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!

Tuesday 24 April 2018

From plants to posters- It's time to get creative!

It’s been a long time since I last had to present a scientific poster and now, like the 120 buses here in Sheffield, two come along at once.

Unfortunately, it is not good timing. With only four and a bit months before my funding runs out and my lab work has to stop, it’s an added pressure on top of an already chaotic schedule. I am desperately trying to gather enough significant data for a credible thesis – which means most weekends are spent in the department as I try to cram in as many experiments as possible. I’m starting to lose track of everything I’ve currently got on the go: last week for instance, I set aside all of Wednesday to extract RNA (the coding molecule that is the intermediate between DNA and proteins) from eighteen leaf samples. Just before I began, I found the RNA already in the freezer: I had extracted it two weeks ago and completely forgotten. For those that are familiar with how long and fiddly RNA extraction is, that is a considerable amount of work to forget about!

I simply haven’t any mental energy left to be creative these days. But needs must! All PhD research students at the University of Sheffield are required to present a poster at the annual ‘Graduate Science Showcase’. This event brings students from across the whole Faculty of Science together to ‘showcase the excellence of the wide ranging research’ being carried out here. I don’t feel my project is worthy to be exhibited in this way, so it feels like a box-ticking exercise for me. But, not wanting to let my supervisors down (and mildly incentivised by cash prizes on offer for the best posters), I know I should put some effort in.
My poster with its fellows at the Graduate Science Showcase
So, in between the usual jobs of transplanting seedlings, infecting plants and molecular lab work, I squeeze in some time to sift through my data and cherry-pick the most interesting results. I wish I could say I was fluent in using Abode Illustrator or even a bespoke poster-designing software but sadly I am not, so Microsoft PowerPoint will have to do. Still, I manage to create my ‘vision’, with the centre dominated by an Arabidopsis plant being attacked by invading Striga parasites. I am just about to send it off to be printed when I reread the guidelines again (yes I realise that I should have done that first!) and realise – horror of horrors – that the poster boards won’t be big enough to accommodate my beautiful A0 Landscape poster. Luckily it doesn’t take too much fiddling to fix it into a portrait orientation. Phew!

When I go to collect it and see it life-size, I am disappointed; I can see straight away that there is far too much text. Even so, I hang it up next to its 203 fellows in the Octagon building. At least I am in the first judging session so don’t have to wait too long for a man with a clipboard to come round. He seems to take a genuine interest in my work (or good at pretending to at least!) but it’s clear my poster won’t be in the running for the departmental prize. I console myself by picking up some freebies from the sponsor’s stands…one day I must actually start using all these pens.
From plants to Alzheimer's disease - a very different poster!
Photograph by Ellen Bradley
Fortunately, the second poster I have to make doesn’t bring so much pressure. For the Sheffield Branch of the British Science Association’s latest event – ‘The Science of Multilingualism’ at Weston Park Museum – I had offered to run an activity showing the evidence that learning foreign languages can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a topic that personally interests me due to my grandmother having the disease, and it gives me a chance to explore something completely unrelated to my own line of research.
Once again, I probably put far too much text on it but when the topic is so relevant for today’s society, it is always difficult to know what to leave out. Still, many adults do stop to read them (unlike my poster for the Graduate Science Showcase!) before examining the model brains I had prepared to show the difference in pathology between mono- and bilinguals. I was a bit thrown though when one mum asked me “Does this explain why pregnancy can make you lose your memory?” !!!
One of my carefully-prepared brain models to show how being bilingual affects our susceptibility to Alzheimer's disease. Photograph by Ellen Bradley
Overall the event is a success, if a bit chaotic at times as we have experiments being performed in multiple languages, a buffet of international food samples and kids charging round the museum trying to find hidden words for our quiz sheet. In addition, it’s a welcome break for me from the lab and a chance to be reinspired by how scientific research can benefit the wider public. Doing a PhD can be like burrowing yourself into an increasingly narrow tunnel, so it is easy to get jaded with the whole process at times. Look out for my blog post on the event soon on www.bsasheffield.org! You can also view our gallery of photos from the event on our Facebook page here.
It will probably be some time – maybe never – before I am called on to present a scientific poster again. Maybe I will have a chance to learn how to use the Adobe Illustrator in the meantime….
Thanks for reading, I hope you are having a happy springtime!
Me volunteering at The Science of Multilingualism. Photograph by Ellen Bradley

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