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 31 December 2015

2015: How was it for you?

Another year draws to a close and it is natural to ponder on the successes and achievements of this year - for ourselves, our families and nation. But was 2015 a 'good' year for science? How have we pushed the boundaries of our knowledge and can this be usefull in benefitting mankind?

One way of assessing the impacts of academia outside our ( very often) closeted institutions is to see which papers captured the public's attention the most. The Altmetric Top 100 list does just that ( http://www.altmetric.com/top100/2015/ ), providing an intriguing summary of which research caught the most interest on public media streams,blogs, social media, Wikipedia, etc, besides within their academic circles. Nevertheless, it is a sobering reminder that, out of the thousands of research projects being conducted by diligent scientists across the globe, so very little 'makes it' onto the wider stage. It just shows how you have to be in this game for love, not fame!

Not surprisingly, medical and health science stories took  the lion's share of the list, but the environmental sciences were bolstered by a strong interest in climate change (likely to increase given the recent floods?) . Meanwhile, some of the papers were less to do with research than the issues which surround it, including a study which used hiring experiments to show that certain science faculties show a 2:1 preference for female candidates ( Number 14). In keeping with the Western world's preoccupation with diet, various nutrition experiments also made the list, including a study which concluded that drinking Diet Soda contributes to obesity ( Number 56). Modern technology, and its impacts on quality of life was also a strong presence with featured studies investigating whether smartphone dongles could help diagnose infectious diseases (Number 61)  or whether using light emitting eReaders in the evening disrupts sleep (Number 15). And a special Royal mention should go to Number 53: Identification of the remains of Richard III !

It's certainly worth having a look, if only to marvel at the range of things people study these days ( who knew that there are scientists investigating whether the oral microbiota can be changed through 'intimate kissing'?)! And it is nice to see that the age- long fascination with dinosaurs and outer space endures! 

To see the list for yourself visit http://www.altmetric.com/top100/2015/

Happy reading and a very Happy New Year to you too!

Saturday 12 December 2015

SIP hit Westminster!

Sorry it's late in coming, but finally here is my write up of the Science in Policy's trip to Westminster last month!

Although the London traffic tried to thwart us, we just made it through security in time to meet our Blue Badge guide in St Stephens hall. This is the oldest part of Westminster Hall and originally a residence for the king: one could feel their presence lingering still in the stark medieval grandeur complete with the original oak hammerbeam ceiling - the oldest of its type in Europe. These days, it forms a spectacular setting for official banquets and speeches from visiting dignitaries, including President Obama and the Pope. But we didn't have time to linger  and were immediately whisked up to the main lobby to catch a glimpse of the procession bearing the speaker's mace into the House of Commons Chamber. As the main junction between the Houses of Commons and Lords, this area seemed like the central nervous system of the building with media teams hovering about, MPs and ministers hurrying to and fro and groups of tourists  milling about. Despite being the heart of our modern democracy, however, the room was sumptuously decorated in the Victorian ornate style - think carved stonework, gilded mosaics and beautiful floor tiles. To continue this theme, we proceeded through the State rooms, following the route that the Queen herself takes when she visits Parliament. My favourite was the 'dressing room' where the Queen pauses to swap her tiara for her official crown, brought specially from the Tower of London. A commanding throne took centre stage whilst the surrounding walls seemed to groan under the weight of the monumental artworks, depicting tales from the Arthurian legends. When I asked if they ever used the room during the rest of the year, I was assured "Oh yes, it's a popular venue for parties!"
Because the Lords weren't sitting that morning, we were able to enter the Chamber itself and tiptoe between the benches ( red for the Lords, green for the Commons) where so many decisions of national importance have been made. I was surprised - it was a lot smaller than I had imagined - but apparently many of the Lords aren't particularly active in their political duties, so it is rare that they are all in attendance at one time - just as well! 
The Houses of Parliament, complete with festive decoration. ( I'm afraid we weren't allowed to take any photos inside!)

After a speedy lunch in the Jubilee Cafe, we moved from the ancient sphere of tradition to the modern machinery of Parliament. Paul Blomfield, MP for Sheffield Central met us and escorted us along the underground tunnel to Portcullis House on the other side of the road. This had a much more cosmopolitan atmosphere -  lots of glass and silver fittings, white marble tiles and even an indoor garden of fig trees - and in each direction, very important- looking people were ploughing through stacks of papers, crouched over their phone or huddled together in discussion. In one of the meeting rooms, Paul patiently fielded our questions for an hour and gave us an insight into how difficult it can be to effect changes through Parliament. "I hate the Punch and Judy show in the Chamber" he said. "Politicians are very good at saying things which aren't true but with  confidence". Nevertheless, he assured us that, behind the scenes, it can be possible to make a difference. "Some of the big changes that you make will never reach the headlines". He believes that engaging with the public through select committee is a more effective strategy and encouraged us all to get involved. "MPs are keen to reach out. When they are elected, they are expected to know everything about everything and they can only meet that challenge by drawing on expertise".

Appropriately, we then sat in on a select committee discussion - most people opted for the 'anti-terror strategies' session but I decided to stick with a science theme and joined the group in 'the challenges of big data'. I was surprised by how friendly the atmosphere was and the positive flow of dialogue between the Science and Technology Committee and the invited panel of experts. It was a far cry from Lord Sugar's boardroom in the Apprentice! One of the Committee members even joked " I organise a local book club and often have to buy a lot of cheese and wine in one go - what conclusions will Tesco make of my health from the data they collect from the checkout?!"
It was a long day but utterly worth it!

We then headed back through the tunnel to Westminster Hall - nearly getting trampled by a stampede of MPs who were being summoned by a bell to rush to the Chamber to vote. We decided to follow them and headed to the public gallery in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, by the time we had queued for our tickets, there wasn't much action going on - just a very calm discussion about transport networks ( apart from one gentleman becoming very excited about ferry boats). But it was worth the experience to be look out over such an iconic setting and it put me in mind of the Suffragettes, who sat here so many times in hope as each new bill for a Woman 's Vote was discussed ( although the giant bullet-proof glass screen wasn't there then).

A final call in the gift shop to stock up on House of Commons wine, then it was time to reach our coach and struggle back through the trials of London in rush hour and Storm Barney. It was an epic (if exhausting!) day and a big thank you to the Science in Policy Committee for organising it!

Thursday 3 December 2015

Big Ideas in Biology...

We've been spoilt rotten in Sheffield during the Krebs Fest -including departmental open nights, the schools film festival and lectures from Nobel-Prize winning scientists. It's sad that this is coming to an end, but we're going out with a bang with guest speaker Sir Paul Nurse, whose insights on the cell cycle have fuelled tremendous advances in cancer cell research. A Nobel Laureate and President of the Royal Society "for three more days only", he gave us his views on what are the five "Big Ideas that have shaped Biology".

"Biologists don't tend to talk about 'grand theories' or 'big ideas', unlike physicists who love them" Professor Nurse said. "They tend to prefer specific details, such as the number of hairs on a beetle's leg, the sequence of a gene and so on". Nevertheless, he feels that certain themes have helped to open up vast new areas of research by changing the way we approach the living world. 

1. The Cell
It's hard to imagine how difficult it would be to study living organisms without understanding the smallest unit which you are working with. Yet the idea of the cell only originated in the 17 th century, when Robert Hooke looked down at a cork tissue using his fascinating new invention - the microscope - and observed that they looked rather like the 'cells' of monks' quarters. According to Professor Nurse, this demonstrates two principles: "technology begetting discovery" and "how once one person sees something, everyone spots it and the idea spreads like a virus". As microscopes become more and more sophisticated, we are able to see with increasing detail the tiny,microscopic processes inside cells which,  combined together, sustain life in the whole organism. Understanding life at the cellular scale is crucial, for instance, in determining at what point things go wrong in disease - such as uncontrolled cell divisions leading to cancer. But it also offers us the opportunity to use that knowledge to put things right; as Professor Nurse observed, we now see headlines featuring stem cells almost daily. 
Noble Prize Winner and scientist extraordinaire, Sir Paul Nurse ( photo courtesy of BBC )

2. The Gene
Although ideas about hereditary have been postulated since the time of the ancient Greeks, it took the rigorously mathematical approach of a quite extraordinary character to define the concept of a discrete unit of inheritance. Gregor Mendel, the famous Austrian monk, was in fact a 'failed physisict' who turned to biological research after he didn't pass the exams to teach at the Univeristy of Vienna. It might seem an odd career move, but Mendel's training meant he worked in a way that was unknown to contemporary naturalists, who typically investigated the world through observation. Instead, Mendel generated a theory and tested it quantitatively by patiently crossing thousands of peas to determine the ratios by which certain characteristics were inherited in the offspring. Curiously, others (including Charles Darwin) had noted these 3:1 inheritance ratios, but they "just noted it down and moved on"; what set Mendel apart was that he tried to explain it.  Unfortunately, no one took any notice at the time, but since then "much of the science of the 20th century has been about giving a molecular understanding to Mendel's ideas". Indeed, as we learn more and more about the structure of DNA and how it shapes our lives, we encounter searching questions about our identity. For instance, as Professor Nurse said, "What does it mean for crime and punishment if our identity is genetically determined?"

3. Evolution
"If you go into a bookshop, you could be forgiven for thinking that there are only two topics in science: Evolution and String theory" said Professor Nurse. And you could be forgiven for thinking that Charles Darwin was the only one who came up with the idea. However, others had also pondered the idea of 'evolution by natural selection', including naturalist Alfred Wallace, whose letter to Darwin on the topic prompted the latter to publish On the Origin of Species. However, even earlier than this, the notion that living organisms could adapt to their environment over time was postulated by tree grower Paul Matthews in 1831. Surprisingly, these figures - whose names have almost dropped out of history - "didn't seem to mind not getting the credit" according to Professor Nurse ( compare this to the bitter feuds that arise nowadays between scientists over who gets to be named first author on a paper!) But why was this? Quite simply - Data. Darwin had amassed a vast collection of evidence to support his case, including his observations on the voyage of the Beagle, fossil specimens and his own experiments. It was only on the strength of this that the theory, controversial as it was, could begin to even be considered. Now evolution shapes our understanding not just of where we come from and where we are going, but also how we interact with the environment. For instance, can wild species adapt in time to cope with the changes we have imposed on the climate? And can we keep up with the 'evolutionary arms race' between superbugs and antibiotics? 
The new portrait,of Hans Krebs commissioned for Firth Hall to celebrate the Krebs Fest (artist : Keith Robinson) 

4. Life as chemistry.
Whilst we like to think of ourselves in terms higher than the Periodic Table, the truth is, we are just a big bundle of atoms. But it was quite a leap for early scientists to start thinking of life in terms of chemistry, leading to the birth of biochemical research. French aristocrat Antoine Lavosier was one of the first to suggest that living organisms were based on mechanistic processes, rather than a vague force of 'vitalism', and likened a guinea pig respiring to a pile of burning charcoal. Unfortunately, his brilliant career was cut short by the French Revolution, leaving others, such as Louis Pasteur, to pick up the baton. Slowly we came to understand that "within our cells, just microns across, hundreds and thousands of reactions are going on". As Professor Nurse said, rather than thinking of the cell as a homogenous sphere, it is more accurate to view it as "a myriad of different environments, separate but connected", all engaged in different chemical processes. Being able to understand life in terms of its supporting chemical reactions is especially central to medicine, allowing us to use pharmaceuticals and other interventions to restore imbalances in metabolism.

5. Life as information
"All the big ideas and complex processes in life - such as homeostasis, reproduction and communication - can be reduced to a flow of information". According to Professor Nurse, an informatics approach is key to translating mere descriptions into true understanding how systems work. "For instance, DNA is a digital information storage device" he said. "We could describe it in terms of its structure - the atoms and the angles of the bonds - but true biological comprehension comes from understanding that these molecules store information and that the sequence of the bases is central to heredity". Similarly, the physical interactions between proteins and enzymes are only meaningful is we understand how these tightly regulate key chemical reactions. "We should think of cells like electrical circuits" Professor Nurse said "except these are 'wetware' not hardware - they can retire themselves to connect different components".

It's clear that some of biology's greatest advances have come from visionaries who, defying conventional approaches, took their ideas beyond what they could see and 'dreamed big'. Indeed, one audience member cheekily asked if it would be better to do away with biologists and fill the labs with "physicists, chemists and five-year olds". Professor Nurse agreed that interdisciplinary collaboration would be vital in the years to come as biology is only likely to become more and more mind-bending....

"In physics, the smaller you go, the more bizarre it becomes" he concluded. " I wonder if biology is on the edge of such a transition into complexity..."