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!

Saturday 29 April 2017

New beginnings...

As the cherry blossom and bluebells come out, there is an edge of summer in the air....so talk in the department turns to fieldwork expeditions, international conferences and maybe even summer holidays... It's an optimistic time, and I'm buoyed up on good spirits after a few developments in my own project.

Firstly, it looks as though I have finally hit upon one of those elusive 'significant' results. One of my Arabidopsis mutants appears to be more resistant to the parasitic weed Striga gesnerioides. I won't say more here, in case this eventually leads to something publishable, but it could indicate which plant defence pathways - if primed into early action - could stop the parasite from stealing into the host root.

It's amazing the difference one single positive result can have - and it certainly illustrates the true rollercoaster nature of a PhD. It had been a long, dark winter in terms of both my mood and forthcoming data. Countless times, I felt in despair and that I was fruitlessly casting around in the dark for something that may not even be there. There were many occasions where I worried that my thesis would be a gallery of 'failed' experiments that would be impossible to defend in a viva. But suddenly things have been turned on their head. My supervisors are excited, and - like a blossoming shoot - a new line of enquiry has surged into life. I already have a list of another five mutants to try next, that could reveal finer details about what is going on at the molecular level in the host-parasite interaction.
Bluebells in Ecclesall Woods
I can't get carried away though - it really is only a start and subsequent experiments could show that the result was just an anomaly. It is still early days in my terms of developing my project's 'story'. Sadly, this means that I won't be going to the World Parasitic Plants Conference in California this year; I don't have enough data to present a seminar or poster and there are limited travel funds for the lab. But I have been invited to attend the Annual Meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB), held in Gothenburg this year. I particularly enjoy the SEB meetings as it covers the whole breadth of biology, and its membership includes animal, plant and cell researchers. This means I get to write about areas of science outside my own narrow niche; in the past, I have covered everything from  giraffe biomechanics, microscopic tardigrades, ancient yew trees, bumblebee navigation and even fish memories. It's all invaluable experience for a career in science communication. And I can't deny that being put up in a rather swanky hotel makes it even better! As usual, the programme this year is almost as varied as biology itself but the editor of the SEB Bulletin and I agree that the sessions on Carnivorous Plants and Paleo-genomic DNA have great potential for articles. It's certainly something to look forward to.
Striga gesnerioides growing on tobacco
Finally, an experiment started many months ago has just started to bear fruit. My stocks of Striga gesnerioides seed are down to one and a half tiny vials, not enough to complete all the experiments I will need for my thesis. Fortunately, I foresaw this and way back in January I infected some hale and hearty tobacco seedlings with the parasite. Just as I was beginning to worry that they hadn't attached, I finally spotted some tiny shoots emerging from the soil. That was two weeks ago; since then, the Striga shoots have rocketed up and are now producing (rather beautiful) purple flowers. As long as I am vigilant, and don't manage to kill off the host, I should be able to get a reasonable harvest.

I hope you are enjoying the Bank Holiday weekend (another one?!) I managed to have a brief escape today to see the bluebells out in Ecclesall Woods....but it's back to data analysis tomorrow. Thanks again for reading! Stay tuned for my next post : could climate change make our key crops sterile?

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