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!

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

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