This week has been a challenge for me as an Australian living in the UK, watching the cricket scandal unravel. First comes the shock and disbelief, followed quickly by utter soul crushing disappointment and shame at being Australian.
Too extreme? You can learn more about what cricket means to Australia in this article. I could joke that the level of reaction is because our national pass-time is to sledge others who cheat, so now what are we to do?
Seriously though, for me the parallels to academia are what sadden me even more deeply than the shame shared by a culture and I think there are some warnings and lessons that can be gained from this week's cricket scandal.
What exactly do I mean?
Like in cricket, where the leadership has led to a culture of less than honourable behaviours and extreme fatigue in the team, in academia the pressure put on individuals by various levels of management is taking its toll. Morale in academia is at an all-time low (see links at end of article). Is it any wonder that falsifying data to get high impact papers (akin to ball tampering to get better spin) is far from abating? On the one hand we need a work-life balance and on the other, each individual must achieve high ranking papers, pull in large grants in the face of ever decreasing funding sources, be leaders in our own right to our teams and receive high teaching scores from our undergraduate courses - and we must achieve this all of the time. Is it any wonder that stress leave is on the rise? How long before the academic work force crumbles like the Australian cricket team?
But what would actually improve the academic culture? As someone on the lowest level of the academic ladder what I suspect would be the most important change is a return to team outputs. Instead of individuals being forced to spend time on activities for which they are less suited (and usually enjoy less), they could be encouraged to maximise the aspects of the job for which they are stronger (and usually enjoy more). The team as a whole would be much stronger and morale would undoubtedly improve.
A second change is the inclusion of staff in decision making. Had the Australian cricket team been consulted as a team on the decisions being made about ball tampering, I'm certain it would not have happened (at least in my naivety that's what I'd like to believe). If management decisions include open and timely discussions with the people affected, more options will become available to decision makers, those affected will feel more in control of their surrounds, feel more valued by management and less upset by decisions that may still prove disruptive (see TED talk links below)
The optimist in me would like to think there is hope. The Australian Cricket team will bounce back. The question is, without a nation in public uproar is there enough momentum to improve academia?
University morale and depression rates
TED talks on Leadership
AR_lab may now have quite a few members but until last week most of them had not met each other! With Olivia in Adelaide, Erica in Brisbane, Magda in East Malling and Darwin in Rothamsted and with Findi in her first week getting together has been challenge! But last week we managed! - sort of!
From left to right: Magda, Daisy, Darwin, Findi; on computer Erica (left) and Olivia (right) and me (in the tiny inset screen bottom right)
Magda and Darwin made the journey to Nottingham and Erica and Olivia skyped in meaning we covered 3 time zones, two hemispheres and two very different seasons (with a layer of snow here that day!). We are also from 5 different countries including Spain, UK, Nigeria, America and Australia (with an American and Brit living in Australia and the Australian living in the UK!).
The lab meeting was based around a 5-minute-thesis style talk (no powerpoint, something about ourselves and something about our research) followed by a chat about our different and complimentary skills sets.
Then the fun stuff! Together we braved the weather (and traffic) and the 5 of us on site, piled into a car and headed to Calke Abbey (normally about 20 minutes from campus). I feel the title for a book coming on: Five go on a team building day!
We had fun exploring the gardens and seeing the snowdrops despite the cold weather! Here are a few pictures from our afternoon...
When we got back to campus we all gathered in the tea room for a nice hot cuppa before train journeys home!
I have to say I'm incredibly excited about this group of people. Fun, bright and motivated! Watch out world...my model team are on the way up!
As we bring 2017 to a close, I wanted to reflect on positive things from the past year which has been filled with many challenges both personal and professional and I want to thank the people who have brought joy, support and inspiration.
This year has seen me move division to Agriculture and Environmental Science (AES), has seen my team grow, teaching increase, new collaborations and strengthening existing collaborations, brought a range of amazing speakers to Biosciences, and seen a new Vice Chancellor start at the University of Nottingham.
I first wish to thank everyone in AES for welcoming me into their community this year. They not only include me in research or teaching discussions but have also offered support and mentoring during some very challenging times. I can't speak highly enough of this diverse group of people. Elevenses brings social coffee time with the "tub of love" (a biscuit-filled tin) for any students, postdocs, technicians and academics around each day without any hierarchical division and usually ends in tears of laughter.
Adding to AES, my team has grown welcoming Daisy Dobrijevic and Magda Cobo Medina, along with Darwin Hickman as a co-supervised student. In the coming year Findi Ishaya will join us from Nigeria on a VC PhD scholarship and we will host to Erica Porter from the Queensland University of Technology for a part of her Mphil. I have to say these wonderful people fill me with excitement with their positive attitudes and creative ideas. Exciting year to come!
In addition to the growth of AR_Lab, my teaching portfolio is also growing. This calendar year I had the joy of teaching some of my favourite subjects in plant ecophysiology to 3rd years and running a new plant prac to about 300 first year students on two separate campuses. The discussions I had with some of this cohort while we wandered around trees in the glorious spring sun were of such a high standard that for 2018 I'm adding a third stage to the prac involving a treasure hunt using a mobile phone app. This makes me a tad nervous regarding technological glitches so I have a (dreaded) paper backup for the first run but I'm also really excited to be able to stretch the students further in their plant evolution and diversity knowledge in a fun way.
The autumn semester saw the beginning of a new academic year with a delightful group of 4 first year tutees and saw last years' tutees move on to internship applications and a higher level of challenges and time management. My five 3rd year project students have embarked on some really diverse and interesting projects from coastal erosion management to moss invertebrate diversity to crop nutrient physiology (in response hydroponics/soil and in response to pharmaceuticals present in wastewater) and to nitrogen preferences of plants growing in different niches (potentially interesting for greenspace in urban areas). I taught into two plant physiology modules at 2nd year and masters levels and received some truly wonderful comments on my teaching scores (if you follow me on twitter you will have seen my surprised reaction!). I have to say my job is made easy when the room is filled with motivated, interactive students so thank all of you who were in my classes this year.
The year also involved 3 trips to Sweden to visit friends, collaborators, to attend the rooting 2017 conference (see blog and here) and to take 20 undergraduate students to the arctic for a field module (see blog). Collaboratively, 2017 saw several international peers start in academic positions (and I signed my permanent contract too). One of those amazing people is Erin Sparks (Dellaware) and together we set up a sister-lab arrangement to collaborate on maize root-type research which is incredibly exciting - both in terms of research but also in terms of developing a peer group who understand the challenges of being a new academic in current times.
Many other collaborators in Germany, Australia, Sweden, Netherlands, Italy and here in the UK have also been amazing for feedback and support with grant applications over the past year. This includes support from Karl Pioch at KWS SAAT SE and from Kevin Hobbs at Hillier Nurseries as we develop new industry-relevant project. Very recently I had the pleasure of attending the Hillier Lancaster Plant Group and meet Roy Lancaster and a room full of other horticulture buffs. This was an amazing and humbling experience being surrounded by so much plant knowledge - a resource I plan to include in my teaching a research more in coming years!
One of my roles earlier this year was to organise the Holden Botany public Lecture and organise the seminar series. As part of this we hosted some incredible speakers including Sandy Knapp from the Natural History Museum (Holden Botany Lecture), Ottoline Leyser, Levy Yant, Ari Sadanandom, Katie Field and Tom Bennett (seminar series). In addition just this week I had the great pleasure of meeting James Wong (@botanygeek) who visited Nottingham to give a public seminar organised by Susie Lydon which raised money for UNICEF. It was a fascinating talk about how we can use a knowledge of plant processes (AKA physiology!) to improve the nutritional value of fruit and vegetables in our homes. Hearing from these inspirational people is one of the job perks of being an academic and I thank them all for taking the time to visit the University of Nottingham.
So at this point I want to thank you all - AR_Lab members, students, colleagues, collaborators, and friends for the good things this year and I look forward to exciting times to come in 2018.
The year has also seen the University of Nottingham welcome a new Vice Chancellor to our ranks. I have just watched Prof. Shearer West's inaugural lecture and I have to say I feel more optimistic about the future.
In a world filled with awareness for unconscious bias I have been reflecting on why I find Prof West an inspiring leader…*disclaimer: in the following statements I am by no means suggesting I am anywhere near the same league as Shearer but rather attempting to dissect potential biases of mine* … So do I find her inspirational because she's a woman? Or because she's international? Or is it because she's not afraid to tackle problems and give opinions that are not necessarily going to be 'liked' by everyone? Is it because she made a strong case for supporting early career academics to be able to work with the best in our field? Is it because she drew on expertise and quotes from VCs of several Australian institutions?
I happen to agree with many of the things she said, but I agree with many people and don't necessarily find them inspirational. I think what makes her an inspiration to me are those unconscious biases - she says things I relate to and agree with but she does it as an international woman in a position of power. But what does this mean for me as I improve my own leadership skills for my team? AR_Lab is internationally diverse including English, Spanish, Nigerian and American/Australian (and me as an Australian). Interestingly almost all PhD student applicants have been female - (that's before I get any say in the process!). At postdoc level it is much more balanced and together with Darwin joining the team I'm pleased that we are becoming more diverse on that front. We are still small and new so the true diversity of experiences, opinions and personalities are yet to fully shine but on reflection I think my fledgling team is growing well in terms of diversity. The real challenge now will be to find a way to inspire people diverse from myself; to establish a set of common goals with each of them to inspire them through 'the cloud' times (see blog…) and encourage a positive team environment to give them resilience to the challenges (including frustrating supervisor moments)! I am new to leading a team and I'm certain I have much to learn and will make plenty of mistakes but hopefully as a team we can evolve together.
Well that turned into quite the reflective piece! But what better time to take stock and reflect than at the end of a calendar year!
Reflecting back on the amazing things that have happened in the past year and being motivated by my research team and undergrad students, I am looking forward to 2018 with excited anticipation.
Happy holidays everyone.
It's been a while since I posted...been busy...you know the drill (and all the excuses!). Part of the being busy this time is that one of my new procrastination activities is being involved in the Plantae network/platform. This is a platform for anyone interested in plants to post advice, ask questions, read articles - basically interact on a global scale. It's like facebook for planty people. This includes career advice and job adverts. It's free to sign up (and you can be as anonymous as you like if you choose to use a different user name). Details in the flyer below.
I want to emphasise that ANYONE can sign up - there are networks for teaching, for different plant societies and articles and advice on all types of plant science. It's getting momentum with some great interactions and resources available which is great - so come and join us if you haven't already! Personally I'd also love to see more schools/school teachers sign up and to help this become a bridge between school and university plant science teaching (and if you are a teacher and have questions, feel free to email me - we are still exploring what this platform can do and your advice and questions are very welcome).
As an example I just posted a comment on mentoring in response to a fabulous article written by Mary Williams on getting the mentoring you need. You can read Mary's article here but to comment you will need to sign up. I've posted my comment below the advert.
"I always find this [mentoring] an interesting topic. The advice above [in Mary's article] is really good. Although I didn’t have it put so plainly, this is similar to advice I collated over my early years at Uni. The most important message in all of this is that it’s up to you to find mentoring that works for you – academia is incredibly diverse with different people having different requirements and ultimately it’s your life so make the most of it!
I think a key thing to remember is that there are different types of mentor. There are the official ones allocated to you by the institution, there are unofficial mentors you create (in my experience a lot of this is dependent on personality types) and there are your friends. I’m going to just briefly comment on each type and my experiences.
The official mentors: these are people allocated to you by your institution and different institutions have different allocation strategies with one common theme – none of them automatically work for everyone. At Nottingham when I first arrived I was given a questionnaire with a range of questions, most of which I’ve forgotten – the most important one was “do you want someone in your division?”. My answer was an emphatic NO! For me I needed someone who I could ask advice outside the divisional structure and outside my own line management structure (at least a little bit). And that was probably the first really good strategic decision I made here. That person is still a mentor (probably still officially) and will remain a mentor for life. A lot of people at Nottingham think the official mentoring scheme doesn’t work but I think it’s up to us to make it work for us. To mentors – I think it’s particularly important to take new staff under our wings – they are the ones who don’t know who to approach at the beginning, and the beginning is the steepest learning curve (BELIEVE ME!).
Unofficial mentors: I have a lot of these and they fall within the different categories in Mary’s article above. Some are likely to be on my promotions panel one day, some are colleagues who are a few years ahead of me and have been through the early career academic years recently enough to provide helpful advice on things from university structures to coping with the onslaught of email requests. Some are people who I’ve met along the way. I have several mentors in Australia where I studied and where I worked in industry and I regularly call on them for advice (always when I’m back in Aus but also from time to time from the UK). I recently reconnected with two different mentors who I haven’t been in touch with since before I left Australia almost 6 years ago. One of them I haven’t seen since my honours year finished back in 2005. I’ve always found people like to find out where I’ve ended up (and I think that’s regardless of where I could have ended up). So the advice about staying in touch with mentors is really important!
Friends: This group is perhaps the most important group of mentors and probably the least talked about. This doesn’t mean every friend is a mentor – this is the group of people that you go to in times of difficulty. Your friends are the people you can talk to about any problem including those linked to work. They should be able to give you comfort for difficult situations and an airing board for possible solutions before you go and talk to your unofficial or official mentors. If you’re like me and get really frustrated with certain situations, the friend-mentors are the people I rant to (usually with a heated voice, often with tears) until I calm down and can approach a problem more strategically (those of you who know about myers-briggs – I’m an E(I)NFJ –I sit on the E-I divider and F(feeling) and J(lists-about-lists) are my stronger traits). The friends-mentors group is the group I missed a lot when I first moved here – I still had my friends elsewhere but they weren’t here and crying at a computer screen over skype doesn’t have the same effect as someone sitting in the same room (those of you going through that – I get it totally). It takes time to build that group of friend-mentors and I have learnt to be persistent with skype because it does take the edge off even when I’m in my introvert mode. I have found that being on a Nottingham Research Fellowship has helped this because some of the other fellows have become strong friends and we take time for coffees now and then when I’m at our University Park campus.
This is what my experiences have been but I really think mentoring is up to YOU to find what YOU need. Be persistent in asking for what you need and be pro-active within your institution (or wider community) – the best mentors are the ones you choose through interaction, whether that’s through going to seminars, or professional development courses or on the university tennis team.
I’m going to end there and just remind everyone to not only look up for mentors but to pay it forward – I had people help me, so I feel it's my duty to mentor others."
Today's blog is in response to what feels like an increasing number of actions designed to remove the autonomy and flexibility of the academic work environment. In short there is a disconnect between on the one hand expecting ever increasing outputs from academics while at the same time restricting (for example) our work hour freedom and adding ever more reporting (for example for times spent not on campus). This is not intended as a rant – for reports (accurate in my experience) of academia see these Guardian articles:
I do however wish to point out that the most productive research/work environments include autonomy and flexibility (Bland and Ruffin 1992; Hill et al 2001; Martins and Terblanche 2003). Perhaps if staff were allowed to carry out their research and teaching without excessive pressure (and time wasted on admin duties) stress would be lower, there would be less guilt about taking holiday leave and having a life outside work, while at the same time would quite possibly increase papers, grants and good teaching because the ‘box’ would be removed and creativity far easier. Davis (2009) for example demonstrates that positive mood improves creativity.
Having said that, I’m nobody and have little control over the business-style management of academia. So clearly I need to find ways to stay creative in an ever shrinking box as well as any strategy that can help minimise ‘cloudy’ days.
I use the word ‘cloudy’ quite specifically here because Uri Alon used this term in his TED talk to describe that time in research when our results don’t match our expectations. This period is often high stress and can trigger bouts of depression because we feel we have failed. However as pointed out in his talk, this period in the cloud is essential for new findings to emerge.
I recommend everyone watch this TED talk. It is both entertaining (he sings and does improv) and is an accurate description of the process of science. To borrow the sketch he draws on his blackboard we start with a question A and we theorise that the answer is B. and after a range of ‘failed’ experiments we get lost in the cloud. Maybe with support we might find that actually the answer is C which was previously unknown. Then we publish that A goes to C as if it’s a straight line.
Anyone who has seen my talk on puberty in plants will have seen one of the classic examples where B was not the right answer to my original question (strigolactones were not part of the decline in adventitious roots with age) and we had to go back to the drawing board by screening a full range of hormones to see what else might be happening.
Ok so that’s scientific process. But how do we get out of the cloud? Uri uses a technique from improvisation which is “yes..and…..” which means when a member of the team says "I’m in the cloud, the answer is not B". The response then is “yes and…..let’s try a bigger piece of paper”. The point being that instead of coming to a dead end, we attempt any other continuation of the discussion. We open different ways to view the question by bypassing our inner critics. For me the decision was “not strigolactones” “yes and….we can screen a whole range of hormones and see what changes”.
Uri describes this process perfectly and I do recommend watching his talk. As for my team, we are now going to use this cloud terminology and play the ‘yes and’ game. I hope this will help us all cope with future cloudy situations so that we can leap into the creative unknown!
- despite the shrinking box!
Bland CJ, Ruffin MT (1992) Characteristic of a productive research environment: literature review Academic Medicine 67(6) 385-397
Davis MA (2009) Understanding the relationship between mood and creativity: A meta-analysis Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 108: 25-38.
Hill EJ, Hawkins AJ, Ferris M, Weitzman M (2001) Finding an extra day a week: the positive influence of perceived job flexibility on work and family life balance Family Relations 50 (1) 49-58.
Martins EC, Terblanche F (2003) Building organisational culture that stimulates creativity and innovation European Journal of Innovation Management 6(1): 64-74.
At the beginning of July we took a bunch of fabulous future scientists in the form of 3rd year environmental science/biology students to the arctic circle for a field module. This was my first visit to the arctic and all I can say is WOW!
The field course teaches students about arctic ecology including plant identification and environmental surveys at different altitudes from the bog to the mountain top. We stay at the tourist station in Abisko in self-catered cabins looking out over Torneträsk (the second deepest lake in Sweden at 168 m and 70 km (43 miles) long) and in the shadow of mount Njulla. This year 20 students came along meeting us at Gatwick airport bright an early for the first of two flights. The third leg of the journey was a coach ride from Kiruna to Abisko and after settling in to accommodation our first task was to negotiate the local supermarket (in Swedish) and gawk at the very impressive pick-and-mix sweets selection which filled half the shop!
The next week took us to different locations around Abisko National Park and what follows is a photographic tour of some of the places we went!
Day 1: Jokka river
Day 2: Njulla
The second day we took the chair lift up to the top of Njulla – it was colder than usual this year with a windchill of -4C and it was snowing as we headed back down. The students adopted penguin-like behaviour, huddling together in the lea of a rock while others tried star-jumps to warm up! Despite the cold everyone was impressed with the stunning view made even more spectacular by the changing cloud conditions!
Day 3: Paddas
Day 4: The bog
Day 5: Project day
Students then use the new skills they’ve learnt to test their own hypotheses which gives us some down time while students are out sampling…so we strolled out to the lake and edges of the Jokka for more botanising and bird watching.
I’ve not included any photos of students because they are yet to return from summer – perhaps they will write their own blog to give a students perspective. A previous year made their own video which you can find here.
This is a fantastic module where the students learn about arctic ecology and how climate change is impacting this fragile environment. For me this was a wonderful experience combining wonderful students (who had us in stitches laughing on multiple occasions while minutes later asking sensible in-depth questions) and doing things I choose to do on my vacations – botanising and walking in amazingly scenic landscapes!
One giant step for a researcher, one small leap for the research field
In a research world more and more obsessed with publish or perish, submitting research manuscripts can be a daunting hill to climb as a new researcher. That hill turns into a mountain when those results go against an existing paradigm.
This second blog is also inspired by the Rooting 2017 meeting in Umea in May (see the last blog here) and some amazing conversations I had with several PhD students and postdocs who have convincing results that go against different ideas in the root world. Despite discouragement from supervisors who thought the experiments wouldn't work, these researchers often did experiments anyway to produce truly interesting results!
This brings me to my first point: CONGRATULATIONS! YOU ARE NOW A BONIFIED RESEARCHER!
This really excites me - seeing the next cohort of research leaders thinking, testing and following their instinct and logic to do amazing science.
What worries me, however, is the consistent feeling of dread amongst these fantastic people regarding publishing these potentially controversial results and their impression that they won't be believed because they 'are nobody'.
My next point then: You are not nobody. Those big names were unknowns once!
And they typically built their careers on making some big findings that went against those before them. This is how science works (often in small steps, sometimes in paradigm shifts!). And often it's not that they were wrong (although sometimes…) but rather understanding has progressed to better tease out the science underneath, or new techniques have become available that weren't possible before, shedding light on the topic.
Ok so that's all good and well and I'm sure none of that makes any of you amazing new scientists feel any better about the challenge ahead of you! So I contacted a range of editors from several journals (from ecology and plant science fields) to get their take on how to publish something that goes against existing ideas.
One quote that should immediately cheer you:
"‘Something not in line with existing understanding’: isn’t the simple answer that this is what we’re all looking for – scientists and journals?"
"I think that giving a field a new direction with results that contradict the current model is as exciting as new discoveries. Science is not written in stone, it is constantly evolving. A published peer-reviewed scientific paper is not a definite and absolute truth, it is more like a temporary working hypothesis waiting to be confirmed by other labs, or to be used to go even further."
The following four points were made by each editor and I've paraphrased to incorporate all of their points.
So go for it! I'm looking forward to seeing these bright sparks light up the hidden half!
I'm going to end with a quote which sums up things I've said in previous blogs:
"And if at first it doesn’t progress, use the advice provided and don’t give up.”
Thanks to the editors who took the time to comment and provide these inspirational quotes!
Happy Monday morning to you all! (yes I think reading or writing blogs is a great way to procrastinate at the beginning of the week too!).
I've just returned from the Rooting2017 conference in Umea, Sweden and this blog and at least one other are inspired by that meeting (so watch this space for the next one too).
Today's blog is inspired by some comments on the first day that were in my (Australian/Britified) mind unnecessarily narky. What follows is more or less what I said in my seminar on the morning of day two so if you were there no need to read any further!
The first thing I will say is that I understand full well how protective we become of our research niche. This is driven by the nature of the research world we are part of with competition for jobs, and grants and the push for higher impact papers, and promotions (all of these being interlinked). And when we face rejection after rejection it's easy to become defensive.
However when someone has prepared a conference talk of their beloved system and opened their bubble to share it with a room full of critical, (often cynical) scientists - this is the most nerve wracking thing (at all levels - professors I've spoken with tell me they still get nervous)! The least we, as the privileged audience, can do is ask science based questions rather than making unhelpful comments on the relevance of their experimental system in a real world context.
And this is where the point of my blog begins.
Excluding some ecological research here and talking mainly about experimental biology (and probably experimental science in general) - we all work with experimental systems. We try to control as many variables as possible in order to understand one small part of an otherwise very complex set of systems. Whether we are using model species, or using some obscure interesting plant within a controlled growth chamber (or mathematical models for that matter) - we are all using models to simplify the complexity of the natural world. In a statistics text book I was reading the week before the conference (yes I'm that geeky and no I don't understand statistics!) the author (Crawley, Imperial College London) makes the comment that all models are wrong. Now he was referring to statistical models but they are built around our experimental models so by extension we are all wrong. You, me, everyone.
But that's ok!
We are all simplifying nature and there is no perfect way to do that (which is also what Crawley was saying).
My point is (and that of the review paper in 2016 that I was also discussing in my talk) that all experimental systems have limitations as well as advantages. This means that every piece of well thought out research is of value to the greater knowledge bank. The only thing that limits the value of any experiment is how well we communicate the details of the experimental system and why we chose to use it. This of course will also then affect how easily manuscript reviewers understand the manuscript and how many times our work is cited (all important for citation indices and promotions etc).
So be clear about the details of the system you choose and remember that no matter who you are or what system you work with your research is important and valid!
I'll end with a quote from an interesting chapter in Sustainable agroecosystem management (reference below):
"In its purest form, reductionism searches for mechanisms among the constituents of a system and holds that understanding the constituents is sufficient to understanding the system. Reductionism helps us make sense of the world; it is intuitive and generally it works. The beauty of reductionism is its simplicity and the relative ease of experimentally demonstrating cause and effect within system components. By controlling the variables, interpreting experimental results is relatively straightforward. On the other hand, the weakness of reductionism derives from its inability to predict system behavior that arises from interactions among its components."
Phelan PL (2009) Ecology-based agriculture and the next Green Revolution. Is modern agriculture exempt from the laws of ecology? In: Bohlen P, House G (eds) Sustainable agroecosystem management. Boca Raton, pp. 98–128
Also mentioned in the interesting review: Paungfoo-Lonhienne C., Visser J., Lonhienne T.G.A. & Schmidt S. (2012) Past, present and future of organic nutrients. Plant and Soil, 359, 1-18.
The review I was also discussing in my seminar: (shameless self advertising)
Steffens B. & Rasmussen A. (2016) The Physiology of Adventitious Roots. Plant Physiology, 170, 603-617.
I love science fiction and I especially love Dr Who so when I find a chance to connect that love with my other love - plant science - I just have to blog about it!
Last night's episode was filled with planty references but I can't go past the scene where a swarm of tiny robots are pollinating a wheat field (let's ignore the fact that wheat is wind pollinated for a minute) on a foreign planet.
Fiction I here you say!
Well… maybe not.
To explore this out-of-this-world concept we first need to know what is pollination? According to my first year biology text book (Campbell, Reece and Mitchell) pollination is 'the placing of pollen onto the stigma of a carpel'. But what does that mean??? Let's use a picture to help. In plants, the male bits are the stamens with their anthers (which present the pollen), while the female bits are the carpels which include the stigma (sticky bit ready for pollen), the style (which the pollen tube grows down) and the ovary. Today's ramble is only about pollination but the rest of fertilisation (including pollen tube growth) is equally fascinating!
Pollination can occur in many different ways including wind (as hay fever sufferers well know), animals and insects - bees being the most well-known and perhaps the most important economically.
At this point, dear readers I highly recommend taking 7 minutes to watch this TED talk which has some nice pictures of pollination in action!
As many of you will be aware the bee populations have been declining due to a range of causes (some of which we still don't understand - and perhaps partly due to them returning to their home planet Melissa Majora as the Doctor told us in 2008!).
At this point I want to say that our first priority should be to protect the bees (and all pollinators) but let's imagine for a moment we are travellers to a far away planet with no pollinators - could robots be the answer?
Earlier this year a paper in Chem http://doi.org/10.1016/j.chempr.2017.01.008 made waves with their artificial pollinators. Many of you may have seen some of the headlines as you scrolled through Twitter but I wonder how many of you stopped and read the original article? I didn't - until today. So here is the roundup.
The authors had a series of problems to overcome. The first was to find an adhesive that can pick up pollen efficiently but would also let go of the grains when in contact with the stigma (sticky female bit - see pic above), was non-toxic and water resistant. Their solution was an ionic liquid gel.
The second problem was to determine if their gel was suitable for biological applications and non-toxic. They used a lab test on cells which were treated with the gel and found that small volumes had no significant effect on the number of living cells meaning that it was safe to use on biological systems.
Ecologically, introducing little robots into the food chain could be a problem but the team could see their gel also being used for camouflage - reducing predation. Into their gel they mixed four different organic compounds which can change colour depending on the light and then painted flies and ants with the gel. As you can see (and I think this is as cool as the robotics part of this story) the gel changed colour with more UV light.
The insects painted with the gel were able to move and interact within the flower, collecting pollen more effectively than non-painted insects.
So they had a gel that worked on insects.
The next challenge was to create a robotic insect. In insects the pollen gets transferred from the anther to hair on the insect's body. So the group coated different fibres with their gel and tested how well pollen would stick. The fibres came from everyday products like paint brushes and make-up brushes. They found the animal hair brushes (horse hair paint brushes) and nylon (from make-up brushes) worked well when coated with the gel but they found carbon fibres were unsuccessful because they were too big. They decided to stick with horse hair for future experiments because of biodegradability in the natural environment.
The story is emerging: they have their sticky-gel, which is safe for use in the environment and now they have their fibres for mimicking pollinator hair - the only thing left is the flying machines!
They used commercially available small UAVs (Unmanned aerial vehicle) which was just 42 mm long by 42 mm wide and 22 mm high. They stuck the gel-coated fibres on the back of the UAV with double sided tape (and checked that launch was unaffected by the fibres) and then used radiocontrols to fly the robotic bee to the Lilly flower, collect pollen and deposit it on the stigma - see the movie in the file below). They checked viability of pollination using microscopy and found successful pollen tube formation.
So although these UAVs may be slightly clumsy looking - they work. The next step is to make them smaller, fly more precisely and fly alone and then off-world robotic pollination might not be such a stretch of the imagination!
The article on robotic pollination can be found here:
http://doi.org/10.1016/j.chempr.2017.01.008 and the colour-changing fly picture and the movie file come from this source.
The textbook I used for pollination definition is: Campbell, Reece and Mitchell (1999) Biology (Fifth Edition) published by Benjamin/Cummings ISBN: 0-8053-6566-4.
The TED talk on pollination comes from:
The flower picture came from this random website (it was the prettiest image!): http://www.all-my-favourite-flower-names.com/parts-of-a-flower.html
Link below isn't working: but this one is :)
Come along on the 2nd May
Feel free to get in touch if you have more questions.