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 30 September 2017

Head to the hills....

It strikes me that doing a PhD is a lot like digging a very narrow tunnel further and further into the ground. Maybe someone else started it but now you are the one chiselling away at the rock face, wedged into such a small niche that there is only room for one person to chip away, slowly progressing forwards by eking out flakes of knowledge. It's an intense, often lonely time, compulsively driven towards a single aim. But every now and then, you need to reverse back out of the hole and come out, remember that you are also a creature of the surface world. Otherwise mental and physical fatigue await. I know this too well - my family will testify to how I habitually bury and overwhelm myself with work until I literally burn out to the point of exhaustion and am forced to stop. Then I do it all over again....

Fortunately those who love me take action to stop this self sabotage. My wonderful Mum is particularly good at this; after a stressful summer, this month she whisked me away for a week in Austira, to enjoy the hospitality and mountain scenery of the Tirol region above Innsbruck.

Mountain dreaming...
I have been looking forward to this break for months, daydreaming of long walks in glorious sunshine, overlooking expansive mountain panoramas. Sadly these plans didn't quite work out....on many days, we didn't even see the mountains due to the thick cloud and rain. Lifts and cable cars promptly shut after a heavy snowfall, making the more scenic reigons inaccessible. And then my poor Dad picked up a nasty bug that really laid him low. Yet I have returned feeling refreshed and armed with a number of life lessons to stand me in good stead as I return to my work.

It ended up being a real exercise in flexible thinking and learning to roll with the circumstances. I know I can be very rigid-minded, especially when I decide to do something. But if the cable car is closed because of the snow, then the planned walk simply isn't going to happen! It's a reminder that sometimes there are no right or wrong choices, only different ones that lead to different experiences. For instance, if the weather hadn't been so bad, we wouldn't have ended up at the Alpine Zoo ( don't let the Z word put you off, it was actually very well done) , getting up close to ibex, otters, wolves, bears and a captivatingly beautiful Lynx.

Meet the animals - a brown bear and a baby ibex at Innsbruck Alpine Zoo

I also learned to appreciate the value of taking time for personal wellness - difficult not to when your hotel had a free spa with sauna, steam room and whirlpool ! I do struggle with this at times: in a world where so many have so little or are displaced due to conflict and disaster, it can seem disrespectful and frivolous to enjoy the sensory pleasures of a jacuzzi. Such experiences aren't limited to posh hotels or holidays of course, and can even be found in simple things such as a lunchtime stroll through the park or meeting a friend for a leisurely rendez-vous at a cafe. But when work constantly beckons, these are the things that get squeezed out.

These two things, learning to move fluidly with problems and making time for self restoration, will be critical for my third year of my PhD. During this time, the pressure will really be on me to get enough meaningful data for a thesis worth defending. I know the time will fly by, as indeed this whole year seems to have done. I only hope I am up to the challenge. At least in those frustrating moments, when my experiments run into problems, or the equipment refuses to cooperate, I can breathe deeply and, in mind at least, wander the mountains again. And look forward to the next time I set my feet on the hills.

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