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 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 ScientifiquĂ© 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 CafĂ© 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...