Friday, 5 August 2016

A very modern plant hunter - presenting Dr Sandy Knapp

As a plant taxonomist, Sandy Knapp’s career straddles both the historic and modern realms of plant science. Just like the pioneering plant hunters of old, she has travelled to some of the most remote places on earth to seek new specimens. To date, she has described over 75 new species mostly from the Solanum (nightshade) family, which includes tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes. However her role at the Natural History Museum also involves championing the cause of plant conservation against the very modern threats posed by man. I first met Sandy at the 2010 Gatsby Plants Summer school, and she was one of the most influential people to convince me to go into plant science myself. As such, I couldn’t resist asking for an interview about her journey so far.

 What inspired you to become a botanist?
I first got interested in botany whey I took a field botany class by mistake – we went out to the desert on field trips every weekend to collect and identify plants, and I was totally hooked!
 What has been your career journey, starting from University and leading to your current role at the Natural History Museum?

I attended university at the liberal arts institution Pomona College in Claremont, California USA and received my BA in 1978. I then began my studies in plant ecology at the University of California at Irvine before transferring to Cornell University (Ithaca NY USA) in 1980 to work with the late Dr Michael D Whalen for my doctorate on taxonomy of Solanum section Geminata (Solanaceae) – a group of Neotropical forest trees and shrubs in the nightshade family
When I finished university (at the liberal arts institution Pomona College in California), I went to do a MSc at a nearby institution, but it didn’t suit me, so I transferred to Cornell University in Ithaca New York. The late Dr Michael Whalen convinced me to go on a tropical field course run by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) in Costa Rica – and just like when I discovered botany, the tropics really grabbed me. I choose as a PhD thesis topic the taxonomy of a tropical group of forest trees and shrubs in the Solanum family; maybe not the most sensible choice, as their taxonomy was a total mess but like botany and the tropics, Solanum has me in its thrall!
Mid-way through my PhD I was offered a job collecting plants for the Missouri Botanical Garden (St. Louis Missouri) in Panama, so I took a year off and worked. It was totally brilliant – they even gave me a truck. I had a trailer to live in and a quota of 500 collections a month. I spent loads of time in the Darien, a relatively unexplored part of the country, and I learned LOTS about tropical plants. I also learned to speak Spanish – handy. Once back doing my PhD I got a grant from the National Science Foundation to go back in the field, this time to South America, my then-husband and I spent almost a year collecting Solanums from Ecuador to Venezuela, it was great!
Sandy botanising in Panama (Photo credit: Kerry Dressler)

After getting my PhD, my then-husband got a post-doc in London at University College London to work on butterfly hybrid zones in Peru. I contacted various botanical institutes to see if they wanted plants I could collect there – and Missouri employed me as a collector again, this time in the foothills of the Andes in eastern Peru. While working there I applied for a NATO Post-Doctoral Fellowship to work at the Natural History Museum, and once we returned to the UK I worked with the late Chris Humphries on categorising Solanum species.
I then began a family and moved with my husband to Mississippi, where he got a permanent job. We were there for 3 years; I had two more children, and worked in the herbarium as a research associate. I saw a job was advertised at the Natural History Museum to lead the Flora Mesoamericana project: an inventory of the approximately 18,000 species of plants of southern Mexico and the isthmus of Central America. I jumped at it, applied and was offered the job! I have been here ever since.
What is a "typical" day like for you?
I’m sorry but there is no such thing! Some days I get to look at plant specimens and compare them under the microscope and really think about species limits in the group I am tackling at the moment, while other days are spent working with colleagues on a wide variety of Museum related projects. Last Friday, for example, I was involved in filming all day for a travelling exhibition, being interviewed about Richard Owen and Hans Sloane (the collector who bequeathed what became the founding collection of the British Museum).
  What are the best and worst aspects of your job?
The variety is one of the best aspects of my job – I am always learning something new, and no day is ever the same. But I suppose in my heart I long for days to spend just working with plants – but I wouldn’t trade what I have!
Collecting specimens at high altitudes in Peru (Photo credit: Tiina Särkinen)

 What has been your most bizarre plant-related experience?
Hmmm, bizarre……  I guess one of the strangest was when we found a new passionflower by following the butterfly that feeds on it. A friend went off into the woods (as you do) and came back with the flower of a plant we had been seeing for almost a year but with no flowers or fruit. We named it after the butterfly that fed on it – Passiflora eueidipabulum.
Why is it important that we learn about and care for plants?
Plants are the fabric of the terrestrial ecosystems – without them there would be no structure or complexity for the rest of life on Earth. Besides, they are fascinating and do some pretty wild and wonderful things!
What would you say to someone who believes that "Plants are Boring!"
Not so – you just need to slow down a bit and look at their pace…..  or maybe just look at the world in a different way.
 And finally...if you were a plant, which would you be?
I would be Solanum anomalostemon, a species a colleague and I described from Peru that only grows in one river valley: the valley of the Rio Apurimac which has spectacular scenery. But even better than that, the plant itself is a bit peculiar and is a bit of a mystery…..the intrigue!
For more information about Sandy's career, view her page on the Natural History Museum website

Friday, 8 July 2016

Mad microlites, synthetic science and good bye Brighton: Days 4-5 ofthe Society for Experimental Biology Annual Meeting

Despite this being the third time I have reported on the Society for Experimental Biology's Annual Meeting, it has amazed me yet again just how quickly the conference has flown by. It seems only yesterday when I arrived in Brighton for the first time and yet so much has happened since then!

The fourth day, Wednesday, proved especially busy. I'm hoping to write a feature on the synthetic biology work being presented here so I spent most of the morning in the 'Re-engineering Life' session. Although most of the modelling diagrams went over my head, it was fascinating stuff with enormous potential, from designing novel microorganisms that can fix carbon dioxide in new ways to introducing gene circuits into mammalian cells that are activated by light.

In the WoodHouse Lecture, Professor Jane Langdale (Oxford University) carried on this theme by giving us an update on the C4 Project, which aims to boost productivity in rice by overhauling photosynthesis. In conventional C3 plants, photosynthetic efficiency is limited by the competing reaction of respiration which inhibits the activity of the key enzyme! RUBISCO. In C4 plants however, respiration and photosynthesis are spatially separated because the leaf cells have a distinct Kranz ('wreath-like') architecture around the veins. If this arrangement could be introduced into cereals such as rice, this could have profound impacts for food security. Professor Langdale's work focuses on understanding the developmental systems that cause Kranz anatomy; so far, she has identified many of the major gene players and is now at the stage where they are being expressed as transgene vectors in rice. Because C4 plants also use nitrogen and water more efficiently, in theory C4 rice could have 50% higher yields than current varieties. However, this is an enormous feat to pull off and Professor Langdale "doesn't anticipate that we will initiate any plant breeding until at least  2029". It must be incredible to work on a project that will outlive your career and for which you will ultimately have to pass on the baton. As Professor Langdale put it: "We may have started it, but the people who will deliver it are our young PhDs and PostDocs".  

The afternoon passed in another blur of presentations before the second round of posters ( and free wine). I managed to get round quite a few of them ( who knew that cat urine could affect mice reproductive cycles...?) and even managed to swap some ideas with the plant researchers for my own PhD project. Then I was off to a first for the SEB meetings: a 'fringe event' organised with the Brighton Cafe Scientifiqué group*. Having heard that the SEB would be coming to town, the group had asked if they could borrow one of our speakers for one of their meetings. Steve Portugal, animal behaviour researcher, kindly obliged. 

One of Steve's research areas asks the question - Why do birds fly in V formation? It is presumed that the birds position themselves to most benefit from the updraft of the bird in front, saving precious energy. The only real way to test this however is to fit some birds with rather sophisticated data loggers: in this case, the researchers settled on the Northern Bald Ibis. As the loggers cost around £3000 each, it is vital that your test subjects will comeback to you with your data! So a group of volunteers were recruited to become Foster Parents to the Bald Ibis chicks. To start with, they had to make sure that they were the very first thing the birds saw when they hatched, so that they would imprint on them. After then living with the birds for 9 months, the foster parents had to teach them to fly. Because the chicks would follow 'Mum' or 'Dad' wherever they went, the volunteers were flown in a microlight from which they bellowed encouragement through a megaphone to their charges. "The locals in the little Austrian village where all this took place thought it was very strange at first, but they ended up really taking to the project" said Steve. It must have been quite an entertaining spectacle...all in the name of research! (Don't believe me? See here!)

Once the birds were trained, the researchers took them on a 'migration' to Southern Italy, following the microlight all the way and stopping at night to 'camp together' on the ground. The results demonstrated that not only do the birds generally keep to the most energetically saving formation, but they also remember which individuals do their fair share of the hard work at the front. If a particularly keen bird put in a good stint at the front for instance, then the next day his fellows made sure they had a rest. Fascinating stuff but what is the point of it all? Apparently the aviation industry are looking to mimic V formations in commercial aircraft: the idea is that planes making a transatlantic crossing meet up in the air after taking off from their respective airports, fly across the ocean in a V, and then peel off to their different destinations. You read it here first!

The talk proved a real hit with the audience, especially the videos showing the young ibis birds in training. I could have stayed all night listening to the lively questions, but exhaustion suddenly overtook me and I had to make a dash back to the hotel. 

By the last day, Thursday, things started to quieten down, although there was a sudden flurry of interest in my press release on coconuts - we even made Sky News! And I finally managed to  get to Brighton Pier and take a tour of the sweet shops, funfair and arcade stalls. I must admit that Brighton wasn't at all as I expected it would be - I thought it would be much quieter place, a bit like Bournemouth only bigger! But the hip and happening vibe has certainly grown on me and I am going to miss being beside the seaside. So it's with a fond farewell that I bade it goodbye and head back to Sheffield - armed with reams of notes, recordings and interviews to turn into articles for the next Society Bulletin. The real work has only just started!

Thanks for sharing it all with me. Until next time!

* At Café Scientifique events, anyone - for the price of a tea, coffee or glass of wine - can come to learn about fascinating research and discuss topical scientific issues. Events take place worldwide and are often free, with requests for donations.  For more information and to find a local group click here

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Dream write your science, re-engineer life and network all the way: Day Three of the Society for Experimental Biology 2016 Meeting

I'm absolutely shattered and it's only the second 'official' day of the Conference. Trying to keep up with so much research - across the breadth of the sciences - is exhausting! But. That is one of the definitions points of SEB meetings; there is such a variety of research on offer. This was neatly illustrated by the President's Medallists talks this morning. First up, Oliver Castell ( University of Sheffield) described how building synthetic cell structures led him to a novel method to sequence DNA. This was followed by Jodie Rummer ( James Cook University), on how she was using her career as a distinguished fish physiologist to inspire others, especially girls, to develop a curiosity for science. 

Given that so many academics are also educators - of students and the public - the following session 'A Science Communication Toolkit' was a particular highlight. In a lively series of talks we learnt that poor drawing skills are no barrier to illustrating research with  cartoons; where to find appropriate video clips to illustrate lectures ( and how to give your PowerPoint the 'WOW' factor using SmartArt. I was intrigued by Gilly Smith's (University of Warwick) presentation on how 'Dreamwriting' can help academics and students to overcome writing blocks. This essentially invokes streaming your thoughts down automatically onto paper, an iPad, a voice recorder, etc. without ceasing or even thinking about it. It's well known that our most creative thoughts often surface when we stop thinking about the problem; hence, Dreamwriting allows new ideas to emerge because we stop thinking about whether what we write is right or wrong. It might not write your thesis, but it can certainly help you to grasp the full story of your research and work out how best to convey it to others. Something I shall definitely try on my return! 

The lunch break saw a new 'first' for the SEB meetings: an informal session called 'Meet the Young Academics', featuring a panel of speakers who are steadily climbing up the rungs of academia towards Professorship. Despite coming from a wide background of research fields, their advice contained several recurring themes: constantly be on the lookout for new opportunities, cast the net as widely as possible when looking for funding opportunities and above all network network network - starting with this meeting! It's all too easy to sit with your own lab group when you go to conferences, but who knows what chance encounters and conversations you are missing out on? As our panel could demonstrate, new connections can one day turn into collaborations, or even future supervisors...

My favourite 'freebie' today - what better way to encourage girls into STEM careers?

A lot of the afternoon's Synthetic Biology Session went over my head - very hardcore stuff, re-engineering the components of life! - but I was blown away by Giles Oldroyd's update on the ambitious project to introduce nitrogen fixation into cereal crops. Whilst most commercial crops rely on heavy fertiliser inputs, certain plants ( particularly legumes) can fix their own nitrogen through forming symbiotic associations with Rhizobia bacteria, which are contained in nodules on the plant roots. If this trait could be introduced into cereals, it could allow an exponential increase in yields, particularly in areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa where nutrient input is the main limiting factor on crop productivity. It was previously thought that only legumes were capable of recruiting Rhizobia but excitingly, Giles Oldroyd's research has shown that the signalling pathway for nodulation was derived from a much more ancient pathway ubiquitous across all plant species that is used to recruit Arbuscular Mycorrhizal fungi ( which assist in nutrient uptake from the soil). So the basic components for the nodulation pathway are present in cereals - with only a few pieces missing that are specific to the nodulation process. So far Giles has demonstrated that genetic constructs of these signalling elements that are present in legumes CAN be expressed in cereals : now his challenge is to put together the whole pathway in cereals. It may well take years to pull off but such is the potential impact of this work, that even the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are supporting it. 

Even when the talks stopped, the science kept on coming, in the form of the first poster session. The SEB has a winning strategy to boost attendance at these events : free wine! But it is wonderful for the PhD students and early career scientists to have a chance to showcase their work. Meanwhile it also allows me to catch up with several acquaintances  all at once, whilst scouting out new research to write about. 

More fun and games tomorrow! See you soon and thanks for reading.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Bees, Birds and Badges - Society for Experimental Biology Annual Meeting Day Two

Good morning Brighton! Everything already seems a lot busier today, with a noticeable bustle in the hotel and around the conference centre. Breakfast is spent answering journalist's enquiries, arranging meetings and marking up my programme for the day. It's going to be a busy one...
Not such a sunny day today

The morning kicked off with proper 'hard science' in the President's Medallist talks. In the plant session, Dr Matt Johnson showed us his ingenious technique for seeking out the protein complexes that make up photosystems in chloroplasts. In Atmoic Force Microscopy, an ultra- fine needle moves across the surface of the object in question ( such as a leaf) and sketches out the tomography with nanometer-scale resolution. But this isn't fine enough to distinguish the different protein components of photosystems so  designed a 'baited' needle, which was covered with proteins that bound to the complex in question. The needle was also fitted with a sensor to measure the force required to pull the needle off the surface of the leaf. So when the needle touched the complex, the proteins on it would transiently bind to the complex causing the needle to stick slightly, until the force increased enough to pull it off. A bit like pulling a stubborn cork that's stuck in a bottle! By seeing where the probe got 'stuck', Dr Mohnson was able to map the distribution of the complexes. Next up were the Young Scientists. Despite only being PhD students, their projects were clearly tackling relevant issues for food security: manipulating Giberellic Acid levels to improve wheat grain quality, improving water use efficiency by modifying  stomatal pores and working out how plants sense the cold.
Marking up my programme

I couldn't resist popping along to Professor Mandyam Srinivasan on how visual processing in bees and birds are helping to develop better automated aircraft. Apparently both bees and birds use the balance of optic flow between their eyes to steer themselves. So if a bee flys through a tunnel where one of the walls is static and the other is moving forward, it will fly closer to the moving wall because to the bee's point of view the image on that side appears to flow past more slowly. A similar mechanism monitors the level of the far horizon, to control rolling and stop nose diving. As we saw in a rather entertaining series of videos, these principals can be converted into algorithms for automatically flying model aircraft -  accurate enough even for  'loop the loops'!

After that, I spent most of the day in the Biology Education session, hearing about the latest ingenious ways lecturers have come up with to engage apathetic undergraduates. My favourite had to be the University of British Columbia's idea of 'Digital Badges' : similar to Guides and Scout badges, these are awarded to students once they complete a set of objectives, only here they feature topics such as Microscopy, Molecular Biology Techniques, and so on. Besides having clear aesthetic appeal and motivating independent study, these online badges can be put on LinkedIn profiles and CVs, boosting employability. The only negative feedback was that the students lamented they wanted real badges. So the lecturers promptly had a series of badges made which they could iron on to their lab coats - and this made the students 'very happy' indeed! It seems that even in these 'Digital Days', we can't resist the allure of a physical collectible...
A brief pause between sessions...

The final lecture of the day was a tribute to Profesor Roger Woledge, clearly a scientist of great dedication and thoroughness. From starting out investigating the mechanical versatility of fish muscle, he went on to demonstrate that  there is a clear trade off across animals between muscle power and efficiency. So tortoises have highly efficient muscles ( in that they convert the highest proportion of energy input to useful work, rather than heat) but have limited power output - hence their strategy to evade predators is to hide rather than run away! Even after officially 'retiring', Prof Woledge carried on pioneering new research inquiries, including asking why it is that the elderly are so at risk of falling. Tragically, he died in a riding accident just days after accepting the invitation to give this lecture, thus it was poignantly fitting for his colleagues to present his work in his stead. 

After so much science, my eyes are drooping. The wine trail is at full flow around me and the atmosphere is becoming increasingly ebullient with animated conversation. I'm giving it a miss and will head off for an early night instead. After all, there is even more to come tomorrow!

Goodnight and thanks for reading!

Sunday, 3 July 2016

On Location in Brighton - SEB 2016 Annual Meeting - Day One

It seems only a few weeks since I returned from the 2015 Annual Meeting for the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) in Prague. But no, a whole year has gone by and here I am in Brighton for the 2016 meeting - as an official science writer for the society! It will be my job to scout around for exciting new research to turn into articles for the members' magazine. I've already trawled through all the abstracts ( over 600 of them! ) and it's clear that it's going to be a jam packed week. Fortunately I am staying in the ( rather grand ! ) Hilton Hotel, just minutes from the action at Brighton Conference Centre. 

But today has been one of relative calm before the main conference kicks off tomorrow. Like last year, it has been a chance it bring the younger SEB members together to share ideas on how to maximise the impact of their work and their personal profile. The question this time was why and how should scientists engage with the media to publicise their work? As Sarah Blackford (head of Education and Public Engagement at SEB ) put it: "If you don't communicate it, it doesn't exist! All that hard work in the lab could be wasted if you don't tell anyone about it." But public engagement requires a very different style of writing to the weighty academic paper; it has to be succinct, engaging and above all stand out against the now constant deluge of new information. Sarah made the point that scientists are used to waiting to the end of a paper before they mention the wider significance of their work, whereas for a press release, the impact needs to come first. Think about it as though you have just won a competition: start by saying "I've won a prize!" then tell us how you did it, not the other way around!

Jenny Gimpel ( a science PR worker) then gave us her insights into the media industry, particularly the increasing role of social media. Now that so many of us have a smartphone, it comes as no surprise that more and more people are getting their news updates from Facebook and Twitter, rather than TV and Radio. This gives scientists unprecedented opportunities to reach new audiences, spark new discussions and counter bad science with the truth. But this comes with the risk of messages becoming distorted or misunderstood. "Be aware that people can change their behaviour based on what you write - especially if it is related to health" Jenny cautioned. "In the past I have even received medical reports from people, asking me for advice!"
Oh I do like to be beside the seaside..

Often, such exaggeration and hyperbole is blamed on journalists that care more about creating a story than telling the truth. But Alun Anderson, former editor of New Scientist, argued that these suspicions can make it very tricky for journalists to engage with scientists to find the heart of the matter. "It's been said that a journalist is a person whose job is to explain to others what s/he does not personally understand" he said "And scientists don't like talking to people who don't understand!" Yet a responsible journalist can transform the dry details of experimental research into news items that reach wide audiences, and scientists should make use of their skills. Rather than racing to the headline, journalists actually often spend a lot of time building up trust with researchers, exploring their passions and learning the basic details of their work before committing to paper. It's time scientists started to meet them halfway, and stopped seeing all journalists as pest. After all, "our job is to EMPOWER the public so they know what is happening in the world" concluded Alun. 

Public engagement was also a theme in the evening's Science with Impact session, this year entitled "Biodiversity: Here , There and Everywhere". This started with a gloomy picture : across the world , species of every taxa are disappearing at an alarming rate. Besides the 'classic' problems of urbanisation, increasing population, climate change and pollution, we are witnessing new, emerging trends such as micro plastics in the oceans and contamination from discarded pharmaceuticals. However our speakers offered hope that not all is lost yet. Botanist Sandra Knapp (Natural History Museum) enthralled us with her tales from her career of over 30 years of hunting out new plant species in remote, tropical locations. But she made the point that all biodiversity - even in urban areas - is essential and valuable, not just rare exotics. "Discovery comes in all forms and flavours" she said. "If you discover something that's new to you, but not to science, then it's still new!" 
Waiting for the Science with Impact session to start

Yet even urban areas can play their part in reversing biodiversity loss, as Maureen Berg ( University of Brighton) explained. With thoughtful urban planning and 'green infrastructure', cities can be transformed into a mosaic of micro habitats. This goes beyond parks and gardens but includes the potential in allotments, disused railway lines, canals, even rooftops. "Green rooftops have a massive potential to help cities meet their biodiversity targets" she stated, using the example of the Moos Water Filtration system, one of the earliest green roof prototypes (1914). Apparently,this now boasts 13 species of orchids, including locally rare specimens. Yet this urban 'greening' brigs us countless benefits as well - improved air quality, flood protection, mental and physical well being, even higher house values. 

But these benefits have to be communicated to the public, as we all need to play our part to safeguard species futures, argued Steven Cooke (Carleton University, Canada). Although we can be tempted to think that we can " engineer our way out of the situation", ultimately "just doing the science is not enough - people are the most important part of the solution" Steven stated. Whilst one person alone can't halt global warming, each of us collectively has an impact though how we vote, what we buy and how we interact with our environment. If we are to protect the remaining species on this planet, we need to stop seeing scientists and the public as separate entities - we are all in this together. In this respect, scientists could learn from NGOs: many people know about dolphin friendly tuna, for instance, thanks to Greenpeace, but micro plastics within everyday products is still  mostly unheard of. It's clear that as scientists, we will need to take a broader, social view to appreciate the issues that are important to the public and help them to understand how helping biodiversity ultimately helps them in return. As Sandra put it "it's not so much a question of changing their behaviour, but changing their lives so that people want to change their behaviour". 

Media spokespeople, public engages, advocates for the planet...the modern scientist has many roles indeed to play. But tomorrow, the focus goes back to the work in the lab when the main science sessions get underway, which means it's time for an early night for me! See you tomorrow...

Saturday, 18 June 2016

It's CRUNCH time!

When it comes to the BIG issues in food, it can be difficult to know where to start. Food miles, organic, animal welfare, GM, FairTrade, carbon footprints : it's such a complicated issue that the average shopper is often too overwhelmed to engage with it at all.

But these are conversations we need to be having! With the global population rising and rising, and the planet's resources becoming increasingly stretched, we can't afford to bury our heads in the sand. It's up to every one of us to start taking responsibility.

Enter - the Crunch Project! This initiative, created by the Wellcome Trust, is a year-long programme of events designed to get people talking about and interacting with their food, where it comes from and what impact it has on the environment. Last month each school in the country received a free kit packed with the tools to start dynamic class discussions. Everything from experiment guides, seeds, chemicals, test tubes, watering cans, world maps, compost, plant pots and more! Yet in the busy chaos of a school environment, these fantastic gift boxes are in danger of being left to languish at the back of the cupboard - unless someone can step in to explain how to use them. Hence, the Crunch Project has been recruiting ambassadors from all across the country; people with a passion about food sustainability who are willing to step up and make a difference. And, as if I didn't have enough on my plate already, I couldn't resist signing up too! Today I travelled to Manchester for my Ambassador Network Event.

Getting to grips with the issues (and headgear) when it comes to chicken

We started off with some networking bingo and a series of activities to introduce ourselves to each other. It was wonderful to meet so many other enthusiastic people with a passion for equipping people with the knowledge to make informed decisions about their diet. We journeyed back into the past through the Food Milestones timeline, before fast forwarding to the future and trying to envisage what would be available in the supermarket of 2050. Apparently, if current trends continue, chickens will be weighing 16 kg by then! One thing which struck me was how the proportion of our income that is spent on food has plummeted from 30 % in the 1950s to less than 15% today. Perhaps this has something to do with how little we seem to value food now, being instead all too ready to throw it away.

Talking about food certainly gives you an appetite though....but when lunch was announced there was a surprise twist. Our caterers for today were the Real Junk Food Project, an organisation which collects left over "waste" food from local businesses and turns them into nutritious meals. Some might find this a bit dubious but I have never seen such a colourful and healthy spread at a workshop. Vegetable dips, sumptuous salads, soup, curry - a far cry from the usual sad pile of sandwiches! And it tasted all the better for being saved from landfill. There was even pudding to follow: summer fruits, jellies and an assortment of cakes (apparently bread and cakes are among the most wasted foodstuffs). An absolute treat - hats off to the Real Junk Fooders!
Getting to grips with the project boxes

Suitably refuelled, it was now time to delve into the project boxes and discuss ways that we could use them to help schools bring food issues to life. The team from the Eden Project in Cornwall shared the principles which make their educational exhibits so successful and inspiring: activities should be simple, evoke emotion, tell a story, reveal a secret, be interactive and preferably give the audience something to take home with them. As an example, we investigated whether cans of fizzy drinks float at different levels depending on the amount of sugar they have in (try it! You may be surprised at the difference!) We were also able to handle objects that could come to play a big role in the food of the future - packets of dried, whole ready-to-eat insects being one of them. My favourite item though had to be the 'Lucky Iron Fish'. In many developing countries, iron deficiency is a real problem, and this isn't helped by the fact that most people use terracotta cooking utensils. The solution? Place your "Lucky Fish" - made out of iron - into the cooking pot and trace amounts of iron will leach off into the food. It sounds simple but it has already been an enormous success - each fish can provide a family with 90% of their iron needs for up to 5 years. Best of all, you know when the fish is worn out because the smile fades off!
For all your iron needs - take a lucky fish!
It certainly was a day for firing my's up to me now to carry this forward and see what I can do back in Sheffield to start some meaningful conversations, whether that is in schools, the University or with the wider public. I will let you know how I get on - stay tuned!

Friday, 27 May 2016

Pint of Science - taking research from the lab to the pub

Can there be a more potent mix than topical scientific debate and beer?! Last Wednesday I had a chance to find out when I volunteered at Sheffield's very first Pint of Science Festival. This now worldwide event brings researchers and the public together by staging interactive science talks in local pubs. Our venue for the night: The Doctor's Orders, a pub particularly favoured by the Hallamshire Hospital's medical students. Our topic: Food for the Future - how the latest plant science can help us feed the world. 

We are currently facing an impending food crisis. By 2050, we will have to produce enough food for an extra 2 billion people, yet the area of productive land is dwindling fast due to increased urbanisation and desolation of natural resources. On top of all this, more and more people and eschewing an agricultural lifestyle and looking to the city for employment. But whilst we may see a future mired in troubles, PhD student James Lambert has a vision of what will drive the next agricultural revolution: robots.
James Lambert with one of his drones
"Robots are particularly good for any jobs that are dull, dangerous and dirty' James explained. But forget Hollywood-style humanoid drones. . instead, James envisages that small, sleek modular machines will sweep across  the fields, completing jobs in a fraction of the time it would take a human team, and with medical precision. According to him, the days of the combine harvester are numbered. Because these place a heavy weight over a relatively small area, these mechanical beasts cause considerable soil compaction and stall easily in mud and sludge. Smaller robots, such as the Ladybird prototype, will be much more nimble and could even be completely automated - potentially allowing productivity time to double by extending into the night. 

But robots are also taking to the air, and James demonstrated how consumer drones are more than expensive playthings for farmers, using Blackgrass as an example. This notorious weed is common across the British Isles and is particularly difficult to detect since it emerges from within the crop itself. "It would be too time consuming for the farmer to walk the entire field so the only solution is to spray the entire fired with powerful herbicides" James said. Airborne drones, however, can quickly and efficiently pinpoint the hidden weeds, ensuring that chemical sprays are only applied where they are needed. Such  precision agriculture" is better for both the environment and the farmer's wallet and is an increasing trend within the industry. All it takes, said James, is 'to find the right robot for the right situation'.

During the break the audience members amused themselves by tackling our fiendishly difficult climate change quiz, watching a demonstration of photosynthesis from Roboplant and completing our Food-Miles challenge: who would have thought that Chinese Cabbage was actually grown in Norfolk?!
Professor Colin Osborne introduces  RoboPlant
Seed scientist James Thackery then took to the stage to introduce the divisive topic of genetic engineering using the context of his own research. Approximately 56% of our calories come from seeds - including wheat, rice, nuts, beans and sweet corn - and James is particularly interested in the genes that affect their size and nutrition. "Because seeds play such an important role in our diet, even small changes can have big downstream effects" he said. But efforts to do so using the latest genetic engineering techniques have met with public resistance. Against this, James argued that we have been genetically manipulating plants ever since ancient hunter gathers spotted some unusually large seeds on certain plants and decided to plant these instead of eating them. Since then, traditional plant breeding methods gradually wrought the familiar crops we know today, rendering them almost unrecognisable to their wild ancestors.

Yet using existing variation could only take us so far. When it was discovered that genetic mutations could be induced using radiation, this heralded a whole new era of plant breeding. The process of subjecting seeds to powerful radiation, selecting 'mutants' with desirable traits and breeding these into high-yielding varieties ultimately produced many of the crops we eat today. Compared with this, James argues that using targeted genetic modifications would involve considerably less disruption to the plant genome, as the edit would be entirely controlled, rather than the result of multiple random mutations. And the potential benefits could be enormous. Besides breeding plants with higher yields or improved tolerance to environmental stresses, it could even be possible to introduce harmless sections of DNA from otherwise deadly plant pathogens - and so give the plant a 'vaccine' against the disease.

Despite this, GM projects still attract opposition. "We need to make a distinction between GM as a technique and GM products" said James "The most important thing for any food is that it is tested for safety". Indeed, a product doesn't have to be GM to come with problems, as the various scares over growth hormones, artificial dyes and carcinogens in our food have shown.

Although neither robots or GM alone are likely to be "silver bullets" that will solve all our troubles, it's almost certain that they will both play a role in revolutionising our agricultural systems so that they can face the challenges ahead. Lets raise a toast to the wonders of science!