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!

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Settling in - and some groundbreaking plant science news!

It's been nearly two weeks now since I returned to the lab and I am already starting to feel the effects. Although I won't be doing any 'proper' lab work until the New Year, I have been keeping busy writing up all of my results so far for my compulsory upgrade report. Some of these experiments were done almost two years ago now, meaning that I have had to spend long hours searching through my lab books to try and work out what I was thinking and doing at the time. At least it's shown me how to keep my notes better organised in the future! I have also been finishing the final data anlysis for my experiments which investigated whether Arabidopsis plants that are mutants in key defence signalling pathway genes are more sensitive to parasitism by Striga gesnerioides. These were grown in rhizotrons (root observation chambers), so I was able to literally "scan in" the root systems and save the image. So even though the plants were thrown out many months ago, I still have a record.
One of my Arabidopsis rhizotron scans. You can see the swollen tubercles where the parasite ahs attached to the host.
But it is exhausting work...especially when you have a backlog of 140 rhizotron scans to count. I have taken to setting an alarm for 'screen breaks' to stop my eyes going funny. One day, I was so wrapped up in it all that when I thought it was only 11.30, it was actually nearly 2.00 pm! How time flies... I have to be careful though, as being constantly overtired was one of the factors that caused my health to slide so much last time. So my weeknights are very boring now - coming home, eating, a little pottering on the computer and then bed. I wish I could get more done, but that's somply the way it has to be for now.

Meanwhile, some very exciting plant science was published this month in Science: the first case of GM technology being used to boost productivity by improving photosynthesis. In plants, this reaction converts sunlight into sugar - ultimately the basis of all the food we eat. Researchers at the University of Illinois targeted a process called 'nonphotochemical quenching' NPQ, which protects the plant from strong sunlight by dissipating extra energy as heat. Like a reflex action, this is turned on almost instantly. But if the plant then becomes shaded - by a cloud or the canopy above - it can take up to half an hour to deactivate NPQ, meaning that photosynthesis is less efficient during this time.
My new lab bench, all ready to go! But not just yet...
The researchers transformed Nicotiana tabacum tobacco plants with three different genes coding for proteins which influence the rate of NPQ. These were a subunit of Photosystem II that helps promote the acidic pH needed for quenching, and two enzymes that catalyse the xanthophyll cycle which produces photoprotective pigements. In the engineered plants, NPQ relaxation was considerably quicker, leading to more efficient photosynthesis. When the plants were tested in field trials, the GM Tobacco had yields 14-20 % higher (in terms of the dry weight of the leaves). The project has now secured funding from the Gates Foundation to explore whether this approach could also be successful in food crops, such as rice and soya bean.

Given the increasing challenge of feeding our growing population whilst conserving resources, this could be a game changer. For more information on the story can be found here.

Hope you have a good week ahead, my resolution for the next is for more sleep!

Saturday, 19 November 2016

FINALLY - Back in the Lab!

This has been a momentous week - after being kept out of the lab for over a year due to my ongoing battle with anorexia, I have finally been cleared as 'medically fit to study'. Hurrah!

But it won't be full speed ahead to make up for lost time.... instead, it's going to be a much slower start as I am not allowed to do any practical lab work until the new year. Whilst this frustrates me, I have to appreciate that my supervisors are concerned that I will overwork myself again and neglect my health. It's up to me to prove that I can have a better work-life balance and keep going over the long term. After all, a PhD is a marathon and I can't afford to keep conking out.

But I have plenty to do in the meantime - I still need to do my First Year Upgrade Report to be able to progress to my next stage of study. I am also writing up all the methods and results from my first year, ready to form the opening chapters of my thesis. It needs to be done at some point so it may as well be done now...even though it's not my favourite sort of work: long hours in front of computer screens, bashing graphs together on Excel, etc.

My 'PhD in a box'...fortunately it survived a year of storage in a shed on the Department roof...
Although I was nervous about how my colleagues in the lab would react when I returned, I needn't have worried. There has been a big changeround in the past year with so many people leaving and others arriving, that one more 'new' person isn't particularly noticeable. I've spent most of the first week back unpacking my 'PhD in a box' and colonising my new space in the lab and office. Because I had to leave the lab so suddenly, I literally only had time to throw everything into a pile, seal it up and hope for the best....fortunately my seed stocks are still intact. I can't wait to start growing plants again and tending to 'my babies' but in the meantime I have to be patient...

But I can't complain - I finally have a toehold back in the lab and take part in departmental life again - the seminars, workshops, public engagement events.... apparently there is even a "Bake Off" competition every Monday....

It's so good to be back!