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?!

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