic influenza just as she was returning home for a visit. Rather than follow her plans and go to her parents house - thus risking the lives of her family - she rented a flat for herself and battled the illness alone. She did not survive.
Professor Oxford , Emeritus Professor of Virology, in full flow

But what does this have to do with science? Professor Oxford was clear that medical breakthroughs owe a great debt to selfless individuals. For instance, Phyllis Burn's remaining relatives, who gave permission for her body to be exhumed in order for Professor Oxford and his team to collect valuable preserved virus particles for research ( because Phillis had been buried in a lead coffin, her body was remarkably intact). Or the brave living volunteers who volunteer to be infected with influenza at the Harvard Common Cold Unit. By studying the responses of these volunteers - especially those that show resistance to the virus - researchers gain valuable information towards a control strategy. Professor Oxford's ultimate goal is 'a universal flu vaccine', one which is effective against every flu virus strain. He explained that most flu vaccines only target the outside receptors of the virus particles, which can mutate rapidly to overcome the vaccine. But a universal vaccine would target the internal proteins - ones which cannot change so fast. Noble work indeed although Professor Oxford stressed that the volunteers are well looked after - they get paid £3-4,000 a week to live in relative comfort, apart from having scientists follow the around taking regular samples. Not everyone can be a volunteer though - out of an initial 10,000 individuals for each clinical trial, these get whittled down to 25 that match the eligibility criteria. Hence, it is an expensive business - out of a core staff of 200, twenty of these are simply needed to recruit new volunteers by phone, and each clinical trial costs in the region of £2 million. But, as Professor Oxford argues, it is surely worth it if we can 'protect the most vulnerable members of our community'. It is a daunting task when,matter all these years, only two infectious diseases ( smallpox and rinderpest, a disease of cattle) have been consigned to history. But Professor Oxford is optimistic : 'Its not easy, it will never be easy, but if we can keep pushing and with a fair wind behind us, then polio ( and other infectious diseases ) CAN join smallpox and rinderpest'.

Incredible science and an incredible way to end the conference. Unfortunately, I'm not staying for the Conference Dinner as I am aiming to catch a train to Décin this afternoon. From there, I hope to explore the natural wonder of the 'Bohemian Switzerland National Park'. So, it is goodbye from me at SEB Prague. Thank you for all the memories and the science and to you, dear reader, thank you for your attention!
On location in Prague - Having fun in the photo booth on the SEB Stand

Thursday 2 July 2015

SEB PRAGUE 2015 DAY FOUR - Finally...HELLO Prague!

I finally manage to break free of the air conditioned cube of the conference venue and escape to the 'real' Prague. It would be a shame to come all this way without seeing the famous square depicted on the programme cover! I am pleasantly surprised at the relative ease with which I conquer the Metro system ( signage always helps ) and am soon deposited at the Old Market Square.

I can immediately see the 'Tourist Appeal' - relaxed cafes sprawled out on the flags, horses and carriages clip-clopping by, distractingly beautiful handicrafts for sale - all watched over by those sleepy Medieval spires, like dreamers that got left behind from another age. I stay to watch the famous procession of the Twelve Apostles around the astronomical clock, then wander over the King Charles Bridge to nip up the Castle Mount and have a peek at the awesome stained glass windows in St Vitus Cathedral. But there is more  to Prague beyond antiquities and during my roaming I spy all kinds of things including a snake-charmer, a shop almost entirely dedicated to the latest Furby, cannabis flavoured chocolate ( and other things...) and 'The Museum of Medieval Tortures'....
Prague Old Town Square...and not a Marks and Spencer's in sight! ( but there was a Starbucks...)

But all too soon I am back in the Plenary Lecture theatre ...but I was glad to get back in time for the Woolhouse lecture, an annual fixture at each SEB meeting to honour the famous Botanist Harold Woolhouse. 
The speaker for this year was Andrew Millar, a plant scientist who studies the intrinsic biological clock system in Arabidopsis. Many biological processes follow a regular daily pattern - called a circadian rhythm. But, even if the organism is kept in constant darkness, these rhythms continue to regularly oscillate, indicating that they are controlled by an 'internal' clock. But what keeps this clock 'ticking' to a regular rhythm? Over the decades, teams of scientists across the world have started to unravel the molecular players and feedback systems that govern the daily clock rhythms of plants. Identifying sets of genes that appear crucial for correct clock function is one thing but how to put these pieces of the jigsaw together? 
The famous Astronomical Clock

Andrew's current work focuses on drawing together the progress that has been made into a coherent database to build models capable of predicting how many additional factors need to be found. Otherwise, how will we know if the clock model is complete or if there are further levels of control? Already, his model has had some success with explaining some of the physical differences seen in genetic 'clock' mutants. During the night, when plants cannot photosynthesise, they must draw on the carbon stored as starch which they made during the day. They wisely time the rate of starch degradation so that it just lasts until the expected dawn. But what if a cruel researcher manipulates the 'night' so that it lasts longer than normal? Remarkably, the plant automatically senses the extended night period and adjusts its rate of starch degradation so that it lasts longer. Clock genes clearly have a role in this as clock mutants cannot make this adjustment and so 'run out' of starch each night, causing them to be smaller. Andrew's model, however, predicted that starch reserves weren't the only factor behind this phenotype. There must be something else to account for the size difference. When this was investigated, it turned out that the clock mutant was also unable to draw on carbon reserves that had been stored as organic acids, as well as those in the form of starch. It is a fascinating example of how computer models can tell scientists where to look next...the new trend of 'insight driven research'.
Strangely, they actually seem to encourage photographs in St Vitus Cathedral...

Fascinating for plant scientists....but could these ideas be useful for anything else? According to Andrew, city bankers could learn a lot from these models. The key strength of biological models is that they can identify how many molecular players must be in the system because every alteration in phenotype has to be caused by an underlying factor. The problem with banks is that they 'lend money that never previously existed', giving out money on the presumption that it will be paid back. This means that not all the 'players' in the economic system are actually present, leading to a self-perpetuating cycle of debt. Andrew urged us all, as scientists, not to dismiss this as 'someone else's problem' but to apply our skills and ways of thinking to solve the issues that keep people in poverty. 'This isn't a more complicated problem than biology' he says 'and I hope more scientists will take an interest in social problems'.
I'm not sure that I'm quite at the stage in my scientific training where I can tell economists what to do but it is inspiring to hear that 'the scientific mind' has greater scope than within the laboratory. Time for some more deep-fried cauliflower and sauerkraut before the afternoon talks start. These cover everything from thermal tolerance in Atlantic Cod, milk production in golden hamsters and the biomechanics of insect legs. I particularly enjoyed a talk on the Greenland Shark, a little-known species which lives under the Atlantic ice sheets and is believed capable of living for 500 years...
A blueprint for a solution to the world's social problems? One of Andrew Miller's more complicated slides.

During one of the breaks, I had hoped to check in with the SEB staff to discuss my ideas for articles but couldn't find them anywhere. I decide to grab some sun instead and headed to a local park....where I find the rest of the SEB team! Just another example of how scientists think alike....

But we can't sun ourselves for too long as we have an important event to prepare for! Many people aren't aware that the SEB is actually made up of four sections, rather than just Plant, Animal and Cell Biology. However, the Education and Public Affairs (EPA) section does very important work that encompasses careers, equality/diversity and science communication .  Work that is far too important to stay under the radar! This year, it was decided to 'rebrand' the EPA as SEB+ and to have the official launch at this meeting. It is a very celebratory affair and we gather a good crowd, even if some of them aren't entirely sure what the whole thing was about but have been enticed over by free champagne and a mountain of Czech cheese. We all raise a toast and wish farewell to Alun Anderson, former head of the EPA section, whilst welcoming in George Littlejohn? Who will be taking up the reins of SEB+. It's exciting times as there are so many different directions that SEB+ can take to help its members. To encourage people to give us their own ideas we pass round postcards for people to fill in to be entered into a prize draw.....mine's in the box as I have my eye on the laser pointer prize! 

George Littlejohn addresses the crowd gathered to celebrate the launch of SEB+

For once, there are no official evening activities organised by the SEB....I'm thinking of heading back into town to a nice fish restaurant I spied on the River Vltava earlier....
Thanks for reading - Goodnight!

Wednesday 1 July 2015

SEB PRAGUE 2015 DAY THREE - You've got to pick a Poster or Two...

Day three...its a beautiful day here in Prague but I don't think I will be getting much sun somehow...not when I have highlighted so many sessions to attend today!

But we get off to a great start with the President Medallist's Talk from the Education and Public Affairs section, given by Dr Gonzalo Estavillo, a plant scientist based in Australia. As he progressed in his career and found himself spending more time teaching undergraduate students, he became frustrated at the standard 'follow a recipe' design of the practical classes. This approach may teach students basic lab skills ( such as how to pipette) but doesn't really help them to become independent researchers. Gonzalo also wanted to integrate his own research, the work he was most comfortable teaching. So he came up with the idea of 'The Plant Detectives',  problem based learning where the students have to use their ingenuity and design experiments to identify mutants in the model plant Arabidopsis. Having to think for myself, rather than being told what to do, would have made the undergraduate me extremely flustered and uncomfortable, and indeed a lot of his students found it challenging at first. But the feedback was overwhelming positive - many said it was the best undergraduate practical they had ever done - and the take up of further plant science modules rocketed up. I manage to grab Gonzalo for an interview later on - I know of a journal on teaching methods in biology which might be interested in a feature article...

Over lunch, I'm eager to pop along to an informal bonus session entitled 'How to become an Academic'. There's a good turnout, despite the delegates having to balance their lunches on their laps. A panel of senior figures within the SEB briefly share their stories before the floor is opened up to questions. They come thick and fast - Is it always best to move to a new institution or can you make progress by staying put? How do you know when you are ready to apply for a permanent position? How difficult is it to move into a completely different field? It was reassuring to hear that when it comes to applying to join a new lab, personality and enthusiasm often counts more than how many papers you have published....although if you haven't got any credits to your name 'it suggests something is wrong'. There were also many inspiring anecdotes showing the value of flexibility... My favourite had to be the gentleman who had one night to write a grant proposal on a day when his wife was doing a night shift. His solution? 'Kids - we're going on a camping trip in my office!'

And now the afternoon sessions get underway...I have to practically force my way into the session on 'Emerging Models for studying the Cardiovascular System' - it's standing room only and there are bodies rammed against the door! Meanwhile, I am intrigued on a talk showing how MRI can be used to image the underground architecture of plants in the 'Roots for the Future' session. I also manage to meet Michael Stang, from German Public Radio, who wanted to interview one of the researchers whose work I had promoted during a press release. 

I need to sit down! But when I try to grab a break at the SEB Careers stand, my 'base' for the week, I am immediately besieged by delegates wanting me to sign their competition passport! ( see post from yesterday). 

The sessions draw to a close at around 5.00 pm but for some, the most nerve-racking moment of the meeting approaches.... It is time for the first poster session of the meeting. For early career researchers, including PhD students, whose projects have not yet progressed to the stage where they can be the subject of a talk, poster sessions give them the chance to present their work so far to the scientific community. 
The evening poster session

It is humbling to think how so many hours of experimental toil, frustrations, failed attempts, going-back-to-the-drawing board, etc. are behind each poster...and thee are hundreds of them! It seems as though every flat surface has been commandeered to show the results of a diligent researcher's efforts. I have drawn up a 'hit list' of ones I want to visit ( still dauntingly long!) but it is hard not to get distracted by the titles...Early exposure to hypoxia causes cardiac remodelling in trout...Investigating the hormone signalling pathway that controls the drought response in plants.....How silly walks can inspire school pupils to study biomechanics.....I even find a gentleman studying the same dwarfing genes in wheat which I worked on when I did a summer placement at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany three years ago. I just about manage to squeeze my way around them all - the narrow aisles are rammed, possibly because of the SEB's idea of giving everybody two tickets for a free drink during the poster session! But it is wonderful to give the students a chance to present their work to research leaders, to share ideas and even forge new collaborations. Many Professors admit to using poster sessions as 'recruitment drives' for PostDoc positions in their labs....It gives me a new determination to work hard on my own project  to get enough data to present a poster at the meeting next year. In the meantime, I manage to get several leads for my stories to chase up further when I get home.

I have one more interview before the day is done...I catch up with Professor Thomas Speck, a researcher in 'Biomimetics', who specialises in how the structures of plants can inspire designs of human products and even buildings. I'm very excited by the projects he tells me about, including a hingeless door based on the Bird of Paradise flower...I feel positive that we can work together to make an informative article. I'm certainly going to be busy when I get home! 

That's it for today - come back tomorrow for more talks, more posters and the exciting launch of SEB+!