Psychophysics, diversity and stereoglasses in the library

Image

When I think about my Laidlaw experience this summer, the first word that comes to mind is ‘diversity’. The reason for that is that all aspects of my research – topics, research methods and people I worked with – were very diverse. Even the discipline itself is not pure psychology, but rather psychophysics which, according to Steven Pinker, is ‘the oldest part of psychology’. In simple terms, it is the study of the relationship between physical stimuli and sensations/ perceptions they produce. This nature of my research gave me a solid reason to tell my friends studying natural sciences that some branches of psychology are closer to natural rather than social sciences.

My research question was also far from narrow – I was exploring the role of depth in selective attention, in other words, the mechanisms which allow us to selectively attend to particular regions of space. I have only fully understood the scope of this project after I had spent the first week researching the topic. While strictly speaking, my project is in a field of psychophysics, it also covers psychology of perception through its focus on the mechanisms of the visual apparatus required for depth processing as well as cognition through its study of brain’s processing of visual inputs. In my study psychophysics serves as a thread connecting psychology of cognition and psychology of perception through its measurement of reaction time and accuracy of participants’ responses to attentional and depth processing tasks.

This large scope of my project meant a large variety of research methods I could use. Some of Laidlaw scholars had first-hand exposure to the experimental method used in this project as I led them into a dark, retro-looking and somewhat scary lab. This was only one of the research methods I used as I first conducted literature review, discussed other visual processing experiments with researchers in the School of Psychology and participated in them myself to gain a better understanding of how one should conduct a psychology study. I was quite familiar with these research methods as we get a lot of practice with literature review in psychology classes and I had previously been a research assistant in the Vision lab testing participants and participating in experiments myself. What was completely new to me and quite challenging was the writing of a Matlab code for the experiment. I spent a week doing online courses, reading Matlab guides and putting on stereoscopic glasses  (glasses with red and green filters that are similar to the ones you get in the cinema) in the library. I did the latter as I could run the code on my laptop and to obtain a 3D effect I could use stereoscopic glasses instead of a stereoscope in the lab. Not sure how many people recognised me but if you ever hear stories about a girl putting on cinema glasses in the library, you know who it was!

My Lab – The object in the foreground is the stereoscope through which participants looked to see 3D stimuli on the monitor in front of them. The computer in the background is a researcher’s computer I was using to launch experiment and collect data.

Finally, the last diverse aspect of my project was the range of the participants in my study. Strictly speaking, it was quite a homogenous sample in terms of age but luckily, depth processing does not change over lifetime so participants’ age did not matter. However, my participants were extremely diverse in terms of their academic backgrounds, psychology knowledge and the use of  binocular disparity in 3D perception (binocular disparity is a difference between left and right eye’s view of the world which is one of the cues used by the brain to obtain 3D representation of the world). Thus, I had to learn to explain the experiment in simple terms as well as further clarify the purpose of the study to those participants who were interested in finding out more after they had done the study. I had to turn away 3 participants who did not use the binocular disparity sufficiently to participate in my experiment and explain to them that it is not a disease but rather an individual specificity of their visual system.

I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw for giving me an opportunity to work on this challenging yet very exciting project that kept me busy the entire summer (I had to analyse the data of all my 18 participants after I left St Andrews). Not only did I gain a great insight into psychophysics, but also developed my academic leadership skills as I have been guiding my own research. I am very grateful to have an amazing supervisor – Professor Julie Harris – who has supported me throughout this project, challenged me to go further and kindly allowed me to attend all Vision Lab’s meetings and seminars which was a great way to better understand my area of research and research in psychology in general. A big thank you to Laidlaw Team that made this programme go so smoothly and organised great leadership sessions. Finally, a special thank you to everyone who has participated in my experiment – without you I would not have been able to draw any conclusions!

Dionysus and the theatre: “Tell me what they’re like, these rituals of yours”

What I love about doing fieldwork-based research in Social Anthropology is that you can never know what to expect. When I started my project five weeks ago, I did know that I was going to investigate the relationship between theatre and the anthropological notion of ritual at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but nothing could have prepared me for what was awaiting me. I felt like my experience was an extremely rich one: as part of my research, in fact, not only was I going to take part in the Fringe as an audience member, but I was also going to put on a show myself.

So, first, a little about the show and how it came to be. Over last year’s summer, I had written a contemporary and meta-theatrical adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae, which I managed to put on in St Andrews last November thanks to Mermaids, the University of St Andrews’ Performing Arts Fund. I then decided that I wanted to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe: what better opportunity to test my own work and ideas in a real-life situation? So I found some talented and trustworthy people who shared my goal and soon we started working on taking the show to the Fringe. It was a hard job, but we pulled it off – in a few months, we managed to secure a venue, organise publicity, find a flat in Edinburgh for us and the cast, and we were finally set for auditions. Once the cast had been selected, the only thing left to do was wait until the start of rehearsals.

I flew to Scotland a week before the rehearsal start date, and began the five week period of the research. I spent the first week doing some reading on ritual, as advised by my supervisor professor Roy Dilley. The more literature on this topic I read, the clearer the parallel I was trying to draw between it and theatre became – not only, in fact, did both these categories of behaviour share a performative aspect, as I was expecting based on my previous knowledge on the topic; they also gradually appeared in a completely new and unexpected light. Thanks to Catherine Bell’s notion of ‘ritualization’ (1992, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press), I could now see theatre and ritual as types of behaviour which also shared the propriety of being set asidefrom other kinds of behaviour, purposefully made different, privileged, and, in virtue of this, meaningful. In this sense, I chose to turn the traditional relationship between theatre and ritual in the field of Anthropology on its head, as theatrical performance to me did no longer only offer an insight into understanding ritual practice, but ritual practice could in turn shed light on theatre: I could read theatrical practice as a form of ritual. This meant that I could trace the meaning that is ascribed to a theatrical practice back to its being different from other kinds of practices, and my focus thus moved to the analysis of those aspects of theatrical practice that made it different from ordinary action. At this point, placed as I was in my ‘fieldwork site’, I had the opportunity to explore this idea not only from a theoretical perspective, but also from a practical one – the start of rehearsals, in fact, not only made it possible for me and the cast to share some thoughts on the topic, but it also allowed me to shape my directing style on these ideas.

Our poster for the Fringe run. Design credits: Charmaine Hiller

Another step back: a bit more about our show. As I mentioned, the adaptation of The Bacchae we presented at the Fringe was a meta-theatrical one, in the sense that, through the narrative device of the ‘play-within-the-play’, we put on the story of a theatre company which, while being meant to perform Euripides’ original Greek tragedy, end up using the plot of the original tale to argue about and test different ways of staging pieces of theatre and what their social impact may be. Which is to say: why is it that we sit in a dark room for hours, looking at people who pretend to do things? The self-reflexive structure of the play meant that discussion in the cast and crew about what we were doing was greatly encouraged and sustained. What is theatre? Why do we do it? What does it do? What should it do? In short, the investigation on what makes theatrical practice different from other practices (or, to use Bell’s words: how is theatrical action ritualised?) was at the very core of the piece and of our work. As if this wasn’t enough, the original The Bacchaeis all about ritual and its social meaning, themes that we thoroughly explored in rehearsals.

While I am looking forward to telling you more about my research with my poster, I want to share a couple of thoughts on research and leadership. I believe my research involved a great deal of reflection on leadership: my very role as director not only made me the person in charge of the creative aspects of the production, but it also ultimately put me in charge of piecing everyone’s work together, setting specific creative and logistical goals, as well as ensuring that rehearsal and performance spaces were safe and comfortable for everyone. In all honesty, this was a very hard job. The sheer number of people involved in the production (eight cast, seven crew members), to mention just one of the variables at stake, did mean that peaceful co-existence was far from easily achievable – who’s showering first? Why is someone doing fewer flyering shifts than others? How can we warm up when some cast are late? – but I am proud to say that, through constant attention and communication, it was almost always obtained. The challenges which arose were indeed hard to deal with, but forced me to face predicaments I would normally avoid in other contexts and made me more aware of the ins and outs of being a leader. In terms of the research-related aspect of leadership, what I found the hardest thing for me was time management, as doing what my fieldwork role entailed and the research at the same time proved to be a challenging job. However, I believe this experience has taught me how to do my best in strict time constraints and to be ready for anything, as sometimes even the most detailed plans we had for anything fringe-related had to be discarded because of unforeseeable circumstances, thus affecting the plans I had for research too. This taught me that, while planning is definitely unavoidable, fair room for flexibility must also be taken into account.

All in all, I believe my project has been a valuable opportunity to grow both in terms of my research and academic skills, and in leadership. After this experience, I feel more comfortable than before with tackling issues very directly and honestly, as well as with time management and planning.

Gabriele Uboldi

*****

I would like to thank the Laidlaw Scholarship Programme, CAPOD, my supervisor prof. Roy Dilley, and my fellow Laidlaw scholars. A special thank you also goes to the Mermaids Committee, the Antony Tudor Fund, my cast and my crew, and especially the amazing Libby Cavaye, Oonagh Wall and Madison Hauser.

The human behind the myth

When we approach history, or art history in this case, we always approach it with the reverential behaviour that best suits times and characters far away, names that became legendary, events that characterised an era. One does not simply reference to Manet or Degas as “everyday” men, nor one talks about their habits or routine without that aura of artistic mystery that, somehow, contributed to the creation of their persona. The fact that we consider certain locations “sacred” for the simple reason that an historical figure lived, loved or drank a bit too much there, is emblematic of the sort of behaviour mentioned before.

I will not deny that this was my initial approach to the life of Giuseppe De Nittis, the painter on which my research focuses. Being one of the most important historical figures of my Apulian hometown, Barletta, I grew up with the certainty that the art and life of a true legend like him had to be studied and explored with an almost religious zeal. I was nine the first time I saw his paintings, or any painting, as it was the first exhibition I had ever been to. This, of course, increased my devotion to this figure, the painter that made me fall in love with figurative art. Thus, every time I looked at one of his works around the world, or walked past the house where he was born, Casa De Nittis on Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Barletta, I almost bowed to show my respect.

However, the weeks I spent researching De Nittis’ life and career, thanks to the Laidlaw scholarship, made me realise one fundamental thing: there is always a human being behind the mythical persona. And with this, of course, my point of view drastically changed. This is because, even though most of the times we are aware of how flawed artists were, and still are, we often tend to forget about their flaws to elevate them to a legendary status due to their undeniable artistic greatness. One of my all-time favourite painter, Amedeo Modigliani, was a pathologic alcoholic – he famously preferred to drink rather than to eat, as he used to say that at least alcohol kept him warm. Nevertheless, his pupil-less portraits speak to my soul louder than a choir of angels.

Reading De Nittis’ diary and what his friends and contemporaries wrote about him, I was stunned by how many details of his life went completely unnoticed by the great public. Peppino, as his friends used to call him, was undeniably a bon vivant, he loved to cook for his guests and always dress up as a real dandy, but above all he loved his wife Léontine, or Titine, as he used to call her. He would have done everything to make her happy, even literally kill himself with too much work in order to afford a new luxurious house on the Avenue de Villiers. Their love was strong and evident to everyone, and each one was extremely jealous of the other. One interesting thing I discovered, something unedited that I found in a local magazine of the time, is that after the premature death of De Nittis,  Léontine refused many marriage proposals, and among them one by Dumas son.

There are many other things to be said about this great artist, his life, his work, his relationships in the Parisian society. But all these things led me to the conclusion that what make an artist “legendary” is the sum of the small, unperceived details that characterised his life, and made him a real man, beyond his artistic persona.

 

 

 

The Antibabypille (yes, Germans do really call oral contraceptives anti-baby pills)

Many of us consider the fight for women’s reproductive rights to be dealt with, we – at St Andrews – are fortunate enough to live in a country which gives women the right to control their fertility. Whilst this may appear somewhat self-explanatory we need not even look historically to see how contentious this issue is; even in the present-day women’s control over their fertility is being challenged, for example due to the continued attempts by the Trump administration to remove funding of Planned Parenthood, or the Argentinian Senate’s rejection of legalized abortions. To confront this ongoing issue, we need activists and leaders who understand the relationship between political systems and women’s reproductive rights. Post-WW2 Germany provides an excellent case study for this. In researching how the opposing political systems of former East and West Germany defined attitudes and policy towards the contraceptive pill, thereby dictating its societal impact, I hope to inform the vital discussion on how politics continues to affect women’s reproductive rights.

A photo from my visit to the German Federal Archive

The most exciting – yet challenging – element of my research so far has been the lack of literature on the topic. Whilst the pill is a part of millions of women’s daily lives worldwide, it is often overshadowed in the literature by the movement for legalized abortions. As there has not yet been such a comparative study of the former German republics, this research project has proven a fantastic opportunity for me look at a multitude of sources, from classic feminist theory to government memos, and explore archives and libraries across Germany. At points the breadth of related materials has seemed overwhelming, and most definitely led me down occasional rabbit holes; however, it is highly rewarding to discover new information and test theories. Thus far, much of what I have read, watched and listened to has challenged me and provided me with new ideas of what female empowerment means in varying political systems, and how this relates to contraception. This has all contributed to my personal and academic growth and inspired me to reflect more on how we can use activism to affect change within the field of reproductive rights, and thus improve the lives of women in a range of societies.

 

I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw for his generous of funding of this programme, the CAPOD team for making it possible and my supervisor Dr Tom Smith for his fantastic guidance.

From Setback to Opportunity

It is around six weeks since I finished my research period for this first summer of the Laidlaw Scholarship; this has allowed me an extended period of time away from my project where I have been able to digest the experiences of my first research summer. I have investigated how Indigenous Peoples are having anti-terror legislation used on them in response to protests about mining and oil extractivism on ancestral lands, which furthers environmental destruction and climate change. Throughout these six weeks of contemplation, there are was repeatedly one feature of my research process that came to mind as the most valuable lesson learnt thus far.

This was the lesson of being organised and having a contingency plan. Prior to starting my research, I had expected to be going away to Ecuador this summer. However, I had left it too late to organise safety measures which could be deemed adequate and had also misunderstood the procedure of the travel fund application, culminating in the result that this summer would be spent here in St Andrews. This realisation happened at the beginning of my research period and the disappointment was of course considerable, however what struck me most for the following few days was a feeling of being lost- what was I going to do in the remaining four weeks?! Even though I had considered that my plans would not go as entirely expected, I had naively chosen not to consider in any detail what to do should I have to research an issue taking place far away from here in St Andrews. In hindsight then, forming strong contingency plans is something I will not be ignoring in the future, as well as being more organised and not leaving arranging a trip of this magnitude so late.

However, what this setback also provided was an experience of the utilisation of leadership skills by really analysing and taking control of the situation I found myself in; whilst different to my initial plans, I thought hard about how to make being based in St Andrews an opportunity as opposed to a setback. This started with acknowledging the reality that Ecuador is not a cheap place to get to, so whilst the travel fund is extremely generous and would cover one visit it would not permit me to travel in both years of my research- it therefore made more sense to go next year, using the time this summer to understand as well as I can all the different elements that comprised the issue in order to conduct the most effective interviews next year. It would also allow me to get the most up to date research, as if I had gone this year and spent next summer analysing and utilising that information it is by that point a year old, a time which is considerable in such a dynamic issue which affects Indigenous People daily. Thus, I saw the opportunity of being based in St Andrews as one of maximising my understanding of all elements of the issue to prepare for next year, something that would not have been possible had I gone to Ecuador so early in the research period. For example, I would never have considered that Donald Trump may feature in this project had I not had this time to investigate every avenue of the topic.

I only found a link in what I was researching with Donald Trump through extended background research here in St Andrews. (Source – http://time.com/4343030/donald-trump-failures/ )

My project is about a relatively recent phenomena, and as such all background information I can learn is available online in the form of articles and reports, thus accessible in St Andrews. Being in St Andrews also would not stop me contacting NGO’s and journalists based in Ecuador by WhatsApp or email. It was this shift in mindset and approach that gave me a chance to take leadership of my situation and look for the best possible use of time, rather than simply see my presence here as an obstruction to research.

Whilst this was a situation in which I had to take control of my research and display leadership skills, I would not have been able to navigate this issue without the help and guidance of my supervisor in the school of IR Professor Ali Watson, who I thank very much. It has really put into perspective the role of the supervisor as a mentor to guide through the areas of confusion. I would also like to echo the words of the other scholars who have blogged their experiences in thanking Lord Laidlaw for the incredible opportunity he has made available to us, something I am hugely grateful for.

Summer reflections

Throughout my research into how past legal reformers conceive of and understand the law in abstract, I have learnt new knowledge as well as various new skills in both an academic and leadership sense. Indeed, following the conclusion of my first summer’s internship in early August 2018, I now believe that I am far better equipped to proceed through my academic career at St Andrews (and perhaps beyond!). Here, I offer some reflections on the various skills I have learnt or improved during the course of my first Laidlaw summer. I believe that these skills have made me a better academic as well as a better leader:-

 

1) “Time flies when you’re having fun”, as the old saying goes. Just like that, the first 5 weeks for this summer’s Laidlaw project flew by. On this note, one of the most important skills that I have developed during my research is how to organise one’s time well, prioritise tasks, and to make a research timetable. The latter point was suggested by my supervisors at the start of my project, and it certainly helped me to formulate an idea of what tasks I needed to do and what time frame I required to accomplish these tasks. Through managing the short 5 week period, I could control the tasks and time frames required for my project, thus in the long-term enabling me to be in full control and take leadership of my project. 

2) As my project is historically-focused, I needed to access archival primary sources in order to advance my research. This was a completely new process to me, however I am now confident in contacting university archives (such as St Andrews and University College London), and also in accessing and handling often delicate sources. Being able to go to the archive and to access primary sources was fascinating, and I now feel confident in developing the independence to go and do primary research on my own. I certainly felt like a true scholar when in the archives! In addition, going to London for my trip to access the UCL Special Collections was formative for my independence and self-leadership.

3) I have found that during the course of my project the capacity to be flexible was of much importance to how my research progressed. While initially I had hoped to use more questions to ask of my sources, it became apparent that the primary sources I was using would not answer all of the ‘Law’s Two Bodies’ research questions I had initially hoped to use. Owing to source and time limitations, it became apparent that I would only be able to focus on answering one of the ongoing research project’s questions, and so I decided to focus upon how the law was conceived by lawyers in abstract. As such, it is apparent to me that in being flexible with the questions you are aiming to answer through your research, your project may be narrower in focus than you had initially hoped, but this may well be for the benefit of your research. Through developing the capacity to be flexible in where my research took me, I was able to better formulate an argument. Therefore, I would consider that a chief attribute of a leader is to learn flexibility so as to be able to adapt to changing circumstances and problems.

————————————————-

I would like 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 of course Lord Laidlaw of Rothiemay for enabling us to have this excellent opportunity in which to gain experience of independent academic research. 

Systematic Self-Review

Do you ever put off doing something, preferring instead to google the best way of doing it? Then you realise you could never possibly do it “the right way”, & so there must be no hope in trying? I have used this technique to excuse me from doing all sorts of intimidating domestic tasks, particularly cooking & cleaning. I spent more time in first year searching for the perfect way to study lectures than I spent attending them (though, I did find the perfect way to study – Anki!). Knowing my fondness for this procrastination technique, it was probably quite foolish of me to undertake a systematic review as the main component of my Laidlaw research project with such confidence.

A systematic review aims to produce an exhaustive summary of all the different answers to a particular research question churned out by academics around the world. It will often assess the quality of each answer it finds, then use those assessments to inform a conclusion on what the true answer is likely to be (as well as informing how confident we can be in this true answer).

I originally thought that the systematic approach – essentially having a thorough, definitive method of searching that is publicised before being conducted – would fit me well. I love doing things systematically, identifying the best way of approaching a task before I try & take it on. When I actually completed tasks this way, I was usually proud of the end-product. What I forgot, however, is how many other tasks I abandoned because I could not identify such a systematic method. As I struggle to come up with a protocol for my review, I seem to be arriving at the ironic conclusion that there is no single, perfect, right way of conducting a systematic review – in fact, for most tasks, I am starting to believe there is rarely only one “right way”.

For example, I initially neglected the many varieties of systematic review, each with different but often overlapping purposes. Even for a single type of review, different methods are required for answering different questions, & when the data/answers you expect to find don’t fit neatly into the boxes they’re supposed to, it can be especially difficult to choose how to design your protocol.

This overlap & uncertainty surprised me. I expected that once I’d decided on a question, a clear set of steps to work through would present itself. The reality is much different. True, there are plenty of boxes to tick – a title; abstract; background information; aims; methods; keywords; databases. But at each stage, there are plenty of decisions to be made that seem far too subjective for a supposedly systematic review.

To be honest, my surprise is unjustified. I have made these subjective decisions before in projects throughout high school. In tasks I abandon due to a lack of a systematic approach, the real failure is likely my inability to make the subjective decisions required to form such an approach.

During my first Laidlaw Leadership weekend, I repeatedly identified myself as indecisive, & now I have found yet another difficulty to blame on that trait. Whether this blame is well placed is debatable, but I do feel as if I’m becoming more decisive. This has often been due to necessity, but I reckon a significant part of my improvement is due to reflective practices that have been drilled into me by both Laidlaw & medical school.

I failed to set a benchmark to measure my decisiveness by, which could mean my gut feeling of improvement is simply wrong – however, it did only take me three attempts, rather than three days, to decide on what to write about for this blog. We shall see how decisive I really am as the deadline to finalise my protocol looms.

I would like to thank Professor Sullivan for guiding me through my indecisiveness, Lord Laidlaw & CAPOD for helping me to improve & manage it, & my fellow Laidlaw scholars for putting up with me not shutting up about it.

In Pursuit of ParaHoxs’ Purpose

Please look at my previous post for some background information about my project.

In the lab we are looking at ParaHox genes in the animal Ciona intestinalis (aka sea squirt – aptly named because when you pick it out of water it turns into a sea-water gun) – it looks like this:

Taken from: http://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/pub/124805.php


The sea squirt lineage evolved before the formation of the vertebrates. It occurs in the same phylum as humans, but they do not have a backbone. This makes it an interesting model to see how the ParaHox cluster has changed within the vertebrates.

Firstly, we needed to collect some sea squirts so we (Dr Ferrier, Dr Sogabe and I) went on a road trip to Abroath Harbour. The high tech collection equipment taken was: two big buckets, a garden hoe, a net on the end of a long stick and some bakers clingfilm.
No need for wet suits, or wellies – the Ciona live on the sides of the pontoons. To collect them I scrapped down the side of a pontoon with the hoe, whilst Dr Sogabe scooped up the Ciona that I had just displaced. They then were deposited into the buckets, with some seawater, and covered with cling film to survive the car journey back (See photos).

Dr Sogabe and I collecting sea squirts from the sides of the pontoons.


Checking the specimens


Next, we settled them in an aquarium and extracted eggs and sperm from the adults, to then fertilise and track development of the embryos.

The ParaHox genes we are studying are active in the early stages of embryogenesis, larval development, as well as the generation of the adult form. However, we are focusing on ParaHox gene regulation in the embryonic stages. So once fertilised we need to keep an eye on them and work quickly -it’s a very intense process!

To introduce regulatory regions of genes in the sea squirts we have to electroporate the 1-celled embryos. This means we apply a small current across the embryo, which allows DNA in its surrounding environment to enter the cells. Then we wait to see what happens…

So far we’ve been isolating and purifying the DNA as well doing test runs of the fertilisation and checking that the embryos develop normally. My first batch of Ciona babies were looking really good until we fed them. The next day all I saw were nibbled-to-death Cionas’ (there seems to have been something in the algae that saw them as food and not friends).

I suppose that’s the downside of working with animals – it’s not as simple as ‘pure’ lab work as there are many more factors to account for and try to control.

I would like to thank Dr Ferrier for being my supervisor and allowing me to do this research project; Dr Sogabe for bearing with my constant questions; the Laidlaw Scholars team and Lord Laidlaw.

Peeking at ParaHoxs’ Purpose

In fertilisation the DNA from the sperm and egg combines to form an embryo. This then divides from a single-celled embryo to a 2-cell embryo, then a 4-cell embryo, 8-cell embryo, 16-cell embryo…etc. But at the beginning all of these cells are identical – they all have the same DNA and same amount of DNA; so how do these identical embryonic cells end up becoming a cell in the eye, or in the gut or become a red blood cell?

This specialisation happens due to specific genes being ‘switched on’ within each cell.

When the embryo is growing, certain genes regulate cell development by telling other genes what to do– they are acting like a director of a play. These “director” genes direct other genes, by telling them to turn on or turn off.

What these genes do is that they encode a protein (called a transcription factor) that regulates which other genes are turned on or off. So by turning some genes on and others off they direct the cells to become a certain cell type in a certain location.


By turning other genes on and off at certain times results in the embryonic cells eventually turning into specialised tissues –such as the pancreas or heart muscle. Without these genes our organs, head and feet would be in very different places.

There are lots of different director genes. An important example occurs in a cluster, and is called the Hox cluster (wait, I know my project title says ParaHox cluster, but hold on we’re getting to it!). One of the roles of the Hox cluster is to specify identity of body parts. The Hox cluster is found in nearly all animals (this includes insects, jellyfish and us)-  showing how important this gene cluster is. (If genes aren’t important they tend to be lost or they become non-functional)

Now, we can move onto the ParaHox cluster. Its literal name means: paralogous to the Hox cluster. The ParaHox cluster is the evolutionary sister to the Hox cluster. Some time in our evolutionary past there was a split in an earlier form of this cluster, which created the Hox and the ParaHox cluster.

The current hypothesis is that there first was a ProtoHox cluster in our evolutionary past and this duplicated itself to form 2 copies of the same cluster of genes. These duplicated copies then slightly changed over time and diverged to become the Hox cluster and the ParaHox cluster.


The ParaHox cluster is very similar to the Hox cluster: It also directs genes and is important in directing tissues and body plans. One of the big differences between the Hox and ParaHox cluster is that the ParaHox cluster contains fewer genes which makes it easier to study.

By looking at which animals contain the ParaHox cluster and its many guises, we can do some detective work and trace back its evolutionary history. We can determine when the ParaHox cluster first appeared in the evolutionary past and how it has changed since.

“But what’s the point of studying these genes” I hear you ask? We know that mutations in these directing genes is linked to diseases such as diabetes and gut cancers. So, by better understanding how these genes developed in our evolutionary past, as well as how these director genes are regulated themselves, we can better understand medical conditions linked with ParaHox gene mutations.

Scotland, the Amazon and the Archives!

Hello Laidlaw scholars, during the last five weeks I was working on a project called “Scotland and The Amazon” with my supervisor Dr. Mark Harris, in the department of Social Anthropology. My project in a nutshell focuses on the welcoming, mixing and adjustment of Scottish families and the British role in the Amazon in Brazil in the 19th century. I became   particularly in this topic because if anthropology is what is to be a human, there is not a better reflection of it than the processes that occur in a migration process where there was, and arguably still exist, a clear power  relation between the then “English empire” and a so called “new world”.

My first two weeks spend in St. Andrews consisted of gathering enough background information about the British involvement in Brazil, and its relationship with Portugal, the Amazon, in relation to slavery and trade. I focused  particularly on the state of  Para in northern Brazil, to understand the context surrounding the ups and and downs of the British, specially after the “Cabanagem” revolt (1835-1840).  The variety and diversity of documents was greater than I expected so I decided to focused on three 19th century chronicles – The Naturalist on the River Amazon, by Henry Walter Bates (1863), A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro, with an account of the native tribes by Alfred Wallace (1889), Journal of a passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic crossing the Andes in the Northern provinces of Peru and descending the River Amazon by Henry Maw (1829). Their personal accounts shaded light onto specific families of merchants living in Para, such as the Campbells and the Henderson (later researched at the archives), the weather conditions, features of the buildings and houses which recreated a clear image of Para in the 19th century as well as pointing to greater general topics such as the promises of wealth from an exotic and ‘savage’ place within a context of the rich and so called advanced Europeans and the natives in The Americas’. As it is a historical project books such as Our men in Brazil by, Brazil Empire and Republic 1822-1930 (1989),  The Abolition of Brazilian slave trade (1970) by Leslie Bethell and Rebellion on the Amazon: The Cabanagem, Race and Popular culture in Northern Brazil (2010) by Mark Harris, ended up building a strong bridge before moving to my next three weeks working at the archives.

The next three weeks of my projects where dedicated to research various records at the Archives of Glasgow, Edinburgh and London, which for me where the most challenging part of my Laidlaw project. Working at the archives requires patience and perseverance which I thought were quite tricky to maintain for three weeks as most of my time was spent in finding related records from the hundred available at the catalogues and then the time deciphering copies of manuscripts from 19th century individuals make the task even more difficult, to which the conditions of the documents added a little bit more. It was during these three weeks that I felt the aspect of the leadership part of the program came upfront, not only because I needed to be selective on the records I was ordering to read as time was pressing, but also because I had to learn to be flexible and adapt to external factor that constrain or change my initial timetable such as closing times, days, or, in the case of family records be conditioned to those families accepting my request to view documents, which could easily take between 2-3 weeks.

However, the gains from learning how to use an archive, and of all the tools one has to use when looking through them, such as the gloves to avoid greasy hands from damaging the documents, or the plastic bags to check that no records leave the archives or the supporters for the book’s spine, made me fell lucky to be able to continue the process of conservation of other people’s lives, experiences, love stories and diverse personal correspondence  were greater than the difficulties. It was specially rewarding when I could realise the progress that I had made, being able to read quicker, finding the information that I needed or records such as “Papers relating to the British cemetery in Para”, or 15 letters from “James Henderson to his family from Para’ or “Para Claims” among others, all of which shaded light not only about particular individuals, but also among the British community in Para and the natives and in a larger picture the relationship between the Empire and the subjects living in foreign colonies

After working at the archives for three weeks and having gathered new information, making new links between different people, their lives and experiences abroad new questions and cases have come to light which I am very excited to be developing next summer at the archives in Brazil. I am very grateful to Lord Laidlaw for this opportunity that has given me to explore and develop new leadership skills in a project that very much reflects the reason why I am studying “what is to be a human”, always with the constant support from my supervisor Mark, Harris, thank you very much!