Goals, aspirations and the future

Becoming a Laidlaw Scholar has prompted me to give greater consideration to my post- university career. Whilst the programme has provided tangible benefits- the bespoke leadership training and practice of doing real research- it has also had an immense psychological effect, encouraging me to consider the full range of options available after university.

Prior to the programme, I had given limited thought to the idea of pursuing postgraduate study and I was largely under the impression that I would enter the world of work after graduation. However, my experience has made me consider the prospect of pursuing a career in academia and has led to me being more proactive in assessing the various options available to me. I feel this is one of the reasons the programme is truly great, it doesn’t merely increase academic development but also forces participants to consider their personal development and begin to address the difficult questions surrounding the F word- future. My blog post will link the Laidlaw Scholarship to this daunting word and discuss what I want to gain from the scholarship programme over the next 18 months and where I hope it will take me further down the line.

The autonomy to pursue a research topic of interest was what was initially enamouring about the Laidlaw Scholarship. My research into democratic backsliding in Hungary has been incredibly fulfilling and I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to devote time to such an important topic. As I dug deeper into my chosen field, I began to consider the possibility of publishing an academic paper- a mammoth task no doubt but one that has been heartily encouraged by my supervisor, Dr Mateja Peter. However, to do so, we are in agreement that my research cannot be restricted to the summer but must be given attention throughout the academic year also. Here, the autonomy and freedom associated with the scholarship programme is key- my initial plan to examine the EU’s responses to democratic backsliding in Hungary over two summers has evolved into a year-round examination of the demonization of Hungarian businessman George Soros with the potential for producing published academic research at the end. My research will undoubtedly change as I go through the gears which the freedom of the programme allows for and even encourages. The future looks bright with regards to my time as a Laidlaw Scholar- I may end up producing an academic paper (something that would have seemed ridiculous for me a few months ago) but even if I don’t achieve this the leadership skills and research experience provided by the programme are an end in themselves.

In the long-term, the Laidlaw Scholarship has led to me to genuinely consider the prospect of dedicated postgraduate study. I have developed a love for the process of research- the feeling of enlightenment when solving the miniature puzzles each and every researcher poses to themselves everyday is comparable to no other. I have also developed a greater understanding of the vocational aspect to research and how it shapes public policy and also changes lives. A massive part of the Laidlaw Programme is self-reflection and I feel it is the duty of each scholar to take time to reflect on their experience so far and consider how it may shape their future (the blog aspect provides a perfect opportunity to do this). Since finishing- up my research, I have begun the process of planning for my future, meeting with a career advisor to investigate the possibility of postgraduate study in the US. I have also reached out to friends who currently study in the US for advice and have earmarked certain programmes and schools that I feel are compatible with me. One of the big lessons I have taken from my time as a scholar thus far is that the future is right now and I have subsequently been more proactive with planning ahead for my desired path post-university. This directly links in with the leadership aspect of the programme- great leaders must know who they are and where they are going. Whilst I am not fully there yet, the Laidlaw Scholarship has helped me gain a better idea of both these things.

I would like to thank the team at CAPOD for their help and support thus far. I would also like to thank Dr Mateja Peter for her patience and guidance.

Natural & artificial depth perception

I have decided to use this opportunity (my second blog post) to talk about an instrument without which my experiment would have been impossible – a stereoscope. To be honest, until 2 weeks ago its mechanism was a bit of a mystery for me but that quickly changed when I had to disassemble and assemble it again. Luckily, Abi Lee, the PhD student, who made it was around and was able to give me a hand.

Before we talk about a stereoscope, we need to understand the term ‘stereoscopic vision’. Taken literally, it means ‘solid sight’ and refers to the visual perception of the 3D structure of the world. This type of vision is possible due to monocular and binocular mechanisms, that require the use of one and two eyes, respectively. Some of the monocular cues are perspective, image overlap and shading. There are two binocular cues:

  1. Binocular disparity – the brain uses the difference in image location of an object seen by the left and right eyes to extract depth information.
  2. Convergence – the effort by the eye’s muscles to focus on a close-up object gives a clue to the brain about an object’s depth.

So far we have discussed our natural ability to see the world in 3D but it isn’t the only way we can perceive depth. Most of us will be familiar with a stereoscopic instrument that allows to us to recreate this perception. 3D glasses are, in fact, a stereoscopic instrument in which each lens has a filter of an opposite colour (usually red and cyan). These filters match the filters of two superimposed on each other images, resulting in each eye receiving a stereoscopic image. This image is then fused by the visual cortex of the brain into the perception of a 3D scene. 

First stereoscope made by Charles Wheatstone in 1838. Image source: Smithsonian Magazine.

A stereoscope also allows our brain to fuse two 2D images into one 3D image but with one important difference in comparison to 3D glasses. Instead of two superimposed on each other images, we are shown a pair of separate images, depicting left-eye and right-eye views of the same scene. In other words, a stereoscope artificially stimulates binocular disparities that are naturally present when viewing a real 3D scene with two eyes. Our natural ability to perceive depth through binocular disparity works well if the combination of eye convergence and focus required is natural. On the contrary, the images shown through a stereoscope often involve an unnatural combination. In fact, you might be able to see depth without a stereoscope with practice but this process can take a long time and cause some eye strain.

I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw for providing these exciting research and leadership opportunities for two summers (and time in between as I had to think about my second summer’s project). Also a big thank you to the Laidlaw team and my amazing supervisor Prof. Harris!

References:

Howard, I. P., & Rogers, B. J. (1995). Binocular vision and stereopsis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Papathomas, T.V., Morikawa, K., Wade, N. Bela Julesz in Depth. Vision 2019, 3, 18.

Rosas H., Vargas W., Cerón A., Domínguez D., Cárdenas A. (2007) Psychophysical Approach to the Measurement of Depth Perception in Stereo Vision. Shumaker R. (eds) Virtual Reality. ICVR 2007. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 4563.

The Art of Reflection

The world has become such a fast-paced environment that it feels like we can’t succeed if we’re not constantly moving in some sort of direction. In the craze of trying to keep up, we often lose sight of the big picture and instead of reaching our desired destination, we end up lost. What we often forget is that stopping every once in a while, is just as important. Giving ourselves a moment to pause and reflect is paramount to success in every meaning of the word. The same thinking applies when undertaking a research project. I was so excited about my Laidlaw project and had such big aspirations for what I wanted to do and it was very difficult to stay focused on the end goal because I kept getting so many ideas and went on so many tangents about my research that it got overwhelming. In fact, I’ve had to redefine my research project on a couple of occasions because it just got too much for me to take on for the purposes of the scholarship. What has allowed me to stay relatively on task, however, is the simple task of reflection.

 

Image Source: http://tozalionline.com/self-reflection/

 

As a student studying medicine, we are expected to write a reflection after almost every major activity that we do and, although it does become tedious at times, it has really helped me to track my progress. I decided to do something similar with my research. I am not a big fan of writing and so I try and find other ways of reflecting on my work, namely by talking. My supervisor, Dr. Frank Sullivan, has done a brilliant job of guiding me on my very first project and he has made the process so much easier for me. The chats I have with him on a weekly basis force me to consolidate all my work and see my progress from the last meeting. In our chats, we are obviously discussing the finer details of my project, but we also talk about my overall project goal. We often come back to talking about why I am doing my project. I truly feel that reflecting on your reasoning behind a major project is vital for the proper development of it. It’s crucial that you remember what your end goal is, what the big picture is, because if you don’t know why you are doing something, then you may as well not do it at all. Dr. Sullivan keeps my passion for the research alive and in check so as to make sure I don’t bite off more than I can chew. Apart from him, I also discuss with my family and close friends about my project and they offer a different perspective onto it all that really affects me and allows me to keep that passion going. There are days where I am frustrated with everything and just want to stop it all, and that’s where these close friends and family come in to help me relax and rejuvenate my fervour for my work. Talking to them reminds me of my excitement for the research and sparks my curiosity once again, allowing me to dive right back in with the same energy. By forcing myself to stop every once in a while, I allow myself the opportunity to go further than I normally would have.

 

I would like to thank my supervisors Dr. Frank Sullivan and Dr. Ross Upshur for their guidance on my project, as well as Dr. Derek Sloan for his ever so helpful insights. I would also like to thank my family and friends for their support along the way. Last but not least, I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw for giving the opportunity to students like me to follow their passions.

Breeding Squirts (Ciona intestinalis)

Image

The atmosphere in a research lab is completely different to the day-to-day activities of being a student.

In a university there is a clear hierarchy and lines of authority. There are clearly defined boundaries of roles and responsibilities. As students we are under the guidance and leadership of our lecturers and whilst this is a fantastic way to learn and to pass on knowledge there is a limited opportunity of sustained intellectual interaction and discussions.

In contrast, the atmosphere and working interactions in a research lab is very unique, offering a more equal and a liberal feel.

” Building relationships in the lab “

In the lab everyone is working towards the same overall goal, this creates a collaborative network of people pitching in ideas to the benefit of everyone’s research. The five of us in the research lab all attend each other’s lab meetings and whilst these may not be discussing your project (at the time), it creates an environment of positivity and support.
Throughout the summer I have attended lab meetings to discuss my research, other’s research and have been able to participate in giving feedback on upcoming talks or presentations.

I was asked to chair a lab meeting to discuss my own research. Initially I was very nervous as they know a lot more about my topic than I do, however everyone was chipping in and saying that they could help me with this part or that, or help me with the structure of the talk, what needs to be covered, etc. The encouragement that I received made me feel a lot more comfortable and confident with the idea of presenting research to a panel of professionals.

What is really exciting is that even as a summer intern I am performing experiments at the level that the post-doctoral and PhD researcher is doing, and my contribution is equal to theirs (it just happens for a shorter length of time).
Yes, this all sounds very love and light and wishy-washy, but good research these days tend to involve collaboration. There are few cases of lone geniuses working long hours in the lab and creating a new theory and turning scientific dogma upside-down. The idea of a lone genius is mythological and highly unlikely within the sciences. Those that claim to be a lone genius tend to ignore the contributions of lab technicians, research assistants and others that made their findings possible. Nobel prizes are shared between different research labs that worked on the same topic in different areas of the globe (for example the large hadron collider at CERN). And whilst collaboration may not always be needed for scientific advancement, it is a great advantage to have the synergy of a network of people to contribute and participate in joined up thinking and thus capitalise on the diversity of experience and intellect.

During my summer project in the research lab I have developed my ability to work with the different personalities in an environment of professionals and full-time researchers. This opportunity has provided me an invaluable insight and awareness of the working relationships that I will be developing after completing my studies.

I would like to thank Dr Ferrier for being an excellent, supportive and encouraging supervisor during this research project; Dr Sogabe for managing my constant questions as well as the support in the lab; the Laidlaw Scholars team and of course Lord Laidlaw.

In Dependence, not Independence

Both research and leadership concentrations of the Laidlaw program heavily promote self-direction, entrepreneurship, and self-reliance. In short, Laidlaw is an exercise in independence. That said, reflecting on my summer’s experience, I appreciate that while research and leadership are inherently self-driven activities, they are not activities that must be completed by one’s self. For all the focus on independence, Laidlaw showed me the dependence present (and needed) in research and leadership.  

Five weeks in the St. Andrean summer, spending eight hours a day reading ancient epics and historiographies alone in coffee shops led me to rethink my self-identification as an introvert. To overcome the challenges accompanying the loneliness of independence, I depended on forging relationships with my fellow Laidlaw scholars. 

St. Andrews out of term time is a hotbed for golfers, seagulls, and academics immersing themselves in work. Initially, other Laidlaw scholars appeared to be loving the solitude research permitted. I feared I alone struggled with being constantly alone. However, as I formed friendships and met regularly with the others in the cohort, I realized that few of us had escaped the occasional disillusionment with independent research. I am grateful for the time spent with my cohort – especially the Friday afternoons we met to eat cake and check in on each other. Towards the end of the five weeks we met for more social activities outside of Laidlaw as well. However, I believe that every scholar could have benefitted still from more cohort cohesion. The action learning sets were a break from solitude, as were leadership lunches. That said, more institutional aid in gathering the cohort is needed. Many scholars — high achieving bunch that we are — felt guilty to take time in the research day to spend time with each other. This is unfortunate because as I learned, we depend on each other to understand the triumphs and challenges of independent research. 

(Fellow scholars, Lottie Doherty and Geraint Morgan, one Cake Friday)

I could not reflect on the work I produced this summer without acknowledging my dependence on my supervisors, Dr. Alice König and Dr. Nicolas Wiater, and the gratitude I owe them. Applying under a predetermined Laidlaw project title, I joined Dr. König and Dr. Wiater’s established research project: ‘Visualising War.’ As an International Relations (IR) student, I was drawn to their project’s analysis of war – particularly, its exploration of the interplay between the differences and similarities in the depictions and discourse surrounding war. The problem was, their research was in a department completely foreign to me. Dr. König and Dr. Wiater are Classics professors. 

The interdisciplinary nature of my research resulted in a relationship of mutual dependence between my supervisors and I. Dr. König and Dr. Wiater relied on my unique background in IR to deliver fresh insight and research directions to their project. In a way, their clear dependence on me for this task promoted my own independence. Treated as an expert, I was allowed free rein to explore issues I found important and offer suggestions for their project to include more IR theory. 

Meanwhile, I depended on their expertise to guide me through unfamiliar Classics territory. Dr. König and Dr. Wiater brought me up to date on their past research to promote synthesis between my interests in IR with Visualising War. As my research evolved, I relied on my supervisors to introduce me to relevant materials, authors, and histories of the ancient Mediterranean. We met weekly in an excited dialogue of offering new ideas and resources to one another. My research stimulated theirs just as their stimulated mine. This summer has revealed how research is cooperative. 

Finally, I would like to reflect on how my research and leadership development depended on the Laidlaw scholarship. I was heavily considering entering academia after university. But with my many commitments during term time, I found it difficult to research either independently or as an undergraduate assistant; I had never had the opportunity to see if research was an avenue worth continuing. With Lord Laidlaw’s scholarship and the faculty members I met at St. Andrews, I was gifted the time and money to test my capacity for research and leadership. I also depended on the leadership lessons from the CAPOD team at St. Andrews. And as I reflect now on my summer experience, I find I am more intrigued by the leadership and management aspect of Laidlaw than the research. I am grateful for such an opportunity to be exposed to both fronts.

 I could have written this about my experiences with independence this summer. About how through research I learned how to plan and subsequently change plans. About how to honour my own intellect and prioritise information. How I cooked for myself for the first time. But I think I saw all of those coming. What I was most surprised about was the delicate balance between dependence and independence in research that I experienced through Laidlaw.

The Student of Laidlaw Past, Present and Yet to Come

As I near the end of my second year as a Laidlaw scholar, it seems like a good time to reflect upon how the program has helped me develop over the past year. This blog post is directed to anyone thinking of applying but unsure if they are ‘good enough’ or in their first year of Laidlaw and struggling with either the research or leadership component – hopefully there’s something to relate to in here! 

 

Past 

There’s a lot of great things to attract students to the Laidlaw program; the opportunity for independent research, a network of like minded ambitious students, generous funding and a whole team of people supporting your leadership development. Once you’re ‘in’ however, it can be pretty daunting – at least that’s how I felt arriving at our first leadership weekend. As I looked around me I got this panicked feeling, later identified as ‘Imposter Syndrome’. I didn’t belong here with all these other students who were so intelligent, put together and sure of themselves. I got through the weekend having a lot of fun but feeling like I was a bit of a fraud. Maybe leadership wasn’t my thing but at least there was the research component – that’s where I would come into my element, it would be a breeze. Except it wasn’t. Summer research was an introduction into a completely different way of working compared to coursework and exams. Organising logistics, applying for funding, working closely with academics who are experts in their field and throughout it all encountering setbacks and hurdles. If I was feeling like a failure in both the leadership and research elements what was I doing here as a Laidlaw scholar?

 

Present 

This summer, things have felt different. Along with my Laidlaw research, I carried out five weeks of dissertation fieldwork and spent two weeks working as a research assistant. And it’s not that I haven’t encountered any problems this time, I have (including unsuccessful visa applications, rejected funding, denied access to data, and a few unwanted encounters with snakes!), it’s that the experiences over last summer prepared me to deal with setbacks in a different way. Action learning sets in which other students shared relatable problems and insecurities helped me feel less isolated. Guest speakers who talked about just how scary leadership and responsibility can be, helped normalise fear of failure. 

The Laidlaw program is no longer this big scary thing, but instead an exciting opportunity and support system. So if anything I have talked about so far is relatable to you, then here are some major points that continue to help me; 

  • Whenever something goes wrong (and it happens to everyone!) don’t be too hard on yourself or spend too long feeling sorry for yourself either, instead focus on finding a solution – and ASK for help.
  • Communication is so important, and while it can be intimidating to email your supervisor or to collaborate with academics from other institutions it’s good practice to get comfortable doing this now – most people are friendlier than you might expect.
  • Taking on responsibility is scary and if you screw up it can feel embarrassing, but it’s much worse to let opportunities pass you by and never try at all.

“Undertaking dissertation fieldwork in Namibia with fellow MGeol students”

Future

While the Laidlaw program hasn’t transformed me into a polished, excellent leader or researcher, I do feel I have developed a mindset and confidence that push me to keep taking on opportunities, better myself, try to become more self aware. In hindsight this is all I could really ask for when I first applied for the Laidlaw scholarship and the experiences I have gained will continue to influence my actions and behaviors as I finish my final year of university and begin thinking about my next steps.

 

Acknowledgment

I would like to thank everyone on the Laidlaw team, in CAPOD, my supervisor Dr Tim Raub and all fellow Laidlaw scholars whose support and encouragement have been invaluable. I would also like to thank Lord Laidlaw for providing such a great opportunity.

“Data of the most important kind”

I’ve had nearly a month now to reflect on my first five weeks of research and appreciate the winding dusky forest path that academic research takes. I am undertaking a History of Science project with a background in Pure Mathematics and no past experience in academic History at all. My research into the increasing development and use of experimental curve plotting in the mid 1800s has therefore been entirely new land for me to explore. As well as an excellent opportunity to try a new discipline and practise different academic skills.

Curve plotting is a way of visually representing collected data by plotting points on an axis and then putting a ‘line of best fit’ through those points to show the trend they follow. In science this is now an indispensable way of analysing and presenting results of experiments. It shows clear relationships between different variables which could not be seen from raw data and, as I shall discuss later, allows for the easy physical interpretation of numbers. However, before the mid 19th century it was a rare, eccentric, esoteric method with very few practitioners. My first week of research was spent burying deep into the secondary literature (not simply to learn about my area of history but also to understand the aims, methods and style of academic History papers). Much of this was focused on the use of curve plotting, but I also studied writing on the history of changes in representation culture, the state of science education in the UK at that time and, of course, biographies of the scientists whose work I was interested in. All these topics were recommended to me by my supervisor and it quickly became clear how specialist this discipline really is, and how novice I really was. From my reading, I learned that by the 18th century the mathematical tools for graphs were well understood but they were still rare and unfashionable; with the exception of J.H.Lambert (who produced many a sophisticated graph) and a follower of his. Despite Lambert’s successful use of graphs the method did not catch on and disappeared after his death. By the 1830s, graphs were starting to appear again in the work of British scientists. There are many reasons posited for the explosion of use of graphs for analysis in science at this time which need investigating. Some of these are the availability of graph paper, the use of automatic recording instruments and a change in visual culture in science (and society as a whole). Automatic recording instruments (machines which note experimental results without a person present) are particularly interesting because, due to their nature, they often output a curve of sorts. However, the scientists would usually then look at the curves and pick particular data points to read off and make a table from them – such was the culture!

My own research for my first summer focussed on J.D.Forbes and his part in the progress of curve plotting. He was Professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University for most of his career and one of the most important scientists in Scotland at the time. His papers are in the St Andrews archives and so he is the focus of much History of Science research here. In my second week of the project I started looking at the vast Forbes collection. I discovered that there is much diversity in the kinds of documents we have to study an academic like Forbes. He wrote travel and research journals, scientific papers, articles, lecture notes, and thousands upon thousands of letters. Knowing how to find what you’re looking for is not an innate skill and must be learned by extensive experience. I looked at thousands of pages of letters without being able to read them particularly well (handwriting is another difficulty with History of Science research and complaining about it is the primary way to break the ice when meeting fellow academics) and found very little at all of use. I also studied the syllabuses he wrote and many of his journals, only finding hints of what I was looking for. These are significant findings of course. The fact that he didn’t spontaneously draw curves during field work or have curves as a topic of his teachings shows that they weren’t as essential in experimentation as they are nowadays. As good as a discovery of absence is, it was disappointing and demoralising for me at the time. It wasn’t until my 4th week of the project that I started looking in the right part of the collection for my findings. From my discoveries here I’m going to relate some of the ones I found from his  work on Meteorology, since I found them particularly exciting. Indeed, in what I believe are a set of lecture notes, Forbes writes, ‘The graphical mode of representing facts early applied to meteorology.’ This sentence is somewhat ambiguous because, although it likely means that graphical representation was used early in the development of meteorology, it could potentially be a way of saying that one of the first uses of the graphical mode of representing facts was in meteorology. Forbes’ papers on meteorology make use of and discuss many different curves. For example: he suggests a method for calibrating a thermometer using an ‘interpolating curve’ through data of the difference between the new thermometer and one known to be correct against the temperature shown. He looks at two curves of temperatures in different places and states that they are similar except for in three ways and goes on to analyse these differences and their physical implications. He explains how you can change the temperature scale you are looking at by moving a curve up and down on its axis (and he explained this as if it would be novel to his readers – showing how unfamiliar the scientific community was with experimental graphs). Forbes sums up why he has started using experimental curves in a rather beautiful quote: “The examination of these curves furnishes us with some data of the most important kind for Meteorology which it is best in the first place to state, and afterwards to consider how we can explain.” His stating so carefully that such curves are to be used to analyse results from an experiment to find trends and peculiarities that need to be explained clearly shows that curves were novel to his audience. He is also giving the method his highest possible praise, which would have made a strong impression on his audience in view of his important position in Scottish science and the large number of correspondences he had with the most prominent leaders of the scientific community in his day. 

These findings are compelling evidence that Forbes was part of the culture change that lead to curve plotting’s central position in our scientific handbook. Next summer I would like to study this shift further by investigating lecture notes and student notebooks from the mid 19th century from other Scottish universities as well as the work being done during this time by other scientists who have been identified as being early adopters of graphs. The educational sources are particularly interesting to me because when a method is being taught generally it must have a wide acceptance in the academic community. Therefore it would be an excellent indicator of when the use of graph became normalised. I will also be studying the secondary literature more broadly to gain enough knowledge of this time and the practices of academics in this field, with a view of writing a publishable article on my findings.

I would like to give many thanks to my supervisor, Isobel Falconer, for her amazing insight and help during these first 5 weeks of my project and I look forward to next summer.

[1] Tilling, L. (1975). Early Experimental Graphs. The British Journal for the History of Science, 8(3), 193–213. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007087400014229

[2] Hankins, T. L. (2006). A “Large and Graceful Sinuosity”: John Herschel’s Graphical Method. Isis, 97(4), 605–633. https://doi.org/10.1086/509946

[3] Forbes, James David (1809–1868), physicist and geologist | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (n.d.). https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/9832

[4] Phases of physics in J. D. Forbes’ Dissertation Sixth for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1856) – Isobel Falconer, 2018. (n.d.). Retrieved June 18, 2019, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0073275318811443

[5] St Andrews Archives: Special collections. Books with class marks : MS Q113.F88, MS Q113.F82, MS Q113.F85, MS Q113.F89.

Earth and Mars; sisters or distant relatives?

The second summer of my Laidlaw research took me to South Africa, where a small piece of the Earth’s crust provides a window into what Earth was like 3.5 billion years ago. During that time there was no oxygen in the atmosphere, the sun’s UV rays were incredibly dangerous, and the ocean was quite acidic. Yet, even though this environment appears almost inhospitable, the coastlines and floodplains were teeming with life. Small microbes produced a sticky slime like substance, which formed microbial mats all over the ancient surface. With no animals to eat them, they were incredibly prolific and dominated the environment.

“These green wrinkles are the fossilized remains of the microbial mats that once covered the shorelines many billions of years ago.”

Cut to Mars between 3.5 and 4 billion years ago, during its Noachian age (“age of Noah”). During this time, the common thought is that Mars had large amounts of water on its surface, rivers flowing and scarring the surface forming large canyons, and long coastlines around a sea in its northern hemisphere. There was also no significant amount of oxygen in its atmosphere, and surface conditions on Mars were probably comparable to the Earth at the time. If the conditions were so similar, could life also have dominated its coastlines and floodplains?

This is the great question we still do not have an answer to. My project was aimed at imaging the fossil traces of the microbes that lived at this time through a camera identical to what the European Space Agency is sending up to Mars next year. The Close-Up Imager (or CLUPI) does exactly what its name describes. CLUPI can take pictures of rocks near it and will send back a high-resolution image of what it sees. I wanted to know what information we could gather through the CLUPI camera, and provide scientists with a catalogue of what microbial mats look like through CLUPI for the thousands of pictures they will receive once the rover is in action.

“This picture was taken with CLUPI, notice how you can see the green wrinkles split and rejoin and drape over bigger pebbles.”

Who knows what images we will receive in the next few years? Maybe this time we will find the evidence that we were not alone, and make us question just how common life in the universe really is!

Rocking All Over the World – Ancient life in South Africa

“If there is a job to be done in Africa, someone is employed to do it.” This was reiterated by my Laidlaw colleague Lot Koopmans, as we continued our journey through the Mpumalanga province of South Africa. At every fuel stop, a smiling young local in uniform would be there to greet us, fill up our car, and bring us a card reader in return for a couple of rands. In every supermarket car park, another would, without request, aid in our reversing in return for a few rands more. Unemployment in this African nation currently stands at 29%, so there is no wonder that the government is keen to create jobs. This was one of the many quirks about South Africa that I had to get used to. For someone as independent and forward planning as I, this nation provided me with a steep learning curve.

Lot and I are currently sitting in O. R. Tambo international airport on the outskirts of Johannesburg, initiating our 18-hour journey back to the U.K. We have been in South Africa to undertake fieldwork for our respective Laidlaw projects, giving us both the opportunity to lead each other, and be there in a supporting role. My project was focused on understanding how the geological record could preserve evidence of ancient ocean chemistry, and how this, in turn, may have impacted the evolution of complex life. This is done through the search for a curious mineral by the name of greenalite, which is hypothesised to have drawn zinc out of the Earth’s primordial oceans, influencing and perhaps even hindering the development of eukaryotic organisms.  I came to South Africa because here the rocks are unusually ancient, up to three and a half thousand million years old.

For the past few months, I have been coordinating with Dr Rosalie Tostevin, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town whom I approached for her expertise in the greenalite field. We arranged to meet up for several days in the Council for Geoscience’s national rock core library on the outskirts of Pretoria. This was a large green warehouse housing hundreds of kilometres worth of rock cores stacked on shelves two storeys high in dusty metal boxes. We planned to examine two cores which intersected rocks deposited during the time of the Great Oxidation Event 2.4 billion years ago and collect samples for analysis back in St Andrews. This was all written, along with the logistics of our visit, in numerous emails to the staff at the Council for Geoscience weeks in advance. Therefore we were a little surprised to find that upon arrival, the very cheerful security guard standing behind the razor wire and 10,000-volt electric fence adorning the front gate had no idea who we were, and given the semi-automatic MP5 assault rifle he brandished, we were not inclined to argue.

This was the first incident in a long and at times quite painful saga that narrates our time at the core shed. Our carefully laid plans constructed over the past month were tossed out the window, into a shredder coupled to a matter vaporiser. A little disheartened, we decided to visit a nearby nature reserve to look at giraffes and make some phone calls. We called the head of security, who told us to go away. We called the Council for Geoscience head office, who said they had never heard of their own National Core Library facility. We eventually got through to the manager of the shed who told us that he was on holiday and so had neglected to inform his colleagues at the shed of our proposed visit. However, since he was now about to do so, we hurried back and after a bit of negotiating with the nice man with the gun at the gate, we eventually got through and into the shed.

Anyone reminded of the last scene in Raiders?

This is roughly 1600m of rock core ranging from 300 million to 2.5 billion years old

The core was laid out box by box by two men employed solely to do that job, whilst another employee drove the forklift. At this point, we all got very excited and starting prospecting through the boxes looking for the specific formations and rock types that may contain the greenalite. Beside each interesting specimen, we placed a small plastic sample bag and printed on an identification number in black ink.

We were just about ready to start taking our samples when the man whose sole job was to operated the rock cutting saw though it was useful to inform us that his rock cutting saw would not be doing any rock cutting today as it was currently without a rock cutting blade. This was very much sub-ideal.

And so a catalogue of phone calls was made to different people. The head of security told us to go away again. The geoscience office still had not heard of their own core shed, and the core shed manager was enjoying his holiday too much to pick up. We eventually got through to the maintenance man, who informed us that he would employ someone to walk half an hour to the rock cutting blade shop, get a quote for the rock cutting blade. He would then employ someone else to walk to the bank and get a check to pay for the rock cutting blade. A third person would then go to the rock cutting blade shop once more the by the rock cutting blade. The maintenance man would then walk to the core shed and fit the rock cutting blade to the rock cutting saw. This he warned, may take some time.

The next day we were at the shed for opening time at 8:30. At 8:55 on the dot, the security guard arrived to open the gate and let us it. At precisely 9:14 the five employees rocked up in a battered “buckie” pick-up and informed us that the rock cutting blade was still not in the rock cutting saw. What unfolded proved to be another frustrating day of waiting. However, by the end of the day, we had been informed that the rock cutting blade was in the office and would be installed into the rock cutting saw tomorrow.

8:30 on the dot the next morning and we were at the razor-wired gate once more. At precisely 9:17 we were informed by the nice man with the gun that the rock cutting blade had been installed in the rock cutting saw but since it was Saturday no one was in to operate it. We would have to return on Monday.

I tried to cut a long story short here, as it turns out unsuccessfully. However by the end of Monday, after getting up at 4:30 am to drive to the core shed from where we had been staying near eSwatini for the weekend, we had our samples cut and were ready to depart. We then were informed by another employee whom we had not yet encountered that we were only allowed half the samples we had taken. And thus ensued a frantic hour of prioritising and carefully selecting the samples that would be most useful to us.

To summarise. I learned a lot about how things are done in Africa during my brief visit. I started by stating that if there is a job to do, someone is employed to do it. This may sound great in principle, but in practice, it means that more hurdles are created to accomplish any task. If three people do the job of one, then communication needs to be efficient between them to achieve any progress. When this inevitably breaks down, it results in a lot of people not doing anything, and each passing off responsibility as to how to resolve a situation, meaning that it was up to ourselves to take the initiative and find a solution.

However, that is not to say that we can’t learn a thing or two from the people of South Africa. Many have nothing. Yet when you travel around you are confronted by smiling people who are often content with life. In the developed world, we have a never-ending drive to amass more commodities, acquire more influence and achieve more success without stopping and contemplating what we already have. A happy medium is needed between these two end-members; having the drive to further society, and the contentedness to be happy with what you have.

I mentioned I was a forward planner, and this proved to be the biggest challenge in South Africa. I quickly realised that there was no point in planning ahead too much because it would just be too disheartening when the plan inevitably had to change. If you were blinded by previous arrangement, you missed key opportunities to achieve more than you originally set out to do. Instead, I found it best to set short term goal, be flexible, and take any opportunities that came my way.

A visit to the field to sample as well, between core shed visits.

If someone asked me to summarise my Laidlaw Scholarship fieldwork in South Africa, I would have said indescribable. However, I hope you appreciate that I have given it my best shot.

 

Reflections on Fieldwork in Catalonia

Girona town square offers a flavour of the atmosphere within the pro-independence camp in Catalonia – defiance and protest. Sun-faded images of Catalan politicians who are imprisoned or on trial adorned apartment balconies and placards reading ‘Llibertat Presos Politicos’ (liberate the political prisoners) were everywhere. The small square in front of the city hall was awash with Catalan flags, protest placards and yellow ribbons, tied to every balcony, printed on every bollard and graffitied onto the sides of buildings. The town hall itself had a huge sign which read, in English, ‘Self-determination is a right, not a crime’. This is indeed how many pro-independence Catalans feel about their sorry political situation – they believe they have not been allowed to decide their own futures.

Spanish flag, attacked (Barcelona)

After landing in Barcelona, I hopped on the metro and immediately noticed a key difference to a trip last summer to Spain – Spanish was not the primary language. All of the warning signs, directions and public information came first in Catalan, second in Spanish and lastly in English. Of course, English is spoken as the global language of commerce, diplomacy and tourism, and Spanish is the official language of twenty countries across the world; but Catalan belongs to the Catalan people. A pro-independence activist and supporter of the revolutionary-socialist CUP party remarked to me that ‘our language, it is a weapon’. The sense of ownership in suggesting a language to be ‘ours’ is striking and is central to the concept of Catalan-ness. Even more striking is the way this language is often framed by Catalans – it is a symbol of their historic resistance to General Franco, the Spanish dictator from 1939 until 1975. It helps to bind Catalans together as a nation and plays a huge role in their modern-day politics.

Official symbols such as street signs are defaced (Barcelona)

My research trip to Catalonia took place over the first two weeks of June this summer and involved making stops in the four major Catalan cities and every province. Starting off in a less-touristic neighbourhood in Barcelona, I travelled north to the heavily pro-independence province of Girona. Next, I visited the more industrial region of Lleida in the west and a city less in favour of independence in the south called Tarragona, before returning to Barcelona. I spoke with pro-independence activists and local politicians, some neutral local people who tended to support the right to a referendum but were unsure which way they might vote, and journalists who have covered the Catalan political rollercoaster over the last few years.

Yellow ribbons, Catalan flags and images of jailed leaders (Girona)

My visit to Catalonia has completely changed my conception their political situation. From a neutral researcher’s point of view, it is a beautifully complicated situation which mixes history, identity, emotion, economics, infrastructure, language and political science. Many Catalans believe the situation to be very simple – it is Catalonia’s destiny to be an independent country. A significant proportion of the population are ‘reluctant remainers’ who see the impracticalities of independence but seem like they could be convinced. A smaller, but still important, group are fundamentally opposed to breaking away from Spain and see the separatist movement as a political manoeuvre by Catalan political parties. The complexifying factor is that within each of these three groups are a multiplicity of factions, viewpoints and priorities.

My research will attempt to draw together these varying discourses, using a poststructuralist approach, to help better explain, understand and resolve the deadlock and polarisation in Catalan political discourse. This will not be particularly easy for a variety of reasons, but my research trip to Catalonia has challenged my preconceptions of independence movements, activists and the importance of finding answers to the questions posed by separatism. Whether that answer is ‘independence’ will vary from situation to situation. My experience in Catalonia was invaluable and I hope to produce interesting and useful research as a result.

I would like to thank my supervisor, Dr Jeffrey Murer, for his support and advice throughout my project so far and the Laidlaw Scholarship team in St Andrews for this fantastic opportunity.