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 25 March 2016

BigBang Fair 2016!

Here's my round-up of volunteering at the BigBang Fair 2016, held at the NEC Wednesday 16-Saturday 19 March
I love that thrill of anticipation when you are about to spend several days engrossed in something you love. One of my favourite things is inspiring people with science, especially children with their boundless curiosity! And where better to do it than the Big Bang Fair, the nation’s largest celebration of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, particularly aimed at 7-19 years olds. Last year, over 70,000 pupils, teaches and families came through the doors at the NEC and this year looks set to be bigger than ever!

First port of call - the registration desk to claim my BigBang T-Shirt so I can join the ranks of red volunteers. After a brisk briefing, the STEM Activity roles are delegated and I can't resist putting myself down for the 'Live Operating Theatre'. I'm not disappointed; the stand is almost an exact replica of a real operating room - albeit one with rock music and disco lights - with four patients urgently needing a pacemaker fitted. For once, I'm grateful to have a slight head cold as the stench from the real (pig) organs would be challenging otherwise!
This is OperatingTheatre LIVE!

After a quick anatomy lesson, we're open for business. Almost immediately, the school groups flock over with gasps, exclamations and outbursts of 'Are they REAL?!' As I get stuck into the demo, I don't even notice time passing: the queues are endless but it feels wonderful to be in demand! Suddenly, four hours have gone by and it's time to grab a quick lunch in the volunteer room before its back to work.

Just as I'm beginning to wonder if the endless conveyor belt of kids will ever end, a sudden lull descends as teachers begin rounding up their groups to catch their coaches home. My voice has almost vanished and I feel completely, but happily, exhausted. No plans tonight other than to sleep!

Reading the news in the BBC Tent

I'm back on the operating theatre today and the crowds are as relentless as yesterday. Doris ( my mannequin) and I make a good team, and I'm getting quite dexterous at slipping the wires through her coronary veins. I've never talked so much in my life - and not just to the visitors. In any of the spare moments, I've been really enjoying meeting the other volunteers and exhibitors here and discovering the astonishing range of people bound by the common purpose of making this event a success.

Pulling a party popper in slo-mo

Today I'm helping on the FlavourSense Nation stand, a not-for-profit project that creatively showcases the science behind flavour perception. My demo involves shaking noisy cans to show how different sounds can affect how we experience food - difficult to pull off when we have to compete with the ruckus from the BigBang stage next door! But there are still plenty of moments when I wish I could capture the astonished expressions on camera - especially when the kids try a taste of pure Unami flavouring!

How does sound affect how we experience food?

I'm discharged slightly earlier this time so make a beeline for the BBC tent. Just before it closes, I manage to read the news, pull a party popper in slow motion and get my very own free souvenir photo in front of the green screen!


The Fair has been opened up to families today, and they seem to pour in as soon as the doors are opened. This time, I'm on the Large Structures stand to help demonstrate how just about ANYTHING can be constructed with newspaper. It is ridiculously popular - even though many of the exhibits feature outrageously expensive robots or computers, the kids seem more excited by the chance to compress six sheets of newspaper into super strong rods. It's so manic, I barely get a chance to say hello to my cousin, who has brought her two boys to the fair. Even after the official closing time, there are still queue of punters begging for a go. Only when it's finally time to down tools do I see how blackened my hands are! It's with a heavy heart that I return to the volunteer room for the last time to collect my belongings. But then, there is always next year...

Tips for budding BigBang Volunteers:

Inform yourself: arm yourself with knowledge about everything that's going on. In the brief calm before the hoards arrive, take a walk and get your bearings - you will be asked where things are: toilets, information desk and of course 'the place giving out those awesome free lollipops!"
How to inspire kids to do science!!!

Communicate with each other: if you're in a team, talk to each other and coordinate your schedules. It doesn't keep things running smoothly if you all decide to go off on a break at the same time! Be considerate as well about swapping over for some of the less riveting roles.

Embrace it all: the further you go with science education, the more specialised you become. The BigBang Fair is the perfect opportunity to reappreciate the mind expanding breadth of wonders from space to deadly diseases. Don't be put off if you find yourself on a demo completely unrelated to your personal area of science: you will still be passing on the message that science is astounding!

Tell a story: kids love to be taken on a journey so draw them into what you are doing and put the scene in context. For instance, on the live operating theatre, we made the procedure more realistic by asking the kids to put the 'patient ' to sleep with anaesthetic before we performed heart surgery.

Keep injecting the enthusiasm: you may have trotted out your spiel word for word several hundred times already but the kids visiting your stand won't know that. Try to give each person a fresh experience – remember that you have the power to either inspire or put them off an area of science for life!

And finally - Strepsils are your best friend. If you don't lose your voice, you probably aren't talking enough!

Who knew what you could build out of newspaper?!

Wednesday 23 March 2016

Kathleen Drew-Baker – Saving the Seaweed!

As promised, here is the blog post about a truly inspiring plant scientist, which I produced during the University of Salford's Leap into Science Blogging Event on 29th February:

 How is it that Kathleen Drew-Baker, a Lancashire lass virtually unknown in the UK, is revered in Japan as the “Mother of the Sea” and even has a National Day of dedication? It's a story about curiosity saving the day, international networking and inspired thinking – and one that was nearly jeopardised by archaic ‘anti-feminist’ rules at the time…

 To understand the significance of Kathleen’s work, you first need to grasp just how BIG the edible seaweed industry is. In Japan alone, over 230 square miles of coastline are dedicated to nori farming, producing the 350,000 tonnes necessary to keep sushi restaurants in business. But even in the 1940s, the lifecycle of Poryphyra yezoensis (aka nori), was practically unknown. Farmers literally trusted that it would be there, as it always had been. But in the 1948, it wasn't there –a combination of typhoons and pollution had collapsed the nori harvest. And as no one knew the first thing about how the seaweed reproduced, there was no way to get it back.

 Meanwhile, in Manchester, Kathleen was following her dream, conducting her own research into the lifecycle of the red alga Porphyra umbilicalis – the component of the Welsh delicacy laverbread. Having won a scholarship to study Botany at the University of Manchester, she graduated in 1922 with first class honours, and then progressed up the tiers of academia to Lecturer and Researcher in Botany. Seaweeds were her specialist subject and such was  her expertise that she co-founded the British Phycological Society in 1952. Yet this stellar career was almost cut short when she married her sweetheart Henry Wright Baker – and was promptly expelled from the University due to their policy of not employing married women! However, her scientific skills were saved when she was awarded a more acceptable Honorary Research Fellowship. She was lucky too that her husband – a lecturer in mechanical engineering – also supported her work, even building her a special tidal sea water tank for her investigations.

Her critical discovery came when she realised that a tiny alga called Conchocelis was NOT in fact a separate species to Poryphyra, but a different stage of the same lifecycle. In fact, Conchocelis is the spore- producing powerhouse that generates new Poryphyra filaments that grow into mature seaweeds. But to do this, Conchocelis needs old seashells to grow in. In a historic example of very – modern collaboration and strategic thinking, her work, published in Nature, came to the attention of Japanese scientist  Professor Sokichi Segawa, who immediately realised that these results were also likely to apply to the closely related Poryphyra yezoensis. With this insight, the Fisheries Station were able to develop methods for artificially cultivating the spores on strings – techniques that proved so effective, that they form the basis of modern nori farming today.

And so the industry was saved, thanks to one pioneering woman who didn't let convention stand in her way. Sadly, like another great female researcher Rosalind Franklin, Kathleen did not live to see the full impact of her work, falling victim to cancer in 1957. But the Japanese were determined not to let her name fade into the dusty archives and erected a shrine to her in Osaka, where industry representatives still meet each year to bestow garlands to her memory.

 So on April 14,why not raise a glass of Sake to Kathleen and have a sushi feast!

Thursday 10 March 2016

Voice of the Future 2016

Here, I report on the action at Voice of the Future 2016, held at Portcullis House, Westminster on Tuesday 1st March. This event brings early-career scientists and MPs together in the style of a Parliamentary Select Committee briefing, to encourage scientists to consider a career in policy-making.

“Order, order!” To keep with a true Parliamentary debate, the Rt Hon John Bercow, Speaker for the House of Commons, officially opened the proceedings at VOF 2016. I felt honoured to be here representing the Society of Experimental Biology (SEB) among a host of delegates from the nation’s most prestigious learned societies. As young scientists, this was our chance to pose our questions to MPs and ministers on everything from food security, the upcoming EU referendum, the energy crises, the Zika virus – every topical issue you could think of! I couldn't wait to start.

Ready for action! (Photo: Royal Society for Biology)
In the first Panel, we asked Sir Mark Walport (Government Chief Scientific Adviser) whether it was right for scientists to feel constantly pressured to publish papers to advance their careers – surely this distorts research towards positive, high-impact results? "A negative experiment is not a failed experiment - it tells you something you didn't know, even if it is that your hypothesis was wrong" Sir Walport reminded us. The issue of Open Access publishing was also raised - can this radically new approach really work over the long-term? Sir Walport thought so, stating that "the already successful Open Access journals show that this is an economic model that can work. Someone is still paying, but now the cost of publishing becomes one of the costs of the research, just like a centrifuge."

On Science Education: "We have to ask what is the problem with the school environment that puts people off going in there?" Nicola Blackwood (MP for Oxford West and Abington)

Following this, we enjoyed a lively debate with a range of representatives from the Science and Technology Committee. The alarming lack of qualified STEM teachers was a particular concern, with
Nicola Blackwood (MP for Oxford West and Abington) stating: “The skills gap has reached a crisis point - for instance, there is worrying evidence that only 35% of ICT teachers have a relevant qualification. Besides missing STEM teachers, we also wanted to know where are all the women in the higher tiers of academia and industry? Clearly, more needs to be done to make a scientific career and motherhood compatible. Meanwhile, could a split from the EU put British Science Institutions in jeopardy? After all, the UK currently receives the highest proportion of European Research Council funding (22%). Whilst some felt that "the excellence of our institutions will keep collaboration resilient", others weren't so confident. "We don't want our scientists to be left outside, looking in on projects to cure cancer, develop new energy technologies, etc." said Stella Creasy (MP for Walthamstow).
The "Inner Horseshoe" (Photo: Royal Society for Biology)
We then had a break in the more formal proceedings to receive a very special message, recorded specially for us from the International Space Station. British astronaut (and new celebrity!) Tim Peake sent us his greetings and described some of his own recent scientific experiments on the accelerating ageing effects of space travel. Although his voyage has been hailed as an inspiration to the British public, he imagines a more audacious future still. “In the not too distant future, human space travel will become as routine as commercial aviation is today” he assured us.

My nerves kicked in as the third panel started as it would soon be time for me to pose my question. Fortunately, I maintained my composure and was able to look Jo Johnson (Minister of State for Universities and Science, Department of Business, Innovation and Skills) in the eye and ask “If Global Warming is as bad as the worst-case scenarios predict, how will this current Government justify itself?” Unfazed, Mr Johnson reminded us of the UK’s critical contribution in the Paris Climate Talks of December 2015 and pointed out that over the last Parliament, carbon emissions had dropped by 18%, the largest decrease ever in a single Parliament. I suppose that only time will tell as to whether our actions now will be enough to avoid the worst damage possible – and by then, it’s likely that a different set of MPs than those before us today will be in office.

On Women in Science:"It's a matter of providing choices" said Carol Monaghan (MP for Glasgow Northwest)."If a woman has to leave science to spend more time with her children, then there's something wrong".
In the final panel, societal issues were the theme of our discussion with Shadow Minister Yvonne Fovargue. When asked what should be done to prompt more girls to take up maths and physics degrees, she argued that encouragement must come at a much earlier stage. As to the proposed “sugar tax”, she argued that “Raising the cost of food for people isn’t going to solve the obesity problem”, particularly as so much of our sugar intake is hidden in processed foods. Instead, the government should adopt an educational approach that “makes people understand the value of healthy eating”.
Throughout the day, we were encouraged to get involved and consider a future in Parliament and policy making. "People keep asking why there are so many MPs without science degrees" said Sir Mark Walport. "And at the end of the day, it's because they stood for election". But even if you don't want to try and make it as an MP, being active at a local level can be effective. reminded us that even. "Do not underestimate the power of your local MP" Dr Tania Mathias (MP for Twickenham) reminded us. "If you can pitch an idea and explain it to me, I can take it to the back benches". Nevertheless, as we all departed for our various destinations, I couldn’t help but feel that more than a few of the delegates would return to Portcullis House one day...

A special broadcast from outer space...(Photo: Royal Society for Biology)
To see the official recording of Voice of the Future 2016, click here. (I am in the inner horseshoe on the left!)

Tuesday 8 March 2016

A very "meaty issue" indeed - Food Security in a Changing World

My round-up of the latest event held by the University of Sheffield's very own Science in Policy group.

Food Production, Health and the Environment proved to be one of Science in Policy’s liveliest debates yet, and little wonder with “The Food Issue” being such an emotive one. In a world facing the challenges of 10 billion-strong global population, climate change, environmental degradation and changing diets, what is the best way to proceed? Vegetarian vs. carnivore, local vs. imported, organic vs. GM – we put it all under the spotlight!

Our Panel:

Prof. Colin Osborne (Professor of Plant Biology, University of Sheffield, chair)

Dr Margo Barker (Human Nutrition Unit, University of Sheffield)

Sam Durham (Chief Land Management Adviser, National Farmers' Union)

Dr Chris Jones (Social and Environmental Psychologist, University of Sheffield)

Dr Wayne Martindale (Centre for Food Innovation, Sheffield Hallam University)

One of the ‘meatiest’ topics of the night was the vegetarian debate – with developing countries aspiring to a Western-style diet, is our rate of meat consumption sustainable? The panel agreed that a vegetarian diet will always be greener than a carnivorous one – even if it does rely on more dairy products and fruit/veg flown in from around the world. But Chris argued that presenting the issue as a “dichotomy of choice” isn’t practical or even realistic while meat plays such a central role in social celebrations. “We can get bogged down in the environmental debate but we have to consider other angles, such as whether something can be culturally sustainable” said Chris. Overall, a good place to start would be for us all to cut down on meat products – particularly red and processed meats, the worst consumers of fossil fuels, water and energy – and buy local when we can.

Food miles were also a hot topic, particularly as Britain imports a staggering 50% of its vegetables and 75% of its fruit. It doesn’t help that we are clearly out of touch with seasonal eating these days; in fact, “our need for strawberries at Christmas has put Spain under cover to produce them for us”. But even if you do look for the “produced in Britain” label, our agricultural systems have become so globalised that you may find your salad nipped over the channel to be packaged before being reimported to your supermarket! Meanwhile, as Wayne pointed out, cutting all our food imports could jeopardise the livelihoods of thousands in developing countries. He argued that “as long as we require foods out of season, a market will be found – our job is to make sure it is sustainable and safe”.

With so many researchers in the audience, a keen question was why GM has become twisted into such a thorny issue in Europe, despite the USA having such a different approach?  According to Marion it has become an issue of trust. “Food is a very emotional thing – people are perfectly happy to inject insulin produced using GM methods but they won’t consume GM food.” Little wonder, as Chris put it, when the Government adopted a strategy of “make the announcements and hope the public agrees”. Meanwhile, Sam argued that our national reluctance to engage with GM is holding our farmers back. “We should be able to compete with other countries growing these products” he stated.  

Given the many challenges on the food agenda, should the focus be on individual actions or sweeping Government policies? According to Chris, the Government needs to lead on this; “People aren’t going to act unless there are structural changes to allow them to act on their changed attitudes” he said. But a draconian approach certainly won’t help, argued Wayne: “There are ways to communicate without telling people what to do. After all, the food industry has been doing this for years!”

Clearly we need to value food as it deserves and be prepared to pay a little more for sustainably produced, higher-quality food. If we could also challenge ourselves to eat meat less often, at least learn which fruit and vegetables are seasonal and look out for local varieties, then the planet will only thank us. And don’t forget your reusable carrier bag!

Sunday 6 March 2016

Leap into Science Blogging!

The event couldn’t have had a better name – as soon as I had dashed through the door (slightly breathless having underestimated the distance to the MediaCity from the train station!), we launched into action. The atmosphere almost fizzed with anticipation – judging from the line-up of speakers, we were in for a real masterclass in science communication, with the focus being on the almost undefinable art of blogging.

We weren’t disappointed. Straight off, Enna Bartlett told us of the exciting opportunities ahead for science bloggers at the Euroscience OpenForum, coming to Manchester itself this coming July. The organisers were keen to get young bloggers involved in capturing the excitement of this “biennial, pan-European scientific conference dedicated to research and innovation” and we were encouraged to put ourselves forward.

After having barely sat down, we were then on our feet again for a spot of speed dating. By the end of the conference, we were to submit an original blog post that encapsulated an aspect of scientific research in Manchester – either a historic discovery or one of the latest cutting-edge advances. Over the next half-hour or so, we rapidly shuffled between pairs, pitching our ideas to each other and making suggestions on structure and themes. It was so refreshing to meet others who were as passionate about science communication as I am and our conversations veered excitedly off topic; women in science, STEM education, the geology of Manchester…Eventually, we were rounded up to hear from Stephen Harris, editor at The Conversation – an online news portal which is distinct in that academics work together with journalists to provide scientifically accurate comment on the latest news. It was invaluable to hear an editor’s perspective and the particular aspects that make a potential story stand out – including that it should be “new, unusual, fun, surprising and universal”. According to Stephen, the key priority should be to “think about your audience and what they want – then the rest of the article will follow”.

Next, it time for us to put pen to paper (or fingers to touchpad) and get our ideas down. Blogging is usually a lonely activity for me, so I enjoyed the opportunity to bounce ideas off the other delegates on my table and soon my basic outline began to take shape. As a plant scientist, I had been drawn to the almost lost story of Kathleen Drew-Baker, which I stumbled on in the online archives of the Manchester Museum. Although practically unheard of today, she single-handedly saved the Japanese sushi industry and I was determined to do justice to the tale. After a while, such an intense concentration had descended that organizer Andy Miah had to gently prompt us all to visit the lunch buffet outside!

Having had food for the stomach, we then received more food for the mind. Stephen llingworth shared his insights into more creative blogging formats from his own forays into the unusual, including "The Poetry of Science" – a blog which summaries research discoveries in verse. I’m afraid my own attempt was rather dismal compared with his imaginative prose but it was a good example of generating new ideas through different forms of creative thinking Following this, Laura Wheeler, formerly at the BBC and Nature’s blogging team, gave us advice of a more practical nature to help us avoid the most common pitfalls in science blogging, including: be careful not to over-exaggerate, don’t use jargon and ALWAYS check your facts! Besides this, she stressed how using audience feedback can help you to blog more effectively, specifically targeting the topics that interest your readers the most. We were encouraged to use metrics to identify our most popular posts and to seek out unbiased feedback from readers. “After all, you DO become immune to your own writing style” she said. Above all, we were exhorted to be more than “passive posters”, and instead get involved in the “online community”, by reading and commenting on other blogs.

The hours had flown by but there was just time to put the finishing touches to our blogs before submitting them. I will be posting my story on Kathleen Drew-Baker soon – do have a look as it is a wonderful tale of serendipity, the triumph of curiosity and a woman succeeding against the odds! In the meantime, it just leaves me to say THANK YOU to the University of Salford for a whirlwind of a day!