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 19 February 2017

Busy, busy, busy....

My New Year's resolution to pace myself a bit more has quickly gone down the pan - largely due to my inability to say 'no' to things. But it's difficult not to when there is always so much going on within the Faculty of Science: every week seems to bring new  'cv-enhancing' public engagement opportunities. And then there is my PhD to fit on top of it all! Needless to say, although the year is still young, I am already feeling run down - having a bad cold and losing my voice didn't help either!

I've spent a lot of time underground this week, transplanting my Arabidopsis seedlings into rhizotrons: as I spend quite a few hours doing this, I made a basic diagram to illustrate the process. The seed is sterilised in the lab and germinated on petri dishes filled with agar to keep them safe from any bacterial or fungal nasties. When the roots are long enough (usually after 2 weeks), they are ready to transplant into my pre-made rhizotrons ('root observation chamber'). Essentially these are square petri dishes filled with a packing medium called vermiculite, with a hole at the bottom for drainage and one at the top for the seedling to poke through. After moistening the vermiculite with my trusty squirty bottle, I add a layer of mesh on top (to stop the seedling's roots growing into the vermiculite). The seedling is then carefully removed from the agar with tweezers and laid on top of the mesh. Finally, I tape the lid shut then wrap the whole thing in foil to keep the roots in darkness. In my growth cabinet, the rhizotrons are stacked vertically so that the roots grow downwards. When it is time to infect my seedlings, I simply peel back the foil, prise off the lid and apply the parasite seeds onto the roots.

It's intricate work that demands concentration....so after transplanting 60 or so seedlings at a time I am typically done in! It doesn't help that the radio reception is so poor down in the annexe, making it quite a lonely task too.

As for my 'other' work, outside the PhD....my main focus at the moment is the 24 hour Inspire event taking place on 30/31 March. This is a non-stop 24 hour series of lectures designed to enthral and entertain, whilst raising money for charity. As part of the publicity committee, I'm researching ways we can raise awareness - everything from having a stall in the student's union, parading around in animal costumes and appearing on local radio. The speaker programme for the Pint of Science Festival in May is also about to be announced, after which my work as social media secretary for this will really get underway. My aim is to make a series of short videos for Facebook and Twitter to promote the different talks and events. The trouble is, I haven't had much experience of video editing before so I duly attended some Creative Media Workshops this week hosted by the University's Computing Services Team. These proved a great way to boost my confidence and I managed to put together some pre-shot footage into a short film entitled "How to make a perfect cup of tea". Maybe not Speilberg standard but it's a start! The next step will be to borrow a camera and arrange some interviews with the Pint of Science speakers.
Putting together my video masterpiece

All of which is quite enough to be getting on with...but I haven't even mentioned the Science and Engineering Festival coming up and the demonstrating work I have signed up for. I think I really must put a filter on my email inbox, so that I stop seeing all these opportunities.....ooh, look! A science communication essay competition! How could I not say 'no' to that....?

I hope you have a good week and thanks for reading!

Friday 3 February 2017

I survived! FameLab 2017!

"I don't care - I know I'm going to look stupid but I can't back out now" I gabbled anxiously to my patient friend as the room steadily filled up around us. "As long as I can make them laugh and they learn something, then I'll be happy!"

At school, I was always the one who wimped out of giving presentations or talking in front of the class.....so what on EARTH was I doing here as an entrant to FameLab 2017??! In this international competition, budding science communicators have the challenge of explaining a scientific topic of their choice in just three minutes...but here's the catch : No PowerPoint, No audio and only the props you can carry on stage. All to be followed by 2 minutes of questioning from the judging panel. I felt completely out of my depth - not helped by the fact that I'd inexplicably chosen to talk about something completely outside my own field of plant science. And also that the event had been a complete sell-out, with all the tickets being snapped up within days by the audience members now entering the room. Amazing that so many members of the public would gladly give up their evening to come to the Crucible Theatre and hear about science.... even though we
using the main stage, I was still so nervous that I begged to go first to get it over and done with!
With the rest of the FameLab competitors for the Yorkshire Heat.

Fortunately the atmosphere was supportive rather than pressured. Our compere for the evening, Simon Watt - TV presenter, writer and president of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society - gave me some wise advice for calming myself down, including to stand at the front of the stage before the show began to get habituated to the audience. It was reassuring to spot a few friendly faces but it was a really mixed crowd - families with children, young couples, retired folk. Eventually my breathing began to ease...

...and in the nick of time, as without further ado Simon launched the proceedings. I took a deep gulp and went for it. Staggering onto the floor, I gave my best impression of being caught in a force-ten gale.

"Goodness me - it must be blowing a HURRICANE out there! Oops - I  shouldn't really say that as hurricanes *actually* only form under very particular conditions..."

Don't ask me why but yes - my chosen topic was the science behind how hurricanes (also known as tropical cyclones and typhoons) form! I came across it on an online course on understanding the weather and it had simply intrigued me. It also gave me the chance to wave my arms around and make wild gesticulations to try and describe how the evaporation of water molecules off the surface of warm oceans provides the 'engine' that drives the storm. As I got underway, my rehearsals paid off and I managed to make it through without stumbling.

The scary judging panel....from left to right: Professor Simon Foster (Director of the Krebs Institute at the University of Sheffield), Nancy Fielder (Editor of the Sheffield Star, Sheffield Telegraph and Doncaster Free Press)  and Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon (Faculty Director of Communications and External Relations for Engineering at the University of Sheffield)

"and the winds get faster and faster and stronger and stronger - until eventually they clock 74 miles per hour and IT'S OFFICIAL! You can call it a hurricane...but what NAME you actually give it - Hurricane Boris or Hurricane Gertrude....is a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT story!!!" I finished with a dramatic flourish before running back to my seat so fast, I had to be called back for the questions. Fortunately I was able to give reasonable answers to these (THANK YOU, World Meteorological Organisation for your "FAQ on Cyclones" webpage!) and then it was all over!

Even though I didn't stop shaking until the interval, I greatly enjoyed watching the rest of the talks. From lab-grown meat to 'Why is poo brown?"...it's astonishing just how much information you can convey in 3 minutes and the lightning-speed style meant there was no time to get bored. Perhaps this is how proper academic conferences should be done??!
Our winner, Ashley Carley: "Making those papier mache fried eggs also took quite a long time!"

In the end, first prize went to Ashley Carley, studying for a Masters in Science Communication at the University of Sheffield - although it seems she has mastered this skill already! With ingenious use of balloons and papier-mâché 'eggs', she neatly demonstrated the concept of mitochondrial donation and three-parent embryos. "I was in disbelief when they announced my talk as the winner as I nearly dropped out several times" she said. "I'm really looking forward to seeing all of the other amazing talks and meeting more passionate people at the regional final".

Even though I was a teeny bit disappointed not to get selected for the regional finals in Manchester, the real achievement for me was simply being able to put myself forward without bottling out. In any case, at least I have a whole year now to think about my topic for next time....Monsoons perhaps? Anything's possible in three minutes!