THE LAIDLAW INTERNSHIP: A REFLECTION

Over three weeks have passed since I completed my Laidlaw Internship in Research and Leadership. I reminisce and recount, fondly, the days I spent in the art library at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the hours pored over sketches and photographs of some of Alexander McQueen’s most stunning garments, and the time invested into the fashion conferences that I would attend at London College of Fashion. Every time someone asks me, ‘How was your summer? How was Laidlaw?’ I fondly remember these things.

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It is not an exaggeration to say that I have just had the best summer of my undergraduate degree. I was in a city that I love (London), reading about and researching my favourite artist and fashion designer (Alexander McQueen), and getting paid to do it. There is a beautiful freedom to the Laidlaw Internship Programme; to choose a topic you love and immerse yourself in it, to become a specialist in it. I’m sure everyone would love their jobs if they could do what I spent my time doing over the summer for the rest of their lives.

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I witnessed my confidence grow exponentially over the course of the nine weeks, as I expanded my understanding of performance art, the works of Alexander McQueen and the fashion world in general, and learnt to be secure in my knowledge of it. I have never felt so bold in making an argument in a research essay—to say with assurance that fashion should be considered an art form, and that I had unearthed the evidence to prove it. However, I noticed that my confidence also grew personally. As I took on the responsibility for my time management, my work load, and every detail of my research project, I felt myself improving organisational and management skills. In addition to this, I was constantly meeting new people: fashion curators, researchers at the V&A, art magazine editors, artists… I made sure to take all their business cards, try and make friends, and network with them. These are assets that I know will serve me well for life after graduation, and I felt myself maturing into a young woman that would be able to navigate herself with courage in the ‘real world’.

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But I hate the term ‘real world’. Because if the real world equates to life after graduation, what meaning would my life at St Andrews have? If it had not been for my involvement with the Laidlaw Internship during my time at university, I would not have learnt the essential skills that I picked up, and I would not have discovered what I was truly passionate about in terms of careers. University life does entail the real world, and the societies that I am involved with here, the positions of leadership I take up, and the internships that I participate in all contribute to who I am right now. And right now, I am fascinated by my life, I am ridiculously excited for what I will end up doing next year, and I am unafraid of the uncertainty of fourth year. Laidlaw has prepared me for this year wonderfully—I am ready to finish my final year at university strong, and move on graciously to the next big thing.

Words and Images by Vienna Kim.

From Archaeology to Z-matrices and everything in between!

In a project that combines archaeological science and computational chemistry techniques, it can be hard to know where to start and what to do! I have long been fascinated with the interface between history, and especially archaeology, with science. Finding the age, origin and authenticity of artefacts is fundamental to our understanding of the past, as is exploring new (and old) methods of obtaining this information. Two years ago I worked with an archaeological project based in the Vesuvius area of Campania, Italy. When I was there, I learnt the basics of osteology and forensic anthropology, visited archaeological sites and taught local school children about the work we were doing in their area. After this trip I completed a joint research project in the Schools of Classics and Chemistry, in which I took archaeological sample from the near Vesuvius and extracted collagen. Subsequently, I ran a range of spectroscopic tests and performed a paleodietary analysis.

The Laidlaw internship was my second foray into archaeological science; instead of using scientific archaeology on sample, I was going to investigate a technique as a whole. The aim was simple: to discover more about an important technique, amino acid dating (AAD). AAD has had its fair share of controversy in the past. It was called “some sort of joke” by the eminent anthropologist, Milford H Wolpoff, in 1990 over questions of its validity in dating early humans in America. Luckily, this is not the uniform opinion and scientists still use AAD to this day. The main problem with the technique is it sensitivity to temperature; an accurate temperature history of the sample must be known. Amino acids in biological setting only occur in one mirror image form. After death interconversion between these two configuration occurs until an equal mixture is formed. Detailed analysis of the kinetics surrounding this reaction show that the rate determining step is the initial step, and this step follows 1st order reversible kinetics. This step is the removal of the α-hydrogen from the amino acid. My intention was to use computation methods to model this step and see how the type/size of amino acid and temperature affects the rate and activation barrier.

With interdisciplinary research it is also a good idea to read widely and thoroughly. I made many fascinating discoveries in this process. AAD is not only used for bones but also to date sea sediments, with sea temperatures less variable than land conditions this is a promising avenue for AAD work. A different possible is to use AAD to estimate the average temperature of a sample whose date is already known. I also found numerous conventional kinetic studies which were useful to compare to my own results. Studies found that pH didn’t have a major impact on rate so this was scrapped as an an area to pursue. Armed with five of the commonly most used amino acids in AAD, next I turned to choosing an appropriate computational model. The key to finding the activation barrier of the important deprotonation step is optimising the transition state structure of a reaction. Electronic structure methods use quantum chemistry to compute the energy of a system. You find the electronic ground state energy of the reactants, products and transition state combined with thermodynamic correction to give activation energy and rate. For the details of method and the results I obtained you’ll have to wait and read my poster!

The main problems I faced in this project was learning how to use complicated software. I started off using one program but then had to switch to a completely different one half way through the project! On one hand this was a small setback, but on the other hand, having to use different programs and research such a broad area is beneficial in building knowledge in a often confusing field! I think I’ve learnt a lot this summer; I really enjoyed being able to learn about such varied topics as kinetic and coding, induction effects and implicit solvent models. Going interdisciplinary kept me interested and I’m grateful to my supervisor and the deans for choosing my project; it can be hard to get money for this kind of project but I think the personal and scientific impact is manifold!

Barriers to Participation – a full-time undergraduate student parents perspective

Who knew? St Andrews is made up of a diverse student body including those with children. We are not all from London or the states, privately educated, driving range rovers and wearing Barbour jackets. Very stereotypical I know but when I speak to my friends about St Andrews this is what they think it is all about. St Andrews isn’t automatically considered to be a place of diversity yet it really is. If there is one thing I have discovered in my time here it is that there are people here from all over the world and from very different walks of life. Below is a map showing where St Andrews Students come from. As you can see it is very much world wide.


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My project was about full time undergraduate student parents (FTUSP) and the barriers they face when it comes to participating in the complete student experience. The student experience that the majority of students take for granted and think is as necessary as going to lectures. The students I spoke to were all students who commuted into university. None of them lived in halls.

I wanted to investigate what FTUSP join in with and how they feel part of the university. I wanted to see if there were barriers keeping them away from events such as balls or pub crawls but also the academic events such as evening lectures, debates or field trips. When I started here in 2013 I wanted to be part of everything and not miss anything. I wanted to know what was on offer and join in as much as possible. When the reality hit me of not being able to do this I was disappointed. This University has so much to offer not just in terms of the academic but the fun bits as well. With Charity campaigns and all the societies, it is not possible to do everything but for me doing any of it was a challenge.

My research also involved speaking with members of staff of the university who are in some way involved with FTUSP. This included members of staff from Student Services, academic staff and the careers centre. Their insight threw different perspectives on my research and I am truly grateful for their time and willingness to speak to me.

I have an inquisitive nature and like to understand and know things, I suppose you could just call that being nosey. I work hard to get round things or move obstacles to the important things that need to be done or that I want to do. With my research I wanted to see what could be done to help FTUSP but also to see if they wanted or needed help. As a FTUSP myself I understood what could be a factor in my eyes but I needed to understand from others how they felt. Just because I wanted to get involved doesn’t mean everyone else would want to.

This whole experience has enlightened me in ways I cannot describe but also has helped me find strength in my own views and opinions. The people I have spoken to as part of my research have all been so helpful I am indebted to them for their time and candor. If I could only take away one thing from my research it would be an increased level of respect for all the help this university has given me. The Laidlaw internship program has been an amazing journey for me and allowed me to accomplish something I never thought would be possible. For me it was not just about the research or my topic but a personal journey of growth. It has helped my confidence grow and opened my eyes to possibilities I never knew existed or thought possible.

‘Never Gie A Schemie An Education’.

Just over three years ago, circa March 2013, I received a confirmation email regarding an offer of a place to study English Literature at the University of St. Andrews, an email which, by the way, was as unprecedented as: Scotland ever winning the World Cup, Brexit, or the Trump presidential bid. Take yer pick. I’d already been told applying to St. Andrews was ‘a pipe dream’, but somehow, I slipped through the nets. I was now a schemie in St. Andrews. Three years later I learned that I’d been granted a place on The Laidlaw Undergraduate Internship Programme to undertake a research project in literature. The literature of whom? Byron? Milton? The tragedies of William Shakespeare? Naw. At quite the opposite end of the literary spectrum sits Scotland’s ‘bad boy’ of literature, Irvine Welsh, and I was to spend ten weeks researching Welsh and the working class. You can take the girl out of Ayrshire, etc, etc. Many months later, at the end of my project, I’m sitting in my home in North Ayrshire, looking out at the grey skies and torrential rain of the Scottish summer wishing I’d chosen a project on American literature and jetted off to California instead. However, what this country lacks in Vitamin D it makes up for in the provocative, ferocious, conflicted literature it produces, of which, Irvine Welsh is an integral part.

Much of Welsh’s literature is set in a fictional Leith, his characters existing in various dilapidated housing schemes. There are suicides, failed suicides, racially motivated murders, degenerative diseases, overdoses, chemically mutilated children, chainsaw massacres, toxoplasmosis, AIDS, sectarianism, castrations and killer storks to contend with in the universe of Welsh, and while much of these dramatic occurrences and storylines serve to facilitate Welsh’s dark humour and his delight in the frailty of the human condition, much more of what he writes is based in the uncomfortable ‘reality’ of life (and death) in the schemes of working class Scotland. With the publication of his first novel, Trainspotting, Welsh became the voice of the ‘reality’ of Edinburgh, and Scotland, far removed from the romantic myths of Loch Ness monsters, William Wallace and rolling glens. The reason I put reality in inverted commas when discussing Welsh is because he is of course a teller of tales, and while he uses reality to craft his stories, he often distorts life into hyper-real, hyper-masculine, hyper-disturbing narratives. Nonetheless, Welsh’s impetus for writing stems from his frustration at the real life social problems blighting Leith. The creation of social housing schemes, like Muirhouse, into which the working classes were distributed, allowed for the perpetuation of a vision of Edinburgh as ‘The Athens of the North’; an epithet deliberately ignoring the poverty and degradation rife in the fringes of the city, an epithet only concerned with the affluent, beautiful, gentrified City Centre itself. In his literature Welsh confronted this vision of Edinburgh for what it was: a middle-class fantasy. The socio-economic conditions under the Thatcherite regime of the 1980s, the rampant individualism of the government and its systematic destruction of working class Scottish community spirit, coinciding with the import and popularity of cheap heroin and other substances in Scottish schemes, led to the hopeless conditions as described in Trainspotting, Marabou Stork Nightmares and much of Welsh’s other writings. The philosophy of the schemes might best be crystallised by a quote from the opening of Trainspotting: ‘Nae friends in this game. Jist associates.’. These are young people thrown together by dint of their familial economic circumstances, ending up in impoverished estates, but who have been robbed of the working-class camaraderie and loyalty of their preceding generations. They are connected only by their addictions, prejudices, and lack of other options in the violent world of Scottish schemes where real friendship has been undercut by drug induced apathy and the capitalist ideology of self-serving egoism. Basically, the outlook is extremely bleak for the schemies of Welsh’s world.

In his novel Glue, Welsh writes that one should: ‘never gie a schemie an education’. Personally, I’ve been very fortunate in being able to secure one for myself, and in being able to take on this research project which certainly has been an education, not only on the wild writings of Welsh, but also on the recent history, politics and mentality of Scotland. The Scotland of Trainspotting era Welsh has changed. Drugs have changed. The political landscape has changed. The government has, somewhat, changed. It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the voices of the underclasses and the underprivileged. Some of them are in your universities, sitting beside you in the lecture halls. Some of them have become your literary icons. The schemies are on the loose, and with a little more education perhaps wasting away in schemes with ‘nae friends’ will become a thing of the past. Perhaps education offers us the possibility of overcoming class distinctions and political apathy, and perhaps this is why the working-classes have been purposely denied the opportunity to learn for centuries. But now we’re in, and the outlook need not be bleak in perpetuity.

Well done to all the interns on completing your projects, hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did!

After all this time, I think I’m finally starting to understand the importance of my historiography lectures…

During my first three years at university, I spent hours upon hours trawling through stacks of books at the library attempting to cram as much information as possible before an impending deadline. Sitting in the silent section at one in the morning, fueled only by excessive amounts of Red Bull, the biggest challenge was always figuring out what my essay was actually trying to say.

Though always trying to use as much primary source material as possible, as any undergraduate historian will tell you, this can sometimes be challenging. For the most part, my understanding of a subject has been influenced by the secondary material I have encountered. And I have always found this frustrating. Like lots of other people in the same position, the idea of going into an archive and discovering ‘new’ material is extremely liberating. It would be the chance to finally practise hands-on history and get an insight into the past that was untainted by the biases of other academics.

Except, as I discovered during my Laidlaw internship, this is not how things work out in reality. What I expected was to enter the archives of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the National Library of Scotland with a sketched-out plan of what I wanted to find but to not interfere beyond that point; I was hoping to let the sources guide the research. However, whilst the sources did still manage to steer the direction of my research, the idea that I would not personally shape my findings turned out to be rubbish.

After being handed one of only many of the manuscripts I needed to scour through by a helpful archivist in the National Library of Scotland, I realised with dread that it was so large I was going to struggle to carry it back to my seat let alone read it within the time I had set aside. Before my internship I was worrying about not finding enough material to work from, but at this point I realised the opposite was true – there were actually too many sources to get through in the time I had. Consequently, I knew from this point onward I would have to pick and choose the sources I decided to work with as there was no way I could make my way through everything at the archives. Before I had even started reading any of the historical material I would be using, I was shaping the results to an extent.

This is something we learnt in our semester studying historiography, but looking back I don’t think I understood exactly what my lecturers were trying to tell me at that particular point in time. It is only now I have completed historical research for myself that I have started to understand the extent to which a historian will influence the research they are conducting, even if they make every utmost effort not to.

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There are some historians who say you can enter an archive, carry out your research, and then communicate that research without any elements of yourself rubbing off on the history you are writing. Whilst I have never really thought this was possible, it is only now I have carried out my own research that I have realised not only is it impossible but it isn’t helpful either. I now think that much of the excitement of history is due to the fact it comes alive in different ways for every person.

As a result, I have found my experience of the Laidlaw internship to be extremely enlightening. To be able to break free from the sort of history I am accustomed to writing into something that is entirely original and my own has been one of the best opportunities ever given to me. Not only have I realised that I love historical research and would love to get the chance to carry on with it in the future, but I have also discovered what sort of history it is that truly excites me. That history is microhistory and transnational history, which I studied in a module last year and will continue to study this year. Whilst my project revolved around the history of science, I realised that it was the transnational and microhistorical elements of the history of science that spurred my interest in that particular subject in the first place. Consequently, in the future, I am hoping to incorporate these methodologies into much more of the history I study. Without the opportunity given to me by this internship, I’m not sure I would have discovered what my interests are in such a conclusive way.

Academia: the good, the bad, and the piles and piles of books

This summer has been an eye-opening one in many regards. Firstly, academia isn’t all ivory towers and cosy armchairs – in fact, a lot of it is trawling through JSTOR and SaulCat, trying to find the exact keywords that will bring up the hundreds of relevant articles you know someone, somewhere, must have written. Secondly, ‘proper’ academics know about point one and therefore give their papers deliberately vague and open titles so as to fool you into thinking they may be relevant to what you need. And thirdly, there is no better feeling than finally coming across that one paragraph hidden away in a dusty book in the corner of a forgotten section of the third floor that finally lets you whisper to yourself, “it all makes sense”.

My project, entitled ‘Double Discrimination: LGBT Asylum Seekers in the UK System’, has focused on the problems faced by LGBT peoples who seek refuge in the UK. It has been challenging on a personal level (being gay myself, reading about what people go through in a supposedly ‘civilised’ country has been quite harrowing), and academically tough because, as it turns out, very few people have written about (LGBT) refugees in any capacity (particularly in my field of International Relations). As such, a lot of my initial research focused on government reports, NGO research, and Parliamentary documents – not exactly glamorous work. I made up for this by traipsing down to London for a few days to conduct interviews with representatives from Stonewall and the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (and, possibly, a little bit of sightseeing as well). Here, I learned two important lessons: some of the most important conversations you will have will take place over coffee in a busy street; and, if you invest money in a fancy dictaphone, make sure you remember to bring it with you and don’t leave it in St Andrews like an idiot.

Post-London, there was a definite lull about five weeks in where I had finished my primary research and found myself sat at a desk, day after day, scrolling mindlessly through my notes for what seemed like hours on end. This was where my fortnightly meetings with my supervisor came in handy; he was able to point me in the direction of several theories which I could use to make sense of my evidence, and which – now that I am writing my report – actually allow me to sound vaguely academic, rather than merely reproducing what other people have found. I have been extremely fortunate to have had a tutor who is actually interested in my project and has actively sought out books and articles which he thinks will help; without that experienced guidance, I think I would have gone mad about half-way through.

The research in and of itself has been, for the most part, extremely interesting. I have had to detach myself emotionally from it, however, because otherwise I would have either gone mad with rage or had a mental breakdown after week two. Although I have never gone through the experiences of the people I am looking at, it is difficult not to feel frustrated and angry on their behalf, and on behalf of the broader LGBT population as a whole.

I’m not going to lie – this summer has turned out very differently to how I imagined it would. Some days I woke up and just wanted to work on the project from dawn till dusk; on others, the thought of reading another book on postcolonial human rights theory made me want to pack it all in and buy an ice cream van instead (still definitely an option). All things considered, however, now that I can look back over everything I have done, and have an actual physical conclusion which I can wave at people and talk about, I cannot recommend the experience enough. If you are thinking about a career in academia, or just want the opportunity to spend ten weeks researching something you’re passionate about, definitely apply. You might just surprise yourself.