“Living in Truth”: The Inherent Impossibility of Reconstructing Historical Figures

Pharaoh Akhenaten is notorious for his heresy; namely, his attempt to replace the traditional Egyptian pantheon of numerous gods with the singular, solar Aten deity. In carrying out these reforms, Akhenaten notably broke with the pharaonic artistic system and presented himself in a brand new guise. Akhenaten’s controversial career has led historians, medical practitioners, LGBT+ advocates and others to herald the king as the founder of monotheism, the originator of the Oedipus Complex, a gender-queer icon and an ancient example of Marfan and/or Froehlich’s syndrome.

h26 the sexless colossush26 profile

The “sexless” colossus of Pharaoh Akhenaten (c. 1353 – 1334 BCE)

Akhenaten proclaimed that his breaking from convention was an essential part of his “living in truth”, but how can those who wish to reconstruct the career of this tantalising figure succeed when his persona is surrounded by so much conceptual baggage? A week and a half into my research, I’m still figuring that out!


Pharaoh Hatshepsut (c. 1478 – 1458 BCE) appears not as the “feminine” figure, who represents the goddess Hathor, but as the “masculine” figure, who wears the blue, Khepresh crown 

My thesis focuses on the embodiment of gender identities which transgressed (or rather, transcended) the male-female binary and the link between such identities and the propagation of political and religious power. Believe it or not, the embodiment of masculinity was not necessarily sufficient for the curation of an image of absolute power in the Ancient Near East. In the example of Akhenaten, it may be that the androgynous artwork of the Amarna Period was intended to present the king as both “the mother and father” of mankind. As my research unfolds, I will be comparing the relationship between gender and power in Akhenaten’s royal iconography with that of Hatshepsut, a female Pharaoh who assumed the full masculine regalia of her office – false beard included. Following this, I will be seeing if any links can be drawn between these pharaohs and the presentation of Yahweh, the god of the Hebrew Bible, in the Book of Isaiah to trace the dialogue between gender and power from Egypt to Judah.

Nb. Hatshepsut and Akhenaten have both at times been seen as ancient witnesses of “transgender behaviour”. Whilst applying such vocabulary to these figures is arguably ahistorical and certainly anachronistic, exploring the conversations that the pharaohs were clearly engaging in should shed some light on the history of gender non-conformity and the implications that this had for persons of power. Many thanks to Dr. Nevader, of the Biblical Studies Department, here in St. Andrews, for supervising this endeavour!


With a little humility

My project is about the effect of institutions, such as protection of private property rights and  rule of law,  on entrepreneurship. I decided to do this topic because the consensus is that institutions matter a lot for economic outcomes such as economic growth. I wondered if this is also for other types of outcomes, namely entrepreneurial activity. Given the lengthy and costly process of changing institutions and the trade-offs that governments face between say changing policies or institutions this question is important from a policy standpoint.

After spending quiet some time researching the topic I came to realize that whatever conclusion I draw I should not take it too seriously. That is even if my results are consistent with what is found in the literature. To begin with, just because a result seems to be established, i.e. not proven to be true but widely agreed to be true in light of evidence, does not mean that the result is true. The evidence that supports the result is based on simplifying assumptions which are times unrealistic. For example, econometric evidence on the effect of institutions to economic growth is based on the assumption that the effect of institutions is the same across space and time. So the result may after all be wrong because I make wrong assumptions.Not to mention the myriad empirical caveats, e.g. the result could be sensitive to the particular measures I used, either because the measures are not defining properly the variable of interest or because of measurement errors, the specification could be wrong, or the result could be sensitive to a combination of the above. Furthermore, if I take my results too seriously I will be more likely to fall into the common trap of non-sequiturs, i.e. deducing from a result something that does not directly follow. 

On the other hand, even if my results have not passed the infinite tests that they should pass they may still be instructive or informative. Especially, if they tackle most of the above problems adequately. 

Maybe you consider similar issues in your projects.  In any case, good luck.


Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs (1995 – 2016), or how 85 seats can change British Theatre

Three weeks in.

Thousands of pages read. A bibliography spanning several pages. Sheets of paper covered in question marks. A new-found appreciation for the library café.

I started my project with a vague idea that I wanted to research my favourite theatre – the Royal Court Theatre – and my favourite playwrights. Settling on a survey approach to look at the theatre, starting with the theatre’s most controversial recent production, Blasted (Sarah Kane, 1995) to the current production Human Animals (Stef Smith, 2016), my aim was to read every play the Upstairs space at the theatre had produced over the past twenty-one years.  Really it was a thinly veiled attempt to spend a summer reading and thinking about theatre within whatever parameters I wanted to set myself. And, thanks to the programme, that is exactly what I am able to do.

blog post picture

However, what I failed to consider was that the theatre has seen nearly 200 productions over this time. In simple terms, I would have to read five plays a day, leaving little time for either engaging with critical material or sleeping. This early discovery has given rise to the most striking practical lesson so far to come out of this research: academic research needs to be focused and feasible to be of use. An obvious sentiment perhaps, but absolutely one I had forgotten when I was starting out. It may have taken a slight intervention from my supervisor to remind me of this, but I have whittled down the magnanimous list of plays I had three weeks ago to a more manageable forty-five. So still a challenge.

jerwood theatre upstairs

I have had some amazing interactions with the theatre already: I was able to meet the General Manager of the Royal Court, and in a couple of weeks will be meeting with the director of the current production at the theatre. I will be doing archival research at the V&A’s Theatre Collection, and will continue reading my way through The Guardian’s back catalogue of theatre reviews. The opportunities the project have already offered have been invaluable in learning more about contemporary British theatre. Although, and sounding like an echo of everyone on this blog, I am also realising just how little I actually know.

Thanks, of course, must go to Lord Laidlaw, my supervisor Dr Sam Haddow, my fellow students working in St Andrews and stopping me going stir-crazy, and the suppliers of caffeine to the University Library.

And there you have it. So, back to the books.

Learning to Learn: Reflections After One Week

How do I get a computer to solve large systems of differential equations? This is the question I am grappling with, one week into my internship.

My project involves numerically simulating and comparing outcomes in an economic model of climate change negotiations, but my first task has been getting my programming abilities up to a sufficient level. Already I have learnt that identifying what skills are needed, and figuring out how to acquire them, is a very important aspect of successfully completing any project.

The process of teaching myself programming has been very rewarding, and taught me a lot about myself, how I work and how I learn. Since I am a naturally curious person, and interested in the topics in Economics, Mathematics and programming that I have been researching, it has been tempting to do a lot of reading about anything tangentially related to my project. Avoiding this, the safety and security of reading a textbook rather than actually writing code, has been one of the biggest struggles in the internship so far. Especially since programming is a skill that requires more of a ‘learning by doing’-approach.

Now that I am aware of this however, I am improving quickly, and that is the great thing with an internship like the Laidlaw Programme: not only am I acquiring in-depth knowledge about my subject of study, but also invaluable skills such as self-teaching and project management.

Now however, I should get coding again…


Ion channels, Guinea pigs and heart failure

Blending frozen guinea pig legs to the consistency of a milkshake in room cooled to 2 degrees is not how I envisioned spending my summer. But 2 weeks into my project I found myself doing exactly that. So why was I blending Guinea pig legs?strawberry-milkshake-1

Basically my project involves looking at ion channels specifically those found within muscle cells. In order to study how the proteins function you need a fresh source or protein that is high in the ion channels you want to study. In this case it was RYR2 an ion channel that is involved in triggering your muscles to contract.  So we needed a source of muscle. The school or medicine had used guinea pigs as a source of intestines in order to demonstrate intestinal physiology early in the year. That meant that other parts of the Guinea pig were harvested and frozen in liquid nitrogen so that nothing went to waste and to maximise the information we can get from one guinea pig.

So blending guinea pig legs provided working samples of ion channels we needed to study. It is part of a process know as a membrane preparation.

The preparation itself involved the breakdown of guinea pig muscle first into a fluid so it can then be spun in a centrifuge. This is done multiple times each time a pellet and liquid form. By taking off the liquid after a number of consecutive spins you can eventually isolate the specific proteins you are interested in which then provide a good source of ion channels you are going to study.

So why are these ion channels important?

My project is looking at how heart cells react to hypoxia (lack of oxygen) as a sort of proxy for what happens in MI and heart failure. Then by looking at how these ion channels change when there is lack of oxygen we can understand the role the play in heart failure.

So ion channels may play a important part in the mechanism of heart failure. If we understand more about this mechanism we may be able to control it better.


That Guinea pig preparation although unusual was a good example of some of the things I have learned in a short time doing a lab:

Organisation is essential, equipment needs to be booked in advance and in some cases cooled  overnight   so if you are not organised it’s not going to work.

You need to be patient. Things take time you may have to be centrifuged for over an hour multiple times, and some techniques by their very nature take time.

Uncertainly abounds. Even within my short time in the lab I have seen a couple of      examples of times when things inexplicably don’t work and then next time they will for no particular reason.

But one of the great things is that with the unpredictably is you can be surprised when things don’t turn out to work the way you expect them. It means you really have to think and challenge yourself to understand what is going on.

I was also lucky enough to take part in a lab meeting and journal club with my supervisor. This was a really great opportunity, to look at the level of critical evaluation and thinking that you need to develop as a researcher.  But also a good insight into how new experiments and projects alter and develop. In the paper we discussed the conclusions were a little overwrought and the results not entirely explained. However the experiments and the results were interesting and did play a part in the development of additional experiments that may potentially be useful for my project.

Overall  I have really enjoyed my time in the lab, , and would say it would be a great experience for anyone  who is potential interesting in doing some research in the future.

The Cultural Conditions, Ideology and Psychology Behind the Perpetration of Wartime Atrocities.

I am now at the beginning of my fourth week of research into my Laidlaw Project on the cultural conditions, ideologies and psychologies that enable soldiers and conflict personnel to commit atrocities in war and, as you might expect, it has been an intense couple of weeks.

Before beginning my project, I broke my research down into three blocks. The first was essentially theoretical research, looking at the enabling factors in the perpetration of killing, torture and rape. This constituted my first three weeks of research and what I have recently completed. Although my project is with the School of International Relations, the research thus far has been primarily psychology- and anthropology-based, looking at works by Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo, James Waller and Sandra Whitworth, to name a few, so it has been interesting to read into and learn about a different discipline. I have included a picture of a diagram of the contributing factors I have discovered that enable the carrying out of atrocities in war. (I apologise, it’s a bit small)

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 20.17.28

I would say that, unsurprisingly perhaps, it has been quite emotionally draining at times to read about instances of rape and physical and psychological torture committed by soldiers. There have been days where I’ve simply gone home and vegged on banal, inconsequential Netflix television, and it was just what I needed.

The next few weeks will be devoted to looking at the discourse surrounding the war on terror and how this might contribute to and enable the psychological forces I have already discovered. This includes examining transcripts of political speeches, media articles, military literature and film and television depictions of the armed forces. As Sandra Whitworth writes in her book Men, Militarism and UN Peacekeeping: 

“Even before joining up or being conscripted, young men normally have been socialised into ideas associated with soldiering, and of being a warrior, through family norms, movies, male role models, books, military recruitment campaigns, television programs, and children’s games…it is notable how stubbornly pervasive is the prescriptive moral tale: join a military, young man, and you will confirm your manliness, both to others and to yourself.”

I plan, in the next few weeks, to look at this kind of socialisation, and how it contributes to a sense that the military is a place of power, of dominance, of moral superiority, and of impunity.

Following my case-study research on the war on terror, I will look at the perpetration of mass rape during the Bosnian War as an instance of a different kind of atrocity and a different kind of conflict (ethnonational, as opposed to counter-terrorism) and how the discourse surrounding the perpetration and justification of atrocities is different or similar to that of the United States’ rationalisation of violence and torture.

I have had trouble in my academic studies with over-researching a topic and then struggling to condense it into coherent, meaningful analysis. With this in mind, my tutor and I decided that at the end of each of my research blocks I would write a summary of my findings for us to examine together. Having just completed the first summary, I think it was definitely a good practice to put in place. It helped me clarify my thoughts and my findings, and refine what I plan to look at in subsequent research. Hopefully, as well, it will leave me without reams and reams of research notes when I come to compile my project at the end of the internship.

I was concerned that, after the blissful lazy days of post-exam springtime, getting back into the rigour of academic research would be a real grind, but it has been as pleasant a few weeks as could be expected of a project examining the perpetration of heinous atrocities could be. I hope all the other interns are enjoying their research and thank you to Dr Karin Fierke for supervising my project!

HLA-B27 and Inflammatory Arthritis

Now three weeks into my internship you would be hoping I would be getting the hang of things but unfortunately when analysing the results of my experiment today I realised everything that could possibly have gone wrong had. I’m realising how frustrating and challenging research can be but I’ll learn from my mistakes and hopefully get the results I wanted next week. To be able to produce results which you can look at, analysis, ask questions about, draw conclusions from and create ideas based on is one of the best feelings and makes your forget everything that went before.

In case you haven’t guessed I am doing a lab research project. I am looking at the role of HLA-B27 in ankylosing spondylitis and specifically at how the expression of this protein changes on exposure to different drugs. Doesn’t make much sense, don’t worry it didn’t make much sense to me either until my mentor sat down with me and explained it through.

Firstly ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a type of inflammatory arthritis that eventually results in fusion of the vertebrae. It affects around 200,000 people in the UK. It causes intense pain and severely limits movement hugely impacting on day to day living. There is currently no cure but it is managed to varying levels of effectiveness with physical therapy, anti-inflammatory drugs and monoclonal antibodies.

Secondly over 90% of people with AS express HLA-B27. HLA-B27 is a major histo-compatibility complex protein which presents proteins from inside the body’s cells to the immune system. HLA-B27 is prone to mis-folding and is also capable of forming dimers. These properties of HLA-B27 may be linked to development of AS. It is hoped that be targeting HLA-B27 especially mis-folded and dimer forms it will be possible to find a cure. I am looking at how expression of different forms of HLA-B27 changes when exposed to different drugs in cell culture. Below is a picture of a western blot which is used to analysis proteins based on size. Dimers of HLA-B27 are heavier than monomers, dimers are towards the top of the page and its possible to see that some are brighter than others depending on the drug and concentrations the cells have been exposed to. HELAB27

I have been thinking about what academic leadership means in the lab I’m working in. I have found it is based on knowledge and experience but is mostly about providing direction, ideas and guidance. My mentor has been teaching me the basic principles of lab practice and over the last couple of weeks has also been encouraging me to work independently. The experiments are based on discussion I have had with him or things which he wants tested. Good academic leadership is also about creating a positive working environment, one where questions can be asked, ideas can be challenged or discussed and one where it’s okay to ask for help.

In terms of my own leadership I feel I have developed self-leadership; the ability to trust in my own abilities and to work independently. I try to take responsibility for my mistakes as well as to recognise and learn from them. Keeping a lab book has helped me keep track of experiments, what I am learning and how to develop techniques. I am also learning to find the balance between trusting your own judgement and asking for help; I think there is a fine line between knowing your abilities and either over or under estimating them.

Doing an internship is a fantastic opportunity and opens so many doors. I feel like I have learn so much in my three weeks about science, research, leadership and myself but most importantly its enjoyable, its challenging and its interesting which seems pretty decent for a summer job!



Henry S. Salt and Ethical Vegetarianism


Following a discussion with my project supervisor, Dr John Clark (School of History), I have decided to change the focus of my research project. Although the time period has changed, the key themes of my project, namely animal rights and moral/ethical vegetarianism, are similar to my initial project, which was to investigate how, and why, social and cultural attitudes towards the UK meat industry have changed between 1964 and the present day. This project was perhaps over-ambitious given the timeframe of ten weeks I have been given in which to complete the research. I will instead be studying the intellectual origins of ethical vegetarianism in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century England and, in particular, the often-overlooked contributions of Henry S. Salt (1851-1939).

Salt spent much of his adult life promoting and writing in support of a range of humanitarian and reformist causes. He published ‘A Plea for Vegetarianism’ in 1886 and this seems to be a sensible starting point for my research. Salt was well-known in literary circles and it seems his reputation as someone who ‘failed’ in his attempt to inspire change is largely derived from the sales figures for his books, which were unimpressive. However, while doing background reading I came across something of interest which might be worth looking into. Mahatma Gandhi credited Salt with convincing him to abstain from meat for ethical rather than religious reasons, having come across a copy of Salt’s book in one of the vegetarian restaurants which were beginning to appear in English towns and cities: these restaurants may be worth investigating as potential sites of intellectual exchange.

I also plan to explore the organisations with which Salt was involved, including the Humanitarian League and Vegetarian Society. In addition, I will analyse wider forces which may have influenced popular reception of Salt’s writing and the ideas he promoted, using sources such as government statistics on consumption and spending.

As my project only began last week, I have spent much of my time so far reading and keeping an eye out for sources and texts which may be helpful. Although many of the resources I require are available online or in libraries and bookshops, I may have to travel to gain access to some sources, for example private correspondence. This would have been difficult were it not for the generous stipend provided by the Laidlaw Undergraduate Internship, for which I am grateful.

In an effort to structure and plan my work more effectively, I have decided to produce an extended essay (8000 words or so) which will then be condensed into the shorter report and poster. I hope that this will keep me focused and enable me to spot topics which need further attention.

I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw and everyone involved with the programme for making it possible for me to carry out my research and  Dr John Clark and the School of History for their guidance. I would also like to wish fellow interns luck with their projects.

I thought museums were supposed to be fun

Topic: How to engage the next generation of anthropologists – an application of theoretical approaches in museum studies.

So today was the first day of my Laidlaw project and it definitely did not go as expected.

It was a weird feeling getting ready to begin – after weeks of anxiousness and eagerness to start I had finally got back in to St Andrews, taken that much needed post-train shower, shopped for groceries, saw Germany score two goals so I had something to talk about with my Dad on the phone and then settled in bed for an early night. This morning I felt consummately prepared, a plush packed lunch set up and my most academic outfit selected (pictured below), and I was feeling surprisingly chipper on my way to spend a day in the library.

anthro day 1

But once there, in front of a computer on the second floor, I came into contact with the first upending revelation of the day: academic research is a very lonely affair. That first half hour, with only a couple of other people dotted within sight, I realized that the next 8 hours I would be talking to nobody, and unlike uni work throughout the year no-one else is engaged in the same exercise. My research is my own, and while I don’t mind striking a direction into the mass of information that is available on my topic it was intimidating to be doing so without anybody else attempting the same!

Still, things perked up – that first half hour passed and I thankfully found myself becoming more and more interested in the topic I’d chosen. But, while the research was good fun it did point out my naivety when I composed the question. By lunchtime it was obvious that engagement and interest wasn’t necessarily the best criteria to try and create a museum exhibit by, as the curator has an obligation as an educator, and by tea time after reading up on the Colonial Exhibitions of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, where people went to gawk at entertaining reconstructions of ‘savage’ villages, it felt positively damaging the extent to which I had prioritized entertainment in exhibits when writing my research proposal. 

Where this leaves my project I’m not yet sure, but I guess that’s the great thing about this internship. I don’t have to push for a quick conclusion in a rush to make a midnight deadline, and I don’t have to stress about having to go back and re-evaluate my starting point. Instead I can try to progress through these stages of naivety, of which there are many more to come I’m sure, and by the end I may even have a half decent piece of work.

Good luck to all the other interns!



Emptying the Wallets of Extremists

Although I have merely scratched the surface of my project, I can already say that I am extremely humbled to be able to research a topic that is so vital to contemporary affairs. Ever since ISIS acquired a global profile following the escalation of their activities within the last decade, the number one question on everyone’s mind is – how do we stop them? This question has arguably become even more pertinent since the recent terrorist attacks in France and Belgium which have shaken the Western world, exemplifying the scale of the threat that ISIS poses. Crucially, this project will focus on how to prevent ISIS from acquiring and transferring funds for their unquestionably nefarious purposes.

Until the last year or so, academic articles and public sector reports regarding how ISIS fund their operations – and most crucially, what to do about it – were few and far between. However, the ramping up of these operations in the EU combined with the duration of ISIS’ occupation of several crucial Iraqi cities has spurred a series of recommendations from countless governmental and inter-governmental institutions. Chief among these bodies is the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), whose main purpose is to recommend and enforce laws concerned with combating money laundering and terrorist financing. In short, there has been an explosion in the intensity with which international and national bodies have been dealing with this threat, and the time for researching this issue is ripe.ISIS

Pending a detailed discussion with my supervisor over the coming days, the overall structure of my project will consist of roughly three sections; firstly, I will analyse how ISIS actually secures their funds, and the relative importance of each of these different sources of funding. Many of these sources have been outlined in the press – revenue from oil extraction, ransoms from kidnapping, and extortionate taxes imposed on ‘citizens’ of the ‘caliphate’ are but three of these roots.

Another stimulating sub-section of my internship will be devoted to analysing how ISIS transfer their funds. Although this is not as widely discussed in the media, there are several avenues through which ISIS are currently transferring funds both towards and across the different sectors of their organisation, for instance via the anonymous bitcoin currency. This leads me to the crux of my internship; outlining the ways in which global institutions can work together to both stop ISIS from acquiring their funds, and more importantly to prevent them from putting these funds to malevolent use. I will be staying in Brussels for the second third of my internship for precisely this purpose.

Stepping back from the intricacies of my project, I must say that this project provides a satisfying break from the often monotonous routine of studying modules throughout the academic year. The key difference is the freedom that the Laidlaw project gives you to pursue what your academic interests, rather than having to memorize and regurgitate information given out to you in lectures and readings. This internship is especially useful in this regard given that I am an economics student who is looking to switch gears and change my academic specialization in the future. I can’t wait to see what this project teaches me – both about this topic in particular and about my own  interests. I hope with all my heart that this project will enable me to grow as both an academic and as an individual.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. If anyone is interested in knowing how my research is progressing, feel free to contact me either on Facebook (Alessio Shostak) or on Twitter (Shostyroth).