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 17 November 2017

A Whirlwind Journey - The Science of Wellness

As a passionate science communicator, I love inspiring people with science – and I particularly relish the challenge of reaching out to those who normally have little contact with science. It has long been my ambition to organise an event specifically aimed at the mental health community. So when I saw the announcement for the British Science Association’s ‘Connecting Communities’ Grant Scheme, my brain went into overdrive. And that’s how ‘The Science of Wellness’ was born!

The idea was that the participants themselves would become the scientists and do their own experiment to try and boost their mood and wellbeing. Our role as British Science Association volunteers would be to present the scientific evidence for different strategies said to improve mental wellbeing and help them design a robust way to test one of them. But first we needed a partner to help us reach our target audience. Here we were lucky to find Sheffield Flourish, a local organisation that supports people with mental health conditions to live as full lives as possible. We wanted to make sure that the participants had an active role in shaping the project so Sheffield Flourish convened a focus group to decide the themes we would focus on. These became Foods to Improve Mood; Spending time with Nature; Exercise for Mental Wellbeing; Mindfulness; Creative Activities and Reading/Sharing Life Stories.
Learning how positive storytelling can improve wellbeing
 To present the scientific evidence in a fun and interactive way (no boring PowerPoint presentations!) we decided to use a ' speed dating' format, where participants spent ten minutes at each station before moving round to the next. During the planning meetings, we were amazed to find out about how much research has already been done – there are even journals on wellbeing and happiness!
Our hard work was rewarded on the night as we had an amazing turnout from the Sheffield Flourish community and also wider members of the public. The speed-dating format seemed to work very well: the audience were so engrossed that I had to shout to be heard over the hubbub. After all the talking, it was time for refreshments. We had carefully chosen these to include a range of super- mood-boosting superfoods including omega-3 rich mackerel pate, magnesium loaded almonds and walnuts, low GI pitta breads and hummus and the runaway favourite, homemade banana bread.
One BSA volunteer getting a bit excited over the refreshment buffet...

Having heard all the evidence, we then gave each participant their very own lab book and experiment planning began. From taking a daily brisk walk to knitting to dancing – a whole range of different activities were chosen. The evening ended on a real high, buoyed up with optimism and plans.  We couldn’t wait to hear how everybody got on!
A month later, we had our chance during our Follow-Up Event. There were some truly inspiring accounts, including the group of women who formed a creative writing club, the lady who practised gratitude with her children and the gentleman who brought along a stunning art work he had made out of drawing pins. Not everyone had managed to complete their experiments, with some feeling that they had been too ambitious. But we were keen to stress that this need only be the be the beginning of their experiments and that wellbeing should be seen more of a continuous journey.
Presenting the evidence that mindfulness works during our 'speed-dating' event
 This was clearly illustrated by our guest speaker Natalie Beevers, mindfulness practitioner and author of the Being Mindful Yorkshire Blog. Her frank and moving testimony demonstrated how making time for things that make us feel positive creates a firmer foundation for when things get tough. When her marriage fell apart, Natalie found herself thrust into a deep depression. As she put it: “My brain was like treacle but it wouldn’t stop talking…I was too exhausted and had no energy even to do the things I loved”. Things only started to improve when she came across mindfulness by chance at a work event: “It was a way of getting my thoughts to slow down my acknowledging them” she said. Other daily habits, such as yoga and walking through the park each day also had an effect. “The combination of small doses really seemed to work” she said. Whilst these could not prevent Natalie from having a relapse a few months later, crucially “they gave me the tools to get back out of the hole again”.
It’s an incentive to us all to continue to experiment in finding more tools to keep us on the road to wellbeing. As Natalie said in closing: “'No matter the catalyst for your down turning mood it should never be swept under the carpet”.
It may be the end of The Science of Wellness but really, the journey has only just begun! As for myself, I have learnt so much from this experience, including event management, applying for grants, event promotion ...even doing my first online grocery shop. And it's only made me hungry to do more.... where will BSA Sheffield go next?
My team of wonderful BSA Sheffield volunteers!
You can find more photos from The Science of Wellness and the Follow Up Event on our Facebook Page. Do Like it to keep up to date about future BSA Sheffield events! You can also follow us on Twitter @BSA_Sheffield

Sunday 29 October 2017

A tale of two cabinets...

One of the amazing things about plants is how flexible their development is compared with animals. You can take two plants of the same species, even with exactly the same genetic code, but put them in different conditions and they can end up looking completely different. Whereas for animals, their development is much less sensitive to the environment and pretty much determined by their DNA sequence. It’s one of the things that makes plants so interesting to study – and also why it is so important to include all the appropriate controls when doing experiments with them!

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about my current seed crisis and my ongoing struggle to obtain enough seed of the parasitic weed I study, Striga gesnerioides, to finish my PhD. To do this, I grew some tobacco seedlings as these are very sysceptible to Striga: my hope was that the parasite would infect them well enough to produce an abundance of flowering shoots that would eventually form seed pods. Unfortuantely, the few parasite shoots that did appear withered and died – despite me following my supervisors instructions from when they did it before a few years ago “and it worked perectly”.  At this point, I was at the stage where my seed supplies were so low, I was having to seriously cut down the number of experiments I could do. So for round two, I couldn’t take any more chances.
The growth cabinet I used in the first attempt, Conviron Number 502, is set to mimic a temperate British climate, with short days at 25 degrees. However, Striga gesnerioides is actually native to Sub-Saharan Africa, where it devastates cowpea crops. I reasoned that it was more than likely that they would fare better in a slightly more tropical climate. So this time, half my Striga-infected tobacco ‘babies’ went in Conviron 502 and the other half went to joint the rice plants in our tropical walk-in growth chamber. Up to that point, they had been treated exactly the same.
Unhappy looking tobacco plants in Conviron 502
So what happened? After only a week or two, the two sets of tobacco looked almost like different species. Those in Convrion 502 were small and squat, with dark green leaves, almost dwarfed by their pots. On the other hand, those in the tropical walk in grew vigorously and probably would have kept going if they had been in bigger containers. As for the Striga…..it was no contest. At first lots of parasite shoots appeared on both sets of plants, putting me in hope of a super-abundant harvest. But the ones in 502 were weak and weedy, flopping over the side of the pot or withering away as before. Meanwhile, the Striga shoots in the tropical cabinet stood up as straight as soldiers with a healthy purple flush to their stems. And they just kept on coming….whenever I felt down, I would go and run my hands over the surface of the soil, delighting in the feel of their buds forcing their way upwards.  
Much happier tobacco plants growing in the simulated tropics - they are even flowering!
Over the weeks that followed, I visited almost every day, agonising over whether I was giving them too much or too little water. I was paranoid that I would somehow kill them all off. But the Striga shoots stayed healthy and in time produced quite a wonderful display of tiny purple flowers. Eventually this colourful show came to an end, the petals fell to the ground, and the seed pods began to swell. And finally the moment I had waited so long for - the pods started to mature, turning  jet black, indicating that they were ripe. It was a happy day last week when I delicately cut the first shoots, taking great care not to agitate the seed pods too much, causing them to burst open. After months of trying, my first harvest at last!
Not again! Withered, dead Striga shoots
There is still a long way to go - the seed pods have to dry out for a few weeks in the 30 degree incubator - and this first harvest is unlikely to see me through to the end of my PhD. But I already have the latest generation of tobacco seedlings coming through ...in fact, I have quite a conveyor belt operation now, with new tobacco seedlings constantly moving along the system to make sure I always have new Striga- infected hosts coming along!

That's better! A beautifully infected tobacco plant with lots of flowering Striga shoots
Photograph by James Bradley
Plants can be frustratingly complex at times, but that does make them fascinating to study. The more we find out about their molecular systems, the more layers of control, regulation and interplay we discover. Which simply means there will surely be no end to the legions of PhD students stepping up to these challenges!

Thursday 12 October 2017

Prepare to be amazed - BSA Sheffield at Fun Palaces Weekend 2017!

No dictionary definition of ‘scientist’ mentions lab coats or googles, but many feel that only people who wear a white coat and work in a laboratory can call themselves a ‘proper scientist’. Similarly, many of us would hesitate to call ourselves an 'artist', even if we quite enjoy drawing, printing other creative activities. We simply don’t feel worthy of these titles.

The Fun Palaces movement is on a mission to change this attitude. Every year, during the first weekend of October, hundreds of temporary Fun Palaces pop up all across the UK. They vary in size, structure and theme, but all have the aim of engaging the public in science and artistic activities that celebrate the innate creativity in all of us – as befits their motto: “Everyone a scientist, everyone an artist”. This year, BSA Sheffield were invited to host our very own science themed Fun Palace.
Our 3D sound demos in our Fun Palace at DINA venue

It took us quite a while to decide the theme as there were so many possibilities – Outer Space? Dinosaurs? The Brain? What we really wanted was something that would thrill the imagination and stimulated all the senses....so what better than the five senses themselves? Once we'd settled on this, the suggestions for activities came thick and fast – it was hard to cut them down to a manageable number!

We might have the Fun but we still needed a Palace....fortunately , DINA a not-for-profit social enterprise stepped in. Besides the advantage of having a prime city centre location, we were given full use of the venue, allowing us to take over every nook and cranny (even the basement!).
The magical illusion cabinet!

I was very impressed and humbled by how my fellow BSA volunteers took ownership of their activities, giving up hours of their own time to research optical illusions, cut out thaumatropes, source craft materials and decorate the rooms. On the day itself, their hard work was rewarded as we welcomed a steady stream of visitors. Some were Fun Palace veterans who had sought us out specially, others simply wandered in off the street.... but everyone, young and old, found something to captivate them. We had 3D sound demonstrations, ‘guess the contents' boxes, jelly bean tasting and even a fruit orchestra! (I’m still not entirely sure how that actually worked but it did!) Crafting was especially popular for all ages - including making Victorian thaumatropes - a popular 19th century optical illusion made of a disk with a picture on each side, attached to string on either side. If the strings are twirled quickly enough, the two images seem to blend into one, due to the persistence of images on the retina. Simple but highly effective and fun to make – why not have a go yourself?

Learning how to play 'Mary had a little lamb' with a lemon,
a cucumber and an orange
Perhaps the biggest hit was the 'Illusion Cabinet' – those who dared to enter inside appeared to lose their body, with their head being suspended in the air. Built by an intriguing former Professor in the Biology Department where I work, it had been languishing in a store cupboard and I was determined to get it out. The lovely people in Research Outreach team had also lent us an Infra Red camera so that we could demonstrate the senses that some animals have but we don’t, such as 'snake vision'. It went down very well, although when I found out how much it cost, I nearly didn't dare to take it! Apparently, I have one of the coldest noses in England….

There is a curious phenomenon ( or is it an illusion?) that time simply flies by when you do science outreach and suddenly it was time to close the doors and pack everything up ...It had gone so fast, especially as we had been preparing for months. We’ll simply have to start preparing for the next one!
Who has the hottest cup of coffee? Playing with the Infra-Red Camera

And in the meantime – if you enjoy science or art, then dare to call yourself a scientist or an artist! You don’t need any further qualification than that.
You can find lots more photos of the event on our Facebook page.

Saturday 30 September 2017

Head to the hills....

It strikes me that doing a PhD is a lot like digging a very narrow tunnel further and further into the ground. Maybe someone else started it but now you are the one chiselling away at the rock face, wedged into such a small niche that there is only room for one person to chip away, slowly progressing forwards by eking out flakes of knowledge. It's an intense, often lonely time, compulsively driven towards a single aim. But every now and then, you need to reverse back out of the hole and come out, remember that you are also a creature of the surface world. Otherwise mental and physical fatigue await. I know this too well - my family will testify to how I habitually bury and overwhelm myself with work until I literally burn out to the point of exhaustion and am forced to stop. Then I do it all over again....

Fortunately those who love me take action to stop this self sabotage. My wonderful Mum is particularly good at this; after a stressful summer, this month she whisked me away for a week in Austira, to enjoy the hospitality and mountain scenery of the Tirol region above Innsbruck.

Mountain dreaming...
I have been looking forward to this break for months, daydreaming of long walks in glorious sunshine, overlooking expansive mountain panoramas. Sadly these plans didn't quite work out....on many days, we didn't even see the mountains due to the thick cloud and rain. Lifts and cable cars promptly shut after a heavy snowfall, making the more scenic reigons inaccessible. And then my poor Dad picked up a nasty bug that really laid him low. Yet I have returned feeling refreshed and armed with a number of life lessons to stand me in good stead as I return to my work.

It ended up being a real exercise in flexible thinking and learning to roll with the circumstances. I know I can be very rigid-minded, especially when I decide to do something. But if the cable car is closed because of the snow, then the planned walk simply isn't going to happen! It's a reminder that sometimes there are no right or wrong choices, only different ones that lead to different experiences. For instance, if the weather hadn't been so bad, we wouldn't have ended up at the Alpine Zoo ( don't let the Z word put you off, it was actually very well done) , getting up close to ibex, otters, wolves, bears and a captivatingly beautiful Lynx.

Meet the animals - a brown bear and a baby ibex at Innsbruck Alpine Zoo

I also learned to appreciate the value of taking time for personal wellness - difficult not to when your hotel had a free spa with sauna, steam room and whirlpool ! I do struggle with this at times: in a world where so many have so little or are displaced due to conflict and disaster, it can seem disrespectful and frivolous to enjoy the sensory pleasures of a jacuzzi. Such experiences aren't limited to posh hotels or holidays of course, and can even be found in simple things such as a lunchtime stroll through the park or meeting a friend for a leisurely rendez-vous at a cafe. But when work constantly beckons, these are the things that get squeezed out.

These two things, learning to move fluidly with problems and making time for self restoration, will be critical for my third year of my PhD. During this time, the pressure will really be on me to get enough meaningful data for a thesis worth defending. I know the time will fly by, as indeed this whole year seems to have done. I only hope I am up to the challenge. At least in those frustrating moments, when my experiments run into problems, or the equipment refuses to cooperate, I can breathe deeply and, in mind at least, wander the mountains again. And look forward to the next time I set my feet on the hills.

Sunday 20 August 2017

The tobacco factory is open for business...

Science is always a numbers game.

The more experiments you do, the more data you get; the more data you have, the more likely you are to find something interesting; the more novel discoveries, the more papers you can write…and so on until that elusive permanent research position comes within reach. ‘Workaholism’ is a virus which spreads easily in labs and I fully admit to being susceptible. I would love to do never-ending series of experiments after experiments, cramming as many plants as possible into my growth cabinet and spending my weekends gleaning through hoards of accumulated data. It’s probably just as well for my mental health and wider interests that I can’t do this. The reason? I simply don’t have enough seed. My stocks of Striga gesnerioides, the parasitic plant that I study, are down to the last vial.

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while may recall that I had the same problem a few years back. In the end, I managed to solve it by getting hold of some tobacco, a very susceptible host for S. gesnerioides (the model host I use for my experiments, Arabidopsis, is so small that the attached Striga never progress to the flowering stage). So I am appalled to find myself in the same position again – but it’s not as though I haven’t been trying. One of the first things I did when I came off leave of absence was to sow some more tobacco and start the process again. When the first shoots came up, I relaxed – complacent with the thought that soon I would have an abundance of seed capsules to harvest. But it never happened. Weeks passed and nothing else appeared….I told myself not to panic, that Striga gesnerioides is notoriously slow to get going and reminded myself that it had taken a while last time. Eventually, after weeks turned to months, I did start to panic. Scrabbling through the soil, I found that the Striga had died underground – withered and black. My supervisor thinks I watered them too much: “They are very sensitive to getting wet!”
 Tobacco plants growing in rhizotrons (left): Tobacco root system infected with Striga gesnerioides 2 weeks ago (right).

So gone are the days when I could do any experiment I fancied. According to the weight of the remaining seed, I am down to my last 14 assays. I can’t afford to waste any more: after all – no seed, no experiments, no PhD. Therefore, I have taken to having a constant stock of tobacco growing in rhizotrons (root observation chambers). Each time I have done an infection as part of my normal experiments, I took the seed that remained at the end, opened up a tobacco rhizotron and applied them directly to the roots with a paintbrush. Infecting them in this way means that I can leave them for a week or two to make sure the Striga are firmly attached before transplanting them carefully into pots (all of different sizes, in case this makes a difference!).

This time, I certainly won’t be so heavy handed with the watering can. And there will be a lot more tobacco plants (going back to the numbers game). I have also given them all names, although it’s not as if I needed more motivation to take good care of them! So meet the team: Serenity, Dimitri, Artemis, Brent, Sentinel, Robert, Halo, Magic, Aristotle, Nighthawk, Angel and Destiny (no there is no explanation, other than that they were the first words I thought of when repotting them, apart from Robert who was named in honour of our summer research assistant). So far, they seem happy enough although I try not to let on how much I am counting on them. Last week, the first Striga shoots started to come up on Artemis, who appears very heavily infected indeed. But I’m not getting my hopes up yet – it could still all go horribly wrong, and so far, none of the others show any signs of the parasite.

Destiny, Robert, Artemis, Sentinel and Nighthawk.
Close up of Striga shoots on Artemis

On a more cheerful note, I have had one recent success. Until now, I have been having terrible trouble getting the S. gesnerioides seed that I do have to germinate properly: the maximum I ever reached was 30% germination. This was probably because I was using an artificial chemical called GR24, which is actually a germination stimulant for the related species Striga hermonthica. So I decided to take a step back to nature…. unlike S. hermonthica, which infects cereal crops such as maize, the original host for S. gesnerioides is cowpea. In their native soil, the parasite seeds germinate in response to chemicals naturally released by the cowpea roots (a handy trick to ensure they only germinate when a suitable host is present!). Although the exact chemical/s Striga responds to are unknown, this needn’t stop me from trying the same thing! Consequently, I have been growing cowpea hydroponically and taking samples from the liquid every few days. I was amazed at how well the cowpea took to it, given that the only support they had was a tube in a rack with the end sawn off. Even better, since using the cowpea extract, the germination rates have shot up to over 50%. It’s a good lesson in putting a problem back into the context it came from.

My super-hyrdroponic cowpea plants!

But it was over all too quickly – cowpea generation one have finally expired: after growing an exuberant display of twirling tendrils and straggly pods, they yellowed, shrivelled and died. But within those pods, they gave me all I needed to carry on and I planted the seeds for generation two last week.

Growing, harvesting and growing again: at the end of the day, it’s basically what continuing plant science, whatever the species you study, comes down to.

Thanks for reading! And if you have any suggestions for the next tobacco names, do get in touch…

Thursday 27 July 2017

The BIG EVENT 2017 - Science Communication gets explosive!

"Can someone close the door please? I think the T-Rex is on the lose again!" Just one of the memorable soundbites from the most bizarre conference I have ever attended. But what do you expect for the annual meeting of the BIG Network of STEM Communicators? The people here were experts in blowing things up, taking things apart and creating all kinds of show-stopping marvels   - all in the name of showing the public that science is awesome! I had been lucky enough to be awarded a BIG Bursary to attend and was hoping to learn as many tricks of the trade as I could, besides scouting out possible career options post-PhD. 

Even without the exciting programme of sessions, our venue - the Centre for Life in Newcastle - couldn't have been more inspiring. Life is a charitable organisation that incorporates both research labs and a public museum in a single hub. Far from dusty specimens in glass cabinets, this museum is as interactive as they come with live shows, experimental zone, planetarium, 4D ride and more. The current special exhibition was 'Dino Jaws'...featuring daily appearances of noisy prehistoric celebrities!
Left: The Centre for Life in Newcastle. Right: BIG delegates get mingling!

After being welcomed by BIG's Chair Bridget Holligan, we started with a bit of what BIG does best (organised chaos) with the BIG MINGLE. In this wacky speed-dating style round we had five minutes to introduce ourselves in a quirky manner before all the groups were shuffled up again. I never realised how many science tricks you could perform with only the objects in your pocket!

It's often thought that 'Science Outreach' is only just for kids, but BIGs members go above and beyond to reach all audiences. I particularly enjoyed the session on 'CellBlock Science', an educational programme run in prisons. "I actually find prisons a friendlier environment than secondary schools" said Amy Hayward. "(The prisoners) are much easier to work with than a room full of teenagers who don't want to be there". In fact, the main challenge comes from designing demos that can clear security - not always easy when items such as tinfoil and blue tack can be banned! I was also intrigued by the TactileUniverse project that used 3D models of galaxies to introduce visually impaired children to astronomy. Meanwhile, science rapper Jon Case uses the power of urban culture and street music to make STEMM subjects appeal to disadvantaged children – check out his groovy moves here.
Not just your usual conference....meeting Rex and entering the Tardis!
What really stood out for me was how supportive the Science Communication network is. Sometimes in academic research, it can feel that labs are working competition with the pressure to 'Publish or Perish'. But with BIG, everyone was open about their failures, successes and ideas and you didn't need to worry about being ridiculed if you took a risk. This was most evident in the highly coveted 'Best Demo' contest, which included both first-time entrants and die-hard veterans. We had everything from the mathematics of peeling a tangerine in one go; Newton's forces explained with pole dancing; turning fire back into ice, exploring Einstein's theories with balloons and setting a table on fire with Naplam. But overall winner Brian Mackenwells went for a simple but beautifully elegant approach to demonstrate that sound is caused by vibrations. First, he shone a laser light into a tin can that had a mirror inside that reflected the laser onto the wall. Then he placed a speaker playing music inside the can. The vibrations inside the can distorted the laser travelling through it, causing the point of light on the wall to morph into fantastically beautiful shapes. Simples!
The entrants to the 'Best Demo' contest took the challenge VERY seriously.... Left to right: Turning fire into ice; using pole gymnastics to explain the laws of gravity and setting a table on fire with napalm. 
But good Sci-com doesn't just involve being demonstrated to so there was naturally plenty of opportunities to have a go at things for ourselves. So I learnt some basic coding with raspberry Pis; built an electric racing worm with a micro-BIT circuit, watched a science podcast being put together and dropped in for a bit of 'Tinkering'. The tinkering movement encourages a form of learning very different to the usual 'follow a recipe' experiments. Instead, there are no fixed rules - discovery comes about through innovating, playing, seeing what works and what doesn't. After all, isn't that what research is all about?! It's something the centre of Life does brilliantly in the 'Curiosity' zone, where children (and adults!) can let their imaginations run wild with cogs, gears, wheels, balls, etc. Other tinkering ideas are 'toy hacking' (combining bits of different toys into new creations) and good old fashioned taking things apart. As one delegate said, "When an electric appliance breaks, I give my children a screw driver. They learn loads!"
Having fun with those marvellous machines - my traffic-light built with a raspberry Pi and racing electric worms

 With such a packed agenda, it wasn't surprising that the 3 days flew by....and how do you round off such an event? In the inclusive, quirky and original BIG way of course with I saw this and thought of you (ISTATOY), a plenary of 2-minute gems open to all. From book recommendations, science poetry, psychology experiments and more baffling experiments with lasers...it was a perfect microcosm of a conference of unforgettable variety. No one at the meeting denied the challenges of working in STEM communication - reluctant audiences, funding cuts and often unsocial working hours being just a few. But there is something truly electrifying about working within a wider community of such passionate, inspiring people that are always pushing the boundaries. I realised long ago that I probably don’t have the academic brilliance to 'make it' as a lecturer or Professor but it doesn't seem to matter so much now. In this great crowd, I feel at home.
Having a go at Tinkering....wait, isn't this just what I do in the lab but with different things?

Thursday 20 July 2017

From one conference to another - 'Science in Public' comes to Sheffield!

I'd barely got off the plane from Sweden before I was off to another conference - fortunately this time in Sheffield so not so far to go this time! I was attending the annual meeting of the Science in Public Research Network, held on 10-12 th July. This describes itself as a group for 'anyone involved with or interested in academic research about 'Science in Public' in the broadest sense'. Their members include psychologists, social scientists, media specialists besides scientific researchers themselves. This year, big question was 'How do science and technology affect what it means to be human?'. This had promoted sessions on everything from science policy, artificial intelligence, 'post-truth', science in media and even multiplanetary human futures. But perhaps the prize for the most bizarre title should go to 'Beyond the beautiful evil? The ancient/future of sex robots in science fiction  and society' !!!!

As a plant scientist, I naturally went for the session 'Promises and Pathways for Sustainable Food Transitions'. Given the strong social science element, the focus was on ways to convince the public to switch to more sustainable diets, rather than increasing agricultural yields. One idea is the iAnimal campaign, where participants are immersed in a 360degree virtual reality experience from the perspective of animals bred for slaughter. It certainly makes for uncomfortable viewing; little wonder, then, that so many participants immediately pledge to cut down on  meat afterwards. We also heard from Andy Ridgway, who is conducting a project on how food information is exchanged through online forums. He found that MumsNet, with 11 million users, is a particularly important advice hub for topics relating to food waste, including how to know when food has gone off; safely freezing and defrosting food and encouraging fussy toddlers to finish their meals. "We often treat Googled information with caution but information from fellow participants on online forums is generally trusted and accepted" Andy said. Given that an estimated 53 % of UK food waste happens in the home, tapping into these networks could be a key strategy to influence social behaviours. 

The second day of the conference was a nervous one for me as I was helping to give a workshop with the University of Sheffield's Science in Policy group. We are a group of early career researchers with an interest in how scientists and their research can influence government policies. Our workshop, 'Science into Policy, a practical guide' was designed to give our participants a toolkit of practical strategies to get their voice heard in the political arena. My nerves were in a bit of a state: presenting to a group of international researchers is quite different to a small seminar of PhD students - and it didn't help that five minutes before start time I realised that the wrong slides had been loaded! Fortunately we put it right in time and I managed to present my section on working with  Select Committees without stumbling too much. Now my input was over, I could finally relax and enjoy the rest of the conference! For a full summary of our workshop, please see the Science in Policy blog:

That evening, the action moved to the Town Hall for a public debate "Who decides the future? Science, politics or the people?". This was to celebrate the launch of the new iHuman institute in Sheffield, which aims to conduct 'Disruptive research into what it means to be human'. The evening, which had a 'Question Time' style format, was brilliantly hosted by Adam Rutherford, of BBC Radio Four's Inside Science, who kept up a brisk pace on the questions and audience dialogue. 

In a world with so many funding pressures and a public increasingly sceptical of science, how can we convince people of the importance of our work, particularly 'blue-skies' research with no obvious short term value? According to James Lock (who leads the social enterprise Opus Independents), it's an issue of communication, as all scientific projects have intrinsic value regardless of when they deliver results. "Anything that fundamentally changes our understanding of reality has huge immediate value, even if it's not economic. It's up to us to interpret and communicate that value' he said. Meanwhile, Daniel Sarewitz (Professor of Science and Society at Arizona State University) argued that including the public in open discussions on how to best use science to benefit society will be vital. "We need healthy public dialogues with a multiplicity of values and a multiplicity of views" he stated.
Sparking off a debate during our Science into Policy workshop!

We then moved on to 'Should robots, as intelligent beings, have rights?', a question submitted by Pepper, a 'humanoid companion robot'. A ludicrous idea to some perhaps, but the panel were surprisingly open to the idea. "Humans have rights by being an active part of society and contributing to it" said James. "Rights come with responsibilities and if robots are up for it, why not?". But why stop with robots? As Beverley Gibbs (from the University of Sheffield Department of Mechanical Engineering) pointed out, "The time is right for a wider debate about what constitutes 'participation'. What about guide dogs, for instance?" But as we move closer to the brink of humans enhancing themselves with technology, the distinction between 'human' and 'robot' is likely to become blurred. As one audience member commented, "We need to decide to what extent does our DNA make us human. Or is it just coding material?" There were fear that, in a world already rife with inequalities, technologically enhancement would only deepen divisions between human societies. 

When asked if a robot could ever run for office, the panel were quick to point out how great a role artificial intelligence already plays in policies and decision making. As Beverley said: "The bulk of policy making is based on modelling - there is a lot of technology making our decisions". But for this to continue in the future, "the bulk of the population must ask what rules are being used. Otherwise it will just be a small group of people making decisions". Whilst Peppa argued that robots carry the ultimate advantage of being able to make decisions objectively, free from emotional reactions, Daniel countered that this was very shaky ground. "It's dangerous to try and separate facts from human values" he said. "After all, who gets to decide the facts?" Meanwhile, Fiona Campbell (Senior Lecturer in Educaiton and Sociak Work at the University of Dundee) pointed out that algorithms don't always get it right, particularly when it comes of assigning healthcare benefits. As she said:"Think of the cases where people on their deathbeds are told they are fit to work!" 

It was a brilliant night and I'm sure the debate would have gone on much longer, had Adam not eventually called us to a halt. I left with my head spinning with visions of brave new worlds of digitally-enhanced humans, robots in the government and even endless leisure time when all human labour is fully automated. Such scenes naturally prompt questions and ethical dilemmas. Thank goodness for the Science in Public network, who make it their mission to bring these debates to the fore and to never stop questioning. 

So here's to 2050! 

Tuesday 11 July 2017

A botanical paradise - exploring the Kosterhavets on the West Coast of Sweden

"Excuse me please, do you know where the ferry terminal is?"
"Why, do you want to go to Norway?"

It was only on hearing this that I realised exactly where I was. I'd spent the last week working as a science writer at the Society for Experimental Biology's 2017 Annual Meeting in Gothenburg (see previous posts) and was determined not to leave Sweden without seeing a bit of the countryside. Lonely planet and TripAdvisor had recommended the Kosterhavets National Park, and so, after a two hour train ride, here I was in the harbour town of Strömstad...travel weary and a little disoriented. Thankfully, the locals were friendly and spoke good enough English to direct me to the Tourist Information and the ferry terminal. Baggage stowed away in the lockers, I jumped aboard and was soon speeding across the waters to the distant islands.
The ferry terminal at Vetternet, North Koster

The Kosterhavets is a collection of islands off the West Coast of Sweden and the country's first Marine National Park. Because the Koster Trench - a 247m deep channel that runs through the park from north to south - brings in cold, highly saline water from the North Atlantic, an abundance of rare, deep-loving marine species are able to live here despite being so close to the coast. Many of the smaller islands are also home to colonies of seals and seabirds. As the ferries were quite infrequent, I only had time for a short walk today and disembarked at Killesand on South Koster to walk to Ekenäs. But this was enough to give me a true flavour of the Kosters and the surprising variety of landscape that these tiny islands offer. Killesand itself is a beautiful, sweeping sandy beach but soon I was wandering through lush forests that put me in mind of tropical rainforests. Next I was skirting round rocky outcrops on the shore, peering through water clear as glass at the kelp forests below. At the Visitor Centre at Ekenäs, I gazed spellbound at the incredible photographs which showcased the diversity of marine life found here.
The 'Naturum' Visitor Centre at Ekenas

I was up early the next day to catch the 8.30 am ferry as I wanted to spend as much time as possible on the islands. Firs, to North Koster, the 'wilder' of the two islands, where the sheer abundance of wildflowers was breath-taking. There was every colour and shade you could think of but I was particularly taken with Sea Holly, a low-growing, spiky bush-like plant with vicious spines on the leaves. Despite these defences, this plant is in decline and given special protection on the Kosterhavets. I followed the trail to the northern tip that my AirBnB hostess had recommended: she seemed to take it for granted that I would want to go for a swim. I decided that 'when in Sweden, do as the Swedes do'....and despite the freezing temperature, it was a great experience!
Sea Holly - a well-defended but declining plant
A botanical paradise...

After circuiting the island, I caught the ferry over to Långegärde on South Koster. This is the more populous of the two islands and by now was busy with people hiring bicycles to explore. I followed the main route to visit the organic garden and sculpture park, which perfectly captured the relaxed nature of Swedish culture. Surrounded by vegetable plots and greenhouses, families dined together on the freshest produce, whilst dragonflies skimmed over the pond and a flock of very cuddly sheep milled around. I had a quick tour of the sculptures but most of it went over my head and I'm not sure an English translation would have helped!
Curious encounters in the scultpture garden, South Koster

Leaving the garden, I climbed up to the viewpoint at Valfjäll to enjoy the sweeping panorama over the islands, and the mountainous mass of Norway in the distance. Then I left the crowds and plunged back down through the forest on winding trails that eventually led me to the beach at Brevik. I stopped here to enjoy my picnic but wasn't tempted to swim, having spotted several jellyfish in the water! The afternoon was a pleasant amble round the southern headland, arriving back where I had started at Killesand.
Such clear water!

And so I have to thank the SEB for bringing me to Sweden, a place I may never have visited otherwise. If you want clean air, natural scenery, terrific food, glorious water and a welcoming culture that embraces the outdoors, I certainly recommend it. My only regret is that I didn't get the chance to do a kayak tour of the seal colonies....next time perhaps?

Let me know if you want to join me!

Friday 7 July 2017

A blast from start to finish - SEB 2017 Annual Meeting Days 3-4

"No, sorry there are absolutely NO more mugs left - we've been cleaned out!!" 

Standing at the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) stand waiting for my nth interview of the day, I couldn't help feeling popular with all the hoards of people coming up to me... Even if they were only after the freebies.

Not that I had much time to browse the 'goodies' on offer at the various exhibition stands. The second half of the conference was carrying on much as the first had - a whirlwind of interviews, science sessions, meetings and plenary lectures. I only hope I can decipher my dictaphone recordings and scribbled notes when I get back! It's exhausting work yet it has also rekindled my love of research. Whilst a PhD does give you time to really focus and specialise on a specific question, they do tend to tunnel you into a niche that's blinkered from the rest of the world. You can forget that there's an ocean of research outside your model organism and the protocol you're working on. Writing for the SEB Annual Meetings - featuring the latest cutting edge research from across all animal, plant and cell biology - always feels like breaking out of my shell. 
Covetable freebies on the SEB stand

One story that particularly intrigued me came from the 'Palaeogenmoics and Ancient DNA session' - the quest to find out when exactly the last mammoth went extinct. Apparently, long after most mammoths had disappeared (due to climatic changes, human intervention or both) a tiny population remained on the minuscule St Paul's island in the Bering Sea. To find out how long these lone survivors clung on for, Peter Heintzman (from the Arctic University of Norway) has been retrieving ancient mammoth DNA from samples of lake sediment on the island. As these sediment layers form slowly and steadily over time, these form a 'natural time capsule' with favourable conditions for preserving DNA. I was amazed to learn how much information can be gleaned from such tiny, fragmented DNA samples, as well as the super sterile conditions needed to avoid contamination (a lot of the session speakers had photos showing very fetching full-body clean outfits!). And the result is quite amazing- the evidence suggests that the mammoths of St Pauls disappeared only 5,600 years ago. As Peter concluded "Mammoths were still living when the pyramids were being built."
Not a mammoth perhaps...but still a prehistoric sight in Gothenburg 

Being a plant scientist, I also couldn't resist covering the 'Carnivorous Plants' session, which featured some of the wackiest species on the planet. Carnovory has evolved independently at least 10 times across 5 botanical orders, yet many trap designs show remarkable similarities - a classic case of convergent evolution. This is particularly true of pitcher plants, whose leaves inflate to form cup shaped cavities filled with digestive fluid.  Nectar secreting glands on the rim of the pitcher entice insects to venture near, but the slippery surface causes them to fall to their doom. Ulrike Bauer from the University of Bristol investigates the tiny microstructures that make pitcher plants so slippery. Under high-powered microscopy, tiny ridges and furrows can be seen on the rim: these cause water to spread out as an even layer, rather than forming beads or droplets. This layer stops insects from getting a grip, rather like 'aqua planing' does to a car. Meanwhile, the inner sides of the pitcher plant's trap are covered in a waxy layer that sticks to the hairs on the insects legs, preventing them from escaping. A highly sophisticated system...but there was something odd about the species Nepenthes gracilis. This plant has its nectaries in the lid above the pitcher but .. Ulrike noticed that insects could walk across it without falling in. So how did the plant catch its prey? The answer remained elusive until a colleague mentioned that she 'thought she had seen an insect fall in when it was raining'. And so the world's first 'rain-powered springboard pitcher plant' was discovered! The lid of N.gracilis is made of a rigid material and is fixed at a single pivot point. When a rain drop falls on the top, the lid vibrates rapidly with such force that any insect on the underside instantly falls off into the trap. An ingenious system...I could have watched the slow motion videos for hours! And don't get me started on the other marvels on display - bladderworts, water wheel plants and of course the famous Venus Flytrap. It's all going to make for an exciting article! 
View from on high...Gothenburg from the upper reaches of Gothia Towers, venue for the 2017 SEB Annual Meeting

In my spare minutes, I have been trying to keep up with Alex Evans, the 2017 SEB Media intern, who has been writing press releases for the meeting. The most popular story by far has been that of PhD student Mouad  Mkamel who has designed a device that can automatically collect scorpion venom, without requiring human handling. The story has gone viral and  Mouad seems thrilled with the coverage - even if some of his phone interviews have lasted forty minutes!

It's been a blast of a meeting from start to finish - it seemed only yesterday when I arrived but suddenly it's all over: the exhibition stands packed down, the lecture rooms empty, and everyone heading off to the conference dinner. As someone who doesn't drink  and can't dance, I decide instead to head to Slottsskogen, a park on the outskirts of Gothenburg with woodlands, gardens, lakes....and apparently moose, seals and penguins. Let's finish as we started - inspiring encounters with the unexpected!

For more on the scorpion story see https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170703083304.htm

Wednesday 5 July 2017

Big Science brings Big Debates: Days 1-2 of the SEB 2017 Annual Meeting in Gothenburg

One of the reasons I enjoy the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) Annual Meetings so much is that, alongside the cutting edge research, it provides a forum to discuss the issues that affect our research, but are rarely admitted elsewhere. Diversity and inclusion; the problems with traditional peer review; careers outside academia - it's all come under the spotlight this week! 

To kickstart these discussions, the SEB's teaching community came together on Day 1 to search for answers to 'the Teaching-Research Nexus'. As a scientist climbs the academic ladder, teaching often naturally becomes part of the role but time spent with students is time away from the lab bench, writing grants, reading papers etc. Balancing these conflicting priorities can become quite a struggle. Even having departmental teaching staff doesn't completely solve the problem as not doing active research can make one become 'left behind' in the field and missing out on key new skills. It's not an issue that can be solved with a single solution but there was no shortage of innovative suggestions, including 'research sabbaticals' for teaching staff and including practicals as part of real research projects, so undergraduates can generate meaningful data (that the researcher themselves cares about!). 
Busy, busy, busy...typical conference scene
Given these pressures on Professors, it wasn't surprising that such a large number of early-career researchers attended our session 'Is there life outside academia?' on Day 2. It was reassuring to hear from the panel that doing a PhD arms you with a wealth of transferable skills that lend themselves to careers in all sorts of industries and organisations. A recurring theme was that we should never be afraid to take a risk and follow our passions - if we aren't truly engaged with and enjoying our role then we are much less likely to stay the course. This was echoed by Katherine Hubbard in the Education Plenary lecture, who encouraged us to aspire to reach our IKIGAI. Apparently, this is a Japanese concept that describes a state of fulfilment where we are doing work that we love, that we are good at, that the world needs and that we actually get paid for! However this can involve some difficult decisions and going against the expected route. But as Erik Alexandersson noted in his talk "There and Back again" it is always possible to transition back into academia as his career journey showed. Having completed his PhD and become "bored of pipetting", he worked as an in-house editor for science publishing giant BioMed Central. But when a research position relating to his passion for wine came up, he switched back and is now a leading researcher in plant molecular biology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
The 'golden state' of IKIGAI...or in his case, blue!

There was more inspiration in the 'Diversity Dinner', a formal meal that celebrates and promotes inclusion in science. Speaker Åsa Nilsson Billme from Professional Training and Coaching Company Lectia gave a stirring talk on the theme 'When the Why is clear, The How will follow'. She argued that inclusive strategies will come naturally once businesses realise the proven benefits of diverse work forces ( including increased productivity and motivation) and that a range of perspectives is critical for companies to keep up in today's rapidly moving world. To show us how entrenched our own thinking can become, we were all supplied with coloured pens and paper and made to draw cats - and for a lot of people, it was exactly the same cat shape they had drawn since childhood! 

A brief escape to the 'bottos

In between all of that, I have been sitting in on the science sessions, interviewing researchers for my feature articles, collecting freebies from the exhibitor's stands and catching up with colleagues - quite a whirlwind! I did manage to escape to the Botanical Gardens on Tuesday. I was particularly keen to see the Easter Island tree, as I have long been fascinated by the tales of the giant stone heads the island is famous for. But after finally finding it, I was slightly underwhelmed....a small, ordinary looking shrub, easy to overlook...why all the fuss? Then I learnt its story - of how it had been germinated from seed brought back by the archeological expeditions of the legendary Thor Heyerdahl, one of the first to excavate on the island. Since then, the trees went extinct on the island, cut down completely by the human inhabitants. They linger on here in Gothenburg, but are proving difficult to recultivate. Unless it can be done, this tree represents the end of the line for the species. I felt so sad to see it, thousands of miles from where it should be, the last of its kind, like Lonesome George, the Galapagos Tortoise.

To think it has only been two days! Stay tuned for the next update and thanks for joining me in Sweden!