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!

Monday 19 December 2016

Wrapping up for Christmas...

With only six days to go until Christmas (how did THAT happen?!), I am slowly starting to pick up a little of the festive spirit. Until now, it's been difficult - distracted as I have been with my upgrade report. But this morning, I sent it off to my supervisor who has promised to look over it during the Christmas break. Hopefully there won't be too many corrections to make before I can then submit the final version and my lab work can begin in earnest.

With my report sent off, I was free to join in the Departmental Christmas Party. Although the beer was flowing freely, the highlight for everyone was the famously imaginative Christmas Quiz, featuring just about every supervisor, lecturer and technician in the building. The rounds included everything from a"Swapped-Faces" photo round, to cryptic riddles that tenuously linked to a supervisor's surname, to "Car-Pool Karaoke"... but perhaps things got a little out of hand for the 'Modelling Round'. I had naively presumed this would involve plasticine...instead, we were challenged to dress one of our team in an outfit appropriate for our Head of Department to wear for one of his preferred leisure pursuits....using toilet roll. Some teams got quite competitive with this; fortunately our Head of Department took it all in good humour!

My favourite had to be the round where staff members had been transposed into famous movie scenes....anyone remember when someone "just had to go" in Jurassic Park? Might be a while before that staff member lives it down!

The Departmental Christmas Party - featuring the famously imaginative quiz

Now that the party's over, the labs will rapidly start emptying for the holidays. And I too will be heading home for a few days with my parents. Work never stops though as I do have a few writing projects to work on during the 'downtime'. Given that my research will (hopefully) be even busier next year, it's vital that I start to limit these extra-curricular activities ...the trouble is, I just can't seem to say 'no', especially when I spot the makings of a good story!

So with that, I wish you a very Happy Christmas - may the festive season bring you many opportunities for sharing happiness and peaceful times with your loved ones. And I give you my best wishes for the new year.

Thanks for reading!
Things get a bit out of hand in the 'Modelling Round'....

Wednesday 7 December 2016

An interview with Cathie Martin - the genius behind super purple tomatoes!

This week, our department had a very special visitor indeed –Professor Cathie Martin, plant biotechnologist extraordinaire and the genius behind the original ‘purple tomato’. Using genetic engineering, her lab was able to express genes from Snapdragon that regulate the production of anthocyanin compounds that give the flowers their purple pigmentation. Anthocyanins have been demonstrated to help combat cardiovascular disease, but it can be difficult to obtain enough from diet alone. Since then, Cathie has gone on to develop other tomatoes, including one with the equivalent amount of the ‘miracle compound’ resveratrol as 50 bottles of red wine! With an MBE to services for plant biotechnology, several patents and a spin-out company to her name (not to mention publications beyond count), I couldn’t resist grabbing her for a quick interview!

How did you first become interested in plant science?

When I started my degree in Natural Sciences (at Cambridge University), I was originally an animal person but then I was presented with a crab in a practical class which I had to put in boiling water! I never did…at that point I decided to focus on plants instead, but also because I really enjoyed the biochemistry of plant physiology. 

How did you get into plant genetics?

My PhD was actually on the effect of Gibberellic Acid ( a plant hormone) on the germination of castor oil seeds…but I very quickly developed an allergy to them. I couldn’t even go into a room where they had been prepared. Towards the end, I went to a seminar by David Baulcombe on the effects of Gibberellic Acid on barley and wheat and he was doing genetics with mutants. I thought “That’s what’s missing from my research!” Plus this was not work on castor oil seeds! So I switched to genetics for my postdoc

Cathie Martin, an extraordinary plant biotechnologist

How did your work on bio-fortified tomatoes begin?

For a long time, I worked on Antirrhinum majus (Garden Snapdragon) because I was interested in the genetics of flower colour and transposable elements. Then I met a woman doctor in Italy who told me how important anthocyanins are in the diet, especially in the Mediterranean diet. I thought that this could be a different approach for me to understand biosynthesis of polyphenol compounds in plants, so I started to collaborate with her on the health benefits. We chose tomato because its relatively easy to transform, there are lots of mutant lines available and I quite like to eat them!

What do you see for the future of bio-fortified foods? Will it spread to other crops?

Johnathan Napier’s lab at Rothamsted research are already producing oilseed crops enriched in omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (see previous Blog post). But I think there will be a whole slew of fortified crops in the future – especially for countries that have less diversity of foods – including ones with high iron, zinc and pro-Vitamin A. Some will be produced using GM techniques and some by non-GM techniques, depending on what resources are available. There are alternative ways to obtain these high amounts of course – but I personally don’t see the future as being “eat all the junk food you like and take a pill at the end”. I rather prefer the idea that everyone improves their diets because it’s better for the long term. A particular problem for our next generation of adults is that they have been brought up on a lot of junk food and there has been such a decline of proper mealtimes and home cooking. 

What about those who feel strongly against GM technologies?

People have many reasons for not choosing GM foods but I don’t think most people in this country even consider it. They would think about price and quality, and whether it is GM or not wouldn’t be a deciding factor. A friend of mine even complained when Sainsbury’s pulled the GM Flavr Savr tomato off the shelves because she was losing choice. People are quick to complain about choice, but we don’t have a choice at the moment. So long as it’s clearly labelled and safe, people should at least be able to choose. 

What do you like doing when you’re not in the lab?

I love code words and Sudoku, and also walking in Majorca because of the fantastic scenery there. Also looking after our nine cats – my husband said we won’t bother neutering the females because we’ll make sure they don’t get out…that was a mistake!

Finally, any advice for aspiring plant scientists?

Plant science is fantastic because your material is always accessible – they don’t run away! But it is also really interesting as plants are simply not the same as animals. People don’t realise that you can do an awful lot on plants – especially molecular analysis and imaging – and it’s much less competitive than other fields, such as medicine. And, at the end of the day, you can eat them!

For more information about Cathie and her work, click here

Sunday 27 November 2016

Settling in - and some groundbreaking plant science news!

It's been nearly two weeks now since I returned to the lab and I am already starting to feel the effects. Although I won't be doing any 'proper' lab work until the New Year, I have been keeping busy writing up all of my results so far for my compulsory upgrade report. Some of these experiments were done almost two years ago now, meaning that I have had to spend long hours searching through my lab books to try and work out what I was thinking and doing at the time. At least it's shown me how to keep my notes better organised in the future! I have also been finishing the final data anlysis for my experiments which investigated whether Arabidopsis plants that are mutants in key defence signalling pathway genes are more sensitive to parasitism by Striga gesnerioides. These were grown in rhizotrons (root observation chambers), so I was able to literally "scan in" the root systems and save the image. So even though the plants were thrown out many months ago, I still have a record.
One of my Arabidopsis rhizotron scans. You can see the swollen tubercles where the parasite ahs attached to the host.
But it is exhausting work...especially when you have a backlog of 140 rhizotron scans to count. I have taken to setting an alarm for 'screen breaks' to stop my eyes going funny. One day, I was so wrapped up in it all that when I thought it was only 11.30, it was actually nearly 2.00 pm! How time flies... I have to be careful though, as being constantly overtired was one of the factors that caused my health to slide so much last time. So my weeknights are very boring now - coming home, eating, a little pottering on the computer and then bed. I wish I could get more done, but that's somply the way it has to be for now.

Meanwhile, some very exciting plant science was published this month in Science: the first case of GM technology being used to boost productivity by improving photosynthesis. In plants, this reaction converts sunlight into sugar - ultimately the basis of all the food we eat. Researchers at the University of Illinois targeted a process called 'nonphotochemical quenching' NPQ, which protects the plant from strong sunlight by dissipating extra energy as heat. Like a reflex action, this is turned on almost instantly. But if the plant then becomes shaded - by a cloud or the canopy above - it can take up to half an hour to deactivate NPQ, meaning that photosynthesis is less efficient during this time.
My new lab bench, all ready to go! But not just yet...
The researchers transformed Nicotiana tabacum tobacco plants with three different genes coding for proteins which influence the rate of NPQ. These were a subunit of Photosystem II that helps promote the acidic pH needed for quenching, and two enzymes that catalyse the xanthophyll cycle which produces photoprotective pigements. In the engineered plants, NPQ relaxation was considerably quicker, leading to more efficient photosynthesis. When the plants were tested in field trials, the GM Tobacco had yields 14-20 % higher (in terms of the dry weight of the leaves). The project has now secured funding from the Gates Foundation to explore whether this approach could also be successful in food crops, such as rice and soya bean.

Given the increasing challenge of feeding our growing population whilst conserving resources, this could be a game changer. For more information on the story can be found here.

Hope you have a good week ahead, my resolution for the next is for more sleep!

Saturday 19 November 2016

FINALLY - Back in the Lab!

This has been a momentous week - after being kept out of the lab for over a year due to my ongoing battle with anorexia, I have finally been cleared as 'medically fit to study'. Hurrah!

But it won't be full speed ahead to make up for lost time.... instead, it's going to be a much slower start as I am not allowed to do any practical lab work until the new year. Whilst this frustrates me, I have to appreciate that my supervisors are concerned that I will overwork myself again and neglect my health. It's up to me to prove that I can have a better work-life balance and keep going over the long term. After all, a PhD is a marathon and I can't afford to keep conking out.

But I have plenty to do in the meantime - I still need to do my First Year Upgrade Report to be able to progress to my next stage of study. I am also writing up all the methods and results from my first year, ready to form the opening chapters of my thesis. It needs to be done at some point so it may as well be done now...even though it's not my favourite sort of work: long hours in front of computer screens, bashing graphs together on Excel, etc.

My 'PhD in a box'...fortunately it survived a year of storage in a shed on the Department roof...
Although I was nervous about how my colleagues in the lab would react when I returned, I needn't have worried. There has been a big changeround in the past year with so many people leaving and others arriving, that one more 'new' person isn't particularly noticeable. I've spent most of the first week back unpacking my 'PhD in a box' and colonising my new space in the lab and office. Because I had to leave the lab so suddenly, I literally only had time to throw everything into a pile, seal it up and hope for the best....fortunately my seed stocks are still intact. I can't wait to start growing plants again and tending to 'my babies' but in the meantime I have to be patient...

But I can't complain - I finally have a toehold back in the lab and take part in departmental life again - the seminars, workshops, public engagement events.... apparently there is even a "Bake Off" competition every Monday....

It's so good to be back!

Friday 5 August 2016

A very modern plant hunter - presenting Dr Sandy Knapp

As a plant taxonomist, Sandy Knapp’s career straddles both the historic and modern realms of plant science. Just like the pioneering plant hunters of old, she has travelled to some of the most remote places on earth to seek new specimens. To date, she has described over 75 new species mostly from the Solanum (nightshade) family, which includes tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes. However her role at the Natural History Museum also involves championing the cause of plant conservation against the very modern threats posed by man. I first met Sandy at the 2010 Gatsby Plants Summer school, and she was one of the most influential people to convince me to go into plant science myself. As such, I couldn’t resist asking for an interview about her journey so far.

 What inspired you to become a botanist?
I first got interested in botany whey I took a field botany class by mistake – we went out to the desert on field trips every weekend to collect and identify plants, and I was totally hooked!
 What has been your career journey, starting from University and leading to your current role at the Natural History Museum?

I attended university at the liberal arts institution Pomona College in Claremont, California USA and received my BA in 1978. I then began my studies in plant ecology at the University of California at Irvine before transferring to Cornell University (Ithaca NY USA) in 1980 to work with the late Dr Michael D Whalen for my doctorate on taxonomy of Solanum section Geminata (Solanaceae) – a group of Neotropical forest trees and shrubs in the nightshade family
When I finished university (at the liberal arts institution Pomona College in California), I went to do a MSc at a nearby institution, but it didn’t suit me, so I transferred to Cornell University in Ithaca New York. The late Dr Michael Whalen convinced me to go on a tropical field course run by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) in Costa Rica – and just like when I discovered botany, the tropics really grabbed me. I choose as a PhD thesis topic the taxonomy of a tropical group of forest trees and shrubs in the Solanum family; maybe not the most sensible choice, as their taxonomy was a total mess but like botany and the tropics, Solanum has me in its thrall!
Mid-way through my PhD I was offered a job collecting plants for the Missouri Botanical Garden (St. Louis Missouri) in Panama, so I took a year off and worked. It was totally brilliant – they even gave me a truck. I had a trailer to live in and a quota of 500 collections a month. I spent loads of time in the Darien, a relatively unexplored part of the country, and I learned LOTS about tropical plants. I also learned to speak Spanish – handy. Once back doing my PhD I got a grant from the National Science Foundation to go back in the field, this time to South America, my then-husband and I spent almost a year collecting Solanums from Ecuador to Venezuela, it was great!
Sandy botanising in Panama (Photo credit: Kerry Dressler)

After getting my PhD, my then-husband got a post-doc in London at University College London to work on butterfly hybrid zones in Peru. I contacted various botanical institutes to see if they wanted plants I could collect there – and Missouri employed me as a collector again, this time in the foothills of the Andes in eastern Peru. While working there I applied for a NATO Post-Doctoral Fellowship to work at the Natural History Museum, and once we returned to the UK I worked with the late Chris Humphries on categorising Solanum species.
I then began a family and moved with my husband to Mississippi, where he got a permanent job. We were there for 3 years; I had two more children, and worked in the herbarium as a research associate. I saw a job was advertised at the Natural History Museum to lead the Flora Mesoamericana project: an inventory of the approximately 18,000 species of plants of southern Mexico and the isthmus of Central America. I jumped at it, applied and was offered the job! I have been here ever since.
What is a "typical" day like for you?
I’m sorry but there is no such thing! Some days I get to look at plant specimens and compare them under the microscope and really think about species limits in the group I am tackling at the moment, while other days are spent working with colleagues on a wide variety of Museum related projects. Last Friday, for example, I was involved in filming all day for a travelling exhibition, being interviewed about Richard Owen and Hans Sloane (the collector who bequeathed what became the founding collection of the British Museum).
  What are the best and worst aspects of your job?
The variety is one of the best aspects of my job – I am always learning something new, and no day is ever the same. But I suppose in my heart I long for days to spend just working with plants – but I wouldn’t trade what I have!
Collecting specimens at high altitudes in Peru (Photo credit: Tiina Särkinen)

 What has been your most bizarre plant-related experience?
Hmmm, bizarre……  I guess one of the strangest was when we found a new passionflower by following the butterfly that feeds on it. A friend went off into the woods (as you do) and came back with the flower of a plant we had been seeing for almost a year but with no flowers or fruit. We named it after the butterfly that fed on it – Passiflora eueidipabulum.
Why is it important that we learn about and care for plants?
Plants are the fabric of the terrestrial ecosystems – without them there would be no structure or complexity for the rest of life on Earth. Besides, they are fascinating and do some pretty wild and wonderful things!
What would you say to someone who believes that "Plants are Boring!"
Not so – you just need to slow down a bit and look at their pace…..  or maybe just look at the world in a different way.
 And finally...if you were a plant, which would you be?
I would be Solanum anomalostemon, a species a colleague and I described from Peru that only grows in one river valley: the valley of the Rio Apurimac which has spectacular scenery. But even better than that, the plant itself is a bit peculiar and is a bit of a mystery…..the intrigue!
For more information about Sandy's career, view her page on the Natural History Museum website

Friday 8 July 2016

Mad microlites, synthetic science and good bye Brighton: Days 4-5 ofthe Society for Experimental Biology Annual Meeting

Despite this being the third time I have reported on the Society for Experimental Biology's Annual Meeting, it has amazed me yet again just how quickly the conference has flown by. It seems only yesterday when I arrived in Brighton for the first time and yet so much has happened since then!

The fourth day, Wednesday, proved especially busy. I'm hoping to write a feature on the synthetic biology work being presented here so I spent most of the morning in the 'Re-engineering Life' session. Although most of the modelling diagrams went over my head, it was fascinating stuff with enormous potential, from designing novel microorganisms that can fix carbon dioxide in new ways to introducing gene circuits into mammalian cells that are activated by light.

In the WoodHouse Lecture, Professor Jane Langdale (Oxford University) carried on this theme by giving us an update on the C4 Project, which aims to boost productivity in rice by overhauling photosynthesis. In conventional C3 plants, photosynthetic efficiency is limited by the competing reaction of respiration which inhibits the activity of the key enzyme! RUBISCO. In C4 plants however, respiration and photosynthesis are spatially separated because the leaf cells have a distinct Kranz ('wreath-like') architecture around the veins. If this arrangement could be introduced into cereals such as rice, this could have profound impacts for food security. Professor Langdale's work focuses on understanding the developmental systems that cause Kranz anatomy; so far, she has identified many of the major gene players and is now at the stage where they are being expressed as transgene vectors in rice. Because C4 plants also use nitrogen and water more efficiently, in theory C4 rice could have 50% higher yields than current varieties. However, this is an enormous feat to pull off and Professor Langdale "doesn't anticipate that we will initiate any plant breeding until at least  2029". It must be incredible to work on a project that will outlive your career and for which you will ultimately have to pass on the baton. As Professor Langdale put it: "We may have started it, but the people who will deliver it are our young PhDs and PostDocs".  

The afternoon passed in another blur of presentations before the second round of posters ( and free wine). I managed to get round quite a few of them ( who knew that cat urine could affect mice reproductive cycles...?) and even managed to swap some ideas with the plant researchers for my own PhD project. Then I was off to a first for the SEB meetings: a 'fringe event' organised with the Brighton Cafe Scientifiqué group*. Having heard that the SEB would be coming to town, the group had asked if they could borrow one of our speakers for one of their meetings. Steve Portugal, animal behaviour researcher, kindly obliged. 

One of Steve's research areas asks the question - Why do birds fly in V formation? It is presumed that the birds position themselves to most benefit from the updraft of the bird in front, saving precious energy. The only real way to test this however is to fit some birds with rather sophisticated data loggers: in this case, the researchers settled on the Northern Bald Ibis. As the loggers cost around £3000 each, it is vital that your test subjects will comeback to you with your data! So a group of volunteers were recruited to become Foster Parents to the Bald Ibis chicks. To start with, they had to make sure that they were the very first thing the birds saw when they hatched, so that they would imprint on them. After then living with the birds for 9 months, the foster parents had to teach them to fly. Because the chicks would follow 'Mum' or 'Dad' wherever they went, the volunteers were flown in a microlight from which they bellowed encouragement through a megaphone to their charges. "The locals in the little Austrian village where all this took place thought it was very strange at first, but they ended up really taking to the project" said Steve. It must have been quite an entertaining spectacle...all in the name of research! (Don't believe me? See here!)

Once the birds were trained, the researchers took them on a 'migration' to Southern Italy, following the microlight all the way and stopping at night to 'camp together' on the ground. The results demonstrated that not only do the birds generally keep to the most energetically saving formation, but they also remember which individuals do their fair share of the hard work at the front. If a particularly keen bird put in a good stint at the front for instance, then the next day his fellows made sure they had a rest. Fascinating stuff but what is the point of it all? Apparently the aviation industry are looking to mimic V formations in commercial aircraft: the idea is that planes making a transatlantic crossing meet up in the air after taking off from their respective airports, fly across the ocean in a V, and then peel off to their different destinations. You read it here first!

The talk proved a real hit with the audience, especially the videos showing the young ibis birds in training. I could have stayed all night listening to the lively questions, but exhaustion suddenly overtook me and I had to make a dash back to the hotel. 

By the last day, Thursday, things started to quieten down, although there was a sudden flurry of interest in my press release on coconuts - we even made Sky News! And I finally managed to  get to Brighton Pier and take a tour of the sweet shops, funfair and arcade stalls. I must admit that Brighton wasn't at all as I expected it would be - I thought it would be much quieter place, a bit like Bournemouth only bigger! But the hip and happening vibe has certainly grown on me and I am going to miss being beside the seaside. So it's with a fond farewell that I bade it goodbye and head back to Sheffield - armed with reams of notes, recordings and interviews to turn into articles for the next Society Bulletin. The real work has only just started!

Thanks for sharing it all with me. Until next time!

* At Café Scientifique events, anyone - for the price of a tea, coffee or glass of wine - can come to learn about fascinating research and discuss topical scientific issues. Events take place worldwide and are often free, with requests for donations.  For more information and to find a local group click here

Tuesday 5 July 2016

Dream write your science, re-engineer life and network all the way: Day Three of the Society for Experimental Biology 2016 Meeting

I'm absolutely shattered and it's only the second 'official' day of the Conference. Trying to keep up with so much research - across the breadth of the sciences - is exhausting! But. That is one of the definitions points of SEB meetings; there is such a variety of research on offer. This was neatly illustrated by the President's Medallists talks this morning. First up, Oliver Castell ( University of Sheffield) described how building synthetic cell structures led him to a novel method to sequence DNA. This was followed by Jodie Rummer ( James Cook University), on how she was using her career as a distinguished fish physiologist to inspire others, especially girls, to develop a curiosity for science. 

Given that so many academics are also educators - of students and the public - the following session 'A Science Communication Toolkit' was a particular highlight. In a lively series of talks we learnt that poor drawing skills are no barrier to illustrating research with  cartoons; where to find appropriate video clips to illustrate lectures (https://biologyonthebox.wordpress.com) and how to give your PowerPoint the 'WOW' factor using SmartArt. I was intrigued by Gilly Smith's (University of Warwick) presentation on how 'Dreamwriting' can help academics and students to overcome writing blocks. This essentially invokes streaming your thoughts down automatically onto paper, an iPad, a voice recorder, etc. without ceasing or even thinking about it. It's well known that our most creative thoughts often surface when we stop thinking about the problem; hence, Dreamwriting allows new ideas to emerge because we stop thinking about whether what we write is right or wrong. It might not write your thesis, but it can certainly help you to grasp the full story of your research and work out how best to convey it to others. Something I shall definitely try on my return! 

The lunch break saw a new 'first' for the SEB meetings: an informal session called 'Meet the Young Academics', featuring a panel of speakers who are steadily climbing up the rungs of academia towards Professorship. Despite coming from a wide background of research fields, their advice contained several recurring themes: constantly be on the lookout for new opportunities, cast the net as widely as possible when looking for funding opportunities and above all network network network - starting with this meeting! It's all too easy to sit with your own lab group when you go to conferences, but who knows what chance encounters and conversations you are missing out on? As our panel could demonstrate, new connections can one day turn into collaborations, or even future supervisors...

My favourite 'freebie' today - what better way to encourage girls into STEM careers?

A lot of the afternoon's Synthetic Biology Session went over my head - very hardcore stuff, re-engineering the components of life! - but I was blown away by Giles Oldroyd's update on the ambitious project to introduce nitrogen fixation into cereal crops. Whilst most commercial crops rely on heavy fertiliser inputs, certain plants ( particularly legumes) can fix their own nitrogen through forming symbiotic associations with Rhizobia bacteria, which are contained in nodules on the plant roots. If this trait could be introduced into cereals, it could allow an exponential increase in yields, particularly in areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa where nutrient input is the main limiting factor on crop productivity. It was previously thought that only legumes were capable of recruiting Rhizobia but excitingly, Giles Oldroyd's research has shown that the signalling pathway for nodulation was derived from a much more ancient pathway ubiquitous across all plant species that is used to recruit Arbuscular Mycorrhizal fungi ( which assist in nutrient uptake from the soil). So the basic components for the nodulation pathway are present in cereals - with only a few pieces missing that are specific to the nodulation process. So far Giles has demonstrated that genetic constructs of these signalling elements that are present in legumes CAN be expressed in cereals : now his challenge is to put together the whole pathway in cereals. It may well take years to pull off but such is the potential impact of this work, that even the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are supporting it. 

Even when the talks stopped, the science kept on coming, in the form of the first poster session. The SEB has a winning strategy to boost attendance at these events : free wine! But it is wonderful for the PhD students and early career scientists to have a chance to showcase their work. Meanwhile it also allows me to catch up with several acquaintances  all at once, whilst scouting out new research to write about. 

More fun and games tomorrow! See you soon and thanks for reading.

Monday 4 July 2016

Bees, Birds and Badges - Society for Experimental Biology Annual Meeting Day Two

Good morning Brighton! Everything already seems a lot busier today, with a noticeable bustle in the hotel and around the conference centre. Breakfast is spent answering journalist's enquiries, arranging meetings and marking up my programme for the day. It's going to be a busy one...
Not such a sunny day today

The morning kicked off with proper 'hard science' in the President's Medallist talks. In the plant session, Dr Matt Johnson showed us his ingenious technique for seeking out the protein complexes that make up photosystems in chloroplasts. In Atmoic Force Microscopy, an ultra- fine needle moves across the surface of the object in question ( such as a leaf) and sketches out the tomography with nanometer-scale resolution. But this isn't fine enough to distinguish the different protein components of photosystems so  designed a 'baited' needle, which was covered with proteins that bound to the complex in question. The needle was also fitted with a sensor to measure the force required to pull the needle off the surface of the leaf. So when the needle touched the complex, the proteins on it would transiently bind to the complex causing the needle to stick slightly, until the force increased enough to pull it off. A bit like pulling a stubborn cork that's stuck in a bottle! By seeing where the probe got 'stuck', Dr Mohnson was able to map the distribution of the complexes. Next up were the Young Scientists. Despite only being PhD students, their projects were clearly tackling relevant issues for food security: manipulating Giberellic Acid levels to improve wheat grain quality, improving water use efficiency by modifying  stomatal pores and working out how plants sense the cold.
Marking up my programme

I couldn't resist popping along to Professor Mandyam Srinivasan on how visual processing in bees and birds are helping to develop better automated aircraft. Apparently both bees and birds use the balance of optic flow between their eyes to steer themselves. So if a bee flys through a tunnel where one of the walls is static and the other is moving forward, it will fly closer to the moving wall because to the bee's point of view the image on that side appears to flow past more slowly. A similar mechanism monitors the level of the far horizon, to control rolling and stop nose diving. As we saw in a rather entertaining series of videos, these principals can be converted into algorithms for automatically flying model aircraft -  accurate enough even for  'loop the loops'!

After that, I spent most of the day in the Biology Education session, hearing about the latest ingenious ways lecturers have come up with to engage apathetic undergraduates. My favourite had to be the University of British Columbia's idea of 'Digital Badges' : similar to Guides and Scout badges, these are awarded to students once they complete a set of objectives, only here they feature topics such as Microscopy, Molecular Biology Techniques, and so on. Besides having clear aesthetic appeal and motivating independent study, these online badges can be put on LinkedIn profiles and CVs, boosting employability. The only negative feedback was that the students lamented they wanted real badges. So the lecturers promptly had a series of badges made which they could iron on to their lab coats - and this made the students 'very happy' indeed! It seems that even in these 'Digital Days', we can't resist the allure of a physical collectible...
A brief pause between sessions...

The final lecture of the day was a tribute to Profesor Roger Woledge, clearly a scientist of great dedication and thoroughness. From starting out investigating the mechanical versatility of fish muscle, he went on to demonstrate that  there is a clear trade off across animals between muscle power and efficiency. So tortoises have highly efficient muscles ( in that they convert the highest proportion of energy input to useful work, rather than heat) but have limited power output - hence their strategy to evade predators is to hide rather than run away! Even after officially 'retiring', Prof Woledge carried on pioneering new research inquiries, including asking why it is that the elderly are so at risk of falling. Tragically, he died in a riding accident just days after accepting the invitation to give this lecture, thus it was poignantly fitting for his colleagues to present his work in his stead. 

After so much science, my eyes are drooping. The wine trail is at full flow around me and the atmosphere is becoming increasingly ebullient with animated conversation. I'm giving it a miss and will head off for an early night instead. After all, there is even more to come tomorrow!

Goodnight and thanks for reading!

Sunday 3 July 2016

On Location in Brighton - SEB 2016 Annual Meeting - Day One

It seems only a few weeks since I returned from the 2015 Annual Meeting for the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) in Prague. But no, a whole year has gone by and here I am in Brighton for the 2016 meeting - as an official science writer for the society! It will be my job to scout around for exciting new research to turn into articles for the members' magazine. I've already trawled through all the abstracts ( over 600 of them! ) and it's clear that it's going to be a jam packed week. Fortunately I am staying in the ( rather grand ! ) Hilton Hotel, just minutes from the action at Brighton Conference Centre. 

But today has been one of relative calm before the main conference kicks off tomorrow. Like last year, it has been a chance it bring the younger SEB members together to share ideas on how to maximise the impact of their work and their personal profile. The question this time was why and how should scientists engage with the media to publicise their work? As Sarah Blackford (head of Education and Public Engagement at SEB ) put it: "If you don't communicate it, it doesn't exist! All that hard work in the lab could be wasted if you don't tell anyone about it." But public engagement requires a very different style of writing to the weighty academic paper; it has to be succinct, engaging and above all stand out against the now constant deluge of new information. Sarah made the point that scientists are used to waiting to the end of a paper before they mention the wider significance of their work, whereas for a press release, the impact needs to come first. Think about it as though you have just won a competition: start by saying "I've won a prize!" then tell us how you did it, not the other way around!

Jenny Gimpel ( a science PR worker) then gave us her insights into the media industry, particularly the increasing role of social media. Now that so many of us have a smartphone, it comes as no surprise that more and more people are getting their news updates from Facebook and Twitter, rather than TV and Radio. This gives scientists unprecedented opportunities to reach new audiences, spark new discussions and counter bad science with the truth. But this comes with the risk of messages becoming distorted or misunderstood. "Be aware that people can change their behaviour based on what you write - especially if it is related to health" Jenny cautioned. "In the past I have even received medical reports from people, asking me for advice!"
Oh I do like to be beside the seaside..

Often, such exaggeration and hyperbole is blamed on journalists that care more about creating a story than telling the truth. But Alun Anderson, former editor of New Scientist, argued that these suspicions can make it very tricky for journalists to engage with scientists to find the heart of the matter. "It's been said that a journalist is a person whose job is to explain to others what s/he does not personally understand" he said "And scientists don't like talking to people who don't understand!" Yet a responsible journalist can transform the dry details of experimental research into news items that reach wide audiences, and scientists should make use of their skills. Rather than racing to the headline, journalists actually often spend a lot of time building up trust with researchers, exploring their passions and learning the basic details of their work before committing to paper. It's time scientists started to meet them halfway, and stopped seeing all journalists as pest. After all, "our job is to EMPOWER the public so they know what is happening in the world" concluded Alun. 

Public engagement was also a theme in the evening's Science with Impact session, this year entitled "Biodiversity: Here , There and Everywhere". This started with a gloomy picture : across the world , species of every taxa are disappearing at an alarming rate. Besides the 'classic' problems of urbanisation, increasing population, climate change and pollution, we are witnessing new, emerging trends such as micro plastics in the oceans and contamination from discarded pharmaceuticals. However our speakers offered hope that not all is lost yet. Botanist Sandra Knapp (Natural History Museum) enthralled us with her tales from her career of over 30 years of hunting out new plant species in remote, tropical locations. But she made the point that all biodiversity - even in urban areas - is essential and valuable, not just rare exotics. "Discovery comes in all forms and flavours" she said. "If you discover something that's new to you, but not to science, then it's still new!" 
Waiting for the Science with Impact session to start

Yet even urban areas can play their part in reversing biodiversity loss, as Maureen Berg ( University of Brighton) explained. With thoughtful urban planning and 'green infrastructure', cities can be transformed into a mosaic of micro habitats. This goes beyond parks and gardens but includes the potential in allotments, disused railway lines, canals, even rooftops. "Green rooftops have a massive potential to help cities meet their biodiversity targets" she stated, using the example of the Moos Water Filtration system, one of the earliest green roof prototypes (1914). Apparently,this now boasts 13 species of orchids, including locally rare specimens. Yet this urban 'greening' brigs us countless benefits as well - improved air quality, flood protection, mental and physical well being, even higher house values. 

But these benefits have to be communicated to the public, as we all need to play our part to safeguard species futures, argued Steven Cooke (Carleton University, Canada). Although we can be tempted to think that we can " engineer our way out of the situation", ultimately "just doing the science is not enough - people are the most important part of the solution" Steven stated. Whilst one person alone can't halt global warming, each of us collectively has an impact though how we vote, what we buy and how we interact with our environment. If we are to protect the remaining species on this planet, we need to stop seeing scientists and the public as separate entities - we are all in this together. In this respect, scientists could learn from NGOs: many people know about dolphin friendly tuna, for instance, thanks to Greenpeace, but micro plastics within everyday products is still  mostly unheard of. It's clear that as scientists, we will need to take a broader, social view to appreciate the issues that are important to the public and help them to understand how helping biodiversity ultimately helps them in return. As Sandra put it "it's not so much a question of changing their behaviour, but changing their lives so that people want to change their behaviour". 

Media spokespeople, public engages, advocates for the planet...the modern scientist has many roles indeed to play. But tomorrow, the focus goes back to the work in the lab when the main science sessions get underway, which means it's time for an early night for me! See you tomorrow...