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.
On the 2nd of May I'm honoured to be hosting Dr Sandra Knapp from the Natural History Museum (http://www.nhm.ac.uk/) for the Holden Botany Lecture.
The Holden Botany Lecture is a public seminar held once every two years and named after Prof. Henry Smith Holden who, in 1932, was our first Professor of Botany at the University of Nottingham. The first of these lectures was held in 1975 with the intention that the ‘lecture be given by a distinguished botanist, biologist, or an industrial or horticultural specialist, and would emphasise the importance of basic botanical and biological research work’.
With this in mind Dr Sandra Knapp's impressive career working with the taxonomy of Solanum, Capsicum, and Lycianthes with the Natural History Museum clearly makes her a natural choice for this year’s seminar.
The seminar is open to all so if you find yourself in the East Midlands do come along! More details for the event can be found at: www.nottingham.ac.uk/go/holdenbotanylecture or you can email me with any questions.
See you on the 2nd May!
It's been a while since I posted so prepare yourselves for a longer than usual blog! I was going to separate some of these topics into separate entries but honestly I can't be bothered so you'll just have to read (or skim) the whole update!
First to Students (and no they aren't related to stress!) - I've had the great pleasure of having Jordan in my lab for a DTP rotation for the last 7 weeks. She has been learning about maize growth and the soil-plant-air continuum. Some of the techniques she has learnt include 15N uptake (which is what we are doing in the images below), shoot and root biomass measurements, CT imaging of roots, leaf pigment stuff (which is sort of my loose connection to stress!) and microdialysis sampling of soil nutrients. The last 7 weeks have been a lot of fun and I'm sure whatever project Jordan chooses she will go on to great things!
Now to Stress - not mine - and actually not really stress but rather plant pigments which can indicate stress! Those of you following me on Twitter will see that I recently obtained a Dualex meter. This measures chlorophyll, polyphenols (flavonoids) and a ratio between the two (for more detail see Force-A page: http://www.force-a.com/en/capteurs-scientifiques/dualex-scientific/
and download the brochure).
The reason I am so blatantly advertising the for Force-A is because of the support they showed me during the nightmare of having the device delivered. Firstly - to order a piece of equipment like this is a serious decision when there is a limited budget so I put a lot of thought into weighing up my options. Having decided to order one Force-A were fantastic with getting it packaged up and sent. However a certain delivery company who can remain unnamed (but whose initials are U. .P...S) seem to have lost the delivery but refuse to accept their error (details can remain out of this due to further investigations - however it seems I'm not the only person to have problems with this company!). The device should have arrived the first week of November 2016 but has still not been located. Force-A are not at fault so have no obligation to do anything further, however despite this they stepped up and provided a replacement device (via a different delivery company) and the device arrived 2 working days later! It has been rare for me to experience such charity and support and I truly appreciate it - in particular as a new academic with a tight budget.
Since the Dualex arrived we (I mean Jordan!) has had a play and measured a bunch of random plants around the place....data below....definition of the ratios are given in the picture above. In future the dualex will allow us to do continuous measurements of leaf status. At the end of experiments we'll make a final measurement, harvest that tissue and use colorimetric methods to measure whole tissue pigment concentrations. Fun times to come!
So thanks again Force-A :)
That brings me to stuff!
I watched this fabulous TED talk (link below) recently on mentoring and how to get the most out of your team. I personally have had more bad than good experiences with supervisors and I'm always on the lookout for good advice. This one however hit home hard regarding the chicken-run of academia and the encouragement of superchickens rather than ensuring all the rest of us chickens are happy, healthy and as a collective more productive. It's a fantastic talk (like most TED talks) and I think if this way of thinking and behaving could be incorporated more into institutions it will not only improve overall productivity but also make a community of much happier chickens!
Finally - AR-Lab is moving....Again! This time by choice - just across the Sutton Bonington Campus to Gateway building. It's been two days (and most of today I was teaching) but already I feel very welcome among my colleagues and have been able to pop in and ask questions or have a chat with people as I've bumped into them when previously I would have had to walk across campus to see if they were in! So thanks to you all for making me welcome! My email contacts stay the same, phone number will change (see my contacts page).
If you've read all the way to the end then I thank you for thinking this was more interesting than spending your time on something else! :)
Congratulations to Olivia Cousins (an Adelaide-Nottingham joint PhD candidate and one of our team!) who won the student poster prize at the 2016 New Zealand Society of Soil Science and Soil Science Australia conference held in Queenstown, New Zealand 12-16th December this year. A full version of the poster can be found at: soilecology.org/conference-posters
Well done Olivia!
I thought it was about time for an update from the AR_Lab!
Aside from full recruitment mode there have also been some fun stuff going on wtih the plants. The new rhizoboxes are in the glasshouse and the plants are very happily growing. I'm still amazed (even as a root physiologist) by how extensive the root system can be for a comparatively small shoot - and these are all growing with sufficient nutrient availability.
While we're talking about plants in action the second edition of this very useful text book is now online and freely available for all to use. You can find it at http://plantsinaction.science.uq.edu.au/
These boxes will never look this clean ever again! This was the evening they were delivered. :)
This is my advertising shot - beautiful blue skies at Sutton Bonington that day :) Boxes filled with potting mix and ready to go! (by the way blue skies are not actually unusual here!)
Plants in action! Measuring nutrient uptake from root types without disturbing the plants. Check out how long the roots are compared to the shoots! After half an hour the treated roots were cut off and the windows were replaced, retilted and recovered with opaque plastic as if nothing had ever happened!
So many great experiments to do! :)