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 20 January 2017

Quick, Quick, Slow...

Where is the time going?! I have only just started to remember that it is 2017, not 2016, and already half of the first month has gone. This week in particular seems to have flown by and I don't seem to have much to show for it, having spent most of it reading about the remarkable exploits of other researchers. I have been compiling a literature review on all the investigations so far into what strategies plants use to protect themselves against root pathogens (such as soil-borne fungi and nematode worms). I intend to use this to draw up a list of interesting mutants in the model plant Arabidopsis to test to see if they are more or less resistant to the parasitic plant Striga gesnerioides.

All this means spending long hours in front of the computer screen that send my eyes funny ....but it needs to be done before I can really get going with my lab work. But I have been doing some small experiments this week, mainly to check that my seed stocks still germinate. Kept properly, most types of plant seed can survive for years, or even decades...but given that mine were apparently stored in a cardboard box on the roof of the department (?!) while I was on leave of absence means it's just as well to check!

And the results so far have been intriguing... despite being kept in the same box, my tubes of Arabidopsis seed had very different outcomes: some had 100% germination, others more like 50% and others none at all. Why this is the case is a complete mystery to me...and one that is beyond the scope of this PhD!
Seed from Tube F (left) : dead as a doornail. But Tube A - 100% vitality. Why...???!

As the days speed by, they bring me ever closer to my first daunting challenge of the year - FameLAB 2017! Contestants have just 3 minutes to explain a scientific topic of their choice, without PowerPoint or audio, and only using the props they can carry on stage. I don't expect to get further than the regional heats, but to me, the experience is the main thing and it's all useful 'Public Engagement' evidence for the CV. My decided topic is a little outside the realm of plant science...so much so that this week I went to a completely different department to check my understanding with an real expert on the subject! I won't say more here....but if you want to see my make an idiot of myself, come along to the Yorkshire heats on Thursday 2nd February, 7.00pm at the Crucible Theatre (follow the link here to book- tickets are free).

Don't forget, I'm active on the TwitterSphere now, and you can share my moments in the lab by following me @sciencedestiny or #backtoworkinthelab

And with that, I wish you a happy, slow and restful weekend!

Thursday 12 January 2017

The Little Event 2017 - for BIG ideas in Science Communication!

“On my count then – three, two, one – RUBBER CHICKEN!!!!

What on earth was I doing jumping up and down and screaming at the top of my lungs with forty other people at the ThinkTank Science Museum in Birmingham?! We were all here because we had one thing in common - we were budding young Science Communicators who wanted to turn our passion into a thrilling career. Each year, BIG (the UK-based network for STEM Communicators) organise a 'Little Event' for those just starting their journeys in Science Communication to help them both develop key skills (e.g. presenting, planning engagement activities, evaluation) and scout out the job market. As for the jumping up and down…David Price was simply warming us up before his masterclass on presenting skills!

"Studies have found that we trust TV presenters more than journalists, even though they basically do the same job' David said. "The difference is that TV presenters bring a bit of themselves into what they present". Clearly Dave is an expert at doing this. Despite having no formal science qualifications, his passion for the subject ultimately led to him setting up Science Made Simple, which delivers interactive science workshops to schools and festivals. A key lesson for today was how to use props strategically to captivate audiences. What could be better, for instance, than a giant whoopee cushion to explain that sounds are caused by vibrations?  When the hilarity following this demonstration had died down, it was our turn to come on stage and take it in turns to present mystery random objects from David’s bottomless bag. There were some very imaginative stories – particularly when we couldn’t work out what the object even were!

Demonstrating that sound is caused by vibrations.....using the world's second largest Whooppee Cushion! (inflated with a hairdryer)
Later on, Bridget Holligan from ScienceOxford shared some sound advice in approaching the job market. For myself, I was reassured to hear that it isn't always necessary to have a specific science communication qualification and that a PhD can even be viewed favourably under some circumstances. "There are a growing number of science communication jobs in universities and an understanding of the research environment is often appreciated" said Bridget. But with competition so fierce, a PhD alone certainly isn’t enough to land a Sci-Comm job. We were all encouraged to get involved with as many activities as possible to bump up our CVs: science festivals, school projects, STEM Ambassador schemes and so on. "Your progression is your responsibility; no one else will do it for you” said Rachel. 

Careers session: speed-dating style

We then had a lively speed dating round so we could pitch our burning questions to Sci-Comm workers from a range of sectors. It struck me that a career in Sci-Comm is rarely a straightforward progression: instead, periods of unemployment, freelancing or a series of temporary contracts seem to be the norm. Learning how to cope with (and bounce back from) redundancy was something many had learnt the hard way. "It is a very fluid field and lots of jobs are lost, but also created' said Dom MacDonald from the Wellcome Trust. “Remember that redundancy is almost never personal. The best thing you can do is to build a network of people around you to look out for you".

Our venue - The ThinkTank Science Museum, Birmingham

Dom then introduced us to his toolkit to make the daunting task of Project Evaluation “as painless as possible”. The most critical thing is to define what success looks like before you begin – “Only then can you be honest about what you have achieved'. For instance, if 300 people turn up to your event, how do you know if that is good or bad unless you already set a target? And take the time to consider which data is most relevant.  “Just because you can measure it, that doesn't make it valuable” Dom said, “Instead, know what you value, then measure it". Unless you know what you want to look for, whole areas of success can be missed. A public engagement event that only attracts a low turnout may be regarded as a failure, but this could still have had good coverage in the local press, inspired those who attended and led to new collaborations. 

Mechanical Things exhibition, ThinkTank Museum

To round off the day, Rachel Mason from BIG took us through a whirlwind tour of project management - a task that is “a bit like learning to repair a puncture if you want to cycle - it's necessary admin." It seems you can never start to plan too far in advance, and that working backwards from the event makes everything a lot easier. When it comes to budgeting, little extras quickly add up so always leave room for contingency. It's incredible how much more a litre of orange juice costs if you are paying someone to pour it into a jug!

Putting our heads together in the Project Management session

The venue, the activities, the fascinating range of people .... the Little Event has certainly cemented my desire to enter the dynamic, exciting and rapidly evolving world of science communication. That said, I'm much more aware of the challenges that this could involve: multiple redundancies, constantly hunting for funding and having to live in London to name a few. But perhaps it's the challenge that makes the job more satisfying and the moments when you know you have inspired someone more worthwhile. And, as BIG and the Little Event have shown me, we are all in this together!