Decolonising Research Methodology

The start of this blog week coincides with my final week of research as part of the Laidlaw scholarship, and a time when I’m reflecting on my progress as a researcher x leader over the past year.

Image result for stop line 3 resistance camp

Peaceful protest against the construction of the Enbridge Line 3 Oil pipeline gets treated as acts of terrorism [].

Whereas last summer I conducted desk-based research, this year I travelled to the US to investigate the securitisation of indigenous communities’ anti-pipeline activism in Minnesota. My time abroad led to many experiences where I needed to practice leadership; to name just a couple of issues my luggage was delayed and arrived a week after I did (which included my laptop charger, clothes, washing stuff etc.), and my phone number was blocked for a further week by o2 who thought it had been stolen… However, I wanted to share the most important thing I’ve learnt throughout this research project, which has been appreciating my own positionality as a researcher and the inherent colonial attitudes of western academic research. Therefore, central to this project has been the need to understand and put into practice ‘decolonising methodologies’, to quote the title of Maori anthropologist Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s seminal work.

Before travelling, my supervisor encouraged me to prepare a self-reflection paper where I could lay out my awareness of my background growing up in a colonial state from a privileged background going to an elite academic institution. I also included my understanding of the history of colonialism’s relationship with academia, and the power imbalances inherent in research. I learnt that ‘research’ (re-search) is considered a dirty word by many indigenous communities, who are aware of it as a process and tool of subordination through misrepresentation. Having this document of self-reflection proved invaluable; I continually referred to it during my time away and it kept me aware of how I could work to avoid this western colonial mindset. Rather than going in with the aim of producing a paper for my own gain and using their situation as a tool for this (an attitude prevalent throughout social science research), I would be conducting these interviews and research in a transparent and collaborative manner- keeping indigenous particpants’ voice central. In this way I was learning what they felt important for me to know about their experiences with police-brutality, media discourse and the environmental racism at play in their situation. It’s important to stress that this is different from a white-savior position where there’s an ’emancipation’ aim; rather it is a case of learning from and working with affected peoples in a manner that does not add to their colonisation.

Learning the importance of this has been far and away the most important thing for me to understand- putting this into practice in interviews has been a vital experience. This ties back to leadership values; writing up this pre-departure self-reflection document was a turning point for me in understanding the role we have as leaders in academic research. Practicing decolonized methodology is practicing an alternate type of leadership, and setting the tone for future research. Whilst this need for decolonisation is something that is not directly taught in the Laidlaw program, the foundations of self-reflection developed in the leadership sessions have proved useful as a starting point for appreciating it’s value.

I couldn’t have conducted this research or learnt these lessons without my supervisor Professor Ali Watson, who has been essential in helping me understand the need to decolonize research methodologies, as well as navigate problems, stresses and worries whilst being abroad. Without the generosity of Lord Laidlaw I couldn’t have this opportunity, so thank you to him and the St Andrews Laidlaw Scholarship team too.

Trying to get a grip on social sciences research as a medic


Brain Plate

My research project this year is quite unconventional for a medical student – I’m carrying out a historical review of depictions of the accessory in sources from the 18th and 19th century. As such, I have had no experience whatsoever in this type of data collection or analysis so it’s been challenging in many ways but a good opportunity to learn some new skills in the world of research. Due to the novel nature of researching ‘objects’ rather than ‘sources’ most of last week (the first week of my project) was spent learning about the methodology used in this type of research. A lot of the preparation for my data collection has felt more like art history than medicine. Despite the unfamiliar academic environment it has been a useful experience in widening my understanding of how other areas of research operate. I have also had to come to terms with allowing a bit more flexibility in my methods of research. A lot of what my final title ends up being depends on the data that I collect in the next couple weeks. This is a novel approach for me as I am having to try and detect themes in the objects that I am analysing and dealing with much more categorical data than I am used to.

This week I’ve had the chance to start my data collection. This has involved visiting the Royal Colleges of Surgeons in Edinburgh and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow to view a variety of objects in their collections. A lot of my analysis of the objects involved looking more into the context of where and when they were created rather than simply their content; making me feel more akin to an art historian than a medic. Despite this it was a nice change of pace to go from the rote learning that is necessary in my studies during term time to thinking in a more analytical manner.

I’d also like to say thank you to my supervisors: Ourania Varsou and Fraser Chisholm, for helping guide me during the project. I’d also like to thank Lord Laidlaw for his support of the Laidlaw Scholarship program, which I have greatly enjoyed so far.


Thinking in the Margins

I have spent the better part of my first week of Laidlaw thinking about margins. Crucial  decisions in environmental economics are often made using marginal analysis, a concept central to my research.  

Let’s take a simple thought experiment.  

Say you have zero adorable polar bears in your life, and you find one adorable polar bear. As adorable as the polar bear may be, that first one will be worth a lot more to you than the hundredth or millionth polar bear.

With every additional polar bear you find, the satisfaction you gain from each one decreases. The marginal utility of finding another polar bear declines as you find more adorable polar bears.  

This concept of decreasing marginal utility is useful for explaining how groups of people across time may value units of goods differently depending on how their consumption patterns change.

Before we continue, have a polar bear…


Olga Dmitrieva

Economists project increased economic growth in the long run, and thus average consumption per person may increase in the future.  This means that future generations may value extra units of consumption differently, perhaps less, than we do today. In other words, their marginal utility of consumption may decrease as consumption increases over time.  Why is this important? Because how elastic, or sensitive, marginal utility is to these potential changes in consumption represents one factor that helps economists understand how to find a number called a social discount rate for utility. 

Economists spend a lot of time arguing about how to calculate this particular number, and I have spent a large part of my week reading about their disagreements.  

What is a discount rate? 

Let’s take another thought experiment, but first…

ABC News

If you’re not allowed to gain interest on your money, would you choose to have 100 pounds now or 100 pounds in 10 years? 

What about 70 pounds now or 100 in 10 years? 

A discount rate, similarly to a normal interest rate, discounts a future amount of utility (or income) back to present value.  Governments use it to decide how much to invest now in projects to mitigate climate catastrophes, in order to see returns in the future.  Discounting the far off future is a difficult task particularly when you add in deep, unsettling uncertainty due to catastrophic risk.  Nevertheless, it is crucial to environmental economic analysis because current policy is what may matter most in future years.  

By this point, you may be thinking that these concepts of marginal utility and discount rates seem abstract and a bit useless if you are not an economist or an aspiring one.  So why have I chosen to explain them to you? These concepts are not only the core foundations for my research in economics, but they have also shaped how I think about margins in my own life and in my approach to work. They have helped me understand how to prioritize tasks in a more economically driven way.  This is something that I believe Laidlaw scholars in any discipline can learn from, so I thought I might share a little moment of discovery from week one.  

This week, some of those aforementioned papers on discount rates were reminding me that I have not (yet) taken mathematical economics, and I was wishing I had a bit more mathematical wisdom to pull me through tough times (hour six at the library).  It was time to humble up, and go back to basics, and scour the library shelves for a textbook.   

Upon turning to chapter nine in Further Mathematics for Economic Analysis, I found a quote that I wish I had found in minute one instead of hour six.  

‘A person who insists on understanding every tiny step before going to the next is liable to concentrate so much on looking at his feet that he fails to realize he is walking in the wrong direction.’

-I Stewart 1975

I usually pride myself on scrupulous research. ‘Don’t turn the page without looking up all of the words you don’t know.  Finish your first book before you start the next’.  Week one has taught me that this approach is not going to cut it. The mantra must change to ‘Prioritize, don’t obsess’. Evaluate the marginal utility of your next step, the next hour, next page on a difficult topic. Don’t mindlessly take tiny steps without evaluating what you have to gain.  Think about discount rates! The work you put in today may be worth more to you tomorrow. Longer strides. Look up. 

The Telegraph 

Thank you to my supervisor Professor David Ulph for your teaching and advice, and thank you to Lord Laidlaw for this incredible opportunity to spend my summer researching a topic I care deeply about.  


Hammond, P., Seierstad, A., Strøm, A., & Sydsæter, K. (2006). Further Mathematics for Economic Analysis. Harlow: Financial Times/Prentice Hall.

Pearce, D., Ulph, D. (1999), “A social discount rate for the UK”, in Pearce, D.W. (Ed.), Economics and the Environment: Essays on Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, pp.268-85.

Being an essentialist is an essential tool

We love to say yes all the time. An exciting new project? Let’s do it! Want to grab coffee with a friend you haven’t seen in a long time? Monday’s good! Should you catch up with that comedy series you really enjoy? Of course! Want to see the latest spider-man film? Why not! Should you read that interesting article your cousin told you about? Absolutely! And what about that brilliant novel that won that prestigious fiction prize last year? Can’t wait! But… unfortunately, this all comes at a cost. 


What we don’t realise is that by saying yes to all these things that life brings to the table, we are saying no to thousands, millions of other things. Time is in many ways our most valuable asset and what we do with it and how we do it ends up being the life we live and turning us into who we are. 

However active, energetic and ambitious we might be, we can never do it all. It simply cannot happen. So we have to choose, and there are better and worse ways of going about this. A very common one, and we are all guilty of this more often than not, is saying yes to whatever is in front of us. Not that essay we know is very important, not that important phone-call to our grandmother we’ve been putting off for days. We instead constantly run into things and people that quickly take over our to-do lists and fill up our calendars.

Some parts of this idea are already widely known and tackled by the ‘important vs urgent’ matrix, which is a widely used leadership and management tool. But we need to go further. We need to see not just what is important or urgent, at the end of the day, it might all be to a certain extent, the book, the series, the old friends, the films, staying on top of the news… We need to reflect as seriously as we can and narrow down the things that really matter in our lives. And then, we need to act on it, pay our undivided attention and, this is key, learn to say no. We must learn how to say no to all those cool things we just cannot afford doing because saying yes to them would unavoidably mean saying no to some of what’s essential to us.

Author Greg McKeown has long been interested in answering: What is it that holds capable, driven people from breaking through to the next level? And he found that, ironically, it might have to do with success. With one’s success comes more options, and this, more often than not, ends up diffusing one’s focus that led to that success in the first place. To combat this he came up with the notion of essentialism: the disciplined pursuit of less.

As I mentioned, we need to explore which are the critical things we want to pursue and be willing to get rid of the rest. Moreover, McKeown believes in lowering the barrier to doing these things. He wants our default position, and not the rare occasion, to be working on them. He refers to it as the process of building a platform for ‘effortless execution of the essential’. Moreover, he believes that people, when given the appropriate space and time, can easily discern which things truly are important and essential. Whether his positivism here is a sensible position or not, one thing is certain, being caught in the middle of our daily noise and impulsively filling up our days cannot lead to us being productive in the same way.

I have come to believe that, however difficult it might seem, being an essentialist might be one of the most important tools we can learn in order to become better leaders (of ourselves and others) and, more generally, a tool that serves us to be better at doing anything we set out to do.


Image source:*1pULlk7afwfQhCZOrX0tDw.jpeg

I would like to thank my supervisors, Dr Fenner Tanswell and Prof. Franz Berto for their patience and constant support, and Lord Laidlaw and everyone else who has made my scholarship possible. It has truly shaped me and changed the way I see the world.

USA Research Trip Reflections

For this summer’s segment of my Laidlaw scholarship, I had the fantastic opportunity to be able to travel to the United States to access relevant primary material for my project on Dorothea Dix. Last summer, I focused on British nineteenth-century public health reformer Sir Edwin Chadwick. My aim was to understand how he conceived of the law, and especially legal reform, upon which he was most influential in the realm of public health legislation. To understand his views and ideas with regards to this, I visited the UCL site in Bloomsbury, London, where the Chadwick papers are kept. From this experience I gained my first taste of archival research.

In this summer’s research segment, which follows on from last year, I am looking for my case study at Dorothea Dix, a pioneering and inspiring advocate and social reformer in nineteenth-century America. Dix lobbied on behalf of the mentally ill to state legislatures and Congress, and succeeded in setting up the first generation of American mental asylums. Following on from my examination of Edwin Chadwick’s conception of the law in the realm of public health legislation, I am looking at how Dix conceived of the law and the uses and functions of the law in order to benefit mentally ill Americans.

To be able to understand Dix’s views and ideas with regards to this, this summer I travelled to the US with the help of the Laidlaw travel fund to visit Harvard’s Houghton Library (where the Dorothea Lynde Dix papers are kept) and The New York Public Library (where a decade of Dix’s letters are kept). Primary sources are invaluable to a research project in History, and so I am grateful I was able to access these. This research trip enabled me to demonstrate leadership, travelling to the archives in Cambridge, MA and Manhattan, NY respectively and accessing primary materials relevant to my project. Some challenges that arose included: getting to grips with differing search databases at the archives themselves; adopting differing access practises; and, also, the challenge of choosing which materials I wished to examine (Houghton library had 26 boxes of sources, for instance). Moreover, in examining a variety of Dix’s correspondence, I often struggled to read her or her acquaintances handwriting. I will steadily work through this issue as I produce my final research report, working through the photographs of the sources I accessed and possibly doing a transcription of them.

Overall, in allowing me to physically access relevant primary material and in enabling me to exhibit leadership, my research trip was interesting and character building. It was fascinating to get so close to the actual correspondence and material that Dix and her often notable acquaintances had written by hand. Furthermore, it was a delight to enter a research environment at both archives that was always welcoming, accessible, and had a collaborative atmosphere. In essence, this summer and the previous summer have enabled me to gain a taste of research in various research settings, and I can’t recommend the Laidlaw program enough to other students for offering such opportunities.

I wish to thank my supervisors, John Hudson and Caroline Humfress in the Department of History, for their ongoing support and advice; CAPOD for organising and coordinating the Laidlaw Scholarship; and Lord Laidlaw of Rothiemay for enabling us to have this opportunity in which to gain experience of academic research.

The unexpected joys of research

I finished my second Laidlaw summer a month ago, and although the whole program adventure is far from done, the end of the research part felt like a good time to reflect on what I’ve done over the past two summers. Like most people before starting such a project, there were some aspects I was dreading (Would my subject still be relevant to me in a year? Is there enough material out there for me?) but there were many that came across and surprised me in the best of ways.

If one looked at my Laidlaw experience overall, the first summer would sound much more exciting than the second: I had spent three weeks in Lima (Peru), going through archives and libraries to find documents (my research focuses on the role of two women in a small indigenous revolt which took place in 18th-century Peru), discussing my research with historians, archivists and professors who all went above and beyond what I could have expected. My second summer, at least to my friends and family, looked a bit duller in comparison. I spent 5 weeks in St Andrews, with most days spent in the library right after the exam period, reading my notes from last year and doing all the readings I had accumulated over the two summers. This did not seem as appealing as the previous summer, and I must admit I was dreading that period a bit myself, wondering if last year’s excitement would lamentably wear off after a couple of weeks. But (fortunately!) my second summer ended up being just as satisfying as the first one, despite staying in Scotland rather than flying off to the other side of the world. What made it so enjoyable was the pleasure I found in diving again into my research after a one year break (especially as my research is part of the Social Anthropology department, while I study Classics during the year): moreover, being able to focus only on my topic research, without having to stress about exams or deadlines, and having the luxury of time to go through my notes and do extra readings was much more pleasant than I expected it to be. I had time to read widely and deeply, letting my curiosity guide me through articles and books in a way I hadn’t done before for my degree, usually limited by time and other constraints. My time in Peru had been very exciting, but hadn’t left me time to go through all the documents I was finding: being able to go through them without rushing felt like being there again, while having the added satisfaction of knowing exactly how I was going to be able to use it for my project. If I was worried at the beginning of Laidlaw of not having enough material, my second summer proved to me once again that it was going to be quite the opposite issue that would arise from the amount of findings and readings I had after two summers.

Finally, the part of my research I did not see coming and which I appreciated the most was its human aspect: although I was spending hours in archives by myself in Peru, or days in the library in St Andrews, the connections I made with people through my research were not only crucial to my project (there are some things I would have never found without their help) but also a motivation to keep going with it, knowing these people had such an interest in my topic and how much I enjoyed discussing it. I had amazing discussions with the people who helped me in Lima, but I think the best exchange I had was from Scotland, via phone. Almost by accident when searching for a book online, I found a website, made by one of the descendants of one of the women my research is focused on, who had spent years assembling his family tree up to the 18th century (and thus up to the woman I was writing about). Thanks to his website, I was able to find him and talk to him about my research concerning his ancestor. This was probably one of the most memorable and rewarding parts of my research, and reminded me that, no matter how far my research might seem at times to both others and myself, these women who lived 250 years ago very much left their mark on the present.

The Laidlaw program gave me a window into research I will carry with me for the rest of my studies and personal projects, and I am greatly thankful to Lord Laidlaw for this initiative, as well as my supervisor Dr Hyland and the St Andrews Laidlaw team for their support.

Exploring the stomachs of tropical carnivorous plants

I’ve just finished my first 5-week Laidlaw project in Singapore and Indonesia to study a tropical carnivorous pitcher plant called Nepenthes. These plants, found throughout South-East Asia have the extraordinary ability to trap, kill and digest insects. My study focused on three Nepenthes species, N. ampullaria, N. rafflesiana and N. gracilis which can be found in the incredibly pristine National Parks of Singapore. During the whole length of my project, I was accompanied by Dr Kadeem Gilbert, a Nepenthes researcher from the University of Harvard who helped me study these plants in the wild. Our research focused on the microbial communities that live within the digestive fluid and help the plants digest their prey.

Nepenthes rafflesiana, a plant that eats insects.

One of the most remarkable observations we made in the field was the extremely acidic pH found in some, but not all of the carnivorous pitchers. We recorded pH as low as pH 1.5 which is almost as acidic as battery acid. This extreme environment puts a lot of selective pressure on the bacterial communities that live within, and we studied these communities by looking at their DNA. We collected over a hundred Nepenthes digestive fluid samples, filtered the bacteria and then went through the lengthy process of isolating and purifying the bacterial DNA in a laboratory in the National University of Singapore (NUS). I had the opportunity of practicing some leadership skills in the lab as I had three PhD and Masters students working with me trying to investigate the research question that I had come up with.

Hundreds of ants being digested by Nepenthes rafflesiana

A large part of my research was spent in the field, as before taking bacterial samples I made sure to take as much data I could on the properties of the digestive fluid that I was collecting. This included the measurement of pH, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrite, nitrate, nitrous oxide, ammonium, phosphate and peroxide concentrations that can be controlled by the plants and affect the bacterial communities. One of the bacterial community that our team is focusing on is denitrifying bacteria. These bacteria have the ability remove Nitrogen from the soils and bodies of water and can drastically reduce plant growth. It was noticed that these bacteria, although widespread, may be absent from Nepenthes pitcher fluid. Our team is the first trying to investigate how Nepenthes may be inhibiting the growth of these parasitic bacteria without affecting the growth of other beneficial bacteria. This research is very exciting as it explores an entirely novel question in Nepenthes biology and might result in potentially useful applications in agriculture.

In the field, collecting fluid samples of a rare Nepenthes hybrid.

During the last 10 days of my research we went to the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia where we were looking for more populations of Nepenthes species that have never been studied in the wild. Our team made many remarkable discoveries in the montane rainforests of Sulawesi that were previously unexplored by botanists. These discoveries included a new population of N. maxima, a beautiful Nepenthes that is only found on the island of Sulawesi as well as a potential new species of the extremely rare Paphiopedilum orchid. This whole expedition was very successful, and was a great opportunity for me to practice my leadership skills. The end of this first project leaves me extremely excited and impatient to start the second half of my project next summer where I will analyse the DNA that I purified using cutting edge DNA technologies.

I wish to thank the Laidlaw Scholars team and Lord Laidlaw himself for making this project possible.









The square miles of Nilpena burn beneath an outback sky…

“Sunset over the Flinders Ranges seen from Nilpena”

“On an outback cattle station, next to the Flinder’s Ranges, the square miles of Nilpena burn beneath an outback sky..” – Nilpena Station by John O’Dea, a brilliant local musician

During the first summer of my Laidlaw Research Scholarship, I was in St Andrews researching two specimens of Ediacaran fossils (Palaeopascichnus and Corumbella). The Ediacaran fauna is a fantastically weird and enigmatic group of life that existed near 10 times as long ago as the extinction of the dinosaurs. They reputably represent some of the earliest animals and show the first evidence of motility (Dickinsonia) and sexual reproduction (Funisia). I was looking in particular at their geochemistry to try and establish what sort of creatures these enigmatic fossils were.

This year I was over 10,000 miles away at Nilpena Station in the outback of South Australia. While Ediacara proper, just north of Nilpena and the rest of the Flinders lie looted and stripped of their ancient fossils, Nilpena Station remains an Aladdin’s cave thanks to the protection of owners Ross and Jane Fargher. Nilpena is so special as unlike other sites, swathes of ancient sea floor are carefully excavated and piece by piece laid out in situ rather than individual specimens being carted off to museums.

“Nilpena fossil bed”

Back in the Ediacaran, pond scum-like microbial mats coated the sea floor until a storm came through depositing a load of sand smothering the surface. A new mat would then develop upon this bed of sand. 560 million years later, these mats allow the sandstone beds to be pried apart, without the need of any finer muddy layer as well as preserving the ancient ripples. The storms also buried whatever life was present on the mat at that moment in time, casting them on the bed above. Sometimes the effect of the storm can be seen in the strained holdfasts of fronds (Aspidella) or structures where the fronds have been yanked out (“mop”) as well as in folded and lifted Dickinsonia.

Over a 20-year period, 33 beds have been excavated from Nilpena. Each of these is very distinct in its assemblage of fossils, from the dense panoply that is “Alice’s Restaurant Bed” (named after the Arlo Guthrie song that goes “ can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant..” through Aspidella dominated beds to the comparatively empty “Duck Bed” (but it is uncannily bird-like in shape). As whole beds are excavated rather than individual specimens, ecological studies are possible. Research into the spatial distributions of certain taxa, their environmental associations and the associations between taxa have opened a window to this peculiar world. Bed scale studies also allows you to distinguish whether differences in the appearance of fossils represent different organisms or just different preservation (taphonomy).

“Dickinsonia (L) and Andiva (R) on Alice’s Restaurant Bed”

During my time at Nilpena I assisted Prof Mary Droser and her students from the University of California, Riverside in their work. Armed with the tools of the trade (dishbrushes, dental picks, silly putty, paint-scrapers, shovels and blu-tack), I helped clean, log, move, excavate and 3D model the Nilpena beds. But how does this link to the geochemistry of the Ediacaran specimens I looked at last summer? Nilpena also had Paleopascichnids. The Ediacara member lies just above the Wonoka, where the Palaeopascichnids I have been studying were collected from. However rather than the dark “Wi-Fi symbol” appearance of the Wonoka, they are wrinkly sumo wrestler like things due to the difference in preservation. This exemplifies one of the key lessons of Nilpena. The antiquity of the fossils and variability in preservation means that conclusions must be drawn with great caution, and only for the strongest patterns. The Ediacaran, due to its bizarre nature has attracted some equally bizarre theories where such caution has been thrown to the wind. With regards to my geochemical analyses, such caution is key. My time at Nilpena station has also helped me to contextualize what I was doing. Last summer I was only able to study two types of fossils, at Nilpena there are 11 genera on Alice’s Restaurant Bed alone.

“Kangaroos spotted on our way to the field site, image courtesy of Philip Boan”

In the coming days I will be analysing the results of maps of elemental concentrations in the fossils that I obtained from LA-ICP-MS out at Trinity College, Dublin in March. Armed with what I’ve seen and discussion I’ve had at Nilpena, I can’t wait to see what they might reveal.

My Struggles with Ethics (Application)

This year’s Laidlaw summer was already a huge shift from that of last year — it was going to be my first time travelling to the United States to conduct an ethnographic study of the Smithsonian Asian-American Literary Festival, interview New York playwrights, and place my experience of New York into my research. Already, one of the issues that have been a problem was my ethics application. What I thought would have been an easy application process, due to the relatively low-risk and straightforward nature of my interviews, turned out to be a long-drawn one with multiple rounds of editing and correction that even my supervisor did not foresee, until the Modern Languages ethics department finally accepted my application.

The ethics application required a list of interview questions for my semi-structured interviews with the playwrights. As my questions were to be contextual and oriented towards their plays, which I had not read at the point of my application, I was unable to provide a satisfactory list of interview questions and was struggling to think of questions that were general but relevant enough. However, the ethics department sent me a previous outstanding application to refer to, and I realised that I was pigeon-holing my perspectives of the playwrights and their plays, and I had to be more open and creative when constructing my questions. For example, I brought in questions about putting up plays in general, and how the roles of the director and actors would affect the final interpretation of the play, and whether such creative differences that are inevitable between the playwright and those involved in the performance would be significant or not.

The ethics application process also led me to ponder about questions that did not even cross my mind, such as data-storage and the potential consequences of the interviews and my projects that I did not deem to be significant. I thought that my questions would be relatively safe, but the urging of the ethics department to consider more implications led me to realise that my research could have some, however small, backlash. For example, if I was interviewing a playwright belonging to the LGBTQ+ who was from Singapore, such issues would be sensitive as Singapore has not decriminalised homosexuality. Thus, how I store and release the data would be extremely important so as to protect this person’s rights and privacy.

Therefore, although administrative matters such as this are not really my forte, being required to submit such paperwork massively helped with the organisation of my research, such as giving me a rough skeleton of interview questions to consider before diving into my research, as well as to encourage me to think about the wider implications of including other people into my research.

Pressure Relief: Reflections After Research

With my first five weeks of research bound, folded and consigned to history, a pause to reflect on the summer is welcome. The goal of this first stage of research was to produce a pressure cell suitable for flash-freezing EPR samples. EPR, or electron paramagnetic resonance, is a method for studying molecules with unpaired electrons (or those to which we attach helpful ‘spin labels’), using the excitation of electron spin to glean information about the unpaired electron’s surroundings or, in the case of DEER (Double Electron-Electron Resonance), a distance distribution for the separation of two spin labels.
Though flipping a rock on textbooks of quantum mechanics sends matrices scurrying, Classical analogies, though necessarily flawed, can help with grasping the concept.

The reason that we can use EPR to investigate structures with free radicals is due to the magnetic moment of the unpaired electron, which arises due to a conserved quantity known as ‘spin’. Classically, a magnetic moment can be assigned to a conducting loop carrying a current. A loop with a large magnetic moment will experience a large torque, or ‘turning force’, so to speak, when at some arbitrary angle to the direction of an externally applied magnetic field. Also, the larger the magnitude of the magnetic dipole moment, the greater the potential energy of the dipole. The dipole will have its minimum potential energy when aligned with the direction of the magnetic field, and its maximum potential energy when counter aligned.
If we think of the electron as a Classical particle, say the omnipresent tiny billiard ball with finite radius, we can intuitively account for the electron’s magnetic moment:
Imagine the billiard ball, with a net charge of -1, isolated in space. Assume that the ball has a finite and uniform charge density. Now zoom in on a tiny portion of the outer surface of the billiard ball, which has some differential charge dq. Now set the ball spinning on its axis. The charge dq now travels in a circle around the axis of rotation of the ball. That is, it now constitutes a charge moving around a conducting loop, thereby possessing a magnetic dipole moment.
Quantum mechanics states that the spin angular momentum is quantised by the reduced Planck’s constant, with magnitude √(2&S(S+1)) , where S is the electron spin quantum number, determined by the secondary spin quantum number ms, an eigenvalue of the spin operator. The number of possible spin states is given by (2S + 1).
For the electron, with S = ½, this yields two possible spin states: + ½ and – ½, referred to as ‘spin-up’ and ‘spin-down’. Without an external magnetic field, these two states have the same associated energy. But when the external field is applied, the degeneracy is broken, the spin counteraligned with the direction of the external magnetic field possessing the larger associated energy. This loss of degeneracy is known as the electron Zeeman interaction.
One can think of this a little like a kayak paddle. In still air, there is no apparent difference between having one or the other edge of the blade leading. But place the paddle into a fast-flowing stream, and one must work to rotate the blade into the oncoming water. Once the blade is parallel with the racing fluid, it becomes stable; but lift the edge slightly, and the whole blade will rotate 180 degrees until parallel with the stream once again. Thus, the former state is high-energy, unstable; the latter, low-energy and stable.
The difference in energy between the two spin states may be bridged by the absorption of a microwave frequency photon, yielding an absorption spectrum more often presented as the first derivative. Alone, this trace carries limited information. However, various interactions fill in the blanks, including spin-nuclear hyperfine coupling, spin-spin dipolar fine coupling, spin-orbit coupling, spin-lattice coupling and the Fermi contact interaction. Though my current understanding of these interactions falls far short of where I would like, next year’s quantum mechanics courses will lay the foundations to explore these effects in greater detail.
June turned into something of an extended DIY project, punctuated by forays into quantum mechanics textbooks, convoluted adventures through product specification data and rather messy experiments with sealants. Throughout the threading of minuscule silicone pistons, proud returns to room 135 with boxes of dry ice and apologetic requests at the workshop, I came to know that a level of ignorance really can be beneficial. Not ignorance of process, theory or safety: one can never have enough of that kind of knowledge. I refer to the newness of a field, of poking one’s nose over the edge of something new and exploring its potential; a newness in which there are no imagined obstacles to hinder the testing of ideas. and where a dearth of expectations gives great excitement when the least usefulness arises from one’s efforts.
The hammer did not follow the humble stone, and so I found in these five weeks: half the challenge of construction lies in liberal application of, if not Ockham’s, perhaps Leonardo’s razor: in whittling down the fluff and frills of a first solution to something altogether simpler and easier to fix, remembering, simultaneously, that when an undergraduate’s first plans are put to the test, ‘cheap and cheerful’ is a prudent edict. Thus, a promising selection of valves were slashed to a simple tee, safety features reduced in complexity (if blowing out the bottom is undesirable, why, just blow out the top!) and incorporated into the few indispensable components to reduce cost and bulk. The end result is a design so straightforward that I wonder why it took so long to finalise; confirmation, perhaps, that the dissection of initial ideas has yielded a functional skeleton. From this, I learn that the process of refinement is only complete when the removal of just one piece causes the entire construct to crumble.

Plans in progress: early ideas for the pressure cell arrangement

Following this little adventure among the flexible world of drawings and ideas, I was to learn another valuable lesson: the transition from idea to physical object takes time. Lead time. In this case, three weeks. I sat back, having completed week two of five, and evaluated the situation. Could I have avoided the inconvenience of equipment due to arrive on the final day of my project? Not without completing half of the project before it formally began. Quandary resolved, I turned to the unexpected task of filling a three-week vacuum: another opportunity to exercise self-leadership.
Cue the difficulties of freezing. Imagine the situation: a small biological sample, difficult to procure, confined to a 3 mm, frail quartz tube. Submerged in ethanol, in proximity to water. Frozen to -196 degrees Celsius. Spot the difficulties?
If the sections containing water are above the ethanol, how can we prevent the formation of a water/ethanol ice block around our precious sample? How to stop the ethanol invading the sample itself? What of sample recovery?
Previous work by Lerch and collaborators1 provided a partial solution to the problem of sample protection: cure silicone elastomer inside a sample tube, break the tube and cut the silicone, producing a convenient plug to separate the sample from the ethanol. However, this still left the issue of recovering the sample, not to mention the unfortunate demise of at least one pricey tube.
The ideas? Cut the silicone to size by hand (messy, ghastly fumes, would not recommend); use a cheap glass tube for the curing (the required dimensions are unavailable); insert a minuscule plastic bead to block the tube (the resulting curved meniscus will reflect microwaves). The one that works: 2 mm O-ring silicone, cut short and threaded on cotton; seal the end of the cotton with elastomer to block ethanol, and hey presto, a tiny sink plug fit for purpose.
The incompatibility of the water/ethanol duo had a straightforward, though slightly daunting solution: fill the Barocycler system with ethanol. A flammable liquid at 60,000 psi… not the makings of a sound night’s sleep. But factor in the low temperature of the system and the risk is greatly reduced.
But why all of this fuss to achieve high pressures? Imagine standing at one end of a dark room. At the other end is a stool, on which rests a small object, isolated, unapproachable. Without recourse to the tactile sense, how can one discover its function?
Simply switch on the light. Now one can see that the object is a Swiss army knife. This is akin to using EPR techniques to investigate the structure of a protein. The likely uses of the object are now apparent; but what is its precise functionality, and how might this be revealed without physically unfolding each attachment?

The barocycler, for generating pressure. Also a teacher of many lessons in troubleshooting and repair.

This is where pressure becomes helpful. Flood the army knife’s cavities with high pressure water, and the various files, blades and hooks will be pushed into the open. For a protein, the filling of cavities with a high pressure fluid enables the transition to a higher-energy, active state: a functional mode. Flash freezing then preserves this mode sufficiently long to probe its conformation with DEER.
These weeks of problem solving were enlivened by journal club meetings with my supervisor, Dr Janet Lovett’s, Electron Paramagnetic Resonance team, which provided a valuable glimpse of the organisation and teamwork needed to support long-term, interdisciplinary research projects. Attending the Centre of Magnetic Resonance annual meeting, I was struck by the extent of collaboration and breadth of expertise required to successfully refine and apply magnetic resonance techniques. In many ways, the days of solitary scientific research are no more: each discipline’s branch on the tree of knowledge has grown in girth until it cannot be spanned by a single pair of arms. The more questions that we answer, the more connections are unearthed between previously isolated disciplines, and the more relevant leadership becomes.
I extend my sincere thanks to Dr Janet Lovett for her advice and guidance; to the postgraduates of the Lovett lab for their warm welcome and patience; and to Lord Laidlaw, for granting me this opportunity to develop ingenuity, familiarity with protocol, and confidence in a research environment. The ability to walk into a department uncowed by the proximity of projects of daunting scope, to navigate through these juxtaposed nodes of endeavour to produce something of use in my own small corner, has galvanised my enthusiasm for not just research, but problem solving in a broader context.
1. Lerch, M.T., Yang, Z., Altenbach, C., Hubbell, W.L. (2015). Chapter Two – High-Pressure EPR and Site-Directed Spin Labeling for Mapping Molecular Flexibility in Proteins. Methods in Enzymology, 564, pp. 29-57.