Exploring new horizons as a student researcher

Climate change has increasingly become a key facet of politics, media and academia, becoming a buzzword around the world. While significant attention has been devoted to international climate change negotiations (e.g. Paris UNFCCC conference 2016), analysing national and sub-national level policies is crucial to gauge how effective the policies are at the grassroots level. Placing this dimension in the context of how, much of the limelight has been on EU and US climate policies inspired me to investigate the climate change policies in the developing world (specifically Asia) targeting three large economies: India, China and Indonesia.

As soon as I delved into the literature and policy briefs for India, China and Indonesia I quickly realised the depth of material and diversity within it and the challenges that will be posed in trying to comprehensively cover all three countries. I then decided to change the focus of the project just to India, as attempting to cover all three would lead to a broad-stroke analysis. After a discussion with my supervisor I finally decided to focus on India.

source: Johan Bolhuis, 1999. Solar power is beautiful [image online] Available at: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/solar-power-is-beautiful-1623854

Johan Bolhuis, 1999. Solar power is beautiful [image online] Available at: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/solar-power-is-beautiful-162385420160705 atg5 thom rk13 pfa 1_Image007

By focusing on one country I was able to explore India’s climate change national policies through different spatial scales: national, regional and local. Additionally, as I spent the entire summer in India I was able to conduct valuable primary research in the form of interviews more than I had originally envisaged.

Not only did I have to adapt my research topic during the course of the internship but also my research methods. The prominence of interviews posed a different challenge: sticking to the timeline I had set myself for completing different sections of the project. As I interviewed senior officials (CEO/Director) it was difficult to organise the interviews according to my convenience and project dates. Thus in all elements of this project, flexibility and and open mindset was crucial to mould the project to a new shape, which in my opinion has allowed me to learn about India’s climate change policy environment in a more constructive, engaging and comprehensive manner. Incorporating interviews in my project also allowed me to gauge, albeit at a preliminary level, the effectiveness of national policies in reality. Additionally, this new direction provided me the perfect platform to test interview skills I had learnt about as part of my degree. I conducted interviews in Mumbai and Bangalore and an e-mail interview with a senior researcher in Chennai as well, where an in-person interview wasn’t possible.

Thus, this summer provided a valuable lesson about the importance of keeping an open mindset when approaching a research project. Planning, consistency and structure are of course crucial elements that form the basis of any project, but being reflexive and flexible for certain phases of research provides the opportunity to explore new directions for improving the project and in the process acquire new skills.

I would specially like to thank Lord Laidlaw for the generous funding provided and Dr. Eoin McLaughlin for supervising my project and providing valuable advice and support throughout the summer. I would also like to thank Mr. Sameer Nair, Mr. Vivek Venkataramani and Mr. Ganesh Shankar for the insightful interviews that contributed significantly to my project.

Climate science: there are a lot of fluctuations

Researching and completing the Laidlaw has been, like the atmospheric CO2 predictions I created over the summer, a turbulent and varied experience, but had a positive trend with time. I have learned a lot, developed many new skills and overcome some seemingly impossible challenges. There were some times when I thought about giving up, that the journey was just too difficult, but in hindsight it has been a truly transformative and positive journey for me.

A cold start

You don’t have to be a geologist to realise that my starting project title of “Testing the stability of the Antarctic ice sheet to CO2” isn’t at all what I ended up researching and writing about. My original project aims were to reconstruct benthic pH and if possible atmospheric CO2 over a global cooling event 34 million years ago: to produce the first high resolution atmospheric CO2 record over the interval. I picked up samples for the project from Southampton a few days before leaving for St Andrews to begin work on the project. I quickly learned however, that the sample set was not in the best condition and that trying to get more data would be difficult. I overcame this initial hurdle by working on a way to get new samples which would complement the existing dataset. It took three weeks from the start of the project to get this list created, redrafted and reworked till I was happy to send it off. However, I soon heard from the repository that my samples wouldn’t arrive until mid-August: without a dataset to work off I didn’t realistically have a project to work on. I had to find something else to work with.

Iceberg ahead!

This change wasn’t easy for me: the drastic change of project was symbolic of my past year, a turbulent and stressful experience I was hoping to move on from. I was looking forward to a summer of research, to finally show off what I could achieve when I’m able to work at my best: to say I was excited was an understatement. This was the lowest point in my Laidlaw, not knowing what to do or what I could do was something I hadn’t thought of contemplating when wanting a nice summer. It was when I wanted to give up, I needed help, I couldn’t and wasn’t able to lead myself out of it.

Things started to warm up

So my project changed, I had a new sample set, I slowly got to grip with it and bit by bit rebuilt my confidence and desire to work on this project, to become a self-leader again. With the help of my supervisor and a colleague we constructed aims for the project, thought of potential end goals and began to plan a timetable of work. I didn’t have a title for the project until August, and that continually changed as the resultant data began to show interesting and unexpected trends. Instead of global cooling, I was now piecing together a story for one of the hottest periods in the last 60 million years of Earth’s climate.

A picture of a biocular microscope with a tray of washed ocean sediment beside a laptop and notebookMany weeks were spent at this microscope sifting through shells of tiny marine fossils from the ocean floor… It’s surprisingly meditative and calming work

Research isn’t easy, but it is rewarding

I have learned so much as a result of being on the Laidlaw Programme and having undertaken a summer of research. Through the Laidlaw I attended a course on using an Earth system model in Bristol, learned how to program in matlab (a computational and statistical programming language), how to efficiently and systematically crunch large amounts of data and understand stable isotope signals. I trained in how to perform state of the art geochemical procedures and was able to use some world-leading facilities for producing Boron isotope data.

Most importantly, I’ve begun to appreciate what the world of research is like: how it can be both exhilarating and exhausting to be a part of; but also the realism that things often don’t go as planned. The importance of self-leadership in research is key to a project’s success and that is something I’m only now starting to really comprehend.

Rose-tinted Preconceptions vs. Reality

At the start of the summer, it seemed easy to envision how my Laidlaw internship would play out. I would spend ten weeks doing intensive research with no distractions: no classes, no social commitments, and no overcrowded library. Furthermore, all of the restrictions imposed on term-time essays would be removed (word limits, tight deadlines) and I would be free to produce the kind of research I had always wanted to.  Instead, I learned a lot about the challenges and pitfalls of academic research.

My first setback was the discovery that my original research topic was totally infeasible. After a discussion with my supervisor (Professor Steve Murdoch) I settled on a new topic: ‘A Reconsideration of the Confessional Constituencies of the Clergy in Restoration Scotland (1660-1688)’. My plan involved constructing a database of every minister in Scotland during the Restoration (1660-1688) to test the veracity of the claim that Scotland was a predominantly Presbyterian country. This involved first researching which churches existed at the time and finding the ministers associated with them. In total, I found 2,189 ministers in 908 parishes, spread across 66 presbyteries and 12 synods.

The task of tracking down details about these ministers further undermined my rose-tinted preconceptions of what my internship would be like. Researching the first hundred ministers was fascinating as I refined my database and discovered interesting stories about many of them (Reverend James Campbell of Lundie and his torrid affair with the Countess of Buchan; Reverend Richard Duncan of Trinity-Gask and his execution on false charges of infanticide, etc.). However, as the days passed, the fascination decreased, the tedium grew, and the pace of my research slowed. I was left with a major problem: how do you stay focused when research requires the tedious collection of data for weeks on end? I developed many solutions, including a very odd music playlist, lunchtime runs on the beach, and timing everything to bring out my competitive side. After a couple of weeks I determined the perfect cocktail of caffeine and sugar for maximising efficiency. However, I was entirely disabused of the notion that long-term uninterrupted research would prove significantly easier than my term-time efforts.

There are many positive things I have learned from my work this summer. Much of my research involved combing old (predominantly Victorian) books for pertinent information. As time went on, my ability to pick out relevant passages buried in screeds of embellished prose improved dramatically. My time management also improved as I was forced to consider the implications of my plans weeks in advance. While my poor planning when writing essays has traditionally been rectified by Red Bull-fuelled all-nighters, I realized there would be no such Plan Bs if I fell a week or two behind. At the same time, the duration of the research forced me to pace myself and consider my diet, sleep, and factoring in regular leisure time. I am certainly far better prepared for any future research than I was three months ago.

Ultimately, I consider my internship to have been a success as I was able to carry a major research project to completion. I discovered that only 21% of ministers in Restoration Scotland were overtly Presbyterian, compared to 31% who were Episcopalians. This undermines a long-established orthodoxy in Scottish religious history. My highly detailed database could potentially shed further light on the Restoration Scottish church in the future. Along the way I have learned a great deal about the process of research and about myself. I am hugely grateful to everyone connected with the Laidlaw programme for giving me this opportunity.

What do mathematicians actually do?

For a few days I’ve been struggling to come up with something to write about for this blog. I don’t think the technicalities of my research would be particularly enlightening or interesting to a non-mathematician, and I feel like the other interns have done an excellent job of expressing a range of research experiences. Then inspiration struck. Whenever I’ve told someone that I’m doing research in mathematics, there’s one inevitable response: “but what do you actually do when you research maths? Hasn’t it all already been worked out?”

The second question is easy: no, and there are many new and interesting fields in modern mathematics, particularly since the rise of affordable computing. The first question is a bit harder to answer, and I’m obviously not particularly qualified to do so, but I have enough experience trying to explain myself to my parents that I’m willing to give it a shot. Please bear in mind that what follows is a mishmash of my own experience this summer, conversations with researchers in the School of Mathematics and Statistics, and a fair bit of reading on the subject – and also that my experience is heavily biased towards pure mathematics.

The first thing to decide on is what mathematics actually is. Your concept of mathematics from school years – no matter how much you liked the subject – is probably quite different to what I believe it is, and a fair amount of confusion arises from this. My go-to definition of mathematics is that it is the “formal study of structure”. I certainly don’t think this is a perfect definition, and I’m sure many mathematicians would say it’s very far from perfect. A key idea in mathematics is abstraction. Many different objects turn out to have similar structures, and it’s sometimes easier (and more efficient) to prove things about the underlying abstract structure than the individual objects. The goal of the mathematician is then to completely understand how the abstract structures behave, preferably starting from as few and as simple assumptions as possible. In particular, the mathematician would like their understanding to be rigorous: what they deduce about objects, they must be able to provide an ironclad logical proof for. This requirement for proof is what sets mathematics apart from the other sciences.

On the other hand, it’s easy to think that mathematicians just stare at a piece of paper all day until theorems pop out of their brains and onto the page. At least in my experience, this is very far from the truth. A large amount of my time this summer was occupied with experiments; in my case these experiments used a computer and whiteboards. But what sort of experiments? Well, maybe we’re just exploring the terrain, looking for any patterns that might stand out. Perhaps one parameter of our objects always seems to be a particular type of number. Perhaps two seemingly wildly different objects actually share some close properties. This stage is still a little mysterious to me – mathematicians seem to have a sixth sense for finding patterns – but there are certain natural things to look at. How big are these objects? Do they have the same structure as something I already know about? How many of them are there?

A vertex coloured directed graph

Mathematics is often a very visual subject – graphs are an excellent example of this

Other common types of experiment come during the attempting-proof stage. Particularly when you are stuck and the frustration starts to kick in, working through some individual examples often provides inspiration (and rather helpfully gives the warm fuzzy feeling of accomplishment). Why is the hypothesis true for this example? Can I generalise that reasoning to all situations?  The second type of experiment that arises here is a kind of “symbolic lottery” where you start making deductions from your starting assumptions and hope you end up somewhere that looks closer to where you want to be. This sort of experiment is rather like navigating a maze, but one in which the paths are invisible until you realise they exist. The scribbled (and frankly quite incoherent) notes from this stage are by far the most mathsy-looking thing I produced: it’s amazing what some strategically-placed underlining can do to a page.

Another thing I found myself doing a lot during the summer was talking to people. There is a classic technique in programming called “rubber ducking” where you explain your code in great detail to a rubber duck; in doing so you will discover the answer to your problem with quite impressive regularity. It works even better with a friend – and thankfully I was working in the same room as another mathematician with a tangentially related project.

I’m in danger of starting to ramble, so I will cut short this blog entry here. I look forward to hearing about everyone’s work at the (scarily fast) approaching poster event and second leadership workshop.

How do you say ‘I’ve lost the plot’ in Arabic?

I’m a month and a half removed from my Laidlaw internship and am now fully immersed in coursework, planning for post-university life, and lamenting the fact that all my favourite ‘secret’ work spaces I discovered during the summer are now overrun with other students. So immersed, in fact, that I woke up this morning with a start upon realising that, despite drafting this post during the final week of my research, I’d never actually posted it and was now nearly a month late with my submission. Of all the things that my Laidlaw experience has taught me, I think that it’s clear that my time management skills are still a work in progress.

My project this summer was called ‘Speaking Security Through Arabic: The Role of the Media in Translation’. The core of my research was rooted in incorporating the media and translation into the securitization framework. Basically, securitization is an International Relations theory that sees security as being constructed through speaker-audience interactions – by designating something as an existential threat and receiving acceptance from an audience, actors can securitize issues and legitimise the use of extraordinary measures to counter threats. While I found the theory compelling, I was interested in how audiences hear about threats (primarily through the media), and, as a joint honours student with Arabic, if there were any differences in how securitization ‘worked’ in Arabic.

In short, my research involved a lot of reading. I began by re-familiarising myself with the core works of securitization theory in order to better ground my research. However, the securitization literature is relatively sparse with regards to the media and practically barren with regards to translation. What seemed such an obvious and important connection to me had been largely neglected by my chosen framework, and I began to delve into readings from sociology, cultural studies, media studies, and translation studies. However, here is where I began to lose the plot a bit. Everything I learned was so interesting and new that I began reading without asking myself what I wanted to get out of each article or book and if it was relevant to my argument. My bibliography was piling up, but I had little to show for it.

After several productive meetings with my supervisor, my project began to regain a sense of structure. I chose my case study, comparing how Al Jazeera and The New York Times talked about the Islamic State in tandem with Ramadan during Ramadan 2016, and learned how to use LexisNexis to find the news articles I needed. I began reading the New York Times articles and translating the Al Jazeera ones, and created an extensive spreadsheet to track the securitizing language used by both publications and its effects. The scattered literature review I’d done finally had a grounding, and I was able to start seeing how my case study and the other disciplines I’d explored could provide important contributions to securitization. My final conclusions were thus: the media plays a variety of roles in securitization, translation is embedded in the reporting process and often removes the context needed for fully understanding and responding to securitizing moves, and speaking security in the media is a powerful force for both Arabic and English speaking audiences to access a variety of securitization attempts.

A fairly accurate depiction of what my brain looked like after a long day's translation

A fairly accurate depiction of what my brain looked like after a long day’s translation

Some things I’ve learned along the way:

  • Sometimes things will go wrong. Sometimes it will be your fault, and sometimes it will not, but what is more important than placing blame is how you react to it
    • My plans to go to London to interview reporters and translators covering the Middle East fell through after my ethical application took too long to be approved, but I quickly regrouped and focused on doing translations of my own and expanding my literature review
  • Be kind to yourself
    • When my Arabic translations took longer than anticipated to complete, it was easy to start getting discouraged, but it taught me to stop trying to do one thing, particularly translation, for an entire day
  • Plan for variety
    • When you’re reading for work it gets boring. Once I figured this out, I’d try to do a bit of reading, typed notes, handwritten notes, and translation every day to keep things moving, and would switch up work locations nearly every day
  • Find ways to make your research social  
    • Literature-based research is also very isolating, so I made sure to work with other interns and leave the library to grab coffee or lunch
  • Keep your research question in mind at all times

As we head into our second leadership weekend on Saturday, I am excited to see how the other interns I haven’t already caught up with have got on with their projects and focus on how to carry what we learned this summer into our final year of university and post-graduation life. I am incredibly thankful to Lord Laidlaw for his generous sponsorship of this programme, Cat and Eilidh for their organisation and guidance, my supervisor Faye Donnelly for her continued support and encouragement, and all those this summer who kept me company even on the days I was a mess of frustration and quietly muttering Arabic verb conjugations under my breath.