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!

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!

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