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 4 September 2018

Fifteen minutes of fame!!! My debut on BBC Radio Four

It's no secret that I love BBC Radio Four. Or to be more accurate, I ADORE it. Alongside the various things this PhD has given me (including lab skills, time management ability and the resolve to keep plugging away when absolutely nothing is working) is a lifelong love of the self-described “Speech based news, current affairs and factual network”.  I couldn’t count the number of hours spent transplanting, making up rhizotrons and infecting my plants that have been made less painful – and even enlightening – by the comforting presence of this national institution. Even though I stand hunched over my plants, through its programmes I range across the world, filling in all sorts of knowledge gaps the school curriculum never touched and picking up countless quirky facts.  

One of my favourites has to be Women's Hour (10.00 am weekdays and 4pm on Saturday) as it demonstrates how radio is so appealingly approachable compared to say, television. If you have a story that fits the topic of the day, they really do want to hear from you and you have a chance of having your voice recorded for prosperity. Back in the days when my heart was set on becoming a Professor, I used to dream of being invited on the show as a distinguished expert, perhaps to talk about GM crops or a fascinating new discovery in plant development. Whilst that particular ambition has died, two weeks ago I did realise my dream of getting on BBC Radio Four....and it had absolutely nothing to do with my research!

Until now, a significant part of my life has been mostly invisible to others. Not because I am ashamed of it, but because most people aren’t familiar with the concept. I am asexual. I do not experience sexual desire AT ALL – not to men, not to women, nothing, nope, nada. As a young child, I naively assumed that everyone felt the way I did: sex was a terrible ordeal that you would only force yourself to go through if you really really wanted children. It was only through novels and films that I realised that – for most people – there was actually a pleasure aspect to it.  My time as an undergraduate student was a very isolating experience, with the overriding culture seeming to be “If you've got even just one drop of red blood in you, you'll be lusting after at least someone, so get your free condoms here!”. I felt very miserable, concluding that either a) I was truly weird and would never be accepted by society or b) At some point I needed to change and 'catch up' with everyone else in terms of sexuality....and I wasn't sure I could be comfortable with that.
In my 'broom cupboard' waiting to go live on air!
Fortunately I stumbled across a magazine article that described people who felt exactly like I did. They had a name for themselves even a community. Isolation transformed into elation. I was not alone! Since then, I have only become even more sure about my identity as an asexual, but it was still something that I felt a bit nervous about telling anyone. Would judge me as a prudish and think I was making a moral judgement, squashing down my sexual desires so I could look down on others? Or would they completely miss the point: “You just haven’t met the right one yet! Have you tired Tinder?” or “It’s probably a hormonal imbalance, your GP can give you something” or even “You’ve just been too focused on your work! ' Just to be clear, I do still appreciate beauty and romance – I even have my own opinions on who is good looking! And ‘finding the right one’ is ultimately a different issue to feeling sexual desire towards others. Surely if I had any drive in me, it would be aroused by those Hollywood actors on screen, or the ‘fine specimens’ I encounter at the gym?!
With asexuality being so unknown and misunderstood, it just seemed pragmatic not to mention it. Yet part of me slightly resented never having a box to tick on all those surveys and forms that, for some reason, need to know your sexual orientation. If your viewpoint isn’t recognised by society, it can suggest that it isn’t valid or can’t be possible – putting pressure on you to change to be like everyone else. So when Women’s Hour announced that they were looking for contributions for ‘Listener’s Week’, it sparked an idea and I sent off an email.

'My' episode, available on the BBC Women's Hour online archive

I wasn’t really expecting a reply but just a few days later one of the producers was in touch. Not only were they interested in asexuality – they actually wanted to interview me live on air! The following week was a whirlwind of phone conversations, arranging logistics and mentally rehearsing what I would say. With such a crowded labwork schedule, it wasn’t feasible to go down to the BBC studios in London and meet Jenni Murray in person (a dream for the future perhaps…) so we arranged that I would be interviewed remotely from the studio at BBC Radio Sheffield. On the day itself, my initial excitement began to tip over into nervousness: what if I blundered and said something utterly appalling? Not only would thousands of people hear it, the programme would be available on the internet for prosperity! Fortunately, my confidence was bolstered by good luck messages from the few people who knew what I was going to talk about. I arrived early, hoping to have a proper look round the studios but alas, I was shunted into a room barely larger than a broom cupboard containing just a chair, table and headset. I ended up reading a magazine for half an hour, with the sound engineer at the London studios occasionally checking in to check I was still there! 

Suddenly the time had come: “The next voice you hear will be Jenni Murrays’”.  Women’s Hour had begun and I was the lead item. I cringed slightly as Jenni started by reading out the original email I had sent, then it was over to me to elaborate on my experiences. Thankfully, my preparation kicked in as I described how isolated I had felt, particularly during my undergraduate years, and my relief at finding out that I wasn’t alone. Between my responses, Jenni also asked the perspective of my fellow guest on air, Sam Rosen, who is researching the online asexual community as part of her PhD at the University of Nottingham. Bizarrely enough, Sam and I used to share a University flat in Sheffield but had no idea we were both asexual at that time. We kept in touch and I managed to persuade her to come on the programme with me to represent the academic perspective. Although we only made up the first 15 minutes of the show, we felt that we managed to cover the main points about what it means to be asexual. But even as I spoke, part of me was wondering how people would react to me now that it was all out in the open.

“Well Caroline, I have to tell you…” Jenni was drawing the topic to a close and my heart tensed – what was coming next?! “You are NO LONGER invisible!” Relief flooded through me: what a lovely way for her to end the discussion!

Since then, I have been touched by the number of people who made time to listen and even get in touch afterwards with messages of support. Best of all, perhaps, was the email read out at the very end of the programme from a grateful mother whose son had just identified himself as asexual. If the show helps others out there to realise who they really are, and that there is nothing strange or abnormal about being asexual, then it will have done a good service. At the very least, I hope it raises awareness that asexuality really does exist. Maybe one day, even the National Census will realise…

You can learn more about asexuality on the AsexualityVisibility and Education Network (AVEN) website. You can also listen to my debut on Women’s Hour on the programme’s website here.

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