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!

Monday 29 May 2017

I'll never look at a tomato the same way again...!

It takes a lot of work to make something appear effortless”. This weekend, I certainly learnt the truth of this saying and now have an even deeper respect for event managers. The reason? After weeks of planning and countless meetings, the tomato extravaganza had arrived!

All bought in Sheffield, but these tomatoes come from all over the world
When I heard that the British Science Association (BSA) wanted to set up a branch in Sheffield, I knew that I shouldn’t really be taking on any more commitments on top of my PhD. But the opportunity to help establish a completely new group from scratch proved impossible to turn down. However, the initial group was so small at first that I wondered if we really could launch it off the ground. Yet despite being so few, our team was so committed that we soon gained momentum as we planned our first event. This was to be an activity stand at the Sheffield Food Festival which explored how the global transport of food can also spread crop diseases that threaten food security. We chose to give the tomato a starring role so that we could include my colleague Estrella’s own research on mould and blight diseases in this crop. Even though the idea seemed simple on paper, there was a small mountain of paperwork and other issues to sort out. The past weeks have been a blur of filling in risk assessments, finding insurance certificates, finding a microscope, buying playdough, collecting poster boards, designing leaflets…just to name a few! There were so many things to keep track of, I was sure something essential would be missed. Would we be able to pull it off?

One of the 'subtle clues' for our tomato quiz
I needn’t have worried. When I arrived at the Winter Gardens on Sunday, everything was ready for us – tables, chairs, power supply and a prime location opposite the Millennium Galleries.  We had a lot to set up but just about managed to get everything ready before the official opening time. We had a beautiful tasting station with tomato varieties from different countries; the chance to view tomato diseases under the microscope; an activity building electric circuits using tomatoes and other fruits as batteries and children’s crafting with playdough, pipe cleaners and lots of googly eyes. And if that wasn’t enough, I had also hidden interesting tomato facts all around the Winter Gardens for our quiz. Of course, we also had a galore of freebies – ‘Plant Doctor’ stickers, pens, badges and fluffy bugs. We were certainly prepared…but would anyone stop and look?

Our poster on what being a 'Plant Doctor' involves
In the end, it went even better than I could have hoped. I was amazed at how positive people were towards our tomatoes, especially when we had to compete with stalls selling luxury chocolate, hog roasts, pizza stalls and artisan fudge! We were constantly having to cut up more tomatoes for sampling (especially the Yorkshire variety – a biased audience perhaps?!) Even better, many people were actually motivated enough to search for all the clues in our tomato quiz so that they could win their very own tomato seedling to take home. But it was also a lesson in how the simplest of things can be the biggest hit. For instance, one of the most popular activities for the children was being able to wear a mini-lab coat and have their photo taken with a microscope. When you work in research, it can be easy to forget how novel these things are. As for the crafting activity…. I realise now that I was a bit naive to think that a kilogram of red play dough would be more than enough! There were certainly some fantastic fruit and vegetable creations. It looked like we were running a crèche, it was so busy! 

Estrella in full-on Plant Doctor mode!
 Four non-stop hours later, when it was time to pack down, we were tired but elated. Practically every tomato had been eaten and nearly all the tomato seedlings been rehomed. We had managed to keep going despite the tropical temperatures and had kept our enthusiasm. And even though I could no longer say ‘tomato’ properly, I hadn’t ended up despising this quirky, scarlet fruit.  We had made it – and are ready for more!

Just some of the children's marvellous creations
So what’s next for the BSA in Sheffield? This week, we will be holding our first AGM to elect a committee and decide on our constitution, so that we will be a proper, formally recognised branch. After that…well we have so many ideas already: cinema nights, art-science collaborations, theatre productions…watch out for us world, here we come!

And if there is a sudden surge of people becoming plant pathologists in a few years…you will know why!

The TEAM! Everybody was awesome
Thanks for reading, I hope you have a good week! Anyone know a good recipe for tomato salad?

See our Facebook Page for more photos of"The Secret Life of Tomatoes".

Saturday 20 May 2017

Cheers! Having a blast at Pint of Science 2017!

This past week, I have visited more pubs in Sheffield than during the past three years put together– but don’t worry, it’s all for a good cause! After MONTHS of planning, preparation and promotion – PINT OF SCIENCE 2017 finally landed in Sheffield!

As you may know, Pint of Science is an international science festival where the public meet real researchers in pubs for fun evenings filled with discussions, science demonstrations and interactive activities. The festival first came to Sheffield last year and I helped as a general volunteer for one of the ‘Planet Earth’ themed events. I enjoyed it so much, that I enthusiastically took on the role as Head of Social Media and Publicity for this year’s festival. At the time, I didn’t realise quite what a daunting task this would be: this year, the festival was double the size of the 2016 event, with twice as many events over the three days. It was a big gamble; would this dilute our audience too much? Would we be able to fill each venue?

After wowing us with Gravitational Waves, Dr Ed Daw treats us to a musical performance
Nevertheless, I set myself an ambitious aim of selling 95% of tickets and launched myself into writing press releases, crafting videos, arranging radio interviews and tweeting for all I was worth. But the tickets just weren’t selling! I began having nightmares of the speakers turning up to find only a handful of people in the audience…and as publicity manager, I would feel entirely responsible.

A friend calmed me down, telling me that Sheffield had a reputation for waiting until the last minute to book tickets for events. I didn’t believe her…but it turned out she was right! In the final few days, the tickets suddenly began to fly – nearly every time I checked the computer, another event had run out! In the end, 14/18 events were completely sold out, and we shifted 778 tickets (94.3%)! I think I can be happy with that…!

14/18 of our events in Sheffield sold out - result!

During the festival itself, my main duty was to capture as many different scenes as I could to use in promotional material next year. But I did manage to catch a few of the talks. In ‘I Ain’t afraid of no Cosmic Ghosts’ Dr Ed Daw covered my 6-week cosmology online course in about 20 minutes, as he galloped through the discovery of gravitational waves, before promptly launching into an improvised jazz performance. At the ‘Boost Your Brain: Be Busy, Bilingual & Benevolent’, I learnt the science behind why sitting quietly and doing nothing really is good for the soul – and our physical health too. Meanwhile, over at The Sheffield Tap, hosting the ‘Planet Earth’ events, I enjoyed Jennie Crawley’s presentation of her research on the timber-working elephants of Myanmar; a population that has a uniquely close bond with their human caretakers. Then in the 'Our Body' events, Dr Allan Pacey gave a particularly entertaining argument against the widely-held belief that modern life is threatening male fertility. Each venue had a distinct ambience, from the staidly traditional Old Queen’s Head in a medieval timber building; to the Sentinel Brewing Co, where you can see the entire being process – from ‘grain to glass’- while you drink; to the cosy side room at Harrisons 1854, which felt more like being in someone’s living room!

The Sheffield Tap made a great venue for our Planet Earth themed events - guess the skull anyone?

Judging by the amount of discussion, laughter and engagement on the night, besides the audience feedback so far, just about everybody had a good time. I’ve already got my fingers crossed that Pint of Science will be returning in 2018! I’ve learnt so much from helping promote the 2017 event and would relish the chance to put it all into practice again. Probably the most beneficial thing to me was going from a complete novice to being able to put together a video from scratch.

Harrisons 1854: a more intimate venue for our Beautiful Mind events, where audience members could take part in their own brain-related experiments!

In the meantime, I had some other good news this week: I have won a bursary to attend the 2017 annual meeting of the BIG network of science communicators! Three days of mingling with science communication professionals, learning about everything from safe ways to blow things up in classrooms, to running poetry classes on physics. It’s a real chance for me to target those areas I still lack experience in for the science communication job market. In particular, I have my eye on the introduction to making podcasts and the animation workshops. This year, the BIG Event is taking place at the Centre for Life in Newcastle, 19-21 July. So that gives me a bit of time to crack on with my REAL job and get back to my PhD experiments. Time to do some data analysis methinks…

Thanks for reading, have a good weekend!

Friday 12 May 2017

Food security challenges - from bugs to beating climate change

Here’s my round up of a recent departmental seminar where Professor Tammy Sage introduced us to a little-known but highly important threat to food security and how plant science is being used to overcome it. Plus I investigate one of the rapidly upcoming food ‘sustainability trends’ – eating insects for dinner!

Climate change is a worrying enough prospect as it is, but imagine if you were a species that simply couldn’t reproduce above a certain temperature? This seems to be the situation with many plants, which worryingly include key staples. Rice, wheat and corn are particularly temperature sensitive during the process of meiosis and mitosis resulting in failed production of the male gametes (sex cells). In many species the pollen aborts upon exposure to temperatures 30°C: a phenomenon which is already starting to occur in some of the major rice, corn and wheat growing regions.

So what can be done about this ticking time-bomb for food security? Professor Tammy Sage (University of Toronto, California) and her lab group are working on the problem by identifying plant genes that confer high-temperature resilience during pollen development. This would be very difficult to do in rice: although it has the smallest genome of the major cereal crops, it is still around 430 million base pairs and 12 pairs of chromosomes. So, like me, Tammy uses Arabidopsis thaliana, the model organism of the plant science world which has a fully sequenced genome of only 135 million base pairs and 5 chromosome pairs. This makes is much quicker to identify gene sequences related to thermotolerance that can be used to develop markers to search for these in crops.
Pollen grains germinating on the stigma of the model grass, Brachypodium. 
Photo credit: Professor Tammy Sage.

Tammy began by comparing Arabidopsis accessions with high and low seed production when exposed to 33°C. Through this process, a gene was identified (called HTT for High Temperature Tolerance) that was highly expressed in a pollen-specific fashion to a greater degree in the thermotolerant cultivar. But how exactly does it work? Tammy’s research has shown that HTT has a role in preventing dangerous molecules called reactive carbonyl species (RCS) from accumulating in pollen grains. Like reactive oxygen species (ROS), RCS can function as signalling molecules at low temperatures but excessive amounts (which can be caused by high temperatures) can be damaging. RCS have a much longer half-life than ROS and can also cross membranes, allowing them to reach DNA in the nucleus. In humans, RCS contribute to diseases such as Parkinson’s, diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s.

In plants, HTT is expressed during the later stages of pollen development and Arabidopsis mutants with an inactive version of the gene produce nonviable pollen grains. So how exactly does HTT protect against the damage caused by RCS? It is still unclear but Tammy’s research indicates that HTT protects the enzymes involved in plastidic glycolysis from becoming carbonylated. Plastidic glycolysis liberates energy from starch in small organelles in the plant cells. This is needed to fuel the growth of the pollen tube once it lands on the female stigma. As well, HTT prevents carbonylation of signalling proteins that activate the heat transduction pathway. These act like an alarm system for high temperatures and turn on a range of responses that increase thermotolerance, including altering the fluidity of cell membranes and removing damaged proteins.

After all these years of study, it’s now time to turn these insights into action. Tammy is now working on introducing these genes into rice and also Camelina sativa (used to make jet fuel). Curiously, HTT1 is NOT naturally expressed in rice pollen, which may explain why it is so temperature sensitive. Hopefully, introducing HTT could act as a ‘protective sunscreen’ that will allow our crops to keep reproducing in our warming world.
Tasty? Bugs for dinner...

As for me, I recently attended a seminar called “Would you eat bugs?” as part of the Sheffield Festival of Debate, organised by the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures. As insect farming requires only a fraction of the land and water resources used for other animals, this could be a real viable option for a more sustainable protein source. But this would require overcoming several hurdles including the Western ‘Yuck! Factor’, the high temperatures (and thus energy costs) that many species require and allengenicity issues. Perhaps the most promising way forward is insect-fortified flours that can be made into pasta or cereal bars. At the event, we were able to sample Yumpa Bars, high-energy and protein bars made using cricket flour, besides mixes containing whole bugs. Whilst I particularly enjoyed the spicy crickets, I’m not convinced that insects will be going mainstream in the UK soon. More likely, they will be a bigger part of the solution in countries which already have the infrastructure, climate and cultural attitudes in place to facilitate their adoption. But for something different, it’s certainly worth a try!

And with that, I had better hop off to my plants…. Thanks for reading!