Careers Spotlight: Oliver Severn, Singer Instruments

Singer Instruments logo

In this series of blogs we have been contacting past BBSRC-funded students to talk about their careers after the PhD. The aim is to show you the variety of jobs a PhD can help you obtain!

In this second post we talked to Oliver Severn, who is a Quality, S&S and Research Manager at Singer Instruments. Ollie completed his PhD in 2018 at the University of Nottingham. He studied Quorum Sensing System B and how it affects the production of butanol by Clostridium acetobutylicum.

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PhD Researcher wins place in international ‘Falling Walls’ public engagement final

Biology PhD researcher Theo Issitt, from the University of York, heads to Berlin in November after beating off strong competition to win a place in the final of the international Falling Walls ‘Emerging Talent’ competition.

Read morePhD Researcher wins place in international ‘Falling Walls’ public engagement final

Exploring the science behind everyday plants- Stinging nettles

What with the advent of better weather you are more likely to be coming into contact with Urtica dioica a.k.a. stinging nettles! Renowned for their painful sting, they are actually really cool plants that play an important role in local ecology. They are a larval food source for several species of butterflies and moths including the Peacock butterfly. They often grow in shady, wet wasteland with heavy metal content and have shown potential to be used in bioremediation strategies, removing the heavy metals from contaminated areas.

A botanical illustration of Stinging Nettle from Flora von Deustchland, 1885

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Exploring the science behind everyday plants- Artemisia

The 25th of April is World Malaria Day so this month we’re going to look at a plant that has become famous for helping to combat this devastating disease. It’s possible that you had not heard of Artemisia annua (sweet wormwood) until 2015 when Tu Youyou, who first discovered the compounds artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on these antimalarial drugs.

Sweet wormwood– not a spectacular looking plant but certainly very useful!

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The Space Chile Grow a Pepper Plant Challenge: your chance to contribute to growing plants in space!

Space chile logo

My name is Luke and I’m about to undertake my PIPS placement with the Space Chile Grow a Pepper Plant Challenge. This is a citizen science project designed and run by Jacob Torres, a contracted engineering plant scientist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (although this placement is not affiliated with NASA!). While the placement will be based in Sheffield due to COVID restrictions, it’s sure to be an ‘out of this world’ experience!

Read moreThe Space Chile Grow a Pepper Plant Challenge: your chance to contribute to growing plants in space!

Exploring the science behind everyday plants- Daffodils

Somehow it’s March again and, with the unseasonably warm weather, many flowers are already making an appearance. One of my personal favourites are daffodils, with their bright flowers bringing some colour to early spring.

A field of daffodils growing in Cornwall

The Latin name for this genus is Narcissus and it’s often linked to the Greek myth of the youth falling in love with his own reflection. It’s said that the nodding flowers represent him staring into the pool. However, there is no evidence that this was the original intention of the name, with Pliny writing that it was in fact derived from “narkao”- I grow numb, in reference to the intoxicating fragrance of some of the Greek species. In the modern world these plants are mostly used for decorative purposes, but they have a few chemical surprises up their sleeves!

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Exploring the science behind everyday plants- Chocolate!

In 2017 it was estimated that the global chocolate market was worth approximately 103 billion USD and it is expected to continue growing! Certainly, I suspect many of us have been consuming more of it than we normally would over the past year so let’s have a closer look at the science of Theobroma cacao, the plant from which chocolate is derived.

Cacao pods at different stages of ripeness

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Remote PIPS placements with Catriona Walker

Catriona Walker is a third year PhD student at the University of Leeds with Tom Bennett. Her research focuses on the roles of phytohormones in the control of carpic dominance and the end of flowering. Carpic dominance is the process whereby developing seeds exhibit dominance over newer seeds, with results varying from mild (a decrease in fruit size) to severe (total inhibition of fruit development). This process acts as a significant limit on yield, as it occurs in situations even where resources are not limiting. Similarly, the end of flowering signifies the final point at which seed and fruits can develop and as such is also a large limiting factor to yield.

She carried out her PIPs placement remotely, during the first lockdown of 2020, with the plant science journal, New Phytologist.

Read moreRemote PIPS placements with Catriona Walker

Popular science books to get you through 2021

With another lockdown underway many of us have much less time in our labs than we would wish and it looks as though this could continue for some time! So, to help take people’s minds off of all the doom and gloom we’ve put together this list of popular science books for some escapism (or not, topic dependent, we take no responsibility if the escapism isn’t sufficient!). Whether you’re looking to read more in your own field or something totally new, I’m sure there’s something for everyone here. Please try and support your local bookstore where you can!

Read morePopular science books to get you through 2021

Exploring the science behind everyday plants- Norway Pine

It’s that time of year again! Many of you are probably putting up Christmas trees this weekend- some real, some fake. If you’re using a real tree there’s a good chance it could be an immature Norway spruce, Picea abies. This is the same species of tree used for the Rockefeller Christmas tree each year but yours probably isn’t 75 ft tall!

The less than amused owl found in the 2020 Rockfeller Christmas tree

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Exploring the science behind everyday plants- Nutmeg

What do the classic european winter dishes of cauliflower cheese and mince pies have in common with traditional indonesian semur? The answer- nutmeg.

Nutmeg is the seed of the tree Myristica fragrans, with its close relative, Mace, being the seed covering. These days it is cultivated around the world in tropical regions but it originates from the Banda Islands of Maluku. In the Middle Ages it was traded across to Europe by the Arabs but, in 1511, the Portuguese annexed the islands. This was the start of the enslavement and murder of the Bandanese and over 100 years of bloody battles with the Dutch and English.

Map of the Banda islands and their location in Indonesia.

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Exploring the science behind everyday plants – Maple

It’s spooky season! Whether you call it Autumn or Fall one of the most spectacular plants at this time of year is the Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum). It’s native to Canada and the far north of the United States but is sometimes cultivated abroad.

Maple forest in Minnesota in autumn.

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Exploring the science behind everyday plants- Heather

If you’ve been to the moors recently (or been lucky enough to take a holiday to Scotland) you’ve probably noticed that the heather is in full bloom!

Once considered an indicator of the harshest type of rural poverty, Calluna vulgaris was made popular by Queen Victoria’s love of the Scottish Highlands. In Scotland, white heather is considered to bring good luck (rather like four leaf clovers for the Irish) so several white flowering cultivators have been developed, although wild heather is most commonly a light purple.

Heather plants on the North York Moors exhibiting their characteristic colouring
Queen Victoria on a pony in Scotland
Queen Victoria on a pony in Scotland.
Growth conditions:

It is the only species in the genus Calluna and generally considered one of the toughest plants going, surviving severe exposure, temperatures below -20 °C and burning. However it requires acidic soils (pH 4.5-6.0) to grow and so often doesn’t do well in cultivation. The pH of the soil a plant grows in is important because it affects a wide range of factors, including which bacteria are present and the availability of certain nutrients such as nitrogen. Some soils can also change their structure in different pH’s; a classic example is clay, which is granular and perfectly suited to many crops in the pH range of 5.5-7.0 but at either extreme becomes very sticky and tends to suffocate roots.

The curious properties of heather honey:

As well as being beautiful, heather is a fantastic source of nectar for honey bees. The honey produced by them was once dismissed as unwholesome by the Greek physician, Dioscurides but today it is very popular. It shares an interesting characteristic with tomato ketchup- both are thixotropic fluids. This means that they decrease in viscosity with time for a constant applied shear stress and then gradually return to the original state when the stress is removed. The honey is jelly like until it is stirred and will return to a jelly when the stirring stops, as you can imagine, this makes it very difficult to extract from the honeycomb!

The structure of callunene
The structure of callunene- a potent inhibitor of the C. bombi parasite in wild bumblebees.

The heather has another surprise in its nectar, one that could be vital in helping to save wild bee colonies. It has recently been found that a chemical called callunene (present in the nectar) can help to treat a common gut parasite, Crithidia bombi, and help protect the bees from catching it in the first place, by preventing flagellar anchoring to the ileum epithelium. Boosting heathland conservation would increase bees’ access to heather, hopefully improving the health of wild colonies. It is also possible that this might be the compound which is responsible for heather’s use in herbal medicine to treat urinary tract infections, although this has yet to be investigated.

Can I make alcohol from it? The important questions in life:

Something you may not have associated this plant with immediately is beer. However heather has been used as a bittering herb (alongside myrtle and broom) in Scottish beer since at least 1769 when Thomas Pennet wrote in A tour in Scotland that on the island of Islay “ale is frequently mixed with the young tops of heath…” Brewing history in Scotland dates back 5,000 yrs so it’s safe to assume this tradition is likely a lot older than Pennet’s book. Beer produced with this mix of herbs is called gruit beer and it can still be found today, although hop beers have largely replaced it because hops tend to be cheaper and do a better job of preserving the beer.  February 1st is the official International Gruit Day in case you can find some to try!

Exploring the science behind everyday plants: Roses

For the first in my blog series: Exploring the science behind everyday plants, it seems appropriate to cover Roses. 

The name “Rose” refers to over 300 species of plant in the genus Rosa. They can range from miniature garden roses to climbers that can reach well over 7 M height but one thing they all have in common is the showy flowers they produce. 

Rose colours:

The  colour of these flowers was used as a sort of language in Victorian England, each symbolising something different. White was for innocence and young love (hence why white roses are common in bridal bouquets), red was for romantic love, yellow was for jealousy and pink was for friendship. Of course, there are thousands of cultivators with mixed colours these days so, in theory, you could send a very nuanced message if you wanted to! 

White rose from York Museum Gardens
A white rose from York Museum Gardens.

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Get to know… your WRDTP Comms Team: Zoe Ingold

Hiya! My name is Zoe and I’m a new member of the comms team from York. I work across YSBL and CNAP studying C-C bond forming enzymes derived from plants. I’m using x-ray crystallography to determine their structures and trying to elucidate their mechanisms in order to modify them to use substrates of industrial importance. Long term this will hopefully lead to greener processes for fine chemicals production.

Why did you join the DTP comms team?

I’ve been doing SciComm since first year of undergrad when I volunteered at the RSC stand for the York Festival of Ideas however, due to corona, all in-person SciComm has been cancelled for the foreseeable future. I saw this time as a good opportunity to develop my writing skills, so I’ve been using twitter to post about the chemistry and cultural importance of a new plant each day (who doesn’t love plants!). Writing for the White Rose blog allows me to explore this in more depth as well as write about other areas of the PhD experience.

Tell us some non-work related things about you!

I love food! York has an amazing food scene and whenever some place new opens up I try to visit. During lockdown I’ve learned how to make pastel de nata from scratch and I’m trying to grow some of my own fruit and veg too. At the start of my PhD some of my friends took my bouldering and I’m really looking forward to the climbing gym re-opening. I also train horses and go out to explore the Yorkshire area whenever I can.