Edinburgh Plant Sciences – Early Career Researchers Meeting

Edinburgh Plant Sciences – Early Career Researchers Meeting

By Lucas Frungillo1 & Laura Roehrig2

1BBSRC-Discovery Fellow at The University of Edinburgh.

2PhD candidate at The University of Edinburgh & Scotland’s Rural College.


The spectacular and fascinating diversity of plants is evident by their variety in shapes and ability to interact with their physical and living environment. From tiny liverworts to giant trees, every plant species shows unique adaptations that allow survival in a wide range of environmental conditions. Plant scientists investigate how adaptations enable plant development and growth. Dissecting these biological processes will allow engineering of new technologies to maximise our interaction with plants. The development of sustainable strategies for agriculture practices is particularly important to address the food security challenge that is aggravated by the climate crises associated with a growing world population. As collaborations are indispensable to the advancement of science, the Edinburgh Plant Sciences Early Career Researchers organized its first scientific meeting on the 22nd October 2020 to bring together researchers across all disciplines of plant science in the Edinburgh area. The meeting contributed to enhance research capacity and promote new connections between plant scientists by creating a network to get inspired and to inspire others.


With over 60 attendees from different research areas, the EPS-ECR meeting was an enjoyable and fruitful gathering over Zoom (Fig. 1). The meeting provided a platform for PhD students, postdocs and young PIs to get to know our partner institutes better and present their research. The attendees were warmly welcomed by the EPS-ECR members Dr Valerio Giuffrida (Napier University) and Dr Lucas Frungillo (University of Edinburgh) and the EPS director Dr Alistair McCormick (University of Edinburgh). Their welcome talks were followed by an inspiring talk by Dr Ross Alexander (Heriot Watt University) that explored both career development in plant science and recent findings from his research group. The attendees also had the opportunity to hear about opportunities arising from the EU Green Deal Call by Emma Fenton (UKRI Innovate UK) and Dr Natasha Curley (University of Edinburgh Research Office) and participate in panel sessions on “Transition from PhD to postdoc and from postdoc to PI” (Dr Alistair McCormick, Dr Annis Richardson, Dr Valeio Giuffrida, Dr Lucas Frungillo), “The impact of green spaces and plants on health and the economy” (Prof. Catherine Ward Thompson, Dr Chris Pollard) and “Plant sciences and public engagement” (Dr Janet Paterson, Marie-Anne Robertson, Ninni Nuorti).


Figure 1. Research diversity of EPS-ECR meeting audience using Mentimeter.


The diversity of plant science in the Edinburgh area was showcased by the invited speakers Mavis Osei-Wusu (Heriot Watt University), David Bartholomew (UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology), Amanda Jones (Napier University & SASA), Dr Aimeric Blaud (Napier University), Yanqian Ding (University of Edinburgh), Laura Roehrig (Scotland’s Rural College), Domen Finzgar (Forest Research & University of Edinburgh), Hazel Wu Huang (Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh), Dr Jason Summer-Kalkun (SASA) and Heather Dunn (Forest Research & University of Oxford).


In addition to exploring the breadth of plant research in our partner institutes, the EPS-ECR meeting perfectly represented EPS’ mission to enhance career progression and research capacity, as well as created a channel of communication for the ECR community to develop tailored activities in the future.


Many thanks for the talented attendees, the enthusiastic organizing committee and our sponsors Mentimeter and SULSA! If you want to know more about EPS or get involved, please follow us on Twitter or contact us!


Our attendees


Who are we? Edinburgh Plant Science - Early Career Researchers (EPS-ECRs)

By Marisol and Andres, 21 August 2020

Who are we?

EPS-ECRs is a community of interdisciplinary and enthusiastic early researchers from nine plant science institutes located in Edinburgh, with the aim of delivering fundamental and translational research, education and to communicate research to society.

What do we offer?

  •  Postgraduate training for the next generation of plant researchers.
  •  Public outreach opportunities.
  •  Improved understanding of plant science through student-led seminars.
  •  Quarterly EPS newsletter which shares upcoming exclusive opportunities for ECRs.
  •  Multi-disciplinary research funding opportunities.
  • Assistance of material exchange between institutes (material transfer of genetic and organisms materials agreement).


What’s on this year?

Our first event “Connecting plant science for the future” aims to bring awareness of our organisation, promote engagement of ECRs and to inform the community about our current and future activities. This event will be held online on 22nd October 2020 (Thursday).

What 's it about?

  • Present EPS-ECRs to all 10 institutions that take part in EPS. Our future aim is to open the network to other plant science institutions across Scotland and later the UK.
  • Provide training and guide ECR members at different stages of their career.
  • Open invitation to participate in future events of public outreach, seminars, and newsletters.

For more information on how to participate, please register on Eventbrite to keep up with future updates on the proposed meeting program. 


How about training opportunities?

We are currently considering different options:

  1. Technical training provided by one of the institutions with assistance from ECR members from any institutions belonging to EPS (This will require an agreement between the different institutions).
  2. Knowledge exchange (ECR members share their knowledge and skills).

To fulfill this end, we will invite all participants of the first event of EPS-ECRs to voice their opinions regarding a series of training options. We need you!


How can you participate?

Would you like to join and connect with this vibrant community of plant scientists?

Please do so! We welcome all enthusiastic ECR plant scientists. 

Please join our Slack community where we talk about plant-related research



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Science Communication: Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition

By Mavis O. Osei-Wusu, 29 June 2020

What is your research about? A question most scientists fail to address efficiently. 

Throughout my education, I always struggled to explain what my research was about to friends and family outside my field of study who asked, “So Mavis, what is your research about?”. My answer was always just a phrase or two, what I thought was simple enough for them to understand. And my enthusiasm just dropped upon observing their confused faces each time. It was hard making people see the importance and value of what I do.

Upon starting my Doctoral degree, I was keen on taking up training in science communication. Then in December 2019, I saw an advertisement about the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. I said to myself, I wish I could take part, but I’m not ready yet. One of my supervisors during a conversation asked if I had seen the advertisement. My response was, “yes, but I’m not good at that; I don’t think I am ready in any way”. One excuse after the other, I tried to convince myself the time was not right.

My Supervisor volunteered to provide guidance, so I resolved to take up the 3MT competition as a personal challenge. I was unsure about the competition, but because I saw an opportunity to overcome one of fears; my inability to explain what I do to a non-scientific audience, I registered. With his help, my husband’s encouragement and the trainings offered in preparation towards the competition by Heriot-Watt University Research Futures, I was able to develop such skills vital in the career of every scientist.

It came to me as a pleasant surprise to have won the people’s choice vote. This shows how far I have come to engage non-scientific audience confidently and eloquently. I am no longer afraid of that question, ‘what do you do?’.

Below are three important skills I learnt in communicating research to a non-specialised audience:

  1. Know your audience: Be aware of your audience background, what is relevant to them or to the people in their lives? It is easier to induce their interest in what matters by starting from the known to the unknown. Use questions to engage them and to stimulate their curiosity.
  2. Engage your audience: When communicating your research with others, don’t educate, just stimulate their interest, share what cannot easily be forgotten. Give illustrations that appeal to their imagination to gain their attention. Never tell your audience what you think they should have experienced in the past bearing in mind diversity in culture, age and education. Give general examples that the majority can easily relate to, and not your own personal experiences that may be typical to a particular culture or generation.
  3. Drop the jargons: When addressing a non-specialised audience use comfortable language to avoid coming across as a show off or arrogant. Substitute technical words if possible, if not maintain them, but explain what they mean. For example, instead of saying Zea mays, why not use the common name maize.

In summary, explain why the identified problem should be of concern to your audience, give a general overview that stimulates interest, then narrow it down to what you are doing to solve the problem. Develop these skills with practice, and you will no longer be scared of the question, “What is your research about?”.


Watch Mavis's 3MT presentation HERE.

Earned the Heriot-Watt university 3MT® People's Choice Award !!!

Connect with Mavis on Twitter.




Mavis O. Osei-Wusu,

2nd year PhD student at Heriot-Watt University,

School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society, Institute for Life and Earth Sciences.

Twitter @MavisWusu

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Science is benefitting from data and code sharing: join the tribe!

By Valerio Giuffrida, 17 June 2020

Most research projects recently conducted are interdisciplinary and this is actively encouraged by funding bodies. For my PhD work, I had a great opportunity to be part of a project spanning several scientific areas, computer science, plant biology, and a bit of engineering. In my view, newly enrolled PhD students and early-career researchers should have the same splendid opportunities as I had. What are the steps to facilitate these sorts of interactions? One way is to find suitable partnerships that allow a brilliant researcher to access new challenges. But, is there another way? I believe so. It doesn’t matter who you speak to, research projects are based on the analysis of some sort of data. Even though you are a plant biologist, at a certain point you had to learn certain data science skills to analyse the data you have obtained from your experiments.

Then, what would you do with these skills? Probably you would assess whether the results prove (or disprove) your original hypothesis and collect your evidence in a paper to be submitted to a high quality peer-reviewed journal. At this point, a lot of researchers would move on to the next challenge. But, what happens to the vast amounts of data that you have generated in your research? Most of the time, they are kept locked in a drawer, stored on an external drive. Is this the fate they deserve? You have probably spent hours and hours to extract, organise, analyse (without exaggerating) the data you have given your blood, sweat and tears too!

In computer science, researchers are collecting, annotating, and releasing plenty of different kinds of datasets, to allow other researchers to explore, play, and propose new methodologies to tackle a particular challenge. Data sharing is important for scientific progress and I believe that everyone should make an effort to be more open to this. Nowadays, there are open-access repositories, such as Zenodo, where you can share your data with the scientific community. You might be asking now, what are the benefits? I will answer this question with three main points:

(i) academic benefit: you get citations (and I don’t need to explain why this is important to you)

(ii) professional benefit: your CV will look enriched when you are applying to jobs or funding opportunities

(iii) personal benefit: I personally feel rewarded when someone downloads something (not only data, but also software) from my website - I think “someone is using my stuff for their project - wow!”. 

Software development is the other point I would like to discuss, to which the same argument applies. Does the code that you have developed deserve to stay in the same drawer? There are many software, tools, and applications in the plant community, but most of the time authors do not release the code. Some people think that releasing the code publicly with an open-source licence agreement will somehow hinder future possibilities. For example, one of the biggest fears I have heard of is that code sharing will prohibit the potential commercialisation of your software. I completely disagree with that and a good answer can be found here. You own the piece of work and you can basically do anything you like, including making a profit in some way. This article discusses several possibilities on how to make a profit from open source software. The second biggest fear is that someone might steal your idea/hard work and make a profit instead of you. It is important here to realise that your efforts cannot be “stolen”, as you own all the intellectual property when you release your code under an open-source licence. If you question again the benefit of sharing your code, please read again the benefits I have outlined above.

Finally, don’t be fearful. Join the tribe of scientists sharing their data and code - this will make a real contribution to a wider audience, shaping young researcher’s careers and setting for them a path towards interdisciplinary projects. I suggest that you visit the OpenAIRE website to get an overview of open access repositories currently available for researchers.



Valerio Giuffrida,

Lecturer in Data Science

Edinburgh Napier University.




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What’s better than just doing science? Communicating it!

By Apple Chew, 11 June 2020

This is a bite-sized blog piece to share my experience after joining the I’m a Scientist, Stay at Home programme during the UK lockdown. In short, I highly encourage all scientists to give it a go!

Across the UK, school students’ education has been disrupted, classes are split up and science teachers are tasked with providing remote activities. I will share with you a few programmes out there to help pupils stay connected with STEM, their teachers and their classmates. As an amateur in science communication, I haven’t developed enough confidence to speak to students on face-to-face video calls like the Skype a Scientist or Scientist Next Door programme. I got to know about I’m A Scientist through an internal public engagement newsletter from University of Edinburgh.

Through tried-and-tested text-based format (45 mins), scientists get to: 

  • Answer questions about science or engineering and working in STEM
  • Chat with teachers and pupils
  • Build their public engagement experience
  • Get to know other cool scientists and their work

 Do you chat with students alone?

There’s always a few scientists in each chat. No pressure! Feel free to chat with other scientists as well about their work.

Why should you sign up?

  • Challenge yourself to explain concepts in layman language
  • Re-discover science with students and other scientists (gives my brain a break from my field)
  • Take a mental break from your usual routine
  • It’s an opportunity to be silly and fun and have a laugh !

Examples of the science chat session:

Here’s a snapshot of the latest ‘themed’ chats that I joined in line with World Food Safety day:  

What’s one thing that I’ve learnt?

That every conversation needs to be a two-way engagement. I asked a student the same question she asked me: "What are the top 3 things you are doing for the environment?" and it was nice to hear her answers.

3 interesting questions you got asked by the students?

1. Is genetic engineering embryos legal?

Yes! But GM babies cannot be born (yet).

2. What is the impact of Covid-19 on food production?

Sadly, there’s actually a huge increase in food waste. Farmers are dumping milk and burying huge piles of fresh and healthy crops to make compost. There is no demand for them because the universities, schools and restaurants that normally purchase large quantities of food are closed.  

3. What’s one thing you regret about your job? 

Doing lab work produces a lot of plastic waste. It’s painful to be part of the problem, even until today.


Sign up at the link below:

For engineering disciplines, visit:



Apple Chew,

1st year PhD student at University of Edinburgh,

Institute of Molecular Plant Sciences.

Twitter @_applechew

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Five good reasons to reopen the debate on genetic modification

By Lindsay Williams

A new University of Edinburgh (UoE) –funded study is set to reopen the debate about genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).   The interactive project will ask members of the public and researchers to rank the acceptability of a variety of GMOs, ranging from basic foodstuffs to medicines.  The UoE PhD students behind the project hope that, in the process, participants will explore their own decision-making and assumptions about GMOs.  Here are five good reasons why we should be taking part in the GMO debate today:

1) The public feels uninformed.

According to a 2011 IPSOS Mori survey over half of those surveyed felt uninformed about GM crops and food security in the UK.  There are many GM detractors, such as the Prince of Wales, who said GM crops would ‘cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time’; but there are few vocal exponents, or seemingly impartial commentators.  Edinburgh Plant Science (EPS) is committed to public engagement and science education.  It is the responsibility of the scientific community to present the facts, both for and against; this new interactive study will do just that at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (RBGE) and the Midlothian Science Festival between September and December 2014.

2) The public does not trust GM.

The same IPSOS Mori survey showed that the public considered GM crops to be the riskiest technology: riskier even than nuclear power.   As this new project will emphasise, GMOs are much more than GM crops: they can used in human medicines, animal vaccines and as tools in scientific research.  It will be interesting to see whether participating in the study moderates or further polarises views on GMOs.

3) EPS is part of the GMO debate.

EPS members likely reflect the broad spectrum of public opinions about GMOs, and yet it would be difficult to escape GMO technology or policy in our work.  EPS partners have already contributed to the GM crop debate from a number of angles: Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) has reported the divided views of Scottish farmers; and Innogen has advised a regional government on policy relating to a GM-free zone.  Many plant scientists also use GMOs as tools of the trade: mutant plant stocks, transformed bacteria, DNA libraries in single-celled organisms, to name but a few. 

4) The European Union (EU) GMO rules are changing.

The EU looks set to change its policy on GMOs: from 2015, EU member states will be able to dictate which GMOs are cultivated within their borders. Currently, individual farmers can plant any GM crop approved by the EU, whether or not their national government disapproves.  This change will in turn will impact on …

5)…how the Scottish referendum could affect GMOs.

Our national and devolved government do not agree on GMOs. The UK government in Westminster is cautiously in favour of GMO development as ‘one of a range of tools to address the longer term challenges of global food security, climate change, and the need for more sustainable agricultural production.’  The Scottish government in Holyrood is firmly against GM crops, which they believe ‘could damage Scotland's rich environment and would threaten our reputation for producing high quality and natural foods.’ (according to their respective official websites). This may not be top of the Yes and No talking points, but the outcome of September’s Referendum may have an impact on science and agriculture in Scotland.

The study has been funded by the UoE Researcher-led Initiative Fund, and will be carried out by UoE PhD students from the Halliday lab: Harriet Jones, Douglas Pyott, Deyue Yang and Monika Lenty.

EPS Launch Day- The first step towards the future of plant science in Edinburgh

By Sarah Heath

The launch of Edinburgh Plant Science held at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh was a fantastic afternoon of talks from a wide variety of collaborators. The event served as a real eye-opener into the diverse range of plant research that is being carried out here in Edinburgh, from molecular biology research to future agricultural security. I caught up with some of the speakers at the drinks reception to find out their thoughts on the launch.  

Karen Halliday, EPS Director, described the launch as “very successful!” She was pleased that everything went to plan, and remarked that the student session was a particularly big hit and really great fun. The launch received very positive feedback by all who attended and those who were unable to attend were sorry to have missed it. I asked Karen what the future holds for EPS, now that we have officially been launched. There are already lots of plans in place for EPS, including setting up an advisory board to bring all of the partners together and facilitate decision making, a monthly debating series to discuss the impact of plant science on society, hot house meetings to create a new funding initiative and the introduction of EPS Global studentships to enable students from developing countries to study here in Edinburgh. Additionally, a major focus of EPS will be on outreach and public engagement. The RBGE will play a key role in this and all student members of the network will now have access to engagement through the gardens.

Dave Hughes is the Global Head of Technology Scouting from Syngenta, a company whose primary goal is to grow more crops from fewer resources. His talk at the launch focused on the importance of plant science to for global food security. Dave explained that due to the increased popularity of networks in recent years for linking disciplines he believes that EPS will play a vital role in getting people talking who wouldn’t normally meet. “Inspiration and innovation get sparked and I was very happy to be invited to give a talk,” he told me. An important point that was picked up on by many speakers and attendees on the day was the importance of public perception towards new technologies for increasing crop yields.

Often, the media and public feel concerned to hear about genetically modified organisms and the use of chemical pesticides. When asked where he thinks this negative propaganda comes from, Dave suggested that often technology doesn’t fit with people’s opinions of how the world “should” be. The public doesn’t like the influence of big businesses such as Syngenta in their lives “taking control of agriculture”. The problem is that the degree of regulation means that smaller companies aren’t able to engage, and thereby get pushed out, leaving only the larger companies. So what does Dave think we can do to encourage the public to be more tolerant? “We need people to realise the benefits”. These benefits are usually only seen by farmers and not the general public. For example, if there is a 10% increase in crop yields, the farmers will directly feel the advantages of this increase; however they will not be felt by the customers when they are buying food in the supermarket. Dave’s conclusion is, “There is an inappropriate fear of technologies that are safer than crossing the road”.

Karina Banda, a PhD student at the RBGE, won third prize in the 2 Minute Thesis competition. Karina said that she found the launch day really interesting. “It was useful to hear other people’s points of view,” she told me. “You can often get stuck in your own work”. She explained that it can be quite shocking to hear of the vast range of plant research, but also extremely useful and eye-opening. Karina described the launch as challenging, but that EPS is a way to communicate. “A way to build bridges and land ideas. Amazing!”

A huge thank you to the speakers interviewed for sharing your views with me on the future of EPS and well done to students who took part in the 2 minute thesis competition!


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What is a plant? A short journey in multidisciplinary science.

By Uriel Urquiza
Uriel is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. He uses Systems and Synthetic Biology approaches to understand circadian regulation in Plants.

Last year during the summer I was going for a walk on Arthur’s Seat with a friend from the MSc in the Biodiversity and Taxonomy of Plant Biodiversity, which is taught in the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. During our conversation we randomly started to talk about plant evolution. On one hand my friend loves fieldwork, and is interested in macroscopic traits. She finds that the traits are visually attractive and enjoys to classify species when doing fieldwork. On the other hand, I have a degree in Genomics and as a consequence I am biased towards molecular phylogenetics.  

Cuscuta europaea © Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-3.0

We ended up discussing a very fundamental question: What is a plant? For me it seemed very clear that photosynthesis was a necessary condition to classify an organism as a plant. But, she halted for a second and searched her memory. Suddenly, she pointed towards some of the trees. -”That orange plant you see there, the parasitic one, growing on the tree. That one does not photosynthesise!”.  She had pointed out Cuscuta europaea right there on Arthur’s seat.

For me this was a very interesting fact. First, because it reminded me that in biology there are always unexpected behaviours. Second, it reminded me why I jumped into plant biology after years of very molecularly oriented biology; basically I wanted to be able to see my object of study with the naked eye. Third, because it showed me that when we connect with researchers in other fields of biology we can detail and refine our understanding biological systems, which is why we all became scientist in the first place.

What I learned that afternoon is that some plants survive on extracting nutrients from other plants or fungi and thus, they do not need to photosynthesise. This makes them obligate holoparasites meaning they cannot exist without a host. Several examples come from the Monotropaceae genus, which are perennial root masses that are strictly dependent upon mycorrhizal fungi in mixed and coniferous forest (Olson A. R. 1990). Another striking example are the floral giants from the Rafflesiaceae family. Furthermore, specimens from this family can measure one meter in diameter and weigh up to 7kg. Some of them are holoparasitic, meaning that depend completely on the host and they do not present leaves, stems or roots and live embedded in the host plant.

One question that emerges is Why did these plants lost their photosynthetic capacity? We can bring up several conjectures. We can use energetic arguments to explain the loss of genes involved in photosynthesis. It might have been profitable to lose mechanisms for shade avoidance and competition for light when gaining access to an alternative energy source. A comparative study between the Epifagus virginiana (yet another plant that does not photosynthesise) and the Tobacco chloroplast genome shows that in E. virginiana all the genes involved in photosynthesis are pseudogenes (genes that are no longer expressed). A multi-subunit enzyme called RuBisCO is fundamental in the photosynthetic process and the genes encoding the enzyme had lost its function. The loss of the photosynthetic machinery might support the energetic hypothesis if RuBisCO turns out to be a very important energetic sink. Therefore, inactivation of the genes would be an advantage if a less expensive way for obtaining energy was available to them. This is still an open question and some labs are trying to give a quantitative answer on how much energy is spent on protein synthesis every day (Mark Sttit Lab at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology).

What started out as a simple conversation about the plants on Arthur’s Seat turned out to be a mine of interesting questions. This is why I enjoy interacting with scientists from other disciplines as it bring a jolt of inspiration to my own work. I hope that we can build a strong community of PhD students that has an impact on our local communities. I hope this blog serves us as a provocative space, where new and exciting ideas can emerge.


Davis C. C. et al, “Floral Gigantism in Rafflesiaceae”, Science 315, 1812, (2007)

Olson A. R., “Observation on the floral shoots of Monotropa hypopitys (Monotrepaceae)”, Rhodora, Vol. 92, No. 870, pp 54-56 (1990)

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Welcome to the EPS Blog

Welcome to the Edinburgh Plant Science Blog!

We are very excited to be launching our new blog to keep all members of EPS up to date with the latest plant news from Edinburgh. We’ll be posting about the people involved in EPS and the work that they are doing, as well as activities, events and competitions that you can get involved in. Additionally, we’ll have regular posts about plant-related topics that we find really fascinating or unusual, such as our latest “What is a plant?” series.

The EPS blog also welcomes guest writers. We meet every month, so if you have articles or ideas that you want to share please get in touch.

Follow us on on Twitter and Facebook to get even more from Edinburgh Plant Science.