BSPP Outreach goes to the Gatsby Plant Science Summer School

17 Jul 2014

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Written by Katie Tomlinson (BSPP Outreach Officer).

On the 2nd – 4th July I attended the Gatsby Plant Science Summer School, near York. I was invited to speak in the careers session and spoke to students in break out sessions, where they asked me lots of questions about careers in both outreach and plant pathology.

It was great to hear so many students interested in pursuing careers in plant sciences and many were intrigued by plant pathology. A few students were interested in hearing about the BSPP Undergraduate Vacation Fund and how they might gain some plant pathology experience.

As well as the careers session, students completed a range of practicals on different topics, including a practical on plant pathology, run by Dr Charles Lane and Dr Paul Beales (BSPP Outreach Mentor) from the Food and Environment Research Agency. The aim of the practical was to get the students to look at plants differently and to realise that plants can get a range of different diseases.

I sat in on the practical to make notes and speak to students. Students were introduced to a range of plant pathogens, which have had a huge impact, such as potato blight in Ireland, coffee rust, and ash dieback. Students were also told about the work of FERA Plant Health Inspectors, and how plant diseases can be quarantined.

A very sick (nearly dead) apple tree was then produced. The students had to become Plant Health Inspectors and speak to the tree grower to work out what could be causing the disease. Paul and Charles acted out the part of the grower, with West Country/Yorkshire accents to boot!

I was really impressed with how the students were able to pick apart the problem, look for key factors such as weather conditions, and identify which parts of the plant to do lab tests on. Quite a few students opted for a fungal test on the roots, which then revealed the culprit, a fungus-like Phytophthora pathogen.

The students learnt how to use a lateral flow device to detect the presence of phytophthora disease. This works in a similar manner to a pregnancy testing kit and really showed how quick and simple pathogen detection can be. Students used their lateral flow devices to perform qPCR reactions, which confirmed the presence of target phytophthora pathogen.

Next, we all went out into the grounds to hunt for signs of plant disease. We found lots of diseases: rhododendron bud blast, miner moths on horse chestnut, oak powdery mildew and lots more. We then headed back inside to look at the diseased leaves under the microscopes, where students could see how beautiful pathogens can be!

The practical was a big hit with the students! I received feedback from 13 students, who on average rated it 9/10 and all said that the plant pathology practical had made them more interested in plant pathology.

One student said: 'I have learnt the symptoms of plant pathogens on various species, basic tests for identifying pathogens and how to prepare samples e.g. mildew to view.’

Another student said: 'I like learning about the ways plants have evolved to defend themselves and how pathogens suppress this.'

Find more photos from the practicals here!

It was great to be a part of the summer school this year, especially to get ideas from the practicals and to meet scientists and students and I hope to stay in touch!

I would like to say thank you to the organisers: The Gatsby Plant Science Education team in Cambridge, particularly Dr Celia Knight for inviting me to be involved!

Find out more about Gatsby Plant Science Summer School in this paper: 'The Gatsby Plant Science Summer School: Inspiring the Next Generation of Plant Science Researchers'.