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!

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 ├ůsa 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!

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