SLS ’16: An Undergraduate’s View

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Published on: April 26, 2016

Guest Post from Sam Downs, 2nd Year Undergraduate at Cambridge University.

This April, the Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge university (SLCU) held its first large meeting – SLS ’16 – on Induced Plant Development. The keynote speakers were Prof. Sofie Goormachtig on root strigolactone signalling to Prof. Christian Fankhauser on growth changes in response to light, with others addressing topics ranging from large scale morphological studies to cell and molecular biology.

It was a first for me too; like most undergraduates, I hadn’t yet attended an academic conference. As I imagine many find at their first conference, it was slightly intimidating to be in a room half-full of PIs – the rest being PhD students, with their own research projects underway, wasn’t much better. There was nothing for it but to get stuck in though, and talking to people about their talks and posters proved easier than I had thought. It’s a testament to the friendliness of the plant science community that everyone was willing to explain their work from the bottom up to a passing undergrad!

As an outsider to research, it was interesting to note what people felt was important to communicate in talks and posters. They seemed to be broadly results-driven or process-driven, and I found this was especially marked in the posters; many were reporting new techniques, such as growing Arabidopsis roots on microfluidics chips, or laser imaging of cell movements, whilst others (such as Dr Dana MacGregor’s prize-winning poster on seed dormancy) drew their main interest from the phenomenon they showed. This is quite different to the way that I’ve mainly engaged with science – essentially, as an interested member of the public. This year I’ve been helping to run the Cambridge student biological society, and we’ve hosted a number of talks by UK scientists. Their talks are mainly of the former kind; essentially reporting new results, suitable for a lay audience. It was thus quite new to me to hear technique-driven presentations, and exciting too – a look above the parapet of summer exam revision (driven, of course, by an entirely different sort of result!).

What struck me most of all, though, was the hearing the questions people asked at the end of each talk. Through these, I got a stronger sense of how active researchers think about science than even the talks or the posters could. As an undergraduate, I’m used to hearing researchers talk about results, and sometimes about methods too; but the biggest difference was how the audience parsed what they heard. The questions focused on the experimental process and the physiology of the whole plant (“What happens to Rorippa aquatica if it’s in warm water, [when heat and submersion have opposite effects]?” “Is the plant’s response to UV-B modulated in the diurnal cycle?”). This is a different way of thinking (perhaps regrettably) to that taken at undergraduate level; we tend to focus more on isolated details, so the bigger picture of how a result came about in the lab and in the organism can be missed. It was a reminder to me of the challenge of getting across this gap from obsession with facts to obsession with science.

Overall, I learnt a lot in the short duration of the SLS, both about what’s going on in plant development and about life in science. I would life to thank the organisers, the speakers, and especially Geraint Parry from GARNet who offered me the opportunity to attend it.

Rorippa                   Temperature mediated developmental changes in Rorippa aquatica

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