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 2 July 2017

Starting with a bang - SEB Gothenburg gets underway!

We may still be in 'pre-conference' but the action is already kicking off at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology her e in Gothenburg!

I've only been in Sweden just over 24 hours but already I have a wealth of impressions from the country which brought us ABBA and IKEA. And so far it's all good - beautiful countryside, lovely sunshine, friendly people, outrageously healthy food and clean water, a family-friendly culture with a focus on having fun,  friendly people....

Of course, being put up in a swanky hotel may have had an influence...especially when it is next to a theme park!
View from the hotel restaurant!

Today we kicked off with the careers session and communication masterclass for the early career delegates. It can be easy for PhD students to feel overwhelmed at conferences by the more established professors, so this session is designed to build confidence by creating a peer network before the main conference gets underway. In the morning, career consultant Sarah Blackford talked on the importance of building a brand for yourself that matches your ambitions. "Don't just put up everything about yourself on social media" she said. "You need to emphasise your key traits, otherwise you end up with a mishmash without any focus". In the afternoon, Miguel Garcia Yeste, a linguistics researcher from the University of Gothenburg highlighted the importance of tailoring our messages to the audience, and to the form of delivery. My favourite part was when he showed a scientific paper that cleverly contained a hidden marriage proposal - a brilliant illustration of how  we have preconceived expectations for different communication genres.

Session over, I made use of a spare hour to explore and found that while Gothenburg has a fair bit in common with Sheffield - spacious, green parks and trams for one thing - but perhaps not the intense popularity of handball and mini golf!. I managed a quick tour of the glasshouse in the Trädgårds-Föreningen to marvel at the tropical and Mediterranean plants before rushing back in time for the evening's 'Science with Impact' session. 
Escape to the tropical glasshouse 

The question on the agenda tonight was: 'How do we communicate science in a post-truth world?' And how can we get people to listen to us when, as one audience member said, "we are competing with the kardashians for attention"? A clear message was that we need to lose the attitude of 'Just trust us because we are the experts'. Instead, people need to understand our methods and why exactly we believe in what we do. "We need to come together as equals, after all we are all equals in experience" pointed out speaker Tom Wakeford, from Coventry University. He described a case in point where rural farmers in India, after debating and discussing the evidence, decided to reject GM crops on the grounds that it would bring no benefits to their region. Opening up a dialogue allowed funding to be invested instead in schemes that they believed offered more practical support.

But building trusting relationships takes time. "Science communication, done properly, is a full time job" stated Alexandre Antonelli (University of Gothenburg) . "There is no point just putting things up on Twitter or Facebook, etc. if you aren't receptive to people's comments". However, social media can only go so far in assessing popular opinions: as Tom Wakeford pointed out, media polls suggested that price was the determining purchasing factor for food  products, but  the horse meat scandal showed how much people cared about quality. In his view, nothing beats face-to-face interactions to forge closer relationships and learn about each other - sometimes with surprising results! 
Tom Wakeford describes effective science communication in action with Indian farmers 

There were plenty of horror stories from researchers whose work has been misrepresented by the media. But as session organiser Anne Osterrieder said, we need to bear in mind that journalists can make honest mistakes and are under very different time pressures to the sometimes ponderous world of academia. And for every bad story, we need to remember the good ones, pointed out Kristen Schirmer (University of Waterloo, Canada). In Switzerland, for instance, clear communication about the environmental impacts of everyday chemical products has resulted in tighter legislation on cleaning wastewater. "This is costing the Swiss public an extra eight francs a year, so they will want to know the reason why" she said.

It just goes to show that, as researchers, our work doesn't finish in the lab.but it certainly starts there and over the next few days I'm looking forward to writing about some fabulous science....and eating more fabulous Swedish food! Carnivorous plants, deep-diving seals, Neolithic farmers, leaking grouse...there's a lot on the agenda. So it's time for an early night!

You can keep up with all the action by following me on Twitter @sciencedestiny

The work has just begun ! It's going to be a busy week...

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