PhD life: sharing science

The past few weeks I have not written much on this website. That does not mean I have not been doing any outreach activities. In contrast, I have done several and for a widely varying public. The first took place in a greenhouse in the middle of The Hague, the second in front of a group of Master students and the third at a symposium organized by NWO. An interesting mix of places and people and all new experiences for me.

International Fascination of Plants Day
On April 18th I went to The Hague, a city in the West of the Netherlands that is the seat of our parliament. For that day (and two following days), plant scientists and Dutch breeding companies had erected a greenhouse on the Square in front of the parliament buildings in honor of the ‘International Fascination of Plants Day’. Of course there were lots of plants, but also information panels about plant science and agriculture and even a small laboratory in which people could isolate RNA from small tomato plants.

Fascination of Pants Day in the Hague
Fascination of Pants Day in The Hague

Journalists and people from the parliament were specifically invited for breakfast and lunch, but the greenhouse was open for the general public the rest of the day. During the day I talked to many different people about plant science. Among them were the owners of a small flower breeding company, but apart from them I talked mostly with ‘common folk’, who came across the greenhouse by accident and decided to step inside – or were persuaded by me to do so. I very much enjoyed telling people about plants, making them aware that plants are actually pretty cool things and, whenever possible, very briefly introducing them to the kind of research that is going on at the moment.

Giving my first lecture
After talking to the general public in April I stood in front of a bunch of Master students on June 6th. These were students following a Master’s program in life sciences, but not necessarily anything at all to do with plant sciences. I was not there to give an regular lecture – the two lectures of the day, about RNA and RNA sequencing, were covered by two colleagues. Instead, I got to do the nice part: I got to present the part of my research that revolves around RNA sequencing.

The group was attentive, I got several questions during my talk, several more afterwards and when we called the session to an end a few more students came up to me to ask more questions. The questions ranged from questions about the techniques I used and the results I gathered to the application of my research. It showed that the students had paid attention ánd were interested in the material. First lecture for a group of university students: check!

Invited speaker at a symposium
Just this week, on June 20th came another first for me: I was an invited speaker at a symposium. The conference was organized by the NWO for people who work on a project that is supported by either the NWO’s Agri&Food or ‘Horticulture and starting materials’ grants. I received my personal grant from the latter and was therefore invited. Or well, in fact it was my supervisor who was asked to give a talk, but since the request was about the project I had written and am carrying out, he sent the request on to me. From 10 am to 2 pm the day was divided into three session for talks and a poster / lunch session.  Each presentation session had three parallel programs: two with four talks each and one in which public-private partnerships –between a university or research institute and a company – were discussed.

NWO symposium 'Co-creation? Naturally!'
NWO symposium ‘Co-creation? Naturally!’

I already enjoyed the first two sessions immensely. The topics varied widely, which worked well because talks were only seven minutes long and were geared to a non-expert audience. I heard about wasps being trained to find mites – which cause plant disease – more quickly in rose greenhouses, for example, and about how to model sustainable intensification in agricultural settings. Cool! My own talk was in the third session and was well very received. Like with the Master students, I got lots of questions, also after the end of the session. I even got my first speaker present: a bottle of wine. It made my day – even though I do not like wine at all.


PhD life: conversing at a conference

I did not spend April 24th and 25th listening to a colleague’s presentation at lab meeting, doing lab work, meeting with my student or analyzing data in my office. Instead, I was in Gif-sur-Yvette, in France, attending a two-day symposium on interactions between beneficial microbes and plants.

Conferences: one of the perks of being a researcher
Attending conferences definitely ranks high on the list of ‘awesome things you get to do as a researcher’. With a little luck, they take place outside of your home country, allowing you to see some more of the world while ‘working’. While my first international conference was in Maastricht, the Netherlands – also fun, by the way, I gave my American collaborator a ride on the back of my bike, a first for her -, I attended a conference in Portland, Oregon, USA last year. This year, my boyfriend and I got to combine my conference attendance with a weekend in Paris. Not at all bad, right? And that is not even the best part of attending a conference. The best part is the enormous enthusiasm boost that comes with it.

A rather small, specific conference
Conferences can vary widely in the number of people attending, the broadness of the topic, the location and the budget. In comparison with the 500+ people attending at the previous two conference I attended, this conference with its 120 attendees felt relatively small. It still had the same international vibe to it, though, with people from quite a few different countries attending, including France, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Germany, England, China and the US. Also, the mix of ‘levels’ was good: there were PhD students and postdocs, but also a lot of principal investigators. The 18 presentations spread out over 1.5 days were all given by principal investigators. Apart from these talks, there were 40 PhDs and postdocs presenting posters during the coffee and tea breaks. A busy schedule, but interesting because the topic – beneficial microbes and plants – is quite specific and close to my own project.

New data during presentations
Listening to presentations at conferences can be exciting. First, you are among the first to see new data – although most 30 minute talks are not only about new data: they generally cover results gathered over many years that together form a nice coherent story. Second, apart from the results, talks regularly also go into new methods used to get those results, thus giving new ideas for own research projects. Together this makes for a head spinning with new ideas after a couple of talks. (There are of course also talks that are not that interesting or presenters that do not present all too well and yes, whiling away the time of those presentations on my phone is very attractive…)

Talking science next to posters
Apart from presentations almost all conferences also have sessions for poster presentations. Before I started my PhD I saw posters as a high school thing: cutting and pasting stuff on a big sheet of paper and putting that paper up somewhere for no one to ever really read. In science, posters turned out to be much more than that. In fact, poster presentations are actually very nice. For one, it is the easiest way to talk science with people you do not know since there is a clear topic and excuse for a talk on hand: the poster. Second, people interested in your topic will actually read, or ask about, everything on your poster: they are genuinely interested in the whole thing. Third, it gives easy, quick glimpses of the research performed by other people and you can cherry pick which you want to know more about. Fourth, a discussion about someone’s work in front of a poster is often much more spontaneous and fun than a presentation from a stage. All together this makes poster sessions a lot of fun. In fact, twice I and someone else were still in the middle of an entertaining discussion about science in front of a poster when we were pretty much forced to break up because the next presentation session was about to start.

Getting to know fellow scientists during dinner
Apart from the talks and the posters there was one more component to the program: the dinner. To keep the attendance costs as low as possible, the food and location were not at all fancy. We did have a good time though: being surrounded by people from Belgium, France, Hungary and China made for enough conversation topics. All together the talks, poster sessions and dinner ensured the typical conference-induced enthusiasm boost about science in general and my own project by the end of it.

Now I need to get back to work and ensure that I have new things to tell when I visit the next conference next year…

PhD life: company visits

A few weeks ago, three of my colleagues and I felt as if we were back in school and going on a field trip: we went to Warmenhuizen and Enkhuizen for the day! Both these cities are located in the North of the Netherlands in an area known as ‘the seed valley’. We went there to visit two of the many companies that give the region its nickname, Bejo Zaden and Incotec.

Bejo Zaden and Incotec’s contribution to our research
The primary reason for our visit was to discuss how these two companies can contribute to our current research projects. As discussed before, almost all positions in academia are paid for by grants. In the field of plant research, most of the available grants require that part of the costs are covered by companies. The companies can contribute by giving money, or by making ‘in kind’ contributions. This could be sponsoring a machine to analyse samples, supplying research materials (microbes or seeds, for example) or even doing an experiment. The latter often comes in handy in plant research. Field trials, that is, experiments with hundreds of plants performed outdoors, and also large greenhouse experiments are generally hard to perform at a university because of space and manpower limitations, but are relatively straightforward to perform at a company. Since both Bejo Zaden and Incotec signed up to sponsor one of our projects, we went there to discuss the way in which they might be able to make their contribution. While we were there, we also got to see what these companies look like.

Bejo Zaden
We arrived at Bejo Zaden around 10 am and were greeted by three employees that all perform research at the company. First, they introduced their company and all of us introduced ourselves and our research topics to each other. After learning a bit more about research at a company and explaining our research interests, we went into the factory.

It was amazing to see the scale of the company and to realize how much is earned in this business. If I remember right, 1 gram of high quality tomato seeds costs about 50 cents. And we saw tons of these seeds… To get these high quality seeds, there are many hurdles to be taken. First, the incoming seed batches – Bejo has breeders all over the world – are checked for seeds of weeds by eye or by machines that remove the weeds by air pulses. Then, the germination percentage, the percentage of seeds that produces a plant, needs to be determined. If this is low, seeds can be sorted according to weight and size, again in huge machines. One or more of these samples might have a higher germination percentage than the total batch. Once a seed batch passes these tests, it undergoes rigorous disease tests. If there are fungi or bacteria present in or on the seeds, the whole batch needs to be disinfected and checked again – or thrown out. Two of our guides work in the department where they are trying to find quicker and easier methods to detect disease. Once (part of) the seeds are deemed of sufficient quality, the seeds are often coated with a colored layer, just like the chocolate in M&Ms is covered with colored sugar. In the case of the seeds, the coat can contain fungicides to protect the germinating plant from fungi, or fertilizers or growth promoters. Sometimes a thicker coat of about 3 mm is made to simply increase ease of sowing. While tiny, light seeds will be blown away by wind and seeds of different shapes will be hard to distribute evenly, a thicker coat around seeds results in seeds that are easily evenly distributed. Finally, the seeds are packaged, divided over pallets and ready to be shipped all over the world.

During the tour we unfortunately did not get to see the labs and greenhouses where most of the research is performed. This is probably partly due to the work having to stay secret. For the same reason they could not tell us whether they are already trying to use beneficial bacteria or fungi in their seed coating – which is what our research project will hopefully ultimately contribute to. They do not want other companies to know what they are up to. After the tour, we talked about what the company might be able to do for us. These options include providing us with seeds of their crops and performing disease assays. The details will need to be discussed later. A quick lunch later, we heading off to our next stop: Incotec.

Incotec does not produce seeds. Instead, they focus entirely on the seed coating mentioned above. They try to find new methods to do the coating and new coating components. This latter part is all the more important because the laws restricting fungicides, fertilizers and pesticides are becoming stricter. Thus, new methods need to be found to protect the seed during storage and after sowing. Among promising methods are the addition of beneficial bacteria and fungi that we work with in the lab as replacements for pesticides and fertilizers. Apart from developing new methods, Incotec also performs seed coating for other companies. In fact, Bejo Zaden is one of the bigger clients of Incotec. Once again, after having talked with a few employees we got a tour through the factory. Here we saw how the coating is performed and how seeds transform from tiny specks into little colored balls.

When we had seen all there was to see, we got back into the car for our 1.5 hour car ride back to Utrecht. It was good to see what companies in our field – which are not only contributors to our projects, but also potential future employers – are doing and to get a sense of the scale of them. It is too bad that it is hard to get a real sense of what working there would be like, since we did not get to see the laboratory part of the companies. However, it is definitely valuable to be forced to think about the application of our research and to look at our results it from a company’s perspective.

PhD life: Sinterklaas

In the Netherlands, December fifth is ‘pakjesavond’, which translates literally to ‘presents evening’. It is the evening on which Sinterklaas – not to be confused with Santa Claus, we do not believe in him – celebrates his birthday by bringing presents to all the kids. At work, we also celebrated this typical Dutch holiday. We all put our shoe in the office of our professor last Friday. In accordance with tradition, many of us added a poem, carrot or drawing for Sinterklaas or his horse. This morning, all shows were filled – we much have been very good this year.

My professor’s desk with full with shoes
We all got a chocolate letter and a PMI USB drive.
We all got a chocolate letter and a USB drive with our group name.

PhD life: teaching

Apart from doing research and developing myself, I am expected to educate the new generation of students during my PhD. Everyone doing a PhD at a university in the Netherlands has the obligation to spend about 10% of their time teaching. In our group, that comes down to supervising several students doing their bachelor or master thesis – more on that later – and assisting one course a year.

This year, like last year, I am a teaching assistant for the first year plant biology course. The course lectures are giving by professors.  I and the eight other teaching assistants take the rest of the course upon us. We each have our own group of 30-35 students. With this group we do the practicals, the student presentations and – unfortunately with two groups merged together this year – the tutorials. It is great fun. In fact, I enjoyed it so much last year that I volunteered to assist this course again this year.

During the few weeks that I spend with the students, I get the chance to actually get to know them. They are still relatively new to the whole ‘being a student’-thing and therefore somewhat insecure, but also very enthusiastic. It is great to talk with them about plants, experiments and life in general. Another perk of assisting a course is that it makes me feel so smart. Just because I am the teaching assistant, the students seem to think that I know everything. It is also fun to notice that they are generally genuinely surprised when I crack my first joke with them – she is a person too! -, but open up more and more after that.

I think that part of the reason why I liking teaching so much, is that I am good at it. While failed experiments or a seeming lack of direction sometimes make me insecure about my abilities when doing research, I am almost never insecure when I am in front of a group of students. The students listen when I talk, they respect me as their teacher and at the same time we can have a good time together. Also, ultimately, teaching works towards the same goal as this blog: spreading excitement and enthusiasm for doing research on the workings of the world around us.

PhD life: presenting science

When doing research, it can take months or even years before a result is obtained that can be published. Both I and Silvia Proietti mentioned this as one of the major challenges of working in science. This might seem to be in contrast with the idea behind this site: doing science should not be about publishing, so getting a publication only once every few years should not be a big deal. However,  behind this challenge is a bigger problem: apart from published papers, there are not many achievements we can measure our progress with. We cannot count the number of breads we baked, patients we treated or houses we helped build. We can measure the time we spent in the lab, or think of the result that might give a hint to a mechanism. Apart from that, it is almost only the number of papers that can tell us that we are doing okay.

I say ‘almost’ on purpose: there is one more thing. Apart from our papers, we can count the number of (poster) presentations we give. Being selected to give a presentation is an achievement in itself, and giving a good one is an extra achievement on top of that. During a presentation the most promising results gathered so far are combined and presented to others. Doing that in itself is already very rewarding, since it allows you to present you work proudly, instead of critically, as you would do during lab meetings. Positive feedback afterwards is kind of like the breads, patients and houses of bakers, nurses and carpenters.

Last week, I got to give my first ‘real’ presentation so far. Real in the sense that it was not a poster pitch of three minutes – although I harbor proud and happy feelings about that one – or a longer presentation, but for my own lab, PhD students in my graduate school or companies involved in my project. No, this was an eight minute presentation in front of about 100 PhD students, postdocs and professors that work in the field of life sciences in Utrecht. In contrast to ‘normal’ presentations, I was pretty nervous beforehand and felt strangely rushed when sitting back down at the end of it.

However, when I walked out of the room for coffee time, I could start to count my ‘breads’: ‘that was excellent!’ (an American professor), ‘you were the most calm presenter of the group’ (a labmember), ‘that went very well’ (my professor), and the one I like best: ‘during you presentation I realized that your project is awesome!’ (a PhD student from a neighboring group). After this, I can handle some time again without breads to count. My project is awesome, the absence of papers is not going to change that any time soon.

PhD life: becoming a better world citizen

One of the major perks of being a PhD student is, to me, the group of colleagues I got along with the job. First of all, they are all smart and interested in the world around them. We can have lengthy discussions about just about anything and have a similar sense of humor. In addition, they come from all over the world. Apart from Dutch colleagues, I have colleagues from Greece, China, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Brazil, Austria and the UK. Together, this makes for an interesting group of people and interesting experiences.

  • While having lunch I often hear a ‘local’s’ view on world news
  • When talking with my Chinese office mates we regularly find new differences in work and daily life ethics between China and the Netherlands.
  • When chatting in the lab I realize time and again that some things considered normal here are not normal to others – animal day, for example, sent my French student into fits of laughter.
  • During our last office outing we had Chinese dumplings, which we made ourselves, the Chinese way.

Interacting with people with different nationalities makes me feel a bit like being abroad. It opens up my mind to other perspectives and teaches me both about other countries and about myself and my country. My colleagues make my work even more fun than it already is and they ensure that I will not only become a better researcher during my PhD, but that I will also become a more open-minded and knowledgeable world citizen.

PhD life: presenting my ‘half year report’

One of the things that is deemed characteristic for our group by our professor is the system of ‘half year reports’. These reports are written by PhD students and are a description of what has been done so far and what is planned for the months to come. After being sent around to the group on Thursday, the report is presented and discussed during the regular Monday morning meeting.

Last week it was my turn. I presented my second half year report, describing the work I have done the past 1,5 years. Like last time, starting to write the report was hard. At first it seemed like I had not achieved anything in the past couple of months and whatever I had done, was hard to connect and write up in one ‘flowing’ text.

Writing the report forced me to think about the bigger picture of my work. It forced me to get an overview of the work I have done so far and the work that I want to do in the future. Once I had finished the report, I felt better about all of this already. Simply taking the time to think helped in itself. With the usual nagging fear of sending around something containing mistakes I then sent it off to the rest of the group.

The following Monday I presented my work. Like always, I liked presenting my research and enjoyed answering the questions. Afterwards, it was time to discuss my report with the staff members. During this discussion the focus is mostly on the lesser parts of the research. This makes sense, because that is where I can improve, but it also resulted in a not all too satisfied feeling afterwards.

Good thing that I had a meeting with my two supervisors the following Friday. It had been a while since we had been together, because the professor had been on sabbatical for 4 months. After more than 1.5 hours of meeting time, I left my professor’s office feeling much better. I was back on track. We had decided on what was important and what was not and thought of some new experiments in the meanwhile.

It still feels like I have not made enough headway, but I guess I will just have to believe the response everyone always gives me when I tell them that: the first year is for learning how to do research on your own, the second to get that research going, the third to get your results and the fourth to write it up. With that scheme in mind, I am still on track and ready to get those results sometime soon.

PhD life: improving my scientific writing skills

Doing a PhD is not only about doing research, is it also about growing as a researcher and learning new skills.

To learn those skills, I go to conferences, talk with coworkers and follow courses. At the moment I am following the course ‘The Art of Scientific Writing’. While I have the classes on the campus of Utrecht University, it is offered by the company Artesc. A few months ago I already followed their course ‘The Art of Presenting Science’ and it was a real eye-opener. Seemingly vague terms as ‘voice direction’, ‘attention with yourself’ and ‘letting go’ led to huge presenting improvements in all of the participants.

The writing course is not as mind blowing as the presenting course, but it is a useful and fun course nonetheless. The course consists of three full-day meetings, once every two weeks. As preparation for each course day we write (parts of) articles about our research. During the course days, we get taught some theory about writing, but mostly spend the time sharing our writing experiences and giving feedback on each other’s work.

Apart from me, there are seven other PhD students following this course, only one of whom also works with plants. Although we do not get clear tips and tricks, talking about our work with such a diverse group of people is very helpful. It is good to hear how other people go about writing and what kind of help they get from their supervisors. Also, getting feedback on my work from scientists outside of my field in itself already makes the course worth going to. It is good to hear what is clear and interesting to people not into my topic and what is confusing. After all, as the teacher said, further employers or grant agencies might very well not be in my exact field either, but they will read my papers to judge my work.