is running a practical on carnivorous plants today!
Hulme Secondary School, Oldham. 1996-2003
I studied biology at the University of Sheffield from 2003-2006
I took a year out between my degree and my PhD to work in a school, but my PhD is my first science job.
I’m a PhD researcher and I run science lessons part time at the Manchester Museum!
I try to stop plants getting sunburnt!
Even though plants use light to make their energy, if they get too much their leaves can get damaged, just like we get sunburnt.
But it’s an even bigger problem for plants because they can’t move to the shade or put sunscreen on! So I’m trying to stop plants getting too damaged by the sun so that they can grow bigger and produce more fruit, or grain, or vegetables for us to eat.
Usually, plants absorb sunlight using chlorophyll, and turn it into energy and water (photosynthesis). However, if they get too much light, the excess energy gets trapped inside the leaf and can cause damage to the leaf. This can lead to bleaching, where the chlorophyll breaks down and the leaves turn white. This stops photosynthesis (a process called photoinhibition) and the plant can die, but usually it just leads to the plant getting stressed. Stressed plants produce fewer leaves, seeds and fruit, which means if you are growing the plants for food, you get less food!
This is a stressed plant and this is a happy plant of the same type. You can see how much difference stress makes!
My work concentrates on getting plants to be able to acclimate, which means that they can change in response to their environment. If plants can respond to use more light, they will get less stressed and produce more seeds, fruit and leaves. To make plants better at acclimating, I am looking for genes that can help and trying to understand how they work.
One gene that I have worked on a lot encodes a sugar transporter, which moves sugars in and out of the chloroplast. Too much sugar in the leaf stops photosynthesis, because the plant is essentially full and doesn’t need to make any more food. Stopping this process could help to reduce stress under high light conditions. I have created a genetically modified plant which can help us look at the stress response.
My Typical Day:
I am usually in the lab doing DNA experiments or trying to keep my plants stressed, but alive!
My days vary depending on the time of year and the mood I am in! Over the winter I grow plants at the University Botanical Gardens and spend a lot of time outside. In the summer I tend to work more in the lab, looking at the genetics of the plant I work on. Experiments can vary from measuring photosynthesis to manipulating DNA, and I’m always trying to come up with new ideas to test my hypotheses.
I also spend about half an hour each day gardening! My plants are grown under stressful light conditions so I have to make sure they don’t die too early for me to do experiments on them. I grow about 200 plants every six weeks, so there are a lot to look after.
I also teach students at the Manchester Museum about twice a month. This is running sessions on DNA for school groups coming into the museum, and I LOVE it! I also help to run a field course to Mallorca every year, which is lots of fun, even though it usually pours down for the whole week!
What I'd do with the prize money:
I’d use it to try to combat world hunger!
Well, start to anyway. Lots of research is done on cells and tissues and organisms that we don’t really use (including me). I work on an ugly little plant called Arabidopsis
It is known as the ‘model’ plant, and 70% of all plant research is carried out on it. Arabidopsis and is a standard, easy to grow plant and we have sequenced its genome so it is easy to manipulate. The idea is that ideas can be developed more easily in Arabidopsis and then transferred to important plants like wheat (where we get flour from), rice and barley. However, with climate change and increasing temperatures in Britain, wheat crops will become more and more important.
Wheat doesn’t acclimate very well, and I’d like to use the money to start experimenting on this important crop. Wheat is much more difficult to experiment on as it is hexaploid, which means that it has six copies of its chromosomes in each cell. This means I would need specialist and expensive help to try to start looking at it.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Happy, hardworking, perfectionist
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Yes, but not too much!
Who is your favourite singer or band?
I am an indie fan, but I love Lady Gaga
What is the most fun thing you've done?
As a scientist, a field trip to Mallorca. Otherwise, coaching primary school cheerleading.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
More funding for my research, more hours in the day and fat free chocolate.
Tell us a joke.
What do you call a nun on a washing machine? Sister-matic!