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 Some academics, for example, are comfortable with presenting unpublished work to an audience of peers in the room, but less happy to have it instagrammed and summarised in 140 characters or less and whizzed around the Twitterverse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!

Have a holly jolly Christmas

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Published on: December 22, 2014

holly 1

In Europe holly is a spiky, festive plant that gets an annual spotlight in wreaths and garlands at Christmas. But taxonomically holly is a genus, Ilex, of 400-600 species. Ilex aquifolium (‘holly’) is the dominant species in the UK and Europe but worldwide the genus includes evergreens, deciduous trees, shrubs and climbing plants.

holly 2
Ilex asprella

One holly species, I. asprella, is known locally in its native southern China as Gang-Mei. Tea made from the roots and leaves is a traditional medicine for influenza, bacterial infections and lung abscess. Several studies have shown that extract from I. asprella contains bioactive compounds; this recent systems biology paper profiled the biosynthetic pathway for Ilex triterpinoid saponins. Others have demonstrated that root extract can inhibit flu viruses and sooth inflammation, and this year a team of researchers at the Guangzhou University of Traditional Chinese Medicine showed that I. asprella root extract is also fairly effective at reducing the impact of acute respiratory distress syndrome in mice.

A slow invasion of English holly (the festive kind), I. aquifolium, is causing a bit of a stir in the North West USA. This paper in the rather niche Northwest Science journal sampled holly in a forest in Washington state. The authors looked at spatial distribution and age data to estimate that both vegetative and seed-based spread are increasing exponentially. The paper states that the population doubling time is about 5 years, and individual holly trees grow slowly, so hopefully the situation will be controlled quite easily.

For more varied Christmas plant science, check out my Christmas post from 2012, which features frankincense, mistletoe, fir trees and more holly.


Dai WP, Li G, Li X, Hu QP, Liu JX, Zhang FX, Su ZR, Lai XP. 2014. The roots of Ilex asprella extract lessens acute respiratory distress syndrome in mice induced by influenza virus. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 155 (3): 1575–1582

Zheng X, Xu H, Ma X, Zhan R, Chen W. 2014. Triterpenoid saponin biosynthetic pathway profiling and candidate gene mining of the Ilex asprella root using RNA-Seq. International Journal of Molecular Sciences 15(4): 5970-87

Stokes DL, Church ED, Cronkright DM and Lopez S. 2014. Pictures of an Invasion: English Holly (Ilex aquifolium) in a Semi-Natural Pacific Northwest Forest. Northwest Science 88(2): 75-93.

Image credits: holly after by Allie Edwards冬青科 Ilex asprella (Hook. et Arn.) Champ. 燈稱花 98特生 by 潘立傑 LiChieh Pan. Both via Flickr, shared under Creative Commons. 

Arts and crafts with Arabidopsis

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Published on: November 14, 2014

These past couple of weeks, we at GARNet have noticed a number of amazing Arabidopsis artistic creations cropping up on our Arabidopsis twitter search tool (yes, we monitor Arabidopsis tweets – we’re cool like that). I thought I’d round them up for you – happy Friday!


Arabidopsis cake
Arabidopsis cake, made by Liam Walker and Mairi Walker.

I can personally confirm that this pot of flowering Arabidopsis plants is all edible (the tiny exception being the stems, which are made of wire). It was incredibly life-like, down to green sugar-dust algae clinging to the icing pot and oreo-crumb soil. The plants even had roots! It was created for a Gifford group lab meeting by Warwick undergraduate Liam Walker and his sister Mairi, who posted this photo on Twitter and kindly let me share it here.



GARNet 2014: In pictures

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Published on: September 16, 2014

GARNet 2014, Arabidopsis: The Ongoing Green Revolution, is over! We had a great two days of discussions, networking, speciality cupcakes, and of course excellent talks from researchers at all career stages, from ‘one of the fathers of Arabidopsis research’ to a few of the UK’s brightest young PhD students.

There is a report on the conference on our website, and also a Storify of Tweets. Thank you to everyone who attended and contributed to discussions in situ and on Twitter – we’re delighted to work with such a supportive, enthusiastic community!

Here are a some pictures from the event – they’re mostly of the speakers (Maarten Koorneef, Andrew Millar, Cyril Zipfel, Kerry Franklin, and Miriam Gifford) and panel sessions, with a few pictures of the networking sessions towards the end.
garnet2014 1


Plant science at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

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Published on: May 30, 2014

Last week was the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, the biggest event in the horticulture calendar. I’m not sure it counts as a plant science event (unfortunately – I would love to be able to go for GARNet!) but it is a good opportunity to communicate some great plant science to an interested public. This year Rothamsted Research and Fera sprung into action and produced Award-winning exhibits.

The exhibit from Rothamsted, designed by Nicky Seymour and inspired by work on oilseed rape flowers by Sam Cook and Jason Baverstock, was awarded a Silver Medal in the Discovery category. Sam and Jason’s research shows that some oilseed rape pests are put off by different colour flowers, and others can be controlled by reservoirs of natural predators in field margins full of wild flowers. Sam explained her work, which received coverage from the BBC and Farmers Weekly, on the UKBRC website last year.

RRes all
Images courtesy of Rothamsted Research

The Fera exhibit, Plants Need Passports Too, used the idea that plants are under threat from pests, diseases and invasive species. It explains some of the ways threats can creep into the country, and the regulations that aim to limit the damage. This video from Fera gives a guided tour of the Bronze Medal-winning garden.

plant passports
Fera Crown Copyright 2014


In pictures: Software Carpentry for Plant Scientists

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Published on: April 11, 2014

Over 30 plant scientists gathered at the University of Warwick this week for our Software Carpentry for Plant Scientists bootcamp. Together we learned to move through space and time using Git, how to make, explore and delete files and directories, how to use Version Control and how to program defensively. As ever we encouraged everyone to Tweet about the event and we’ve collected the tweets in a Storify, which you can access here:

Some photos from the event are below – enjoy! The photo on the second row is the team that made the event such a success. From left to right: Jason Piper, Charis Cook, Leonor Garcia Gutierrez, Aleksandra Pawlik, Christina Koch and Lisa Martin. Thanks especially to our trainers Aleksandra (sent to us from the Software Sustainability Institute, UK) and Christina, who came all the way from Vancouver.


Jorge Cham and the Power of Procrastination

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Published on: March 6, 2014
 "Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham.
“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham.

Jorge Cham, creator of PhD Comics and legend among post-grads, spoke at the University of Warwick last night as part of his UK tour.  His lecture was essentially a stand-up gig, complete with theatrical pauses and audience interaction, but it did have a serious point: stress and guilt are bad for your health and for your work, so embrace the power of procrastination!

Over this morning’s procrastination, I came across this Guardian article on mental health among PhD students. It has a message surprisingly similar to Jorge Cham’s ‘comedy’ lecture. It argues that mental health problems, from stress to suicidal thoughts, are an accepted part of the PhD process.

Though Cham did not directly refer to serious mental health problems in his talk, he constantly talked about the stress and worries common to PhD students: my supervisor thinks I’m an idiot, why can’t I get anything done, when will I finish. To make it worse, these are often accompanied by lack of money, little sleep and bad food.

In typical academic fashion, Cham did not offer empty words of wisdom or advise talking about your feelings. He presented facts on the Power of Procrastination (the title of his talk).

There is scientific research suggesting procrastination can be a positive thing. I didn’t note the reference Cham used, but Chu and Choi (2005; J. Soc. Psychol. 145:245) is an accessible review. ‘Active’ procrastination as opposed to ‘passive’ procrastination, which Cham labeled laziness, can be an effective way of dealing with a problem. Interestingly, for some people procrastination is a good way of coping with stress!

Then there are the numerous examples of highly successful procrastinators. I don’t want to ruin Cham’s punchlines, so I’ve come up with two well-known biologist procrastinators. Francis Crick took 15 years between undergraduate and post-graduate qualifications – although during that time the Second World War happened – and Alexander Fleming famously discovered penicillin by accident. I like to think of him stumbling upon that fateful petri dish while writing a detailed 12-step plan to tidy his messy bench instead of doing real work.

Cham’s comics normalise the everyday struggles every PhD student faces during a time they hoped would be enjoyable, stimulating and life-affirming. Some of the most common comments Cham receives are thanks for making post-grads feel they are not alone in feeling stupid, stressed and fearful of the future, failure, and their supervisor. The comics, like his talk, encourage students not to be overwhelmed any of that – nor to feel guilty about using the power of procrastination. Or going to seminars largely for the free food.

Recently in the GARNet community (2) …

Categories: Arabidopsis, something fun
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Published on: February 7, 2014

This week has been another busy one for GARNet.

The meeting report for our May 2013 synthetic biology workshop has been published in the Journal of Experimental Botany. You can download An Introduction to Opportunities in Plant Synthetic Biology for free here.

GARNet Advisory Committee member John Doonan, Director of the National Phenomics Centre at IBERS in Aberystwyth also published a paper this week, as highlighted in Lisa’s weekly Arabidopsis Research Round-up. It’s an excellent paper (Zheng et al.; PNAS 10.1073/pnas.1318460111) – but it’s a shame the press release was almost entirely about wheat!

We’ve been planning another Software Carpentry bootcamp with Liverpool after our Warwick event filled up so quickly. It’s early days but we’ll be sure to keep you informed.

Finally, in response to this blog post by Professor Ian Crute, I wish to make a statement. My thanks to Professor Crute for protecting my identity, but I feel it is time to admit my mistake in order to act as a warning to others who live-tweet events. I feel it is my duty to publically announce that I would never intentionally refer to plant science or Prof Crute as ‘pants’. Indeed I hold both of them in high esteem. My message to Tweeps everywhere is this: Please check your tweets before tapping that ‘TWEET’ button!

As a related aside, Lisa and I have discovered that pant science is actually a real thing! You learn something new every day.


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