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 26 February 2019

The quagmire of writing up....

I know I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog lately…my main excuse is that for the past 5 months most of my days have been exactly the same, mired in the quagmire of writing up my thesis. (Although I did have one escape – see link below *) I haven’t even had the usual non-stop whirl of public lectures, cultural festivals, quirky events and jaunts to the peak district to distract me because I am sadly no longer living in Sheffield. Since my funding ended and I was told my lab work had to stop, I decided (as a typical ‘millennial’) to save a bit of rent by moving back in with my parents in the West Midlands.

Continuing to follow modern trends, I Googled for advice on managing this double-uprooting: leaving both the lab and my adopted home. I found plenty of advice on the actual writing (the best being: GET OFF THE INTERNET!) but not a lot specific to being cut off from your research support network. So for what it’s worth, here are some of the thoughts I’ve accumulated over the past months. Since they have been hard-earned, I felt I had to get them down…who knows, they may even benefit someone else one day!

Bring people on board: If your housemates don’t work in research, it may be worth specifying what would and wouldn’t be helpful to you. People generally mean well, so expect them to ask how things are going (or even ‘Haven’t you finished yet?!’). If you tend to spend more time browsing the internet than actually writing, it might actually be a good thing to have a friend/family member you are officially accountable to. On the other hand, these innocent enquiries could be the last straw for your nerves after a frustrating day on the thesis. To avoid outbursts of rage, consider investing in a ‘Don’t ask about the thesis badge’, or use a code word to refer to it (‘unmentionable’, ‘You know what’, ‘gremlin’, etc.)
A worthy investment - my favourite badge!

Version control: However you do it – meticulous file names, Google Drive, Cloud services – decide on a system of version control before you start. After every meeting and round of feedback, a lot of things will change. And often end up being changed back again. Knowing instantly which is the most recently updated version of your chapter/data/figure can save a lot of headaches. Which brings me to…

Don’t get precious. Writing a thesis is not like following a recipe to make a cake: a step-by-step process with no going back. It is more akin to chiselling away at a huge slab of marble to liberate the sculpture hidden within ….. in a darkened room. Your idea (or at least your supervisor’s idea) of the finished version will change and develop over time. Those experiments that took forever to optimise, that graph you spent ages perfecting, that long-winded analysis…don’t be surprised if it doesn’t make the final cut. Your supervisors may well be as ruthless as Hollywood directors in this! At the end of the day, your examiners won’t know what you left out but they will ask why data is there if it doesn’t add anything to the overall flow and message. Always refer back to your objectives.

Get it right first time: There’s only one place for waffle and it’s the kitchen. When attempting to sound ‘scientific’, it is too easy to compose vague, rambling prose that doesn’t actually make much sense. Imagine you are a journalist and can only write one draft before the work is published- you have to get it right first time! Don’t be afraid of using simpler language and shorter sentences. And be on the lookout for the unnecessary of e.g. ‘expression of gene X varied enormously’ compared with ‘gene X expression varied enormously’ – ruthlessly eliminate! (your word count will thank you)

Expect it to be a rollercoaster. Some days you will love what you are doing – here you are, living the PhD dream: crafting your own magnus opus of original research to add to the body of human knowledge. You remember why you applied for the project in the first place. You may even be compelled to share your discoveries with complete strangers in the street. Then depression hits and you are in the doldrums of despair: your data doesn’t add up and instead AirBnB and Booking.com beckon, with their shiny promises of escape to places where it is still possible to find someone who has never read a scientific paper. It’s not you, it’s the process. Grit your teeth, find a sympathetic ear to rant into, but keep persevering. And talking about Booking.com…

Focus: Ah the allure of the internet… one click or two might seem harmless but before you know it, you’ve become completely derailed, losing a whole hour scrolling through social media. What works for me is setting an alarm (90 minutes to 2 hours), working solidly till it rings, then allowing myself a short break to check for any urgent emails / status updates. Focus is like a muscle: it can only get stronger if you exercise it and push it out of its comfort zone by not giving in to distraction. It DOES get easier. And after all, do you REALLY need to know ‘Fifty alternative uses for biro pens”?!

Give yourself time off. Even if you are writing up ‘full time’, remember that doing the same thing day after day blunts your thinking and makes it more difficult to make connections and spot patterns. Plan rewards and days out into your schedule – preferably something that doesn’t relate to your work. Not only can you look forward to them during your ‘down’ moments, but afterwards your thinking will be refreshed. Keep time aside for exercise and creative activities (making music, drawing, even cooking for your housemates) so you don’t become jaded. 

Deadlines (hahaha!): By all means, break your thesis down into smaller goals with a deadline for each. But don’t be surprised if things take longer than you had anticipated– and don’t judge yourself too harshly if it happens. Give yourself a day or two ‘slack’ time after each deadline, so you can overrun if necessary, without throwing your whole plan out of the window. And if you are on schedule, give yourself a treat day out!

Don’t worry – my next blog post promises to be much more interesting as I am shortly moving to London to start a 3-month internship at the Parliamentary Officeof Science and Technology!!!! Very very excited …. And also nervous. Can I SURVIVE in the big city? We will have to see…

* In the meantime, you can read my summary of the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s FoodNetwork+ annual meeting in January, where I learnt about some fascinating innovations being investigated to make food supplies more sustainable – find my blog post here.