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!
Friday, 12 January 2018
Friday, 17 November 2017
|Learning how positive storytelling can improve wellbeing|
One BSA volunteer getting a bit excited over the refreshment buffet...
|Presenting the evidence that mindfulness works during our 'speed-dating' event|
|My team of wonderful BSA Sheffield volunteers!|
Sunday, 29 October 2017
|Unhappy looking tobacco plants in Conviron 502|
|Much happier tobacco plants growing in the simulated tropics - they are even flowering!|
|Not again! Withered, dead Striga shoots|
That's better! A beautifully infected tobacco plant with lots of flowering Striga shoots
Photograph by James Bradley
Thursday, 12 October 2017
The Fun Palaces movement is on a mission to change this attitude. Every year, during the first weekend of October, hundreds of temporary Fun Palaces pop up all across the UK. They vary in size, structure and theme, but all have the aim of engaging the public in science and artistic activities that celebrate the innate creativity in all of us – as befits their motto: “Everyone a scientist, everyone an artist”. This year, BSA Sheffield were invited to host our very own science themed Fun Palace.
|Our 3D sound demos in our Fun Palace at DINA venue|
It took us quite a while to decide the theme as there were so many possibilities – Outer Space? Dinosaurs? The Brain? What we really wanted was something that would thrill the imagination and stimulated all the senses....so what better than the five senses themselves? Once we'd settled on this, the suggestions for activities came thick and fast – it was hard to cut them down to a manageable number!
We might have the Fun but we still needed a Palace....fortunately , DINA a not-for-profit social enterprise stepped in. Besides the advantage of having a prime city centre location, we were given full use of the venue, allowing us to take over every nook and cranny (even the basement!).
|The magical illusion cabinet!|
I was very impressed and humbled by how my fellow BSA volunteers took ownership of their activities, giving up hours of their own time to research optical illusions, cut out thaumatropes, source craft materials and decorate the rooms. On the day itself, their hard work was rewarded as we welcomed a steady stream of visitors. Some were Fun Palace veterans who had sought us out specially, others simply wandered in off the street.... but everyone, young and old, found something to captivate them. We had 3D sound demonstrations, ‘guess the contents' boxes, jelly bean tasting and even a fruit orchestra! (I’m still not entirely sure how that actually worked but it did!) Crafting was especially popular for all ages - including making Victorian thaumatropes - a popular 19th century optical illusion made of a disk with a picture on each side, attached to string on either side. If the strings are twirled quickly enough, the two images seem to blend into one, due to the persistence of images on the retina. Simple but highly effective and fun to make – why not have a go yourself?
Learning how to play 'Mary had a little lamb' with a lemon,
a cucumber and an orange
There is a curious phenomenon ( or is it an illusion?) that time simply flies by when you do science outreach and suddenly it was time to close the doors and pack everything up ...It had gone so fast, especially as we had been preparing for months. We’ll simply have to start preparing for the next one!
|Who has the hottest cup of coffee? Playing with the Infra-Red Camera|
Saturday, 30 September 2017
Fortunately those who love me take action to stop this self sabotage. My wonderful Mum is particularly good at this; after a stressful summer, this month she whisked me away for a week in Austira, to enjoy the hospitality and mountain scenery of the Tirol region above Innsbruck.
It ended up being a real exercise in flexible thinking and learning to roll with the circumstances. I know I can be very rigid-minded, especially when I decide to do something. But if the cable car is closed because of the snow, then the planned walk simply isn't going to happen! It's a reminder that sometimes there are no right or wrong choices, only different ones that lead to different experiences. For instance, if the weather hadn't been so bad, we wouldn't have ended up at the Alpine Zoo ( don't let the Z word put you off, it was actually very well done) , getting up close to ibex, otters, wolves, bears and a captivatingly beautiful Lynx.
Meet the animals - a brown bear and a baby ibex at Innsbruck Alpine Zoo
I also learned to appreciate the value of taking time for personal wellness - difficult not to when your hotel had a free spa with sauna, steam room and whirlpool ! I do struggle with this at times: in a world where so many have so little or are displaced due to conflict and disaster, it can seem disrespectful and frivolous to enjoy the sensory pleasures of a jacuzzi. Such experiences aren't limited to posh hotels or holidays of course, and can even be found in simple things such as a lunchtime stroll through the park or meeting a friend for a leisurely rendez-vous at a cafe. But when work constantly beckons, these are the things that get squeezed out.
These two things, learning to move fluidly with problems and making time for self restoration, will be critical for my third year of my PhD. During this time, the pressure will really be on me to get enough meaningful data for a thesis worth defending. I know the time will fly by, as indeed this whole year seems to have done. I only hope I am up to the challenge. At least in those frustrating moments, when my experiments run into problems, or the equipment refuses to cooperate, I can breathe deeply and, in mind at least, wander the mountains again. And look forward to the next time I set my feet on the hills.
Sunday, 20 August 2017
|Destiny, Robert, Artemis, Sentinel and Nighthawk.|
|Close up of Striga shoots on Artemis|
On a more cheerful note, I have had one recent success. Until now, I have been having terrible trouble getting the S. gesnerioides seed that I do have to germinate properly: the maximum I ever reached was 30% germination. This was probably because I was using an artificial chemical called GR24, which is actually a germination stimulant for the related species Striga hermonthica. So I decided to take a step back to nature…. unlike S. hermonthica, which infects cereal crops such as maize, the original host for S. gesnerioides is cowpea. In their native soil, the parasite seeds germinate in response to chemicals naturally released by the cowpea roots (a handy trick to ensure they only germinate when a suitable host is present!). Although the exact chemical/s Striga responds to are unknown, this needn’t stop me from trying the same thing! Consequently, I have been growing cowpea hydroponically and taking samples from the liquid every few days. I was amazed at how well the cowpea took to it, given that the only support they had was a tube in a rack with the end sawn off. Even better, since using the cowpea extract, the germination rates have shot up to over 50%. It’s a good lesson in putting a problem back into the context it came from.
|My super-hyrdroponic cowpea plants!|
Thursday, 27 July 2017
"Can someone close the door please? I think the T-Rex is on the lose again!" Just one of the memorable soundbites from the most bizarre conference I have ever attended. But what do you expect for the annual meeting of the BIG Network of STEM Communicators? The people here were experts in blowing things up, taking things apart and creating all kinds of show-stopping marvels - all in the name of showing the public that science is awesome! I had been lucky enough to be awarded a BIG Bursary to attend and was hoping to learn as many tricks of the trade as I could, besides scouting out possible career options post-PhD.
|Not just your usual conference....meeting Rex and entering the Tardis!|
|The entrants to the 'Best Demo' contest took the challenge VERY seriously.... Left to right: Turning fire into ice; using pole gymnastics to explain the laws of gravity and setting a table on fire with napalm.|
|Having fun with those marvellous machines - my traffic-light built with a raspberry Pi and racing electric worms|
|Having a go at Tinkering....wait, isn't this just what I do in the lab but with different things?|