To tweet or not to tweet?

Here at GARNet, we’re pretty big fans of social media, and Twitter in particular. You can find me, for example @GARNetweets, Charis is @weedinggems, and Ruth has the enviable Twitter handle @plantscience. We regularly post links to news, journal papers, job posts etc., tweet from conferences, and encourage live-tweeting at our own events too.

Left behind at GARNet Towers while my colleagues attended the Plant & Animal Genome conference in San Diego last week, I followed events virtually, via the Twitter hashtag #PAGXXIII – thanks to everyone who tweeted for keeping me up to speed!

Though once upon a time it would have been considered rude to sit tapping away at your phone during a plenary lecture, in today’s WiFi-enabled world, more and more people are using social media during conferences. As John Innes Centre (@JohnInnesCentre) student Amelia Frizell (@AmeliaFrizell) points out in this blog post, there are many advantages to live-tweeting: it’s a great way to make notes, stay engaged with the speaker, increase your Twitter follower numbers and network with peers.

But there’s an ongoing debate, known as “Twittergate”, about whether it’s appropriate to tweet during a conference, what should and should not be tweeted, and what, exactly, the “twetiquette” is when engaging with social media during live events.

A Twitter account I follow recently retweeted a link to quite an old blog post on The Guardian website, which reminds us that there is a certain level of responsibility involved in live-tweeting. At academic conferences in particular, there are unwritten rules that should be followed. I recommend reading the article as there are some very useful tips and things to bear in mind.

You see, although many of us are fully subscribed to the idea of Twitter as a way to quickly give and receive snippets of news and information, not everyone feels the same way. Not everyone is aware of what Twitter is, how it works, or just how public a channel it is. Many distrust it and are sceptical. Some academics, for example, are comfortable with presenting unpublished work to an audience of peers in the room, but less happy to have it instagrammed and summarised in 140 characters or less and whizzed around the Twitterverse for anyone to read.

Having been lucky enough to attend quite a few conferences last year, it was interesting to note the uptake, or not, of Twitter in different places. At UKPSF (@UKPSF) Plant Sci 2014 and ASPB’s (@ASPB) Plant Biology 2014, for example, tweeting was encouraged and I was among a handful or two of other delegates all using the official conference hashtags. At ICAR 2014 (@ICAR2014) however, Charis, Ruth and I were practically the only ones online.

At SEB (@SEBiology) 2014 in Manchester there were noticeably more ‘tweeps’ in the plant science sessions than there were in the animal or cell biology talks, while at SpotOn London (@SpotOnLondon), a science communication conference I attended at the end of 2013, there were so many people tweeting and using electronic devices that it was a scrum to find available plug sockets to recharge during the lunch break!

Like Amelia, I think – when used responsibly – Twitter is brilliant for conference and workshop communication, and as Anne Osterrieder (@anneosterrieder) and others testify, social media is a great science outreach tool, too. Like it or not, Twitter is a ‘thing’ now. And it’s not just a frivolous plaything for younger students or early career researchers, it’s a bona fide tool for communicating and sharing news and joining in online conversations.

Speakers: don’t be offended if people spend more time looking down at their iPads than up at your slides. If they’re tweeting or live-blogging about your work, they are helping you to communicate your science to far more people than just those in the room. If you’re presenting something you’d rather not have published on the internet, or don’t want your photo taken, just say so during your talk – the twitterati will respect your wishes.

Embrace Twitter. Why not set up your own Twitter account and start posting links to your papers or research websites? Follow people you’re interested in (like us?!) and retweet what they have to say. Tweet about what you get up to in your lab. Put your Twitter handle on your conference presentations so people can @mention you in their tweets, or even start your own catchy hashtag? Who knows, you could end up trending!

Plant synthetic biology takes centre stage

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Published on: October 27, 2014

On Monday and Tuesday last week I was at the Marriott Heathrow for the Global Engage Synthetic Biology Congress. Plant synthetic biology had a dedicated track, and while this meant I regretted missing some talks in the other sessions, it did enable me to be suitably impressed at the quality of plant synthetic biology research, mostly coming from the UK and Europe, and its exciting range of applications.

Plant synthetic biology at Global Engage

A highlight for me was Matias Zurbriggen’s excellent presentation on using plant signalling pathways to remotely control mammalian cells. His objective is to understand plant pathways by reconstructing them in other systems, and via research on phytochromes he has developed a tool to remotely control gene expression in mammalian cells (1) and a light-controlled switch for plant cells (2).

Birger Lindberg Møller gave an interesting and accessible talk about plant synthetic biology for high value product (HVP) synthesis. Whatever your level of expertise, if you’re interested in this area I recommend you watch this earlier version of his talk.

Continuing the HVP theme were Brian King, Vincent Martin and plenary speaker Jules Beekwilder. They all aim to make HVPs using simple chassis instead of relatively energy-intensive, and often inefficient, plants. (more…)

The TREE of plant science education

Aurora Levesley is the Project Officer for the Gatsby Plant Science TREE. The TREE grew out of the Gatsby Plant Science Summer Schools as a means of sharing the valuable resources produced for and during the Schools. Here she discusses the value of the TREE’s online lectures, which are the subject of a current New Phytologist paper. 

David Beerling at the Gatsby Plant Science Summer School
David Beerling gives a lecture at the Gatsby Plant Science Summer School. This is one of many lectures that have been edited for interactive online delivery and shared on the Plant Science TREE.

The Plant Science TREE is a free online central repository of plant science educational resources. More than 90 research academics and publishers have contributed over 2000 resources, including online research lectures, research-led lecture slides, practicals, video clips and other resources on topical plant science. It was developed by the University of Leeds with funding from the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, and is currently used by scientists, educators and students from over 320 institutes worldwide.

Many students enter biological sciences courses with little interest in or knowledge of plants, and engaging students with plant science early in their studies is arguably an important step in reversing the decline in uptake of this vulnerable yet strategically important subject linked to food security and other globally important issues. Prof Alison Baker of the Centre for Plant Sciences at the University of Leeds, says of the TREE: “The aim is to put a tool in the hands of educators that will engage students in plant science and research, especially where expertise is becoming limited.”

Our recent study, published in New Phytologist, showed the online research lectures that form a large part of the TREE successfully engage undergraduates with plant science (Levesley et al 2014, New Phytologist Early View).

In this study, undergraduates from four UK universities were provided with links to online research lectures as part of their course. The lectures, filmed at the Gatsby Plant Science summer schools, were given by research leaders but pitched at a level to engage undergraduates and provided a first-hand insight into how discoveries are made and science is carried out.

Not only were the online lectures successful in engaging students with plant science and research in general, but students were unanimous in the opinion that they were a good way to learn about a subject. Interestingly the study also showed that the online viewing experience was comparable to watching the research lectures live.

These online undergraduate research lectures are freely available through the Plant Science TREE. Our study shows they represent a valuable plant science education tool to help lecturers and teachers introduce cutting-edge research examples that address globally relevant applied initiatives – as well as curiosity-driven research – to their students. As such they have the potential to change student attitudes to plant science, engage students in research and are able to reach a large and wide global student audience.

The full reference for the Plant Science TREE paper is: Levesley A, Paxton S, Collins R, Baker A and Knight CD. “Engaging students with plant science: the Plant Science TREE”, New Phytologist, published online ahead of print in June 2014.


Plant Doctors at the Big Bang Fair

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Published on: March 19, 2014

BigBang cover2

On Friday I went to the NEC in Birmingham to join an intrepid team of plant scientists running activities on an exhibit at the free national science, technology and engineering event the Big Bang Fair. The stand was organised and funded by the British Society of Plant Pathology and the John Innes Centre.

The theme of the exhibit was Plant Doctors. Visitors learned about plant diseases and were encouraged to think about a world without plant doctors – what effects would uncontrolled plant diseases have on our air quality and food supply?

There were four activities on the stand, aimed at different age groups.

The main event was the Plant Doctors activity, where children and young people could don a white coat and clipboard and learn to diagnose a bacterial, fungal or viral plant disease. In my experience the particularly gruesome crown gall tumour (just like the black death!) went down well, but some groups were fascinated by the spores on the bean rust pustules (little mushrooms), which we showed them down the microscope.

At the Polling Station, adults and young people discussed the benefits and drawbacks of bio-control, pesticides and GM approaches to controlling plant pathogens. Older Plant Doctors were also invited to vote on how best to treat the plant diseases. I didn’t spend much time on this activity, but it seemed to keep some groups very engaged. It was certainly an effective way of talking about the importance of innovation in plant science. (more…)

Education and Outreach at Plant Biology 2013

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Published on: August 30, 2013

At Plant Biology 2013, I gave a talk in the Education and Outreach minisymposium, and was in inspiring company.

Vision and Change in Undergraduate Education

Plant science lecturers Nitya Jacob and Thomas Jack gave an overview of the 2011 report Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education (download it here) and PULSE, the initiative set up to address issues raised in the report. They are both US-specific but the principles apply to the UK, and any lecturer from wanting to expand their teaching methods would definitely benefit from looking at the report and PULSE resources.

The report itself looked at the reasons for ‘leaky pipeline’ to a bioscience degree. According to the report, roughly half of students entering college intending to major in biosciences graduate in biosciences – the rest either change courses or drop out of education all together.

ASPB joined with other stakeholders including US biology funders NSF, NIH, and HHMI to set up the PULSE Community to improve undergraduate biology education. Jacob and Jack are both PULSE teaching fellows, a group of university educators who are driving change in undergraduate biosciences education. They are encouraging university departments to commit to the PULSE Vision and Change Rubrix (link to an extremely dry PDF), a set of standards in core concepts, integration of core competencies, assessment, and faculty support.

The Rubrix are designed to be flexible, but meeting them even halfway is impossible with typical courses made up of a lecture-essay-labs-worksheet structure. The Vision and Change toolkit helps lecturers who have committed to the rubrix by suggesting teaching methods including active learning and flipped classes.

Another undergrad teaching tool

Something to consider when teaching undergraduates maths and statistics, and no doubt a valuable tool for US lecturers committed to Vision and Change, are the online MathBench modules, which Christine Fleet presented during the session. The MathBench site is free to use and contains interactive teaching modules on nine broad themes. For example, the Measurement theme includes basic lab techniques, logs and pH, while the Probability and Statistics theme spans bar graphs, standard error and advanced Punnett Squares to understand linked genes and recombination.

Something for teachers and science outreach activists

Miranda Haus presented the education and outreach resources she and her fellow University of Illinois PhD students have developed. The Plants iView team take interactive plant science to after school clubs, and Haus admitted her own surprise at how popular the program had proved – the students in the after school club could chose from a lot of activities including different sports, arts and watching films, but the Plants iView sessions were always full (group size is limited) and students stayed for the duration, and often returned on another day. Some of the activities the PhD students run can be downloaded on the Lessons page.

The Plant Science Panel

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Published on: August 15, 2013

Have you heard about the Plant Science Panel? It is a panel of plant scientists, including GARNet committee member Smita Kurup, and previous guest bloggers Anne Osterrieder and Alan Jones, ready and waiting to answer questions from the public about plant biotechnology and plant science.

There are regular live Q&A sessions online, during which people can ask questions via email or on the #plantsci Twitter hashtag. The first few of these sessions, which took place over summer 2012, tackled the Big Question surrounding plant science, agri-technology and the public – genetically modified foods. You can see the topics and the questions and answers on the Plant Science Panel webpage.

Now though, the Plant Science Panel is bigger than the classic GMO debate, covering the many areas of every day life that feature plant science affects. There have been Q&As about ash dieback, bee colony collapse, and organic farming. The questions submitted and answered outside of the allocated Q&A times are broader still, including the subtle differences in herbs like lemon and orange thyme, nutrient uptake by roots, and why nutrient burn causes leaf tips to brown and curl.

Postcards advertising the plant science panel are now available from Sense About Science. Frances Downey, who runs the Plant Science Panel, says, “If you are doing some outreach, giving a talk or just want to give them out to your friends and family contact Help us ensure as many people know about it as possible – request some postcards and give them out to anyone you think might want to send a question in.”


Demystifying GM

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Published on: March 15, 2013

Geraint Parry of the University of Liverpool stepped up to the challenge of communicating the real science of GM at Ignite Liverpool in February. Ignite is a grassroots movement started in Seattle but now established in many cities all over the world. Ignite events consist of many 5-minute powerpoint presentations given by anyone who wants to contribute one about anything they want to talk about. Such a fast-moving event with a diverse audience is of course a great place to communicate science, and you can see Geraint’s excellent presentation in the video above.

If you want to have a go yourself, Ignite Liverpool is next on in May, and there is also an Ignite London, although I don’t know if they will be running another event.

The video is from the Ignite Liverpool YouTube Channel, where you can see other presentations from the event, including this one on ATP.

Developmental genetics with Zoe Wilson

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Published on: January 18, 2013

In the fourth of our series of video podcasts from PlantSci 2012, Zoe Wilson from the University of Nottingham discusses about her work on Arabidopsis developmental genetics. She works on pollen, which she explains is important for food security and the cut flower industry. Like the previous interviewees Eric, Katherine, and John, she also talks about the future of plant science. She says, “The link between plants and science had been quite tenuous, more people are understanding the importance of that.”

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