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!

Monday 25 March 2019

London life - bursting at the seams!

Is that Theresa May? Is it really safe to cross the road? What are they protesting about? Which tube station is this? Where’s my Oystercard gone…I’m sure that bloke is Jeremy Corbyn…
They say a week lasts a long time in politics. But working in Westminster, I’ve found that even the days are often a marathon full of new experiences!

I am just starting the third week of my 3-month internship at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), which provides MPs and policy makers with accurate, impartial evidence of all matters scientific. My specific task is to research a briefing paper titled ‘alternatives to plastic food packaging’ which will become a publicly available document (a POSTnote – see previous examples here). As this will be read by members of Parliament, there is a real chance it could help progress current proposed legislation that would reform waste management in the UK - largely a result of the public outcry over plastic pollution following Blue Planet II
The halls of Parliament...St Stephen's Hall
Yes – it’s a very different topic to my PhD studying parasitic weeds but it is exciting to work on such a timely subject. Even though I suggested the topic to POST’s board of directors, I’ve found the issue to be hideously more complex than I originally thought. What I envisaged to be mainly a critique of different materials, such as glass, aluminium and compostables, has rapidly expanded to consider kerbside collections, deposit-return-schemes and even extended producer responsibility. I’m currently in the research phase so no two days are the same: so far I have interviewed a director of Veolia at their head office, toured a waste recovery facility, visited a packaging trade show and attended the launch of a ‘plastic waste innovation hub’ at University College London. It has been eye-opening to realise the sheer scale of the problem, yet this has inspired a phenomenal amount of innovative research at all levels, from using novel materials (chicken feathers anyone?) to changing consumer behaviour (for instance, via a recycling bin that makes burping noises…). But it’s one thing to come up with brilliant-sounding solutions and quite another to fit them into existing infrastructure. I’m sure if we could come up with a new waste management system from scratch it would look very different to what we currently have!
Visiting Pro2Pac packaging tradeshow to immerse myself in the world of all things packaging!

Even if my subject wasn't so topical, just working in Parliament is incredibly stimulating, particularly with the atmosphere supercharged over Brexit. I’ve got used to passing protestors on the way to work and nodding hello to security guards wielding very large firearms. My Parliamentary Pass gives me access to pretty much all areas and I even managed to get into Prime Ministers Questions in my second week. And of course, outside work there are all the appeals of London itself – during hours off duty I am frantically working my way through a ‘bucket list’ which has so far included various museums, markets and art galleries, watching a live BBC recording and attending choral evensong at St Paul’s. As the weather improves, I’m hoping to explore some of London’s greener attractions: as a plant scientist, Kew Gardens is of course top of the list!

Strong feelings during the People's Vote protest on 23rd March
Whilst I’m certainly living in the moment, I also have an eye on my future. So far, this placement has convinced me more than ever that my ideal career lies in science policy rather than actual lab-based research. I love diving into different sources of evidence, critically analysing them and pulling out themes. For someone who was so shy at school it is amazing how much I now enjoy meeting new people and conducting interviews. I thrive on collecting knowledge and learning about areas I previously knew nothing about. And of course, there is the thrill that comes with producing work that could ultimately influence new legislation. I can only hope that this placement will give me a stronger chance of landing the job I dream of.  

Better get back to work! Until next time…
Plastic waste - a clearly growing public concern

St Paul's Cathedral in cherry blossom