A Day in the life…

I am now entering the 4th and final year of my PhD at Rothamsted Research and the University of Reading. My research, which is funded by the BBSRC and Lawes Agricultural Trust, aims to develop a model that will predict areas of a farmer’s field that are vulnerable to weed, in particular black-grass, invasion, and establishment. This work will contribute to the knowledge, and innovation, needed for more efficient use of herbicides.

Find out more in this short video:

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Slow Progress

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Often in science progress can be slow but this week I am taking a well deserved (yes I do say so myself) holiday and observing others make a different kind of slow progress.

My partner, Rob, is currently taking part in the 3 peaks yacht race. This is a crazy event where teams of 5 sail up the west coast of the UK dropping off a pair of runners at various points along the way where they run inland and summit the highest peaks in Wales, England,  and Scotland. Rob is one of the runners in team Sail 4 Cancer raising money for them and the work they do. Its a really great cause so if you do have some time you should find out more about the work they do our if you are feeling super generous you can support them with a donation.

Currently their progress in the race is pretty slow  and many of the teams are finding it a struggle as we have had no wind so the teams have been doing a lot of rowing rather than sailing. They set off from Barmouth in Wales on Saturday afternoon and reached Caernarfon around 2 in the  morning – that’s when they had to run the 24 miles to the summit of  Snowden and back. They then sailed/rowed to Whitehaven to make the long journey to the summit of Scafell Pike (around 54 miles cycle and run). Just this morning they have set off again to  Scotland where the highest peak of them all, Ben Nevis, awaits.

It really is a crazy challenge I think you’ll agree and all to raise awareness of this amazing charity!

 

When things don’t work

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Sometimes in research, it is easy to get angry when things go wrong and trust me they go wrong a lot! However, maybe this is not the right way to think about things. Anger is a typical response to annoyance and when things don’t go to plan it certainly can be annoying but does anger ever really help?

Perhaps, instead of being angry that an experiment didn’t work properly, or there is a bug in your code, it would be better to question why it annoyed you? If it was because you did something wrong, then learn from that mistake and do it differently next time. If it was because the system behaved in a way you didn’t expect then why not investigate further? Perhaps what started out as an annoyance could be your biggest breakthrough

Achievements

2016-05-12 10.16.56Sometimes, when you are working on a project for 4 years it is very hard to measure your achievements. Each day you creep slowly towards the goal of your work but weeks can go by and it may seem like you are making little progress.

This is something a lot of PhD students, myself included, struggle with. The end can sometimes seem a very long way away and so it is important to celebrate the achievements along the way. After all, a PhD is about learning and developing your skills as a researcher, not just the thesis you produce at the end.

Some of the work I do is very continuous in nature. I study field sites continuously for a year and so whilst this is a shorter period than the whole 4-year project it is still a long time to wait for an end point. I am also building a model which is continuously changing and being improved upon. Sometimes when you have been staring at the same piece of code for a week and you eventually spot the bug there can be a real sense of achievement, but generally the process is one of small incremental steps.

Sometimes, however, it is the little things that can bring the biggest sense of achievement. This week I took an experiment that has been running for a while and potted the plants up into larger pots. Together with some colleagues we spent two-days of back-breaking work mixing various soils together, filling pots, moving them and potting up the plants. By the end of the week the achievement was obvious.

We hadn’t made a great scientific break-through or even learnt anything new about the system we were studying but we did have 270 pots right there in front of us and sometimes that is just what you need.

Visual proof you achieved something.

Winifred Brenchley

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The research institute where I work, Rothamsted Research, recently named a number of new rooms after prominent female scientists who had previously worked there. One room was named after Winifred Brenchley a weed researcher. As this is my particular field of interest I decided to read a bit more about her and the advances she made.

Winifred Brenchley

“perhaps Britain’s leading authority on weeds in the early twentieth century”

Clinton L. Evans The War on Weeds in the Prairie West: An Environmental History Calgary, Univ. of Calgary Press, 2002 p.219

Winifred Brenchley was the head of the Botany department at Rothamsted, where she worked for forty-two years[1]. After joining the institute as a student in 1906 she became the first permanent female member of staff just a year later[1]. At the start of her time at Rothamsted she developed the technique for growing plants in water culture and made steps toward discovering the essential role of copper and zinc in plant nutrition[2], as detailed in her book Inorganic Plant Poisons and Stimulants (1914, revised 1927).   Katherine Warington’s discovery of the role of boron as a micronutrient in 1923 and the subsequent investigations into the effects of boron are perhaps the best known work from her laboratory[2].

She was also particularly interested in weed ecology with her work Weeds of Farmland (1920) being the first comprehensive scientific study of weeds in the UK[2].  She was also interested in how weed flora can change over time. She studied this using the Park Grass experiment at Rothamsted[1]. This experiment is still used today and in fact celebrates its 160th anniversary this year.  Her work on the Park Grass plots resulted in the book Manuring of Grassland for Hay (1924) describing how lime and fertilizers affect the botanical composition of grasslands[2].

Brenchley was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1910[2]. In 1920 she became a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society[2]. She was awarded the OBE in 1948, the year she retired[2].

[1]Nature 162, 727-727 (06 November 1948)

[2]http://www.hertshiddenheroines.org.uk/portfolio/katherine-warrington-winifred-brenchley/

The language of science

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When talking science with other scientists it is very easy to slip into a language that is common to you both. It will probably be full of jargon and acronyms. These conversations, whilst perfectly acceptable between scientists can sound like a completely foreighn language to those who are not scientists or even those from a different discipline within science.

We often forget this when trying to communicate our work. This last week I have been listening to a lot of great researchers explaining their work to the rest of the members of the institute where I work. Now, this is an audience that is mostly scientists but there were some other members of staff in the audience as well from the various support teams across the institute from controlled environments all the way through to legal.

This must have presented these speakers with a great challenge as there would, most probably, have been a desire to slip into their everyday language that is used within their group – words that are familiar to everyone who works in their field – but instead they needed to communicate in a style that was much more accessible both to scientists outside of their field and the other members of the institute.

I thought that all of the speakers did fantastically. Across the entire two days there were only a couple of moments when I became lost and the talks definitely spanned areas that were far outside my expertise.

Having recently given a talk myself (you can read the transcript here) as part of the popular public engagement series Cafe Scientifique I have been thinking a lot about language and how we use it in so many different ways.

At school and university we are often judged on our writing and presentation skills and so the way in which we communicate is very much tailored to this. We communicate in a way to show off, to demonstrate how clever we are. However, upon leaving the education system this is very rarely the purpose of any form of communication. The purpose of almost any form of communication can fall into one of four categories: to inform, describe, persuade or entertain. None of these involve the writer, or speaker, demonstrating the extent of their own cleverness through the use of absurdly long sentences or overly complicated grammatical constructs. So does our education system favour this?

I feel that as scientist, many of us have a long way to go to improve our communication. So many papers fall foul of the ideas discussed above and use overly complicated language leaving the reader perplexed and confused as opposed to informed about the science within.

The language of science is not only restricted to paper-writing but to many other types of activities. We need to communicate with stake-holders policy makers, members of the public, children, other scientists within our fields and from different disciplines. Each of these separate audiences requires a different language and careful thought about the way in which we communicate our science.

 

Where the wild weeds are

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Sometimes, as a scientist I am required to communicate my work to a larger audience. Often this can be tricky as it forces me to step outside of the world I frequent on a daily basis where everyone speaks the same language full of scientific jargon. I am forced to reconnect with the real world and translate my work into everyday English; something which is not always an easy task. Here is an overview of my project in what I hope is language that everyone can understand.

 

Farmers in the UK, and around the world, face many challenges. We often hear about problems of insect pests or deadly diseases destroying crops worldwide. But in fact, one of the biggest problems faced by farmers is weed control. When weeds grow in a field they not only take up valuable nutrients and water from the soil but can also compete with crops for light. This means the crop plants may not grow as large as they would do otherwise and so they produce less food.

Black-grass is a grass weed found in cereal crops, like wheat. It is extremely well-known to farmers across the country and in most of England, it is proving especially problematic.

As you walk around the southern and eastern English countryside in the summer you can see this weed growing across almost every wheat field you pass and farmers will be doing everything they can to get rid of it.

There are many ways that farmers are trying to reduce the amount of black-grass in their fields but currently chemical weed killer, or herbicide, is the most preferred. These chemicals can be applied to the bare soil in the autumn to try and prevent the weeds from emerging or they can be applied in the spring before the crop matures to kill off any weeds that have already started to grow.

In most cases a farmer will apply the chemicals uniformly across the whole field. This is nice and simple, you can drive your tractor up and down the field spraying as you go. However, when you are next out walking in the local countryside and you go through a wheat field I want you to take a look around for black-grass. It is usually nice and easy to spot with dark seed heads that stand just a bit taller than the crop.

Hopefully, you will notice something.

The weeds don’t grow uniformly across the field. Instead, they form patches of varying size and shape. This presents an opportunity for farmers to target where they apply their weed killer. Why should we be spraying the whole fields when the weeds are only growing in some parts of it?

These chemicals are expensive to buy and so any reduction in the amount of chemical applied to a field will have a direct financial benefit.

A reduction in the amount of herbicide used will also have environmental benefits by lessening the negative impacts on other organisms in the area – we don’t want to be damaging wild flowers in nearby hedgerows for example or polluting nearby water courses.

It seems simple doesn’t it? Only spray the chemicals where there is a problem with weeds. If you had a skin infection on your hand you wouldn’t expect to apply antibiotic cream over your whole body so why should we do the same thing to our farms?

Only it isn’t quite so simple. Do you remember I told you that the chemicals are often applied to the bare soil in autumn to try and prevent the weeds from coming up.  So how would a farmer know which areas of the field to spray if he can’t see the weeds he is targeting?

One solution is to map the location of the weed patches in the field in summer and then apply the herbicide in the following autumn based on the map produced the previous year.

However, this option is not being readily taken up by farmers. Why could this be? It seems like a sensible option right?

Well, it could be that the farmers don’t want to risk missing weeds that grow outside of these mapped areas. The patches could expand or new seeds could enter the field carried by animals or farm machinery.

So how can we reduce this risk? How do we capture all the possible parts of the field that might have weeds growing whilst still reducing the total amount of chemical we apply to the land?

Well, like all organisms, the places in which black-grass grows are influenced by the environment. There are certain environmental conditions that are favourable to its growth and some which are not.

You wouldn’t expect to see a cactus growing in the Arctic would you?

This is an extreme example but the same principles apply.

We can identify certain environmental conditions, in particular to do with the soil that are favourable, or not, for black-grass.

The question I am trying to answer with my work is this: Can we find a way to predict which areas of a field are more or less favourable for black-grass? Does it prefer heavy, wet soils or sandy dry ones for example?

If we can identify areas of a field that are vulnerable, then we could choose to only spray weed killer on those areas. This would reduce the amount of herbicide use overall, and minimise the risk of missing weeds that grow outside of the patches mapped in the previous summer.

So, to recap, farmers face many challenges every day. In order to try and control weeds on their farms they will often apply chemical weed killer across the whole field. These chemicals come at great expense to the farmer and the environment. By targeting where these chemical are applied we can reduce this cost whilst still controlling the weed problem.

Project titles

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My PhD project, as with most PhDs has a long and cumbersome title but here goes…

Modelling the spatial variation in Alopecurus myosuroides for precision weed management

In order to understand what this means I find it is often easiest to break this down as it is only then that I can easily explain what I do.

Lets start at the beginning, shall we?

Modelling

No, I don’t strut around having my picture taken all day. I am talking about mathematical modelling. The sort where I take biological processes and describe them in a mathematical way and then using a programming language tell a computer how it can recreate those processes.

In order to do this I need data. Lots and lots of data. This means that whilst my main aim is the modelling I don’t just sit at my computer writing code. Instead I spend the bulk of my time out in the field or in a glasshouse conducting experiments to give me all of that data that I can feed into the model so that it provides realistic results and can simulate realistic scenarios.

the spatial variation

Many biological populations are not uniform and my study species is no exception. It forms patches of varying size and shape within fields and so I am studying the spatial variation in population density. I am also looking at how that variation relates to environmental properties which also vary in space.

in Alopecurus myosuroides

Alopecurus myosuroides is my particular study species. It’s common name in the UK is black-grass but it goes under many pseudonyms depending on where in the world you are. It is a particularly problematic weed of winter cereals in the UK and often has a patchy distribution within fields

for precision weed management

This is why I am doing the other stuff. It is the goal. If my project works and I find out some useful information it will be used for precision weed management. Simply put, this means changing your management practices according to where you are in the field.


So that is a breakdown of my title. I often find with research project titles, or journal article titles, that whilst they are rarely very catchy they do explain a great deal as to what will be covered in the following text. This is great when deciding whether you want to invest your valuable time in reading the thing but not so great if you want to draw people in who weren’t interested in the first place.

Recently I was asked to come up with a fun and catchy title to summarise my project to help advertise I talk I will be giving soon in a local pub. That’s when, after a lot of deliberating, I cam up with “Where the wild weeds are”. I feel like this is a much catchier title, and it is a lot more fun. Yet it still encompasses the essence of what I do. Why can’t all scientific titles be like this?

Next time: My talk in the local pub. How I convey my research to non-scientists

Helen

Hello World

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As a PhD student today there are many conflicting pressures on my time. First and foremost, I have to conduct my own independent research. To most people this is the definition of a PhD it is a 3-4 year training exercise in which you learn how to “do” research. However, it can be so much more than that. There is a big drive in today’s research to be increasingly interdisciplinary. This means that as a PhD student not only do you have to know your own topic inside out but you have to understand where it fits in with the research landscape and how you could work across disciplines to achieve a greater goal. Todays PhD student also has to be able to effectively communicate their work to a large number of different audiences. Academic conferences are the traditional forum for discussion of research topics. Yet, today there is an increasing need to be able to communicate your work much more widely than that – to the local community, key stakeholders, industry partners, schools and the press to name but a few. With all these different pressures on my time, what could I do but add another one.

I decided to start this blog, not to punish myself further by adding another demand on my time, but to provide an outlet for my thoughts on life as a PhD student, to share my opinions on scientific topics of interest and most importantly to write. Writing is hard. However, the more you write the easier it becomes. So, by writing here I hope to improve my writing and develop my communication skills.

My PhD is in agriculture, but my work spans across the fields of ecology, statistics and soil science as well. As these are my main areas of interest this is where the bulk of the science I discuss will be drawn from but my interests lie far and wide across the sciences (well maybe excluding physics!). I also hope to discuss the trials and tribulations of doing a PhD. I am now over half-way through my studies and there have been some ups and downs along the way. Luckily for me it has been mostly ups but as I enter the final 18 months and the thesis deadline looms ever closer I think there may be some more trying times to come.

So if you are a fellow student, researcher, academic or just interested to learn a bit more about science I would love it if you would join me for this journey.

Helen

Next time: my project – what is my PhD all about?

 

 

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