Written by Shannon-Marie Murtagh. This is the report from a BSPP Undergraduate Summer Vacation Bursary. Click here to read more/apply for one yourself.
For my summer studentship I worked under the supervision of Dr George Littlejohn and his research group at the University of Plymouth (UoP). Here, the team study several plant pathogens but have a primary focus on the fungal pathogen Magnaporthe oryzae, the causative agent of rice blast disease. Currently, the Littlejohn lab is building on their observations that the circadian clock in M. oryzae is important in determining disease outcomes. Thus, the original plan for this summer research project was to investigate the role of Frequency (FRQ), an important protein associated with circadian rhythm activity, in rice blast pathogenicity.
However, due to the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic and consequently the necessary social distancing measures, I opted to conduct my BSPP studentship remotely for 10 weeks as not to miss out on this opportunity. Following discussions with the team, we noted that there was an opportunity here to develop engaging and fun educational resources for the plant pathology community. Therefore, we decided to start creating some new learning materials. Physical copies will be held in LABPlus facilities at the University and e-versions will be available on the UoP’s digital learning platform. Alternatively, if you do not have access, the materials can be provided by contacting Dr Littlejohn directly.
A variety of materials were proposed and experimented with, but the end result was a plant pathology booklet that provided an insight to five major fungal plant pathogens including: Magnaporthe oryzae, Botrytis cinerea, Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense, Microsphaera diffusa and Zymoseptoria tritici. The mode of infection, associated symptoms and management strategies were described and explained for each pathogen. Plus, the global impacts of each pathogen were discussed, with a focal point on the effects of future outbreaks. Additionally, revision style exercises to test and reinforce newfound knowledge on these pathogens were placed at the end of the booklet. Furthermore, myself and the team designed a spin on the original guess who game, named “Guess the Pathogen”. The game included 12 fungi, 12 bacteria and 8 oomycetes cards. The aim being to engage students with plant pathology studies using interactive materials thereby improving their knowledge of specific plant pathogens and their main characteristic features.
Overall, this studentship has furthered my desire to pursue a career in plant pathology research, specifically the use of biological control agents and the future of food security. However, there were some unexpected but great outcomes of this studentship. This summer studentship tested my ability to process, distil and then communicate interesting but complex scientific ideas greatly. This has enabled me to improve verbal communication, scientific writing and critical thinking skills. Whilst these are skills I have acquired and continued to improve throughout my undergraduate degree, this studentship offered an extremely unique way of exercising such skills. Consequently, it has opened my eyes to the difficulty that is effective science communication. Incidentally, I have realised science communication is rarely an actively taught skill; it is merely an assumed skill achieved passively through other educational activities. As such, I have a newfound interest for scientific communication, outreach and creation of education resources, specifically aimed at the non-scientific community.
Furthermore, I have better understanding of research lab functionality in the professional world, specifically regarding the delivery of meetings and their agendas. I learnt that scientific individuals must frequently present data, conclusions, new ideas or concerns to their team, providing them with a quick but insightful overview. This to ensure all research is as scientifically accurate and interesting as it can be. Therefore, I have a better understanding of effective teamwork. A successful team is one that includes individuals with different skill sets, who can then support others with their particular area of expertise. To add, I have a deeper appreciation for the obstacles and process that researchers undertake before publishing their findings. However, the idea that nobody can know everything about everything has resonated with me more. I recognise more that when we ask questions, actively engage and embrace that success in science is not linear, personal growth is achieved and successful science often follows. This is something that people often forget, particularly students.
Overall, I am immensely grateful to the BSPP for providing this unique and valuable opportunity, especially in a chaotic and stressful period of time. I wish to also thank my supervisor Dr George Littlejohn for his continued support, engagement and enthusiasm throughout this time and to all other members of the Littlejohn lab for their advice and encouragement.