Research is a squiggly line.

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Over the course of my internship, I’ve learnt that research requires a lot of thinking-on-your-feet, flexibility and patience! One of my supervisors, Dr Maggie Ellis, aptly describes the research process as a squiggly line – an unpredictable series of setbacks and breakthroughs.

I was faced with a rather significant, unexpected setback at the very beginning of my internship. My application for ethical approval was denied and couldn’t be reviewed until the end of July. It was approved on review, but this meant I cannot complete the study within the time scope of the internship. However, we are making a good start on it – contacting care homes and organising testing sessions with potential participants. I am very passionate about this study as its findings could help to improve quality of life for people with advanced dementia. As a result, I will continue working on this study during term time, and am looking forward to seeing what we find!

As they say, every cloud has a silver lining, and this setback meant that we had time to design and run a study that could strengthen the theoretical foundations of our original study. I am really glad to have been involved in both studies as they’ve each offered very different experiences . The current study aims to investigate the effects of social interaction, prior to a stressful event, on salivary cortisol and oxytocin levels in healthy adults over the age of 65. The recruitment process was very hands-on – we even joined in a line-dancing class to try to attract participants!

We have now finished testing for the current study and are in the lab measuring cortisol and oxytocin levels in the saliva samples we collected. The kits we’re using to measure the hormones have a step-by-step protocol to follow – which I love as it’s just like following a recipe for a (rather complicated) cake! During my internship, I’ve also been going to a fortnightly journal club – which is where PhD students meet and critique a recent paper in their field. This has given me an insight into what it’s like to be a PhD student and has made me a much more critical reader of published papers.

I’m so grateful to the Laidlaw scheme – I can’t think of a better introduction to the world of research.

Ostriches in America

The only way one can know the world is through discourse, or the use of language. Objects do not exist as unit prior to language rather, language creates the objects it represents as it speaks about them. For example, Danger or Threat is not an objective condition that exists independently of the subject, it is an effect of interpretation. Everything is interpretation and representation and there is no such thing as an objective knowledge. How we represent objects such as threat is a result of complex relationships of power such as norms, institutions and economic processes. Therefore, knowledge (or the ability to create a consensus about the way to represent thins) is power.

How does this relates to international relations and our understanding of war ? If objects do not precede dicourse then what we view as threats to our security or the enemies of our nation, are not facts. Facts do not speak for themselves so rather they must be considered as a representations. Therefore, if we are to understand the causes of war we need to look at how the enemy and the threat are represented or created to legitimate military intervention.

Hence, my project looked at the representation of threat and the enemy in presidential speeches and visualmedia (mainly political cartoons) in the lead up to the Second World War and the War on terror. I attempted to draw parallels in the way war was legitimated through discourse at two different epochs.

What does this have to do with Ostriches ? One of the interesting findings of my research project was the way Franklin D. Roosevelt dealt with isolationsim at home in order to lead the US into the Second World War. In fact, isolationist did not see war in Europe as a threat to American interest. Therefore, FDR who wanted to help Great Britain and he delegitimized isolationists by portraying them as ostriches burying their heads into the sand, lacking the common sense to identify the growing threat in Europe. This was, I thought, a good illustration of the fact that threat does not exist objectively and independently of the people who interpret it, and of the ways resistance to official discourse was delegitimized.

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We always were suckers for ridiculous hats…, April 29, 1941, Dr. Seuss Political Cartoons. Special Collection & Archives, UC San Diego Library

Overall, I have really enjoyed doing this research project, despite the ups and downs and the moments of self-doubt. I was surprised at the amount of similarities I found in the way enemies and threats were represented in presidential addresses at two different epochs. I was also amazed about the extent to which political cartoons did reproduce the official discourse. I am looking forward to the poster presentation to hear more about all the other projects and give you a broader insight on my findings!

To See a World in a Grain of Sand

The physical laws governing the smallest scales of existence are vastly different from those we experience in real life. In peering into the microscopic world we truly are examining another philosophical universe. The internship I have undertaken has been provided by the university’s cold atoms research group. Here we employ Bose-Einstein condensates to illuminate and elucidate the mysteries of the counter-intuitive quantum world.

Through use of a vast repertoire of cooling techniques we are able to guide a sample of rubidium atoms over the boundary between the classical and quantum mechanical regimes. Here the laws of exclusion that give rise to our understanding of matter cease and they condense to form a single, shared wave function. We might imagine a bag of marbles which at room temperature are a collection of unique and quite distinct objects. However, if we remove almost all of their heat, they lose the strength of their separation and fall into the marble at the bottom of the bag. We are now left with a seemingly solitary marble, with all others nestled within. This is one manifestation of the strange quantum universe, and we use this matter, named a Bose-Einstein condensate, to further investigate the microcosmos.

Our cooling apparatus is still under construction so our ultracold atoms are, unfortunately, still at room temperature. As such, my work is to lay the theoretical groundwork for some experimentation to be performed once the system has been completed. The work I have been guided towards relies fundamentally on the ability of laser light to exert a force on a condensate.

If one allowed water to flow down a mountainside, its winding path would be defined by the shape of the land. Here gravity provides the force and the relief the direction. Thus if we could reshape the mountain as we saw fit, we would have complete control over the path of the water. This is analogous to our condensates illuminated in the light of a laser. Here their motions are not generated by the slope of their planet, but rather the gradients in laser intensity. Thus if we have the ability to sculpt the laser into any shape we see fit, we can create any playground we wish for the condensates.

The difficulty, of course, comes in exactly how one gains this level of control over the laser. In our group we use a spatial light modulator to alter the phasing in the strands of the beam, before allowing them to interact and interfere into the desired shape. However, the methods we use to program the spatial light modulator allow us only to have perfect control in a single two dimensional slice. To have the ideal situation of the mountainside, we require methods to extend this control. Thus problems of optimization, uniqueness and the low computational power of desktop computers have become an integral part of my life.

In addition to my work in St Andrews, I was given the wonderful opportunity of attending an “Introductory Course in Ultracold Quantum Gases” at the University of Innsbruck. The experience of summertime in the beauty of the Tyrolean Alps was an unexpected bonus of my Laidlaw internship. I became fully immersed in the scientific field while falling in love with the peace and civility of the town. We experienced high temperatures of 39 degrees Celsius while ironically being based in the department that could house one of the coldest objects in the universe. It was with a heavy heart that I flew out of Innsbruck, through the Alpine valleys and onward to Scotland.

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What you never knew about Scottish churches…

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Medieval section on the east end of Leuchars parish church.

Medieval section on the east end of Leuchars parish church.

Most people have a good understanding of what happened during the Reformation.  The town of St Andrews itself is saturated with stories from this rather turbulent time in history.  While the theological and social developments of this period have been well studied, however, not much attention has been given to the physical churches themselves.  The aim of my research, therefore, is to analyze the impact of the Reformation on churches within the dioceses of St Andrews and Brechin and compare the results with adjacent dioceses. By doing so, I hope to obtain a better understanding of how much medieval masonry survived the post-Reformation period, as well as the various methods used to adapt these buildings to Reformed worship.

What exactly am I looking for?  Let’s back up.  Following the Reformation, church services tended to concentrate on scripture and the pulpit (much more so than the Catholic mass, which revolves around the altar).  This adjustment gradually resulted in a desire for better acoustics and more comfortable interior spaces in post-Reformation churches.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, parishes began to modify the long, rectangular medieval buildings in ways that would enable the congregation to better see, hear and ultimately participate in the service.  Some churches were truncated to improve sound quality; others were augmented by lateral side aisles and galleries to provide more seating.  The list of possible alterations is endless.

As a result of such modifications, many of the medieval churches lost significant portions of their original masonry.  Central to my project, therefore, is the classification of each building according to the degree of its surviving medieval fabric, and looking for any potential correlation between the type of modification and the extent to which the medieval masonry was retained.  Additionally, I hope to identify any patterns in the external features such as geographic location and parish wealth – factors which may have affected the speed and scope of these innovations.

Based on the surviving evidence from other dioceses there is a strong possibility that more medieval fabric survives than meets the eye.  Indeed, my results are indicating that the foundations and original proportions of the medieval church played a considerable role in the reconstruction process.  Additionally, medieval stonework and liturgical features have been identified in many of the post-Reformation churches in the study area.

In terms of current status, I’ve just finished the first phase of analysis (i.e. classifying the churches) and am now ready to begin the fun part!  This involves sitting down with a cup of coffee and transforming the data into various graphs and visual illustrations to help me identify potential links between the aforementioned points.  The final stage will be to compare my results with information from adjacent dioceses in what could  develop into a nation-wide survey.

The most challenging aspect I’ve encountered thus far has been what I call ‘data crunching’.  This is the familiar yet grueling task of sifting through heaps of information (in my case, architectural reports, measurements and floor plans), extracting the relevant bits and pieces, and plugging them into the research framework to look for patterns and anomalies.  Patience, I have found, is not my forte, and it’s been difficult at times to concentrate on what can appear to be a nebulous task.  The throngs of enthusiastic golf fans during The Open didn’t help…

Fortunately, I’ve found that the most effective way to avoid this mental rut is to engage the brain in new ways and make the data relatable.  For me, the best opportunity to fully comprehend and appreciate the past is when the evidence is tangible and can be experienced directly.  One of the great things about my project is that it’s relatively local.  Many of the churches are within a day’s journey from St Andrews and I’ve had various opportunities to visit some of the major sites (see image).  Experiencing the churches – walking through them and seeing firsthand how the architecture has changed over the centuries – has provided me with a personal connection to these structures and a visual resource which I can apply to the more tedious aspects of the research process.

I’m looking forward to what the next few weeks will bring and wish you all the best of luck with your projects!

Sounding Off

Howdy Laidlaw peeps, here are my reflective ramblings:

Film is a uniquely sensory experience in that it can make us feel things physically, as well as emotionally. Consider: have you ever flinched when watching a character get shot in the knee cap, or gripped the armrest tightly as a vehicle collision is about to happen onscreen? You can almost feel the pain, and feel the impending impact. It tends to be the images that stay in our minds, and we overlook the role of sound in immersing the viewer. Prior to starting this project I, like most, considered film primarily a visual art form. In the four and a bit weeks I have been studying sound design I have come to realise that the role of audio in cinema is arguably the defining component when experiencing film on a sensory level. My challenge is trying to answer the question: how does sound accomplish this?

When I began this project, my focus was on technology and its innovations, particularly in relation to Dolby laboratories. I began by reading copious interviews with numerous sound designers and learned extraordinary things about the ways in which they created sound effects. I studied sound equipment so as to better understand the aural intricacies of mono and stereo, noise reduction technology and surround sound. All this gave me a firm grasp on how sound is made and improved, what I needed to do next was analyse its effect.

Each previous week I’ve chosen a certain film that was in its own way revolutionary, to use as a case study to analyse its use of sound and how it contributes to the overall response. These were: A Clockwork Orange, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, and Eraserhead. I’ve searched thoroughly through online archives, listened to audio commentaries and watched behind-the-scenes documentaries, learning vastly about how sound fits into the rest of the production process. Although there is frustratingly little criticism written about sound design, I have learned a great deal just from my own observations and analysis of the films.

One of the most eye-opening things I’ve done thus far is meet and interview a professional Edinburgh-based sound designer who has worked on an array of projects, from drama to documentary. He helped me understand how as a sound designer he is both an artist and technician, how sound can convey characterisation and how sound is far more powerful when used subtly (not turned up to full volume as is popular in blockbuster films nowadays). His passion and creativity proved that there is little difference between a Hollywood sound designer and a freelance one, their thought processes and dedication are the same.

Today marks the precise halfway point of my project so from hereon I am going in a slightly different direction. Rather than examine one film a week in detail, I am now considering film and sound on a far more theoretical scale, considering sound in relation to space (onscreen and off), film texture, and individual aspects of mise-en-scene. This broadens the potential of my research as well as enables me to watch far more films (this internship has its major perks!).

I’ve come to terms with the fact that at the end of this project I may not have produced a single answer, but likely uncovered more questions. One thing is certain, when I go to the cinema, I no longer will be ‘watching’ a film, but rather ‘experiencing’ a film.

Words, words, words

POLONIUS: … What do you read, my Lord? 

HAMLET: Words, words, words.

Hello from sunny California! Contrary to the title of my post, my project is not on Hamlet. However, the quote from the prince-with-daddy-issues is still pertinent, for reasons I will explain later.

I am trying to trace shifts in American self-perception through how 9/11 is remembered and portrayed in literature. Somehow I managed to convince the history department that this counts as History.

Joking aside, literature and popular culture are, I feel, under-utilised in historical inquiry. One of the aims of my research project is to vindicate their utility as historical sources. There is no reason why novels, poetry and essays should be excluded from, and be subordinate to, ‘facts’ in the historian’s toolbox. After all, Il n’y a pas de hors-texte. 

I have read through a selection of 9/11 literature (16 pieces, to be precise), and am currently comparing the themes explored in earlier and later works. The hypothesis being,   American self-perception shifted in the wake of the Iraq War. The question is whether this is reflected in the thematic development of 9/11 literature.

Initially, I thought that there would be a clear break in said development. That is to say, the initial responses to 9/11 would be ones exploring themes of loss, unity in the face of tragedy, heroism etc.; while later works will explore themes of guilt, confusion, and attempt to explore the ‘terrorist’s side of the story’.

As expected, it’s turning out to be a lot more complicated than that. Early responses to the tragedy are as scattered as the superimposed dust clouds of that fateful day. Ranging from anger and sorrow to a perverse Schadenfreude, writers grappled with representing the unrepresentable. Indeed, the only unifying theme was this sense of frustration at the worthlessness, or rather, bluntness of words as tools ‘to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space’. As our princely friend puts so eloquently, when reality becomes ‘too real’, words are nothing more than ‘words, words, words’.

Surprisingly, themes such as racism were already foreshadowed in earlier works, calling my initial hypothesis into question.

That said, is it so surprising that writers, many of whom have been sympathetic towards oppositional politics, would plant the seed of national self-doubt before the majority of the nation followed suit in the wake of 2003?

Instead of a clear cut thematic ‘turning point’ – every historian’s wet dream – the shift seems to be borne out through the extent to which certain character tropes and symbols are expressed. To be sure, there is a quantitative difference between how often the theme of guilt comes up in earlier and later works (good news for my hypothesis), but this fails to capture the subtlety of the shift. While many of the themes about guilt and self-doubt were there from the very beginning, they were expressed to a further extent in later works. More importantly, writers developed a system of symbols and character tropes to articulate these themes. Indeed, many writers used these to satirise American society, and even suggested that despite of 9/11, nothing has changed. 

 

As strange as this sounds, is it really that far-fetched? The spirit behind the manufactured ‘authenticity’, the petty concerns of the metropolitan literati, the many absurdities of contemporary art– in short, the very things in pre-9/11 society that the event was supposed to change, was supposed to, for lack of a better word, purge, to leave us with a more unified, ‘sincere’ society in the wake of trauma– is embodied in the very enterprise of ‘9/11 literary criticism’, and indeed, with its loaned words and Shakespearean references, this article.

 

 

Cancer-The Fight of Our Lives

Having passed the halfway mark in my internship I feel now is a good time to reflect on where I have come. Time has simply flown by in a whirlwind of experiments and data analysis, setbacks and breakthroughs, times of frustration and satisfaction. I have learnt how research often involves being adaptable and taking initiative, and an awful lot of patience!

So far I have been quite fortunate in that my experiments appear to be going to plan. The project is specifically focused on Ovarian Cancer. It is the fifth most common cancer in females, and the most common post menopausal Cancer. Prognosis is rather bleak, with five year survival at just under fifty percent, thus making it an important Cancer to target. I have been working specifically with two cell lines in order to establish whether there is a synergistic effect when two drugs are given in combination in order to produce a larger therapeutic effect. As cancer drugs can have severe side effects, it is important to administer as minimal a dose as possible that will still cause a therapeutic effect. When combining drugs, it is possible for each of the drugs to potentiate each other, and thus can cause a larger effect than either drug given individually, thus allowing lower doses to be given. The results so far have been quite promising, and hopefully future results will be equally promising.

In terms of leadership. The placement has been very informative. I have seen various styles of leadership demonstrated, as well as different sized teams having to be managed and directed in order to remain focused on the main goal, which in this case is better outcomes for Ovarian Cancer patients. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks I will be attending some meetings with pharmaceutical companies and clinicians, which will allow me to experience the commercial aspects of research, as well as more exposure to clinical outcomes. On a personal level, I have had to apply many management skills throughout my project, be it time management in terms of turn around of results from experiments, or prioritising certain experiments over others due to funding limitations. I have also learnt the importance of using the skill sets of individuals available to the team. Everyone on the table has something to offer to the team, it is up to a leader to realise and use the tools at their disposal in the most effective way.

Good luck to everyone and I hope you all have a good experience!

Growing cells!

Growing cells!

 

And Urine!

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I arrived back this week to a very summery, very quiet St. Andrews and a whirlwind of paperwork and urine. From tutorials to risk assessments to Standard Operating Procedures my days will be bursting for the foreseeable future. I am investigating ways of detecting recurrence of bladder cancer, and as my project paves the path for a large, European-grant-funded clinical trial it is important that all lab work is heavily quality controlled. Thus, the lab operates the aptly named “Good Laboratory Practice” quality control system- a system that ensures uniformity, consistency and reproducibility between institutions, but that also involves a lot of reading and signing.

 

Alongside the lab work I am getting to travel locally a fair amount. Today I met with the urologist and clinical staff at the Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy, who work directly with the patients who have agreed to participate in the trial. Next week I will be working in the labs at Edinburgh Royal using some of their kit to refine particular methodologies. This is a fantastic opportunity for me to experience the side of research that physicians are usually involved in, a side that I hope to pursue in the future.

 

Were it not for clear structure it could have been very easy at this early stage to get hopelessly lost/ sidetracked. Thankfully, there are a lot of lists at my disposal. From catalogues of lab protocols, to preliminary lists written by my supervisor and myself, we have managed to generate some kind of structure. Already, I feel like I am more effective at analyzing a scientific challenge, and at determining what needs to be done presently (aka undertaking tasks based on their priority and not their ease).

 

Safe to say that this first week has been a time of intensive learning and not at all just a piece of piss. Having jumped from a hospital placement last week into the lab this week, I certainly feel like I am getting a strong taste of the wide variety that Science and Medicine can offer. Today, whilst sat in a meeting with businessmen, consultant physicians, senior research fellows and biotechnical engineers, I observed firsthand just how intricate and how complex long-term studies can be. With so many layers of detail that need attending to (financing, quality control, lab work, IT, ethics etc) my work represents only a small piece of a much larger puzzle. Yet, at that table, my voice was welcomed. It was a wonderful opportunity to push myself in a boardroom setting (something I have never had the opportunity to be involved in before).

 

I hope I continue to enjoy this internship as much as I currently am doing, and that I continue to have such opportunities to learn and develop. I wish everyone the very best in their projects!

 

 

Mom, You Were Wrong

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Growing up as a child, I remember a simple mantra my mother lived by and never failed to remind me of: Nothing good can be borne out of frustration. I have to admit, as with much of my mother’s advice, this simple statement has proven true in a vast array of situations. As I now embark on the fifth week of my Laidlaw research project, however, I feel like I found a domain where frustration can foster curiosity, a thirst for knowledge and a desire for change while providing a powerful motivating force.

As employment-related stress inevitably mounts with the approach of my graduation date, I decided to forgo whatever social engagements I might have had during the winter break in favour of diligently and responsibly (or so it seemed to me at the time) applying for summer jobs and internships. Large, successful, international consulting firms were an obvious starting point for me, and the imagery of beautiful, ‘fulfilled,’ young people presented throughout the corporate brochures definitely played its part in constructing this ideal. Having spent days filling in countless application forms, my frustration and disappointment boiled over as I struggled to secure a position with one of these firms.

It was this frustration that made me question what I was doing. I wondered why I felt compelled to buy into corporate literature depicting organizational life as exciting, challenging and full of opportunities; the recruitment literature recast me as a subject that was morally obliged to act upon these opportunities. The similarity of discourse presented in promotional literature in dozens of leading-edge companies was striking. So I decided to re-focus: instead of conforming to the corporate mind games, I moved towards a critical appraisal of the graduate labour market; I wanted to understand the assumptions underlying the recruitment process, to challenge them, and to demonstrate their toxic effects on the subjectivity of graduates who voluntarily submit to them.

A few months later and five weeks into my research project, I find myself mapping out the topography of today’s graduate labour market. By tracing the connections between the dominant discourse of employability advanced by employers and policy-makers as well as the recruitment process and the fierce competition for entry into graduate schemes, I strive to illuminate the performativity of the labour market in order to allow for change. In other words, I wish to show that graduates entering the labour market are impelled, through recruitment/selection process, to alter their subjectivity so that it conforms more closely to the employers’ requirements. They thus perform the role ascribed to them by the ideology put forth by employers.

My research is fuelled by a personal frustration with the depth to which assumptions have become embedded in recruitment schemes; corporate ideology, in this scenario, imposes its definition of the labour market on future employees. This very frustration keeps me going when I encounter difficulties in my research project. These difficulties were manifold: from defining my grand ambition in terms of manageable empirical exercises, to maintaining the focus and patience when reviewing the existing literature, to stringing together my arguments in an incisive way.

So, Mom, you were wrong. Frustration can be a powerful force when mobilised as a motivation for critical scrutiny and the investigation of those things that give rise to it.

Carboniferous World

What do volcanoes, earthquakes, giant millipedes and ancient forests all have in common? You can see traces of all of them along the Fife Coastal Trail!

My project involves collating information about a number of geologically renowned sites along the coast, taking photos, doing voice recordings, and eventually packaging all the features into a app that will be available from the app store in a couple of months. This information is also going to be uploaded into Qraqrbox, a multimedia platform that will enable visitors to download content from wifi hubs that the Fife Coast and Countryside Trust is planning to install along the trail. This will be extremely useful in the many areas along the route that are still in the Dark Ages where 3G is sadly unavailable. Qraqrbox will ultimately feature multiple layers with information about a number of different topics so that there’ll be something to suit everyone’s interest.

My enthusiasm for the project was bolstered by meeting a group of fossil hunters who’d travelled all the way from Australia to look for the Arthropleura tracks at Crail. Arthropleura was a millipede-like creature that grew up to 6ft long lived in swampy environments during the Carboniferous period, around 359 – 299 million years ago. The tracks at Crail harbour were even featured in a David Attenborough documentary, First Life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2lJbjoOuNs. The Aussies were worried that they weren’t looking on the right beach so it was great to hear they’d find digital information useful.

The tracks are the parallel traces near the front of the bed. The hollows represent individual feet.

The giant millipede tracks are the parallel traces near the front of the bed. The hollows represent individual feet.

It’s been very interesting to learn about so many sites right on our doorsteps – although I’ve visited a few during sub-honours fieldtrips I’ve also seen all sorts of features I didn’t know existed. Luckily I’ve been accompanied to a few of the locations by staff from the Earth Science department whose eagle eyes have spotted small details I probably wouldn’t have noticed.

The Rock and Spindle near Kinkellis the remains of an ancient volcano

The Rock and Spindle near Kinkell is the remains of an ancient volcano

I’m really enjoying working on my internship and am excited about seeing the finished project, as well as any future versions with additional information.
Good luck to everyone over the summer and see you at the next leadership training weekend if not before!