I love studying plant science

Plant science isn’t the most standard undergraduate degree in the world. You never hear 5 year olds saying “I really want to be a plant scientist when I grow up”. It’s the sort of thing that you learn you love. I am very passionate about plant science, and I think it’s a subject more people should study or at least be aware of. A few months ago, I saw that UCAS were running a competition called “Love Learning”. For the competition you write a short piece about why you love the course your studying, so of course, I jumped at the chance of entering. I really enjoyed writing this piece, unfortunately I didn’t win, but hopefully it is interesting.

Plants are everywhere and have so many purposes but often seem to go unnoticed. However, we benefit from the fibres and medicinal chemicals they provide us with, they are the source of our food and produce the oxygen that we breathe. Plants are often seen as static creatures, almost like inanimate objects, but really they are complex and interesting organisms. They are faced with many of the same problems as animals: they are constantly needing to develop, overcome competition, find food, undergo reproduction and avoid predators. They also do all of this without the capability to get up and move.

Now I’ve convinced you on the wonderfulness of plants, why should we study them? Plant science is more traditionally seen as a softer subject underpinned by the classification of plants and botanical drawings, this is no longer what plant science really is (no matter how nice the botanical drawings are). Plant science is essential to addressing problems of global food security; increasing the productivity of crops to feed our ever increasing population whilst maintaining the biodiversity that is important to sustain our ecosystem on which we depend. Plant science can also help to alleviate the energy crisis and climate change. Discovering more about the ways that plants grow and develop, as well as the molecular processes that occur in the cells of plants are so important in aiding these major world issues.

On a day to day basis, you may be learning about how cell walls expand, the breeding mechanisms of plants or how plants photosynthesise (as well as many other interesting concepts – the plant kingdom is your oyster!). Modules cover topics from genetics and cell biology to global food security, biochemistry and ecology – and that’s all in one year! I have the joys of molecular pharming, plant biotechnology, soil science and plant cell signalling ahead of me. All this being taught by world class researchers makes learning the subject exciting and real. Learning through practicals as well as lectures makes the subject more hands-on, by carrying out experiments involving field work, lab work and even computer modelling sessions.

It is exciting to be studying a subject that has the potential to have a large impact on the world. Despite the smaller number of participants (I am one of five students in my year studying plant science at the university), everyone I’ve met from students to lecturers, has a real love of the subject and there is a great and inspiring atmosphere that is achieved from being round so many “plant people”.

Although I love the biosciences in general, there is nothing better than being able to study a whole degree about something you love. Plants are often not covered enough at GCSE and A level biology, and when they are covered you may find that the teacher skips over the part about plants as they find it boring (I know, shocking). Studying plant science is a great way to use the knowledge learnt in A level biology to learn more specifically about plants, it also ties in several elements of chemistry too.

Before I came to university and I told people what course I was going to study, they often responded with something along the lines of: “Plant science? Is that a thing?” To those people I’d respond, yes plant science is a “thing”, and a very important and interesting thing indeed.

UCAS Love Learning competition – https://www.ucas.com/corporate/news-and-key-documents/love-learning-2015-competition-winners


Computer programming adventures


It’s now a good few weeks back into term, now it is back to normal university life with lots of lectures, coursework and all that jazz. So here is another post reminiscing about the summer. It is going to be about my adventure in attempting to learn some programming.

I don’t really know why I want to learn to program. I think it was a combination of a few things: I thought it would be interesting, I know a lot of plant research uses computer programming and I think employers like it. For me it was probably easier to get started with than some, I do happen to have a boyfriend doing computer science which was very useful (I tried not to make too much use of him, but he was very helpful, which I must thank him for).

I decided (and was advised) to learn the programming language Python, this is probably the most used in the life sciences and is relatively easy to write in and understand. It can also be used to write a large variety of programs. A good start would be to learn the syntax (this is basically the grammar of the programming language, how things are written). I first did this by using a website called Codecademy. I really liked this way of learning to start with, they give you a lot of help but you still feel like you’ve accomplished something.

Although Codecademy was a great place to start, it doesn’t really go far enough, and they do kind of spoon-feed you a bit. The next way of learning I tried was to just practice programming, just to see what I could do. I started off by doing some of the programs on Project Euler. These are really short programs that don’t take too long and they are maths based. After I’d programmed a few of these maths problems I found several other mini-projects to try, like making a hangman game. These were good, but I was finding that I learnt the language quite well but I found it hard to think in the programmer mindset, I couldn’t really do the problem solving.

This was when I realised that it’s quite hard to be good at programming without knowing any computer science. I began to browse the free courses on computer science on the internet. There are some really good courses from lots of universities all over the world. I choose the do the Introduction to Computer Science and Programming course from MIT. It looked like a really interesting course, had a lot of opportunity to practice the knowledge through programming, and was taught using python.

The course covered lots of useful topics from algorithms and problem solving to using big O notation to figure out the complexity of a program or algorithm. It was all very useful in learning to program. What was really difficult were all the actual programming tasks set. They also had tests (exactly what you want to be doing in the summer).

I think a lot of people get put off learning to program because it seems a lot harder than it is to get started. I hear people saying “I don’t think in that way” (I said this many times during the course of learning how to program). Of course you don’t, your not a computer, but that shouldn’t stop you! It’s also to difficult keep up learning when it starts getting really difficult, just keep going and when you finally get the program to work it is so worth it. This image really sums up everything I thought when I started learning to program.

I’m making this image big enough so you can see my beautiful set up, but small enough so you can’t see my errors.

So I’m obviously a long way away to being the level of programming I’d like to be and the level needed to be useful. I’m really looking forward to continuing my programming journey in a computer modelling module at university next term. I’m going to approach programming (and life) in the future using the wise words of Nadiya from The Great British Bake Off:


*Disclaimer: hopefully none of the information in this is too wrong, if it is, I apologise, I do plant science, but do let me know*

Extra information:

Codecademy – https://www.codecademy.com/en/tracks/python

Project Euler – https://projecteuler.net/archives

Python mini-projects – http://knightlab.northwestern.edu/2014/06/05/five-mini-programming-projects-for-the-python-beginner/

Introduction to Computer Science and Programming from MIT – http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/electrical-engineering-and-computer-science/6-00sc-introduction-to-computer-science-and-programming-spring-2011/Syllabus/