EducationMy first school was a little local primary school. We had a single class of 30 per year so it was a pretty small school. When I went to secondary school I went to an all-girls school called Rugby High School which I mostly enjoyed being at although sometimes I missed the boys I was friends with at primary school. I did GCSEs at that school and stayed to do A-levels at the sixth form and applied to university at several places. I ended up going to the University of Nottingham to do a degree in Biology then stayed to do a PhD. I’m about half way through the 4 years it takes to get my PhD and as long as everything goes ok and I pass I’ll get to call myself Doctor at the end of it.
QualificationsGCSEs- Biology (A*), Chemistry(A*), Physics(A*), English literature (A*), Maths (A), English language (A), Design and Technology resistant materials (A), RE (A), IT (B), Spanish (B) and sports leadership. AS level – Maths (C) A levels – Biology (A), Chemistry (B) and Physics (B) 2:1 Biology MSci (masters degree)
Work HistoryI’ve only had one other job before I started my PhD, I worked part time at a Starbucks during my first degree so that I had some extra money.
Current JobPhD student. This is the first step to becoming a scientist at a University. Even though we are called students it’s much more like a normal job. I generally work about 9-5 and i get paid by the university.
The University of Nottingham
Favourite thing to do in my job: Chopping up my plants and looking at them really, really close up under a microscope. I find it fun and think the pictures I get are really pretty! I've put some pictures in the section about my work
About Me: I'm a 25 year old plant scientist studying for my PhD at the University of Nottingham. When i'm not working i like hanging out with friends and having fun doing my hobbies
Hi I’m Alex, I live in Nottingham with 2 housemates and a lot of houseplants. I already have a degree in Biology and now I’m studying to get my PhD in plants science from the University of Nottingham.
When I’m not working I like kicking butt at my Martial art (Wing Chun Kung Fu). I also love knitting, from blankets for charity to game characters who look like my friends. I also love baking and playing board games and Dungeons and Dragons with friends.
The people who own the house I’m renting don’t let us have pets but if I could have pets I’d want a dog, a cat and a parrot. And probably a few more animals as well, I love animals.
My pronouns are she/her
My Work: Plants need a lot of different things to grow. They need energy from the sun but they also need things from the soil like water and also things that help them grow. The plant I’m working with is bad at getting something called phosphorous from the soil. Phosphorous is really important to help the plants to grow so I’m trying to find a way to make the roots better at getting it out of the soil. This should help the plants grow better and make us more food.
The plant I work with is called oilseed rape, you’ve probably seen it growing in fields during the summer, it has really bright yellow flowers and it’s one of the plants that makes a lot of people have hay fever. Farmers grow it to make vegetable oil which is used in cooking, added to lots of foods and even used to make fuel for cars.
<- it looks like this
The problem I want to fix is that this plant needs something called phosphorus to grow, and it’s not always good at getting it from the soil. Farmers put a lot of fertiliser on their fields so that the plant can get enough phosphorous but this 1. Costs a lot of money and 2. Isn’t good for the environment. Some of the fertiliser can get washed into rivers by rain and it can kill the fish and other animals that live there. So we definitely want to fix this problem so less fertiliser is needed!
Making the plants better at getting phosphorous will mean that the farmers don’t need to add as much fertiliser but it will also help them grow bigger and that means we’ll get more food from the plants! Which is good when there are places in the world without enough food.
My plant is also related to plants like cabbage and brussel sprouts (it’s kind of like a cousin, it’s related even though it looks pretty different!) So my work might also be able to be used to make those grow better.
I think that one of the ways to fix the problem the plant has is to make the plant roots better at getting the phosphorous out of the soil. Some oilseed rape plants are better at getting phosphorous than others, so I’ve been growing lots of them and looking at their roots to see if the ones that are good at it all have something in common.
I look at how the roots grow by growing them on paper and using a computer to make a map of the roots (like a high tec version of growing cress on a paper towel). Then I can get the computer to measure lots of different things about the roots. Then I can look at the measurements I get and work out what makes roots good at getting phosphorous out of the soil
<-My plant growing on paper <- the map of the roots
I’m also looking at the inside of the roots under a microscope which is a machine that lets me look at them really really close up and I get pictures like this.
I think they look really cool and I’m probably going to make myself a calendar with the pictures.
I’m going to use another computer program to measure these pictures to see if there’s any differences inside the roots that might help the plants get phosphorous from the soil.
Once I’ve worked out what features of the roots makes a plant good at getting phosphorous out of the soil, scientists and farmers will be able to breed plants that have those features. Then they won’t need as much fertiliser which is better for farmers and better for animals, and the plants should grow better which means there will be more food.
My Typical Day: get up early so I can catch the bus to work. Then I usually start with a cup of tea and check my emails. Then its down to the greenhouses to check on my plants and make sure they have enough water and are growing ok. Sometimes i need to plant more, which is quite a long job because I have to prepare the equipment I grow them in, count all my seeds out and plant them all. If my plants have grown big enough I take them out of the greenhouse and take pictures of them so I can measure the roots on a computer. Then I chop them up and look at them under a microscope so I can look at them really close up. Sometimes I have meetings with my boss. He’s a really nice guy and helps me plan my experiments. When I’m finding an experiment hard or something isn’t working very well we’ll talk through what I’ve been doing and what I can do next which usually helps me make a plan and makes me feel better. I also talk to the other PhD students a lot, and we all have lunch together. Sometimes we share ideas on how to make experiments better, or complain if our experiment isn’t working very well, but usually we’re just joking around and having a nice chat! Usually we talk about T.V shows we’ve been watching or about fun things people are doing at the weekend, or we talk about people’s pets (which makes me jealous because I don’t have any pets).
8.15 – get up so i have time to eat and get ready to catch the bus.
9.00 – catch the bus. It takes about 30 minutes to get to where i work so I usually read a book, listen to music or talk to friends on the bus.
9.30 – Get to work. I usually start by checking my emails and answering any that are important.
^this is what my desk space looks like (although it’s usually much messier than this)
9.45/10.00 – If I have plants growing this is usually when I go and check on them. I check they have enough water and if they have grown big enough for me to experiment on them. Some of my plants grow in soil in the greenhouses but I also grow plants on paper.
These are our greenhouses, they’re much bigger than the kind you might have in your garden!
When I grow plants on paper they grow in racks like this, with one end of the paper in a tray of water.
10.30 – If any of my plants have grown big enough to be experimented on this is when I photograph them.
11.00 – Once my plants are photographed I get them ready to go under a microscope. I have to cut the roots and put them in a gel that holds them still. When I’m preparing them I work in the lab.
^This is what our lab looks like. These are some of the other people for the lab working on their own science experiments. They’re wearing lab coats to protect their skin and clothes from the chemicals they are using.
12.30 – Lunch. While the gel I put my roots in sets I usually go and have lunch. All the PhD students usually try to have lunch together so that we can chat. Sometimes we ask each other for help with experiments but mostly we talk about things that are nothing to do with work like TV and what we plan to do at the weekend. Quite often someone brings in cake which is always a nice treat! We all get on pretty well so it’s a very friendly place to work.
1.15 – I chop up the roots I set in gel and look at them under the microscope. I also take pictures of them so I can measure things later. It take a long time to do this. Sometimes it takes the rest of the afternoon to look at all my roots.
^This is my favourite bit of my job. It’s quite hard to get really clear pictures from the microscope so getting pictures like this makes me really happy and proud of myself.
5.15 – Usually I catch the bus home but sometimes my work friends an I will go out for dinner or drinks, usually we’re celebrating someone’s birthday but at this time of year we’re also celebrating people finishing their PhD and getting to be called Doctor. I’m really looking forward to when it’s my turn to hand in!
What I'd do with the prize money: I love plants but not everyone does which I think is a shame, so I’d like to get people to be more interested in plants. I think talking to kids about plant science while they’re at primary schools would get them interested in plants. My university has links with schools from other outreach activities so I should be able to find schools to visit. I’d use some of the money to buy a couple of light microscopes which I could then take into primary schools and use those to show kids plants close up. Primary schools don’t usually have any microscopes so kids might not have seen anything like that before and everything looks cool under a microscope. I would like to show some of the differences between plants and get them to think about why that might be. I would also get them to make their own slides with either leaves from the playground where they could look at the surface or onion skin so they could see cells. I would need to use some of the money to buy slides and dye for this activity. I’d use some of the rest of the money to buy seeds, pots and compost so that the kids could plant something of their own and take it away so it’s more than just a fun lesson, they get to keep something and watch it grow. The same equipment could be used at science fairs to get adults interested in plants as well as being taken to schools.
I want to do science communication as a job after I finish my PHD so I want to be personally involved with the outreach if I win the money so my idea needs to be something I could do myself. My goal is to get people to be more interested in plants and also in science in general and I think a great way to do this is to talk to kids in schools. My University has links to schools for outreach activities so I would be able to make contacts with schools to run sessions to get kids excited about plants.
If I win I would like to use some of the money to buy several portable light microscopes which I could take to primary schools to show kids a side to plants they won’t have seen before. It would be quite unusual for a primary school to have any kind of microscope and I think kids would like to get to have a hands on go with a piece of scientific equipment. There are lots of relatively inexpensive, safe and portable light microscopes that can be bought online which would be perfect for taking to show a class, these range from £20-£75 depending on the exact specifications so buying several would be very possible. I would need to buy several microscopes to cover an entire class of 30 children and allow them enough time to look at the slides. There are also attachments that let you attach a smart phone to the microscope and take pictures down the viewer, so I would be able to take some pictures of anything they are looking at and send them to the school if they wanted them.
I would like to buy or create some slides which show different parts of plants. The kids will know about different parts of plants like leaves, roots, petals etc from school but almost certainly won’t have seen them close up so slides with a variety of parts of plants and which come from different types of plants could be really interesting. It would also allow me to tell them about some of the differences between different types of plants and get them to discuss why that might be. For example some plants have very hairy leaves and some have smooth waxy ones, this could lead into a discussion about how plants protect themselves.
As well as the pre-made slides for them to look at I think it would be really great to get them to do some hands on activities. Hands on stuff was always my favourite bit of science lessons at school and I love the practical side of my job. I think it would be great to offer the kids a chance to have a go at making their own slides. Now depending on the ability of the group this could be collecting leaves from the playground to look at under the microscope. Or if the teacher thinks it would be suitable they could have a go at looking at the cells in onion skin. Either way I would need to buy slides and cover slips for this activity.
Another thing I think is important is keeping their interest even after the lesson is over. I think it would be great if they could have something to take home with them. So I would like to use the remaining money to buy pots, soil and seeds for them to plant their own plants that they can grow and look after at home. Something interesting but easy to grow like a sunflower would probably go down really well!
And something I think is good about this kind of outreach is that it could easily be adapted to be done at science events like Science in the Park which runs in Nottingham where it could get both adults and children interested in plants.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Creative, determined, self-critical
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
I was inspired by a problem rather than a person. The world needs more food and plants can help with that. I’m good at biology and I love plants so I wanted to see if I could help fix food shortages.
What was your favourite subject at school?
I was best at biology but I loved practical hands on subjects like food tec, PE and design and technology
What did you want to be after you left school?
I wasn’t 100% sure, I originally thought about being a midwife but by the end of school I thought I would like to be a research scientist. So I guess I wanted to do what I’m doing now.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Nothing serious but I definitely got in trouble for talking, and for some mysteriously “lost” homework…
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
If I couldn’t be a scientist I would like to own a café where people could come and play boardgames and I would make cakes to sell there.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
A folk band called Bellowhead
What's your favourite food?
Chinese takeaway, if it wasn’t so unhealthy I would eat it every day!
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of fun things but over the summer a school friend and I went on holiday to South Korea for 3 weeks which was AMAZING!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Win the lottery so I didn’t have to worry about money and could go on more cool holidays and take my friends with me. Junk food wouldn’t be bad for me. I’d always know what to say to make someone feel better when they’re sad