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!

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.

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