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 22 May 2019

The most difficult thing I've ever written - and it isn't my thesis....

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever written? As a PhD student, I’m expected to say ‘my thesis’. But during the thesis-writing I’ve done so far, I haven’t found myself counting the letters in individual words or trying to work out how to squeeze three lines of text into two. When you are writing for policy makers, being concise is critical! Here’s my latest update on my internship at the ParliamentaryOffice of Science and Technology (POST), researching a briefing paper (POSTnote) on reducing waste from plastic food packaging. 

Seeing the Plastic Waste problem first hand: on location at Bywaters London material recovery facility (MRF) 

After two months of research and a gruelling internal review from the POST staff, my POSTnote is now at the external review stage where the academics, businesses and organisations which I interviewed can critique it. Given the diverse range of perspectives they cover – from packaging manufactures to plastic-free lobbyists – I hope their comments won’t conflict too much … It certainly wasn’t straightforward to write. Plastic pollution is far from a purely environmental problem, having social and economic impacts, and is now also a political hot topic. Trying to convey these layers of complexity within the strict four-page limit was certainly challenging. Besides this, the world of packaging certainly doesn’t stand still! It seems that every day new innovations are launched onto the shelves (edible coffee cup made of wafer anyone? Or a fruit punnet made from cauliflower leaves?) or a law passed to try to curb the plastic tide. My own opinions have swung dramatically from one extreme to the other as I uncover more information and try to keep up with this tide of invention and action.

London living. From left: Meeting dinosaur researchers at the Royal Veterinary College; the view from The Shard; handling 200 year-old botany specimens at the Natural History Museum's Friday late

In the end, there was just so much information that I cheated a little (although my supervisor did suggest it!). Because I love making more work for myself, I am writing two supplementary, shorter briefing notes to provide more background on some particular issues. One of these is the potential role of compostable packaging to replace non-destructible plastic packaging. Some see it as a perfect solution since it could both reduce plastic debris and divert food waste from landfill (a source of methane, a greenhouse gas). Compostable packaging certainly seems to work in countries like Italy that have well managed food waste collection and composting facilities. But I’m not convinced that the UK infrastructure is currently up to dealing with compostable packaging properly. Without the proper waste disposal route, compostables may be at best ineffective or worse a contaminant of existing recycling streams. But with the right political will, I like to think it could be an option for the UK. The second of my briefs explores the current government proposals for reducing plastic packaging waste – included the hotly debated ‘deposit return scheme’ for on-the-go drinks containers. This has wide popular appeal, since it is already used in many European countries such as Norway and Germany. But one thing I have learnt through my research is that any waste-management policy is heavily context-dependent: we can’t expect to cut-and-paste solutions from other countries. Germany, for instance, introduced deposit-return for drinks containers before kerbside collections: the question is, could a deposit system be compatible with our existing household collections?

Natural escapes in London. Clockwise from top left: The dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park; the cacti house at the Barbican Conservatory; swan at St James's Park

So much has happened in the last few months that it is difficult for me to unravel it all in my mind. I can hardly believe that I am over two-thirds of the way through my placement. And despite my love of the countryside and Peak District, I will actually miss living in London! I’ve changed a lot – in my knowledge, writing, self-confidence and Tube-navigating skills. But one thing that hasn’t changed is my career ambition; I now feel only more strongly that science policy is the field where I will be most happy. Particularly if I can carry on indulging my thirst for learning! After packaging, what’s next?!

1 comment:

  1. Kumar

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