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!

Thursday 27 July 2017

The BIG EVENT 2017 - Science Communication gets explosive!

"Can someone close the door please? I think the T-Rex is on the lose again!" Just one of the memorable soundbites from the most bizarre conference I have ever attended. But what do you expect for the annual meeting of the BIG Network of STEM Communicators? The people here were experts in blowing things up, taking things apart and creating all kinds of show-stopping marvels   - all in the name of showing the public that science is awesome! I had been lucky enough to be awarded a BIG Bursary to attend and was hoping to learn as many tricks of the trade as I could, besides scouting out possible career options post-PhD. 

Even without the exciting programme of sessions, our venue - the Centre for Life in Newcastle - couldn't have been more inspiring. Life is a charitable organisation that incorporates both research labs and a public museum in a single hub. Far from dusty specimens in glass cabinets, this museum is as interactive as they come with live shows, experimental zone, planetarium, 4D ride and more. The current special exhibition was 'Dino Jaws'...featuring daily appearances of noisy prehistoric celebrities!
Left: The Centre for Life in Newcastle. Right: BIG delegates get mingling!

After being welcomed by BIG's Chair Bridget Holligan, we started with a bit of what BIG does best (organised chaos) with the BIG MINGLE. In this wacky speed-dating style round we had five minutes to introduce ourselves in a quirky manner before all the groups were shuffled up again. I never realised how many science tricks you could perform with only the objects in your pocket!

It's often thought that 'Science Outreach' is only just for kids, but BIGs members go above and beyond to reach all audiences. I particularly enjoyed the session on 'CellBlock Science', an educational programme run in prisons. "I actually find prisons a friendlier environment than secondary schools" said Amy Hayward. "(The prisoners) are much easier to work with than a room full of teenagers who don't want to be there". In fact, the main challenge comes from designing demos that can clear security - not always easy when items such as tinfoil and blue tack can be banned! I was also intrigued by the TactileUniverse project that used 3D models of galaxies to introduce visually impaired children to astronomy. Meanwhile, science rapper Jon Case uses the power of urban culture and street music to make STEMM subjects appeal to disadvantaged children – check out his groovy moves here.
Not just your usual conference....meeting Rex and entering the Tardis!
What really stood out for me was how supportive the Science Communication network is. Sometimes in academic research, it can feel that labs are working competition with the pressure to 'Publish or Perish'. But with BIG, everyone was open about their failures, successes and ideas and you didn't need to worry about being ridiculed if you took a risk. This was most evident in the highly coveted 'Best Demo' contest, which included both first-time entrants and die-hard veterans. We had everything from the mathematics of peeling a tangerine in one go; Newton's forces explained with pole dancing; turning fire back into ice, exploring Einstein's theories with balloons and setting a table on fire with Naplam. But overall winner Brian Mackenwells went for a simple but beautifully elegant approach to demonstrate that sound is caused by vibrations. First, he shone a laser light into a tin can that had a mirror inside that reflected the laser onto the wall. Then he placed a speaker playing music inside the can. The vibrations inside the can distorted the laser travelling through it, causing the point of light on the wall to morph into fantastically beautiful shapes. Simples!
The entrants to the 'Best Demo' contest took the challenge VERY seriously.... Left to right: Turning fire into ice; using pole gymnastics to explain the laws of gravity and setting a table on fire with napalm. 
But good Sci-com doesn't just involve being demonstrated to so there was naturally plenty of opportunities to have a go at things for ourselves. So I learnt some basic coding with raspberry Pis; built an electric racing worm with a micro-BIT circuit, watched a science podcast being put together and dropped in for a bit of 'Tinkering'. The tinkering movement encourages a form of learning very different to the usual 'follow a recipe' experiments. Instead, there are no fixed rules - discovery comes about through innovating, playing, seeing what works and what doesn't. After all, isn't that what research is all about?! It's something the centre of Life does brilliantly in the 'Curiosity' zone, where children (and adults!) can let their imaginations run wild with cogs, gears, wheels, balls, etc. Other tinkering ideas are 'toy hacking' (combining bits of different toys into new creations) and good old fashioned taking things apart. As one delegate said, "When an electric appliance breaks, I give my children a screw driver. They learn loads!"
Having fun with those marvellous machines - my traffic-light built with a raspberry Pi and racing electric worms

 With such a packed agenda, it wasn't surprising that the 3 days flew by....and how do you round off such an event? In the inclusive, quirky and original BIG way of course with I saw this and thought of you (ISTATOY), a plenary of 2-minute gems open to all. From book recommendations, science poetry, psychology experiments and more baffling experiments with lasers...it was a perfect microcosm of a conference of unforgettable variety. No one at the meeting denied the challenges of working in STEM communication - reluctant audiences, funding cuts and often unsocial working hours being just a few. But there is something truly electrifying about working within a wider community of such passionate, inspiring people that are always pushing the boundaries. I realised long ago that I probably don’t have the academic brilliance to 'make it' as a lecturer or Professor but it doesn't seem to matter so much now. In this great crowd, I feel at home.
Having a go at Tinkering....wait, isn't this just what I do in the lab but with different things?

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