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!

Friday 17 November 2017

A Whirlwind Journey - The Science of Wellness

As a passionate science communicator, I love inspiring people with science – and I particularly relish the challenge of reaching out to those who normally have little contact with science. It has long been my ambition to organise an event specifically aimed at the mental health community. So when I saw the announcement for the British Science Association’s ‘Connecting Communities’ Grant Scheme, my brain went into overdrive. And that’s how ‘The Science of Wellness’ was born!

The idea was that the participants themselves would become the scientists and do their own experiment to try and boost their mood and wellbeing. Our role as British Science Association volunteers would be to present the scientific evidence for different strategies said to improve mental wellbeing and help them design a robust way to test one of them. But first we needed a partner to help us reach our target audience. Here we were lucky to find Sheffield Flourish, a local organisation that supports people with mental health conditions to live as full lives as possible. We wanted to make sure that the participants had an active role in shaping the project so Sheffield Flourish convened a focus group to decide the themes we would focus on. These became Foods to Improve Mood; Spending time with Nature; Exercise for Mental Wellbeing; Mindfulness; Creative Activities and Reading/Sharing Life Stories.
Learning how positive storytelling can improve wellbeing
 To present the scientific evidence in a fun and interactive way (no boring PowerPoint presentations!) we decided to use a ' speed dating' format, where participants spent ten minutes at each station before moving round to the next. During the planning meetings, we were amazed to find out about how much research has already been done – there are even journals on wellbeing and happiness!
Our hard work was rewarded on the night as we had an amazing turnout from the Sheffield Flourish community and also wider members of the public. The speed-dating format seemed to work very well: the audience were so engrossed that I had to shout to be heard over the hubbub. After all the talking, it was time for refreshments. We had carefully chosen these to include a range of super- mood-boosting superfoods including omega-3 rich mackerel pate, magnesium loaded almonds and walnuts, low GI pitta breads and hummus and the runaway favourite, homemade banana bread.
One BSA volunteer getting a bit excited over the refreshment buffet...

Having heard all the evidence, we then gave each participant their very own lab book and experiment planning began. From taking a daily brisk walk to knitting to dancing – a whole range of different activities were chosen. The evening ended on a real high, buoyed up with optimism and plans.  We couldn’t wait to hear how everybody got on!
A month later, we had our chance during our Follow-Up Event. There were some truly inspiring accounts, including the group of women who formed a creative writing club, the lady who practised gratitude with her children and the gentleman who brought along a stunning art work he had made out of drawing pins. Not everyone had managed to complete their experiments, with some feeling that they had been too ambitious. But we were keen to stress that this need only be the be the beginning of their experiments and that wellbeing should be seen more of a continuous journey.
Presenting the evidence that mindfulness works during our 'speed-dating' event
 This was clearly illustrated by our guest speaker Natalie Beevers, mindfulness practitioner and author of the Being Mindful Yorkshire Blog. Her frank and moving testimony demonstrated how making time for things that make us feel positive creates a firmer foundation for when things get tough. When her marriage fell apart, Natalie found herself thrust into a deep depression. As she put it: “My brain was like treacle but it wouldn’t stop talking…I was too exhausted and had no energy even to do the things I loved”. Things only started to improve when she came across mindfulness by chance at a work event: “It was a way of getting my thoughts to slow down my acknowledging them” she said. Other daily habits, such as yoga and walking through the park each day also had an effect. “The combination of small doses really seemed to work” she said. Whilst these could not prevent Natalie from having a relapse a few months later, crucially “they gave me the tools to get back out of the hole again”.
It’s an incentive to us all to continue to experiment in finding more tools to keep us on the road to wellbeing. As Natalie said in closing: “'No matter the catalyst for your down turning mood it should never be swept under the carpet”.
It may be the end of The Science of Wellness but really, the journey has only just begun! As for myself, I have learnt so much from this experience, including event management, applying for grants, event promotion ...even doing my first online grocery shop. And it's only made me hungry to do more.... where will BSA Sheffield go next?
My team of wonderful BSA Sheffield volunteers!
You can find more photos from The Science of Wellness and the Follow Up Event on our Facebook Page. Do Like it to keep up to date about future BSA Sheffield events! You can also follow us on Twitter @BSA_Sheffield