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!

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!

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