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!

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Science collides with awesome music at Festival of the Mind 2018!

Who says that the arts and sciences should be kept separate? It’s an idea that Festival of the Mindcertainly doesn’t subscribe to. This biannual ‘celebration of ideas, culture and collaboration’ teams up University of Sheffield researchers with artists, animators, musicians and more to deliver a programme of intriguing, mesmerising and sometimes downright bizarre events. A highlight this year was The Sound of Science: a high-energy performance show combining 3D effects, live demonstrations and explosions …. Oh and did I mention a live electronic music band?! It was a combination I couldn’t resist, so I bagged a ticket for the evening performance on Friday 28th September.

Could there be a better way to begin than asking ‘What exactly is light?’ - the ultimate driving force behind our existence. Starting from our caveman ancestor’s fires to the LEDs in our mobile phones, the team used a range of demos (and plenty of music!) to explain the properties of this intangible, unphysical substance. Presenters Professor Duncan Cameron and Dr Nate Adams complemented each other perfectly; the more serious 'proper' academic alongside an overexcited boy-who-never-grew-up who simply loved setting things alight. Indeed, the take-home message of the evening could well have been: “If you want to make it interesting, set fire to it!” We were treated to some dazzling displays from plasma balls to the beautiful pink flames of lithium. Perhaps more impressive than the firepower, as Nate explained, is the fact that lithium is thought to be one of only three elements (alongside hydrogen and helium) that were created just minutes after the Big Bang, even before the first stars and galaxies began to form.

An excited crowd gathers in Firth Hall, University of Sheffield (Image Credit: University of Sheffield)
Coming back to earth, we were then introduced to RoboPlant- a giant robotic plant made by a team of students at the University of Sheffield- for a whistlestop tour of photosynthesis. The team explained how we depend on this complex series of reactions in plants for the glucose that powers our food chains. Ultimately, we convert this into energy during respiration: much of the biochemistry of which was investigated by Nobel-Prize winning scientist Hans Krebs right here in Sheffield. 
Moving seamlessly from chemistry to physics, the team then set about calculating the force of gravity using a giant pendulum (that looked suspiciously like a disco ball…) and an iPad. As an abstract concept, gravity can be a tough subject to grapple with, potentially turning many a young mind away from physics. But seeing it in action here through simple, accessible equipment gave a powerful message that the unseen forces governing our universe can be understood by all.

It wasn't all fun and games though: the evening took a serious turn as we moved to the topic of global warming. Even when presented in a rock song, the facts are stark and a clear call to action to develop more sustainable ways of living. It was a good demonstration of how scientific research and innovation will be critical for us to address the urgent, global-scale challenges we face. Nevertheless, the evening ended on a high, as the presenters sought a way to illustrate what sound really looks like. Forget slinky springs - not surprisingly the answer was fire, this time in the form of a Ruben's tube. As a speaker blasted sound waves down a tube of flammable gas, a row of flames on top responded to the pressure wave passing beneath by dancing higher or lower, beautifully describing the shape of the wave – very impressive!

An endless array of mesmerising demonstrations kept the audience captivated
(Image Credit: University of Sheffield)
There are some who believe that science engagement has become too much about creating spectacular explosions and 'Wow!' moments, rather than conveying meaningful information, or explaining what is really going on. In my view, The Sound of Science shows that this approach still has its place. After all, it is also argued that a teacher cannot teach anything to their pupil unless the latter is in a receptive, 'learning' state of mind. I lost count of the number of times the kids sitting behind me gasped with delight 'This is so so cool!' Surely these memories will follow them into the science classroom and make them more ready to engage with atoms, forces and even plant science. Highly fitting then, that this memorable evening took place in Firth Hall, with the portraits of the University of Sheffield’s benefactors looking on. As patrons of learning in the Steel City, they would no doubt approve of the spectacle of wonder and fascination that unfolded that night - surely one that inspired at least some of the audience to consider a career in science. 
Serious scientific messages were set to awesome music
(Image Credit: University of Sheffield)