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!


Tuesday, 11 July 2017

A botanical paradise - exploring the Kosterhavets on the West Coast of Sweden

"Excuse me please, do you know where the ferry terminal is?"
"Why, do you want to go to Norway?"

It was only on hearing this that I realised exactly where I was. I'd spent the last week working as a science writer at the Society for Experimental Biology's 2017 Annual Meeting in Gothenburg (see previous posts) and was determined not to leave Sweden without seeing a bit of the countryside. Lonely planet and TripAdvisor had recommended the Kosterhavets National Park, and so, after a two hour train ride, here I was in the harbour town of Strömstad...travel weary and a little disoriented. Thankfully, the locals were friendly and spoke good enough English to direct me to the Tourist Information and the ferry terminal. Baggage stowed away in the lockers, I jumped aboard and was soon speeding across the waters to the distant islands.
The ferry terminal at Vetternet, North Koster

The Kosterhavets is a collection of islands off the West Coast of Sweden and the country's first Marine National Park. Because the Koster Trench - a 247m deep channel that runs through the park from north to south - brings in cold, highly saline water from the North Atlantic, an abundance of rare, deep-loving marine species are able to live here despite being so close to the coast. Many of the smaller islands are also home to colonies of seals and seabirds. As the ferries were quite infrequent, I only had time for a short walk today and disembarked at Killesand on South Koster to walk to Ekenäs. But this was enough to give me a true flavour of the Kosters and the surprising variety of landscape that these tiny islands offer. Killesand itself is a beautiful, sweeping sandy beach but soon I was wandering through lush forests that put me in mind of tropical rainforests. Next I was skirting round rocky outcrops on the shore, peering through water clear as glass at the kelp forests below. At the Visitor Centre at Ekenäs, I gazed spellbound at the incredible photographs which showcased the diversity of marine life found here.
The 'Naturum' Visitor Centre at Ekenas


I was up early the next day to catch the 8.30 am ferry as I wanted to spend as much time as possible on the islands. Firs, to North Koster, the 'wilder' of the two islands, where the sheer abundance of wildflowers was breath-taking. There was every colour and shade you could think of but I was particularly taken with Sea Holly, a low-growing, spiky bush-like plant with vicious spines on the leaves. Despite these defences, this plant is in decline and given special protection on the Kosterhavets. I followed the trail to the northern tip that my AirBnB hostess had recommended: she seemed to take it for granted that I would want to go for a swim. I decided that 'when in Sweden, do as the Swedes do'....and despite the freezing temperature, it was a great experience!
Sea Holly - a well-defended but declining plant
A botanical paradise...

After circuiting the island, I caught the ferry over to Långegärde on South Koster. This is the more populous of the two islands and by now was busy with people hiring bicycles to explore. I followed the main route to visit the organic garden and sculpture park, which perfectly captured the relaxed nature of Swedish culture. Surrounded by vegetable plots and greenhouses, families dined together on the freshest produce, whilst dragonflies skimmed over the pond and a flock of very cuddly sheep milled around. I had a quick tour of the sculptures but most of it went over my head and I'm not sure an English translation would have helped!
Curious encounters in the scultpture garden, South Koster

Leaving the garden, I climbed up to the viewpoint at Valfjäll to enjoy the sweeping panorama over the islands, and the mountainous mass of Norway in the distance. Then I left the crowds and plunged back down through the forest on winding trails that eventually led me to the beach at Brevik. I stopped here to enjoy my picnic but wasn't tempted to swim, having spotted several jellyfish in the water! The afternoon was a pleasant amble round the southern headland, arriving back where I had started at Killesand.
Such clear water!

And so I have to thank the SEB for bringing me to Sweden, a place I may never have visited otherwise. If you want clean air, natural scenery, terrific food, glorious water and a welcoming culture that embraces the outdoors, I certainly recommend it. My only regret is that I didn't get the chance to do a kayak tour of the seal colonies....next time perhaps?

Let me know if you want to join me!

Friday, 7 July 2017

A blast from start to finish - SEB 2017 Annual Meeting Days 3-4

"No, sorry there are absolutely NO more mugs left - we've been cleaned out!!" 

Standing at the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) stand waiting for my nth interview of the day, I couldn't help feeling popular with all the hoards of people coming up to me... Even if they were only after the freebies.

Not that I had much time to browse the 'goodies' on offer at the various exhibition stands. The second half of the conference was carrying on much as the first had - a whirlwind of interviews, science sessions, meetings and plenary lectures. I only hope I can decipher my dictaphone recordings and scribbled notes when I get back! It's exhausting work yet it has also rekindled my love of research. Whilst a PhD does give you time to really focus and specialise on a specific question, they do tend to tunnel you into a niche that's blinkered from the rest of the world. You can forget that there's an ocean of research outside your model organism and the protocol you're working on. Writing for the SEB Annual Meetings - featuring the latest cutting edge research from across all animal, plant and cell biology - always feels like breaking out of my shell. 
Covetable freebies on the SEB stand

One story that particularly intrigued me came from the 'Palaeogenmoics and Ancient DNA session' - the quest to find out when exactly the last mammoth went extinct. Apparently, long after most mammoths had disappeared (due to climatic changes, human intervention or both) a tiny population remained on the minuscule St Paul's island in the Bering Sea. To find out how long these lone survivors clung on for, Peter Heintzman (from the Arctic University of Norway) has been retrieving ancient mammoth DNA from samples of lake sediment on the island. As these sediment layers form slowly and steadily over time, these form a 'natural time capsule' with favourable conditions for preserving DNA. I was amazed to learn how much information can be gleaned from such tiny, fragmented DNA samples, as well as the super sterile conditions needed to avoid contamination (a lot of the session speakers had photos showing very fetching full-body clean outfits!). And the result is quite amazing- the evidence suggests that the mammoths of St Pauls disappeared only 5,600 years ago. As Peter concluded "Mammoths were still living when the pyramids were being built."
Not a mammoth perhaps...but still a prehistoric sight in Gothenburg 

Being a plant scientist, I also couldn't resist covering the 'Carnivorous Plants' session, which featured some of the wackiest species on the planet. Carnovory has evolved independently at least 10 times across 5 botanical orders, yet many trap designs show remarkable similarities - a classic case of convergent evolution. This is particularly true of pitcher plants, whose leaves inflate to form cup shaped cavities filled with digestive fluid.  Nectar secreting glands on the rim of the pitcher entice insects to venture near, but the slippery surface causes them to fall to their doom. Ulrike Bauer from the University of Bristol investigates the tiny microstructures that make pitcher plants so slippery. Under high-powered microscopy, tiny ridges and furrows can be seen on the rim: these cause water to spread out as an even layer, rather than forming beads or droplets. This layer stops insects from getting a grip, rather like 'aqua planing' does to a car. Meanwhile, the inner sides of the pitcher plant's trap are covered in a waxy layer that sticks to the hairs on the insects legs, preventing them from escaping. A highly sophisticated system...but there was something odd about the species Nepenthes gracilis. This plant has its nectaries in the lid above the pitcher but .. Ulrike noticed that insects could walk across it without falling in. So how did the plant catch its prey? The answer remained elusive until a colleague mentioned that she 'thought she had seen an insect fall in when it was raining'. And so the world's first 'rain-powered springboard pitcher plant' was discovered! The lid of N.gracilis is made of a rigid material and is fixed at a single pivot point. When a rain drop falls on the top, the lid vibrates rapidly with such force that any insect on the underside instantly falls off into the trap. An ingenious system...I could have watched the slow motion videos for hours! And don't get me started on the other marvels on display - bladderworts, water wheel plants and of course the famous Venus Flytrap. It's all going to make for an exciting article! 
View from on high...Gothenburg from the upper reaches of Gothia Towers, venue for the 2017 SEB Annual Meeting

In my spare minutes, I have been trying to keep up with Alex Evans, the 2017 SEB Media intern, who has been writing press releases for the meeting. The most popular story by far has been that of PhD student Mouad  Mkamel who has designed a device that can automatically collect scorpion venom, without requiring human handling. The story has gone viral and  Mouad seems thrilled with the coverage - even if some of his phone interviews have lasted forty minutes!

It's been a blast of a meeting from start to finish - it seemed only yesterday when I arrived but suddenly it's all over: the exhibition stands packed down, the lecture rooms empty, and everyone heading off to the conference dinner. As someone who doesn't drink  and can't dance, I decide instead to head to Slottsskogen, a park on the outskirts of Gothenburg with woodlands, gardens, lakes....and apparently moose, seals and penguins. Let's finish as we started - inspiring encounters with the unexpected!

For more on the scorpion story see https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170703083304.htm

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Big Science brings Big Debates: Days 1-2 of the SEB 2017 Annual Meeting in Gothenburg

One of the reasons I enjoy the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) Annual Meetings so much is that, alongside the cutting edge research, it provides a forum to discuss the issues that affect our research, but are rarely admitted elsewhere. Diversity and inclusion; the problems with traditional peer review; careers outside academia - it's all come under the spotlight this week! 

To kickstart these discussions, the SEB's teaching community came together on Day 1 to search for answers to 'the Teaching-Research Nexus'. As a scientist climbs the academic ladder, teaching often naturally becomes part of the role but time spent with students is time away from the lab bench, writing grants, reading papers etc. Balancing these conflicting priorities can become quite a struggle. Even having departmental teaching staff doesn't completely solve the problem as not doing active research can make one become 'left behind' in the field and missing out on key new skills. It's not an issue that can be solved with a single solution but there was no shortage of innovative suggestions, including 'research sabbaticals' for teaching staff and including practicals as part of real research projects, so undergraduates can generate meaningful data (that the researcher themselves cares about!). 
Busy, busy, busy...typical conference scene
Given these pressures on Professors, it wasn't surprising that such a large number of early-career researchers attended our session 'Is there life outside academia?' on Day 2. It was reassuring to hear from the panel that doing a PhD arms you with a wealth of transferable skills that lend themselves to careers in all sorts of industries and organisations. A recurring theme was that we should never be afraid to take a risk and follow our passions - if we aren't truly engaged with and enjoying our role then we are much less likely to stay the course. This was echoed by Katherine Hubbard in the Education Plenary lecture, who encouraged us to aspire to reach our IKIGAI. Apparently, this is a Japanese concept that describes a state of fulfilment where we are doing work that we love, that we are good at, that the world needs and that we actually get paid for! However this can involve some difficult decisions and going against the expected route. But as Erik Alexandersson noted in his talk "There and Back again" it is always possible to transition back into academia as his career journey showed. Having completed his PhD and become "bored of pipetting", he worked as an in-house editor for science publishing giant BioMed Central. But when a research position relating to his passion for wine came up, he switched back and is now a leading researcher in plant molecular biology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
The 'golden state' of IKIGAI...or in his case, blue!

There was more inspiration in the 'Diversity Dinner', a formal meal that celebrates and promotes inclusion in science. Speaker Åsa Nilsson Billme from Professional Training and Coaching Company Lectia gave a stirring talk on the theme 'When the Why is clear, The How will follow'. She argued that inclusive strategies will come naturally once businesses realise the proven benefits of diverse work forces ( including increased productivity and motivation) and that a range of perspectives is critical for companies to keep up in today's rapidly moving world. To show us how entrenched our own thinking can become, we were all supplied with coloured pens and paper and made to draw cats - and for a lot of people, it was exactly the same cat shape they had drawn since childhood! 

A brief escape to the 'bottos

In between all of that, I have been sitting in on the science sessions, interviewing researchers for my feature articles, collecting freebies from the exhibitor's stands and catching up with colleagues - quite a whirlwind! I did manage to escape to the Botanical Gardens on Tuesday. I was particularly keen to see the Easter Island tree, as I have long been fascinated by the tales of the giant stone heads the island is famous for. But after finally finding it, I was slightly underwhelmed....a small, ordinary looking shrub, easy to overlook...why all the fuss? Then I learnt its story - of how it had been germinated from seed brought back by the archeological expeditions of the legendary Thor Heyerdahl, one of the first to excavate on the island. Since then, the trees went extinct on the island, cut down completely by the human inhabitants. They linger on here in Gothenburg, but are proving difficult to recultivate. Unless it can be done, this tree represents the end of the line for the species. I felt so sad to see it, thousands of miles from where it should be, the last of its kind, like Lonesome George, the Galapagos Tortoise.

To think it has only been two days! Stay tuned for the next update and thanks for joining me in Sweden!

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Starting with a bang - SEB Gothenburg gets underway!

We may still be in 'pre-conference' but the action is already kicking off at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology her e in Gothenburg!

I've only been in Sweden just over 24 hours but already I have a wealth of impressions from the country which brought us ABBA and IKEA. And so far it's all good - beautiful countryside, lovely sunshine, friendly people, outrageously healthy food and clean water, a family-friendly culture with a focus on having fun,  friendly people....

Of course, being put up in a swanky hotel may have had an influence...especially when it is next to a theme park!
View from the hotel restaurant!

Today we kicked off with the careers session and communication masterclass for the early career delegates. It can be easy for PhD students to feel overwhelmed at conferences by the more established professors, so this session is designed to build confidence by creating a peer network before the main conference gets underway. In the morning, career consultant Sarah Blackford talked on the importance of building a brand for yourself that matches your ambitions. "Don't just put up everything about yourself on social media" she said. "You need to emphasise your key traits, otherwise you end up with a mishmash without any focus". In the afternoon, Miguel Garcia Yeste, a linguistics researcher from the University of Gothenburg highlighted the importance of tailoring our messages to the audience, and to the form of delivery. My favourite part was when he showed a scientific paper that cleverly contained a hidden marriage proposal - a brilliant illustration of how  we have preconceived expectations for different communication genres.

Session over, I made use of a spare hour to explore and found that while Gothenburg has a fair bit in common with Sheffield - spacious, green parks and trams for one thing - but perhaps not the intense popularity of handball and mini golf!. I managed a quick tour of the glasshouse in the Trädgårds-Föreningen to marvel at the tropical and Mediterranean plants before rushing back in time for the evening's 'Science with Impact' session. 
Escape to the tropical glasshouse 

The question on the agenda tonight was: 'How do we communicate science in a post-truth world?' And how can we get people to listen to us when, as one audience member said, "we are competing with the kardashians for attention"? A clear message was that we need to lose the attitude of 'Just trust us because we are the experts'. Instead, people need to understand our methods and why exactly we believe in what we do. "We need to come together as equals, after all we are all equals in experience" pointed out speaker Tom Wakeford, from Coventry University. He described a case in point where rural farmers in India, after debating and discussing the evidence, decided to reject GM crops on the grounds that it would bring no benefits to their region. Opening up a dialogue allowed funding to be invested instead in schemes that they believed offered more practical support.

But building trusting relationships takes time. "Science communication, done properly, is a full time job" stated Alexandre Antonelli (University of Gothenburg) . "There is no point just putting things up on Twitter or Facebook, etc. if you aren't receptive to people's comments". However, social media can only go so far in assessing popular opinions: as Tom Wakeford pointed out, media polls suggested that price was the determining purchasing factor for food  products, but  the horse meat scandal showed how much people cared about quality. In his view, nothing beats face-to-face interactions to forge closer relationships and learn about each other - sometimes with surprising results! 
Tom Wakeford describes effective science communication in action with Indian farmers 

There were plenty of horror stories from researchers whose work has been misrepresented by the media. But as session organiser Anne Osterrieder said, we need to bear in mind that journalists can make honest mistakes and are under very different time pressures to the sometimes ponderous world of academia. And for every bad story, we need to remember the good ones, pointed out Kristen Schirmer (University of Waterloo, Canada). In Switzerland, for instance, clear communication about the environmental impacts of everyday chemical products has resulted in tighter legislation on cleaning wastewater. "This is costing the Swiss public an extra eight francs a year, so they will want to know the reason why" she said.

It just goes to show that, as researchers, our work doesn't finish in the lab.but it certainly starts there and over the next few days I'm looking forward to writing about some fabulous science....and eating more fabulous Swedish food! Carnivorous plants, deep-diving seals, Neolithic farmers, leaking grouse...there's a lot on the agenda. So it's time for an early night!

You can keep up with all the action by following me on Twitter @sciencedestiny

The work has just begun ! It's going to be a busy week...