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, 24 September 2014

A different 'plant scientist' - Ron Finley, 'Gangsta Gardener'

The newly refurbished Sheffield Cathedral thrilled with anticipation as the packed crowd waited for the arrival of a speaker with a pioneering message about sustainability. On arrival however, it was clear that Ron Finley, dressed as a strawberry, was not about to deliver a moral, guilt- inducing lecture. Instead, the evening was an inspiring account of how one person can truly make a difference to their community, and ultimately the world.

A former fashion designer, Finley became exasperated at the impoverished state of the communities around his home in South Central, USA. Not that there was a lack of food - instead, streets of houses were shoehorned by fast- food outlets, supermarkets and diners. Nevertheless, there was a distinct lack of nutritious foodstuffs - fresh fruit and vegetables. To Finley's mind, this food imbalance was the key underlying cause of the rise in chronic 'Western' diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. He saw that he and his neighbours lived in a 'food prison' , allowing themselves to depend entirely on others for food. But how to escape?

Besides fast food eateries, South Central also has a lot of vacant lots, areas of wasteland neglected by local authorities. On one such strip outside his house, Finley daringly planted tomatoes, carrots, mustard greens, sunflowers and more, turning the street into a garden. Despite the beauty and bounty this provided, a complaint from a neighbour led to Finley being arrested. This prompted a successful campaign which changed the local law, allowing citizens to grow produce on their parkways.

Finley was evangelical in his message that this was more than about growing a few vegetables to enhance his own meals. Instead, he deliberately planned the street garden so that neighbours would be able to help themselves as they passed. His vision is for neighbourhoods to feed themselves, growing and sharing vegetables on community land. To him, this is the ultimate act of defiance - fighting back against the reliance on mass- produced, processed food.

Since then, Finley and his 'gangsta gardeners' have worked with various communities to set up new street gardens. It is clear that these have had effects beyond improving nutrition, especially in helping children to engage with nature. 'Gardens can teach so many lessons' Finley said 'everything in life happens in a garden'. Time and again, he has observed young people become 'seduced by the soil' and    his gardens have proved therapeutic for those suffering from substance abuse, mental and physical conditions and the pressures of gang warfare. Once children start growing healthier foods, they also become much more enthusiastic about incorporating them into their diets.

Finley distinguishes himself from guerrilla gardeners ( those that plant seeds / gardens at midnight then vanish before morning), instead styling himself as a 'gangsta gardener'. The key difference, he says, is stewardship. He only works with communities that are prepared to take ownership of their garden and maintain it. During the question period that followed, a representative of a Sheffield Council also made the point that it was no good for the council to 'do things at people' but that sustainable community initiatives had to be undertaken by the people themselves. The overriding message appeared to be that councils are more supportive than the public may think and are prepared to back ideas that people are committed to maintain themselves. In fact, a new 'urban garden' is being planned for Sheffield City centre, called 'the Love Square'. Fingers crossed it will have the same effects as Finley's Garden! ( see http://lovesquare.group.shef.ac.uk )

According to Finley, ' they are telling us a lie, that we need them to feed us'. As a plant scientist, I found this a little hard to stomach, having been brought up to believe that sustainable, mass agricultural systems are the most efficient way to feed the global population. However, I believe that the world would be a healthier and happier place if most people did grow their own food. Perhaps a community in the UK could sustain itself on produce grown and reared by its members? Nevertheless, there is also a compelling argument that the 'delegation of labour' frees other people to become inventors, medical researchers, technicians, artists, poets... Perhaps a mix of both approaches is best?

So what do people think? Is mass produced agriculture a glory of the modern world or leading many to an early grave? Comments below please!

Click hear for a Reader's Digest interview with Ron Finley and a video of his 'Gospel Message' http://www.rd.com/culture/ron-finley-gangsta-gardener/#.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Genes for Jeans day tomorrow!

On Friday 19 th September, many people will be donning their denims at work or school to raise awareness and funds for research into genetic disorders. Some, such as cystic fibrosis, are well known, others - including the painful skin condition Icthyosis - less so, but all limit the ability of those affected to enjoy lives as full as their contemporaries. It can be easy to forget these conditions in the face of the global empires of cancer, HIV, malaria, etc, but as we gain increasing knowledge of the mechanisms behind genetic diseases, there is hope that one day there could be real treatment against these.

Jeans for Genes originated in the 1990s, as part of a family's efforts to raise funds for The Chronic Granulomatous Disorder Society. Two brothers within the family were affected by this condition which hinders the ability of the body's immune cells to kill pathogens. The idea has since grown into a national event to raise money for Genetic Disorders UK, which supports families affected by genetic conditions. This year, Jeans for Genes has worked with Edinburgh College of Art to produce a series of limited edition T-Shirts. To me, the design is a perfect combination of promoting my scientific interests whilst supporting a valuable cause. It is also brilliant to use science to make a fashion statement! Or should that be the other way around?

With so many pressures facing our world - food security, health, energy generation- scientists often have to stretch their creative powers to garner enough funds to persue their work. It is difficult when there are so many promising avenues of research for funding bodies to decide between them.
But the public can play their part so I shall wear my T Shirt with pride.
Jeans for Genes Day T-Shirt Design 2014

If it's too late this year for you to organise an event with your colleagues, why not resolve now to wear your genes on Jeans for Genes Day 2015?

For more information see http://www.jeansforgenesday.org

Friday, 5 September 2014

Another year, another name badge! The Annual Gatsby Plants Network Meeting 4-5 th September 2014

Is it that time already? It hardly seems a week since the last Gatsby Plants Annual network meeting. Still, I'm of complaining as it is a lovely opportunity to catch up with friends and to stimulate ideas for my own research experiments.

This year the venue is Somerville College, Oxford. Although the grounds are lovely and bursting with an abundance of floral species, I am slightly disappointed that we are housed in a modern university block...I had got used to the quirky college rooms with their nooks, crannies and occasionally pianos. Nevertheless, it doesn't detract for the science, which- as usual- is top notch. Thursday afternoon is mostly dedicated to talks from Gatsby funded PhD students encompassing everything from micro compartmentalisation of the enzyme aldolase, chromosome recombination in Arabidopsis and resistance against the pathogenic oomycete Albugo laibachi. I always struggle to get my head around some of the development talks, particularly how polarity fields and hormone gradients can promote the growth of specific shapes. Some ingenious comparative models were used in the talks to explain such concepts, including pizza dough and lolly pops. Visual imagery always helps! I was also intrigued by an experimental method called FRET to determine if two proteins interact in a cell. By altering the encoding gene, it is possible to engineer proteins to have a fluorescent 'tag' which absorbs a certain light wavelength and re- emits some of the energy as fluorescent light. Some of the energy, however, can be transferred to surrounding molecules (known as Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer, FRET). So too see if two proteins interact, one can tag each with different fluorescent markers that are excited by different light wavelengths. When the first fluorescent marker ( say a green marker) absorbs light energy, it can transfer energy by FRET to the second marker ( eg.a red marker), but ONLY if they are very close together ( within 10 nm). So if the proteins are far apart, when the green tag is illuminated, it can only re- emit green light. If the proteins ( and hence the markers) are close together however, the green marker can pass on energy by FRET to the red marker, and red light will be seen. I am constantly amazed at the methods designed by biologists to answer questions!
The Delightful Grounds of Somerville College, Oxford

After quite a marathon of talks, with a short break for coffee, the evening gave way to a discussion on the future of publishing in plant science, chaired by a panel of journal editors. Professor Mike Blatt, editor of Plant Physiology, made the point that many people often assume that scientific journal editors are 'failed scientists' who couldn't handle the pressures of a research- based career. On the contrary, most journal editors are very much 'active' scientists, who manage to fit in editing and reviewing with their own research agendas. There was much debate on how the move towards 'open access' publishing can be financially sustained. Although there is great pressure for publicly-funded research to be made freely available, most journals receive most of their revenue from subscriptions. Without this income, how can we ensure that these remain high quality and rigorously reviewed publishing platforms? Eventually, the talk was pulled to a close and we tripped onto the lane for the drinks reception. The formal meal was very enjoyable, the highlight for me being 'Japanese breaded baby carrots' although the menu didn't specify what exactly made the dish 'Japanese' - were they Panko breadcrumbs? Did it refer to the way the carrots had been exquisitely julienned? Were the carrots themselves from Japan?
Guinea Fowl with those "Japanese" carrots...

The next morning kicked off with an open platform to discuss strategies to inspire plant science teaching in schools. I can remember from my GCSEs that my teachers were almost apologetic when we reached plant topics, with an air of 'I'm sorry but we HAVE to do this because it's on the exam...'. To combat this, Science And Plants in Schools (SAPS) have produced a stunning suite of freely available teaching resources ( including lesson plans, animations, work sheets) - the problem is now getting the message out there so that teachers actually use them!
Somerville College, Oxford

After more talks from the PhD students, the meeting closed with a presentation by Professor Cathie Martin of The John Innes Centre, to describe the potential of nutrient enhanced food to combat chronic diseases. Her work has mainly focused on the purple tomato; a GM crop with a introduced pigment gene from Antirrhinum ( snapdragon). This increases the production of anthocyanins, said to protect against a range of chronic diseases. To test this, the tomatoes were fed to mice genetically engineered to be deficient in the tumour suppressor p53. This dramatically reduces the lifespans of the mice to an average of 140 days. Supplementing the mice's diet with red tomatoes had little effect, however introducing purple tomatoes caused them to live 30% longer, up to 180 days. The tomatoes were also tested in atherosclerosis - prone mice, where it was found that, as the proportion of purple tomatoes in their diet increased, the area of fatty plaque on the arteries reduced. European regulations mean that these 'wonder fruits ' are currently only available as a juice in the United States. Professor Martin's group are currently seeking to develop tomatoes enriched in resveratol ( a compound found in red grapes claimed to promote longevity and weight loss) and phytoestrogens ( which could benefit women approaching the menopause). Having an abundance of bio enriched foods sounds wonderful, however Professor Martin pointed out one can't rely on these foods alone for good health. The plaque reducing properties of purple tomatoes for instance, would be severely negated by pairing them with melted cheese on a pizza!  It was interesting though, that the plums were the first fruit to run out over the leaving lunch....

How the years roll by... At least it means I can count on the next meeting being here before I know it! So long for now!