Going to a symposium usually means days of talks in meeting rooms or conference centres, but Alexandra Townsend, an Early Career Researcher from Queen Mary University of London, recently attended a symposium that was a little more unusual: the Early Career Scientist Symposium run by the Plant Environmental Physiology Group (PEPG).
Plant Physiology with a view: Plant Physiology Group Early Career Scientist Symposium, Snowdonia 17th – 19th May 2017
By Dr Alexandra Townsend, ECR Queen Mary University of London
Photographs by Matt Davey, University of Cambridge
Usually attending a scientific gathering entails days of talks and buckets of coffee and biscuits. Whilst there may be a quick half an hour break for a rushed trip to see the local area, there is unlikely to be extensive time for exploration and networking. However, I recently attended a different kind of gathering; the Early Career Scientist Symposium run by the Plant Environmental Physiology Group (PEPG). PEPG is a special interest group spanning the British Ecological Society (BES) and the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB). It aims to advance and promote the science and practice of plant environmental physiology by integrating the research community, notably through supporting, liaising and providing training opportunities early career plant environmental physiologists. Katie Field (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the BES secretary for PEPG, and Saoirse Tracy (email@example.com) is secretary for the SEB.
Set in the breath-taking Snowdonia National Park , Wales, the PEPG symposium just set the benchmark for my best group scientific experience to date. If nothing else, the views alone were enough to clinch it:
The PEPG ECR symposium brought together a group of 20 young scientists, from masters and PhD students to postdocs, lecturers and fellows, all within the field of plant physiology. Our temporary home for 3 days was the YHA at Pen-y-pass, Snowdonia National Park. This fantastic venue (most importantly, with very good desserts and breakfasts!) was the perfect base for 3 days of relaxation, networking and science. With a lot of down time and perfect weather, we had ample opportunity to enjoy the scenery around Snowden.
The first evening’s events were kicked off with a “get to know you” circle, almost as cheesy as our snacks! Whilst such situations can be off-putting when you are thrown into the limelight, being amongst a small group of friendly and engaging researchers with a whole range of interesting projects and backgrounds, was the perfect start to the trip. The group was diverse and included both biologists and mathematicians working in subject areas including root and soil interactions, crop disease prevention, photosynthetic processes and modelling, yield optimisation and ecosystem fluxes. Following dinner, we were treated to a keynote lecture by Professor Bridget Emmett, the head of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology’s (CEH) Bangor station. Her informal talk was a whirlwind tour of the breadth of research carried out by CEH, the designated branch of the government research institutions, dedicated to integrated research covering terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems and their interaction with the atmosphere. It was a great awakening to alternative career options and paths for researchers and the applicability of many areas of plant physiology research to future policy making decisions.
Day 2 started with a trip to the CEH Bangor site, specifically to see the solardomes and ozone field release systems. These futuristic (and very cool looking) mini glasshouses were built to study the effects of air pollution, particularly ozone pollution, on our crops and vegetation. They also have a series of rings that are able to elevate ozone levels in a more natural field setting (in a similar way to FACE experiments using CO2). The CEH team at Bangor gave us an excellent tour of the facilities providing us with unique insight into some of the research they are carrying out including, the techniques they are using and the measurements they are collecting. (For more details on the solardomes and the work being carried out there visit here).
Our second stop was to Aber falls, a waterfall located 2 miles south of the village of Abergwyngregyn in the foothills of the Carneddau range. Here we were led by a very knowledgeable guide and learnt a little of the unique flora and fauna, particularly the lichens, that are native to the area. We also heard a little bit of insight into the conservation work being carried out by the local rangers and volunteers, to manage the area and ensure that the local scenery can be enjoyed for many years to come.
So how do plant physiologists like to wind down after a long day? The evening’s entertainment included a science themed pub quiz. This included a picture round to identify whether a variety of instruments were for inflicting pain, pleasure or for scientific use; a quick fire true or false asparagus round; a Eurovision mini quiz (my least knowledgeable round); and, my personal favourite, the sedge or hedge round, where pairs of Latin species names were given, and we had to distinguish which organism they belonged to.
The last day gave us all a chance to share a little more of our research through a science talk session. This included talks covering a range of topics from photosynthesis and acclimation processes, to nematodes and mycorrhizas. This gave us a great opportunity to practice presentation skills in a much less pressured and critical environment than in more formal conferences! There were prizes for the best talks and congratulations must go once more to the winners, Grace Hoysted (University of Leeds) and Sunitha Pangala (Open University), and the runners-up Joao Pennacchi (Lancaster University) and Tom Thirkell (University of Leeds)
This was my third PEPG meeting, having attended both the Field Techniques workshop in Lisbon and the Early Career Researcher Workshop (hosted by the Sheffield Plant Physiology group)- and it won’t be the last. Thank you to the PEPG committee, especially the lead symposium organiser Marj Lundgren, for making it another great session. The PEPG ECR symposium will be a regular date in my diary for many years to come- bring on next year!