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!

Tuesday 25 August 2015

Horsing around away from it all....

I've been feeling a bit low recently, dragged down by the endless cycle of work, work, work. By day, it is the rhizotrons and Petri dishes of the lab: by evening, wrestling with half finished articles covering the Prague conference. Even the weekends have settled into a dull monotony, not even broken by my usual volunteering work with the homeless at The Sunday Centre which, sadly, doesn't run during August. It was high time I had a break, a chance to broaden my horizons beyond the rows of plants or the computer screen before my eyes. And what better way to escape than a weekend trip to the seaside with my dear Mum? 

Neither of us had ever been to Robin Hood's Bay before; I had simply picked it out of a 'Visit Yorkshire' brochure, drawn in by phrases such as 'renown beauty spot' and 'beloved by painters and poets'. I could see why - the town was like something out of a fairy tale, a perfect smuggler's village perched improbably on the the vertiginous cliffs. The buildings were jumbled up together along a maze of crooked, winding alleys ( perfect for hide and seek!)  and apparently many of them have interconnecting attics and basements. It is said that, during the height of smuggling, an illegal barrel of tea or silk could pass from one end of the town to the other without seeing daylight! As for the sea, it was just what I needed, boundless marine blue to empty my troubled mind into, stretching away into eternity...and not a schedule in sight!
Beautiful views over Robin Hood's Bay...

We had a wonderful time catching up during long walks along the cliffs, sampling local crab and whelks, seeing families at play on the beach and watching amusedly as car drivers performed incredible feats of steering to negotiate the steep hills. I was stuck by the beauty of the local fossil specimens in the museums but sadly didn't find any myself on the beach. 

But during one of our rambles, we came arose a glade filled with 'living fossils' - a stand of horsetails. These plants are the only species that survives from the once diverse Equisetopida class, whose members dominated the Carboniferous landscape 290 million years ago, and included trees up to 30 m tall. Horsetails are described as 'primitive' as they reproduce using spores ( like ferns) unlike 'modern' land plants which use seeds.  They also have greatly reduced leaves, called 'microphylls', that each have a single, unbranched vein instead of the intricate networks of veins we admire on most leaves today. You can certainly imagine them as being the sort of thing a dinosaur would munch on...and yet these primitive plants are apparently generating renewed interest among scientists. Horsetail extracts are said to act against all manner of illnesses, including diabetes, osteoporosis and bladder problems. There is even evidence that they may stop the proliferation of cancer cells*. For myself, I simply enjoyed appreciating the beauty of their minimalist architecture and the  pleasure of coming across them unexpectedly. It just proves that with plants, you never know what is round the corner!
The glade of horsetails - a blast from the past

It really was a timely break for me and has hopefully left me refreshed enough to last through to the end of the Academic year. It was also quite nice to have a 'digital detox' although it felt surreal to stay in B and B with free WiFi and to not be able to take advantage of it! Suffice to say, I am not looking forward to seeing the state of my inbox on my return...but, the show must go on, so back to work we go!

* For more information about the uses of horsetail extracts, see  http://www.naturalalternativeremedy.com/sixteen-horsetail-benefits/ For the study investigating horsetail extract effects on cancer cells, see the paper "Antioxidative and Antiproliferative Activities of Different Horsetail (Equisetum arvense L.) Extracts" (Journal of Medicinal Food)
Robin Hood's Bay by morning...worth getting up early for that magical light!

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