Shifting between languages: looking back on my project on Qashqa-Darya Arabic folktales

I’ve always been quite reluctant to confess it, but I had to come to terms with the truth: for some obscure reason I seem to enjoy grammar. Therefore what initially sparked my interested in Qashqa-Darya Arabs, a small community of few thousand people living in Uzbekistan,  was that some of them are still able to speak an Arabic dialect which displays features of at least three different languages, namely Arabic, Uzbek and Tajik (a variety of Persian). Considering that research on the speech and ethnography of this community has been carried out to a large extent in Soviet times, and therefore many of my sources were written in Russian, choosing to research this topic gave me the unique opportunity to bring together the three languages I have been studying at university: Arabic, Persian and Russian.

However my research was not only concerned with linguistics: after taking a selection of folktales from the monograph Qashqadarya Arabic Dialect of Central Asia[1], I analysed both the linguistic features of the dialect and the main folkloristic motifs displayed, trying to relate them to the collection One Thousand and One Nights and to motifs appearing in Persian and Turkic folklore. As part of my research, I arranged an interview with Prof Chikovani, author of the analysed collection, in Tbilisi, Georgia. This experience, apart from providing me with helpful knowledge of ethical implications and procedures to bear in mind when arranging an academic interview, has been highly enriching on a personal level. It also allowed me to practice my spoken Russian and network directly with scholars specialised in the study of this dialect.

Instead of discussing my findings, I would like to share here some of the challenges I faced while carrying out my research and how I overcame them. As my project highly relied on the use of secondary literature, I faced a few issues related to my sources. First of all, the topic itself, due to its comparative nature, implied the use of a great number of sources often written in foreign languages and I underestimated the difficulty of getting hold of them, in particular the ones in Russian. Libraries in the UK adopt different transcription systems for titles originally written in other scripts. This means that titles originally written in Cyrillic most frequently appear on library catalogues after being converted into Latin characters, but libraries adopt different conventions. As a consequence, one has to try countless different transliterations to find the right title. As well as that, reading papers in Russian took me roughly three times longer than I initially expected, making me quickly fall behind on my schedule. At first I concentrated on getting a hold of sources I considered to be essential, but I soon came to question the reliability of some of them, having to readjust my plan accordingly and starting to look for alternative sources. Finally, I spent a large amount of time looking for material which, as I eventually found out, had never been published and can only be accessed by visiting an archive in Saint Petersburg. These complications at times made it difficult to stick to my original plan, although eventually I completed my research successfully.

Dealing with these issues taught me the importance of flexibility. I continuously readapted my plans to the circumstances, while bearing in mind the original aims of my project. The main lesson I learnt was that although being ambitious is undoubtedly good, I should be more realistic when setting my goals, taking into account the aforementioned problems that might arise when dealing with a large number of sources. Apart from that, the experience of the project taught me a great deal on a personal level: how self-leadership is important in maintaining one’s determination when working towards a goal, in particular when facing difficulties, and how to best manage my time and plan efficiently.

In conclusion, I would like to express my gratitude both to Lord Laidlaw for this amazing opportunity which turned out to be extremely enriching and to my supervisor Dr Elmaz for his precious help, valuable expertise and eclectic knowledge.

[1] Chikovani, G., Kashkadar’inskij Arabskij Dialekt Central’noj Azii, Mtsignobari, Tbilisi, 2008

Using Fungi to Study Telomeres

I spent my summer working with the Ferreira Lab in the School of Biology. Dr Ferreira and his team are interested in genome dynamics, particularly chromatin remodelling and telomere maintenance. After a lab tour and a cup of tea, Dr Ferreira helped me map out a project that looked at the role of the SUMO modification during telomere elongation. To do this, he explained, I could use a yeast system that allowed me to induce elongation and then purify SUMO modified proteins for identification. It’s a nifty idea, I promise, but the execution was somewhat messy.

Telomeres are the protective structures found at the ends of our chromosomes. Over time they get shorter until a critical length is reached and their protective function is lost. Some cells, like stem cells and tumour cells, are able to circumvent this by elongating short telomeres. Fundamental questions about how the elongation response is coordinated remain, and my project aimed to identify whether the Small Ubiquitin like Modifier (SUMO) protein is involved. To do this I would genetically modify yeast to express a tagged SUMO protein that I could use to purify SUMOylated targets. If I could identify the targets of SUMO I could infer the functional role of the modification during elongation.

Working with yeast as a model system came with some challenges, although not the interesting sort that biologists working with livelier organisms face. Yeast are tough fungal cells that persist in the presence of damaging enzymes and various mechanical stressors. This means that litres of culture are required to obtain a high yield of protein for analysis. I spent many days transferring yeast from one culture medium to another and waiting for them to grow enough of my precious SUMO proteins.

During this time I gained an appreciation for the patience and persistence that many scientists must have. From the conception of an idea to the publication of a research paper, the scientific process is a long and complex one. My research project allowed me to experience this process in a way that undergraduates rarely get to. The lab was quiet and slow over the damp Scottish Summer because most people were holidaying in places with more sun and significantly less yeast. The contact I had with my supervisor was limited as he was busy writing a paper, but this allowed me to work almost independently. I made many mistakes during the initial weeks but with practice and a little help from the PhD students, I was working confidently and more efficiently. I picked up new lab skills, attended weekly team meetings and learned how to troubleshoot problems.

Unfortunately, I was unable to achieve my goal of discovering something new, albeit small, in the field of telomere biology. When I began to organise the finer details of the project I felt confident that nine weeks would be a comfortable timeframe. Thirteen weeks and litres of yeast culture later, I realised that I was naïve. Reading the blog posts of my fellow Laidlaw Scholars, I noticed a theme – research is unpredictable and at times frustrating. I certainly felt frustrated when I discovered that the protein tag I was using was inappropriate for my experiment and rendered weeks of work unnecessary. However, an important and sadly underreported aspect of science is that negative results often guide us in the direction of the correct conclusion.

Messy lab featuring me and some yeast cultures

An Icelandic treasure hunt and a lesson in resilience

I went to Iceland in search of treasure. Not quite a pirate chest, but treasure of the scientific sort; rare granites in a country composed overwhelmingly of basalt. To help me in this I had a map, a geological one with orange dots in place of scrawled crosses to lead me to the granites. My hope was that tracking down these rocks and sampling them for analysis back at our cutting-edge labs would tell me whether the crust is juvenile and primitive throughout its depth or whether an ancient hidden continent lies underneath part of Iceland.

Organising the logistics took a lot of planning, but I started months in advance and encountered no major setbacks. So it was in high spirits that my field assistant and I flew out to Iceland, got hold of our hire car and set off along the route I had planned. We drove right across Iceland to my first orange dot, and lo and behold there was granite there and it was beautiful and everything was great.

Does it all sound a bit too good to be true?

Flash forward a few days to me standing in a windswept narrow gully in remote eastern Iceland. The stream frothed at my feet; the white heatless sun drew out vivid colours in the cliff that rose sheer and jagged from the churning water. I had travelled thousands of miles to see this granite, had crossed Iceland, had spent the morning edging our car across a gravel mountain pass and the afternoon hiking up a gully. I was finally standing in the right spot on my treasure map, with one thought painfully dawning on me as I looked at the rock.

It wasn’t granite.

A beautiful hike to some cool but unexpected rocks

This set the tone for the rest of the trip. Doggedly chasing the orange dots, I found myself standing in grassy fields with no rocks in sight; in a river looking at basalt; and perhaps most frustratingly at the bottom of half-kilometre high unstable scree slopes with rocks at the top which could well have been granite, but which were well out of my reach. I came up against chained gates festooned with warning signs; rocks so solid I could barely sample them, and others so crumbly they weren’t worth sampling; and a pack of very angry dogs.

In situations such as these it can be really hard to know what to do. And when you’re miles from civilisation, dripping wet, hungry, tired, and have already stumbled your way through a dozen misfortunes that day, it becomes even harder.

There isn’t a magic solution to all of this – or if there is, I haven’t found it yet. When the world doesn’t go along with your elegant research plans, your choices are to give up and cry or toughen up and laugh. I can safely say that my fieldwork in Iceland involved a lot of laughing!

What can you do when the road you wanted to follow is closed?

 

It didn’t stop with the fieldwork of course. For some reason I thought everything would just fall into place when I got my samples back to St Andrews, but I still had science to do. It seemed that every piece of equipment I needed broke just when I needed it, with a sad little beep or an impressive smoky bang. Several times through the summer it looked like, for all my hard work in the field, I might not get any quantitative data at all.

It’s amazing how things work out though. A chance encounter opened up the opportunity to use a different sort of analysis on my samples, and produced an intriguing, albeit inconclusive, dataset. A lot of persistence eventually did result my rocks getting powdered, so at the eleventh hour I did get some geochemical data. I also had the opportunity to melt some of my samples in the name of science, and making lava is, as you might expect, absolutely awesome.

I think the main thing I will take away from this research project is resilience to weather the low points of research, knowing that things can turn on a sixpence and opportunities can fly up from nowhere if you explore all avenues available to you, make the most of what you’ve got, and stick at it.

I would like to take the opportunity to thank Lord Laidlaw and everyone involved in organising this incredible scheme. It has been a very valuable experience and believe it or not, despite the bumps along the road (and the occasional lack of roads) I have enjoyed it immensely!

These guys decided to keep me company during one of my days in the field!

Chemical harpoon proteins

Image

Over the course of this summer I looked at bacterial adhesion proteins of Gram-positive bacteria. These adhesins, proteins found on the surface of bacteria, mediate binding to host tissues which is the first step in an infection process (Figure 1). Given the rise in antibiotic resistance, adhesins are an interesting new target for drugs that combat bacterial infections because unlike antibiotics, which kill bacteria and thereby create a strong selective pressure to develop resistance, targeting adhesins does not target bacterial viability.


Figure 1. Adhesion of Lactococcus lactis to the protein fibrin which is involved in blood clotting (Photo taken by Professor Manfred Rhode, Helmholtz Center for Infection Research Braunschweig).

My research focussed on thioester domain proteins (TEDs) of vancomycin-resistant Enterococci and Clostridium difficile, two pathogens of particular interest because of the hospital acquired infections they cause and their resistance to a vast number of antibiotics. TEDs were termed ‘chemical harpoon proteins’ because of the strong covalent bonds they form to a target (this is outlined by Dr. Schwarz-Linek in a video where he explains the the chemical harpoon mechanism  https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/stories/2017/breaking-bonds).

The first step in my project was getting from a DNA sequence, encoding the TED, to a purified protein for use in structural studies, which as it turned out required a lot of work and optimization. Purifying the VRE-TED took up the first four weeks of the project because the VRE protein turned out to not be stable in solution. This meant that crystallization trials could not be performed and as a result one of my aims, solving the structure of the VRE-TED using X-ray crystallography, suddenly became unreachable. By the time I had designed a new construct and was ready to start over from the beginning I had run out of time. Luckily, some information could be gained from the first construct, revealing which exact amino acid forms the thioester bond about the VRE-TED.

Contrarily to the VRE-TED, cloning, transformation, expression and purification of the second TED went incredibly well. Normally a lot of optimization, for example finding the optimal pH, temperature or buffer for protein expression, is required until a pure, stable protein is obtained and can be used in structural studies. The most exciting moment of the whole project was obtaining a photo of a crystal of the C. difficile TED after weeks of work leading up to this result (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Crystals of purified CdTIE-B-TED were used in X-ray crystallography to obtain diffraction images.

Another aspect of my research was looking at binding of TEDs to six different cell lines, for example to colon cells and fibroblasts. I used two C. difficile TEDs that had been engineered to contain a tag which allows detection by fluorescence. No binding was detected for any of the cell lines which made the cell binding experiments rather frustrating. Luckily my supervisor has a very pessimistic, some might say realistic, view on outcomes of experiments and reminded me that whatever experiment I was doing, it would very likely not work. This lowered my expectations and made me appreciate any results and made accepting that once again after a long day of carrying out a cell binding experiment none of the TEDs had bound to any cells more bearable.

Looking back at the eight weeks spent in the Schwarz-Linek Group has made me realise and appreciate how much I have learned. One of the most beneficial aspects was the environment I was in. Being surrounded by Master and PhD students allowed me to discuss the challenges of scientific research I experienced while carrying out my own project. It has also given me a more realistic view of the life of a PhD student and has thereby changed my expectations towards a PhD.

This experience has opened my eyes to the world of actual scientific research and made me value the few, sometimes unexpected, results which in my opinion make research worth it. I am very thankful that the Laidlaw Undergraduate Internship in Research and Leadership Programme 2017 funded this project and gave me this incredible opportunity and for the amazing supervision and guidance of Dr. Schwarz-Linek and Ona Miller.

Which meteorites built the Earth? – Constraints from the Cu isotope signal of plate tectonics

Cover image: artists impression of the Hadean Earth (copyright Ron Miller)

I have spent my summer thinking about some of the biggest questions in Earth & Planetary Science:

Which materials built the Earth?

How has the process of plate tectonics served to mix as well as segregate layers of the Earth in terms of their composition?

Does does the answer to the second question inform the first?

It’s been great fun, and whilst big advances in science are hard to come by I certainly value this unique opportunity to spend my time grappling with such topics – it’s certainly given me a taste of what a career in academia would bring. Aiding my quest was my supervisor, the St Andrews Isotope Geochemistry Lab (STAiG) and my own wits.

My supervisor, Dr Paul Savage, is a specialist in non-traditional stable isotope geochemistry. This means that he is a world-leading expert in the science of using mass variants of a given element (in this case, copper or ‘Cu’) to trace magmatic, metamorphic and metasomatic (high temperature fluid) processes. His work has already yielded insights into the formation of Earth’s core, a process that separated metal and highly siderophile (literally ‘metal-loving’) from lithophile (oxygen-loving) elements on a vast scale around 4.5 billion years ago.

Many questions remain in this area and Cu isotopes are uniquely poised as a geoscientific tool to help us solve them. In particular, the cycling of sulphur (S) during the process of plate tectonics – the single most important aspect of terrestrial geology – must be constrained in order to understand how Cu isotope compositions have evolved over deep time. Without knowing this for certain, any models that try to match primitive meteorites (chondrites) to the Earth on the basis of their Cu will be forever doubtful (Fig. 1).

(Figure 1: the Cu isotope range of primitive meteorites and the offset between an model chondritic bulk composition for the Earth and estimates of the actual composition – processes involved in core formation may explain this discrepancy; adapted from Savage et al, 2015)

I studied an aspect of this problem by analysing Cu isotopes from rocks that sample the depths of a ‘fossil’ subduction zone. Subduction zones are places where dense oceanic crust sinks beneath a buoyant continent; this is the key distinguishing feature of terrestrial geology and acts to continually resurface the Earth, bring continents together and split them apart (the cycle of plate tectonics). When subduction beneath a given continent stops, usually due to another encroaching continental mass, a portion of the oceanic crust literally rebounds back up the subduction channel – a process known as obduction (Fig. 2).

(Figure 2: simplified illustrations of key tectonic processes – adapted from msnucleus.org)

Eventual collision of the two continents results in folding of the oceanic crust into layers far up in mountain ranges (‘ophiolites’) – such as the Zermatt-Saas ophiolite, which I visited last summer on a university-lead 4th year field excursion (Fig. 3). It’s a spectacular place and instantly fascinated me, so I jumped at the opportunity to work on samples from this area.

(Figure 3: The Matterhorn – this piece of once subducted oceanic crust now stands tall as an icon of the Western Alps)

The idea here is that, as rocks subduct down into the mantle, pressure and temperature conditions steadily rise. This often results in dehydration of the down-going slab, at which point the chemistry of those released fluids becomes important. If they are rich in S then, depending on whether we have sulphide or sulphate, Cu isotopes should be preferentially stripped from the sinking oceanic rock (as has been previously demonstrated for zinc – see Inglis et al, 2017) Overall, this would lead to an evolution of Cu isotope compositions in the deep and upper mantle (as well as the crustal rocks derived from it) over time. Our models of the initial Cu isotope composition of the Earth would therefore need to take this into account, with probable implications for which meteorites they predict to be the most likely building blocks of our world.

Using the world class clean lab and mass spectrometry set up of the STAiG lab, I set about dissolving my rocks in acid and stripping out all the unwanted elements from solution until all I had left was Cu (hopefully). This is a somewhat agonizing process that takes weeks and requires long hours in the lab, but as a geochemist at heart this was no great trouble. In the last few weeks of my internship, my supervisor and I ran the isolated Cu solutions on the Neptune mass spectrometer.

The early results are that subduction does influence Cu isotopes, although the story is complex and I am wary of making definitive statements just yet. I intend to continue working on this outside of my funded research time, compile more data and read ever deeper – hopefully by the time of the poster session later this month I will have a more complete story to share about the dynamic processes that govern our world and its origin, more than four and a half billion years ago…

References:

Inglis, E. C. et al, 2017, Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, DOI 10.1002/2016GC006735.

Savage, P. S. et al, 2015, GPL, 1, pp. 53-64, doi: 10.7185/geochemlet.1506.

msnucleus.org – accessed 10/9/17

 

Mission Creep: the unplanned twists and turns of my project.

Mission creep: ‘the tendency for a task, especially a military operation, to become unintentionally wider in scope than its initial objective’ (Collins Dictionary, 2017).

Mission Creep first surfaced in my project as the theoretical concept I would use to examine the evolution of the Libyan intervention from the initial limited aim of protecting civilians to the more grandiose aim of removing Gaddafi and enacting regime change. I applied the concept of mission creep to my analysis of language present in the media and the speeches of Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy to uncover how they managed to re-frame the mission as one to remove Colonel Gaddafi.

Protests in Libya again the foreign intervention into what was considered Libyan internal affairs.

To my surprise, I soon began to realise that the concept of mission creep was becoming so much more than just a small area of my analysis. As the first few weeks passed I began to see the real life applications of this concept. I started the project with the belief that I would first analyse the concepts of white and western supremacy, before moving on to researching the 2011 Libya intervention, in which I would examine the role of oil interests in Libya, and the role of the media and western leaders in enacting mission creep. This would then be neatly tied up into a poster and report within ten weeks.

How wrong I was.

Slowly, almost without my notice, my own mission began to creep. My good intentions meant that my mission had started out well defined in my mind, set out in manageable chunks week by week. I envisioned a smooth 10-week programme, in which I would have no problems focusing on the research questions at hand. However, my mission slowly expanded every day. Daily I would come across another concept that I found interesting, or another instance of western supremacy in Libya, and I would set out down that rabbit hole of research. I was finding it very difficult to establish the parameters of my research project. This resulted in frustration when I realised that I couldn’t possibly cover every single aspect of the study due to practical reasons, such as time limits.

Fortunately, being the practical soul that I am, I sought advice from my ever-patient supervisor, Dr Hazel Cameron. She reminded me that there was only so much I could achieve within the ten weeks allocated to this project, and to refocus on what really mattered- the crux of the project which was the foundational concept of western supremacy. Although it might seem somewhat simplistic, reminding myself every now and then to ‘think back to the question’ as it were, helped immensely in keeping my ambitions in check. She helped me to see how to break my project down in manageable chunks, and once I had compiled a document with a more in-depth week-to-week outline, and the points of study for my project, everything suddenly came back into focus.

In retrospect, it is somewhat good to see evidence of ‘mission creep’ in our projects. It is a reminder that we have chosen incredibly interesting topics to study, topics which we are passionate about and can see a future for. Finding yourself researching an avenue you had never expected is simply evidence of your interest in your chosen topic, and your dedication to the project.  I am thankful to have had the opportunity to pursue this project, especially since I found so many different aspects of the study that I would never have been aware of before this. My main takeaway from this is that mission creep- unless intervening in another state- is not always a bad thing!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Lord Laidlaw, and the Laidlaw Undergraduate Programme for Research and Leadership 2017 for the opportunity to undertake this research. It has been immensely valuable for me to explore the world of research projects, and I cannot thank everyone involved enough for this.

References

1. ‘Hands off Libya’, Al Jazeera.

 

 

From Aleppo to Aldi; Reflections on Conducting Ethnographic Fieldwork with Resettled Refugees.

We are all accustomed to the gruesome details of the Syrian civil war; the chemical weapons, political upheaval and mass displacement of populations sprawling over borders throughout the Middle-East and into Central Europe. The perpetual media coverage and echo chambers of Facebook paint lucid pictures in our minds of desperate refugees huddled in boats, clinging to life in cross-continental escapes, waiting for a glimpse of life in a new country. Political turmoil in the West has appropriated this ‘humanitarian’ crisis for the purpose of votes, fuelling the toxic ‘us and them’ narrative perpetuated by so many during recent political campaigns.

My research aimed to boil down these sweeping discourses into a humanist worldview that points to the ways in which issues of displacement transcend refugee experience, investigating the facets of resettlement that at one time or another any human on planet earth may face. In conducting the research I negotiated many obstacles concerning methodology and ethics, this brief blog posts aims to reflect on some of these experiences to assist future interns who are conducting fieldwork. I do not claim to have any authority; these are merely my experiences but they may offer some small insight into some of the ways in which fieldwork and its methodological accoutrements may be conducted.

To illustrate the ways in which issues of displacement transcend refugee experience I focussed my investigation on actors involved in the process of relocation who situated themselves at a grassroots level. Most prevalent of these groups was the work of volunteers who provided multiple services to newly resettled refugees; teaching English, providing social support, and engaging individuals in community during the preliminary stages of relocation.

By becoming a volunteer with an organisation offering support to refugees I was able to offer my services and conduct my research in an ethically sound manner while immersing myself in the quotidian experiences of those at the forefront of my investigation. Ethnographic inquiry is a relational process, as researchers we should strive for emotional reflexivity and situate ourselves within the field, these methodological choices will ultimately influence the depth of analysis we afford ourselves at the end of fieldwork. As Shore recognises ‘fieldwork is an emotional encounter as well as an intellectual exercise…’ (1999: 27-29). Thus, one piece of advice would be to situate yourself as close to your subject of study as possible, this allows the above to flourish and makes fieldwork less of a chore while giving you the opportunity to experience your research in a holistic sense, removed from books and journal articles.

Setting up a fieldsite and ultimately playing a role within an organisation is a daunting thought at the start of research. Through emails and phone calls I found I built up a confidence in relaying the aims of my research and distilling the objectives into bite size abstracts that could be understood by anyone I spoke to. This was also incredibly beneficial for me personally as it allowed me constantly hone in on what it actually was I aimed to find out –  a problem all students share throughout the process of research. These skills were particularly important as I was denied access for my initial fieldsite and had to find a new site that was consistent with my research proposal; focusing more thoroughly on one of my research aims allowed a much more interesting discussion to form from the rubble of my first attempt.

As my research progressed I identified a number of individuals who would become my key informants and through time would influence and inform my project to a large degree. These individuals were people I had built up a relationship with or had offered their help as they found out about the work I was doing. After gaining ethical approval from the organisation and the individuals themselves I begun to formulate questions stemming from ideas I had about the research. Conducting semi-structured open-ended interviews with volunteers was conducive to the informant-led approach to ethnography my research pertained to. As Malinowksi stated, the goal of ethnography is ‘to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world’ (1922:25). Although native is a bit strong in today’s ‘culturally sensitive’ Anthropology the point still holds firm; let the interviewee talk and do more listening than anything else, it is their story that you are there to capture.

By recording interviews on my phone, I was able to let the interviewee lead the conversation and move from topic to topic in an organic form, allowing pauses and un-related thoughts to pepper the interview was a great mechanism that put the individual at ease and also afforded supplementary information to be gained from the interviews. Recording also allowed me to reflect heavily on the interviews while spending a large amount of time transcribing, this is one thing to keep in mind – every 15 minutes of recording takes around 1 hour to transcribe.

Ethics play a crucial role within ethnographic field work; consent is the operative word. While conducting my research I found it natural to write down notes left, right and centre, believing that all these ideas and overheard conversations would fill my write up with intimate knowledge or never-before-heard insights into my subject area. However, it is crucial to bear in mind that much of the events and conversations you experience while conducting research will // should not make it into the final write up because the people you are quoting are unaware of your identity as a researcher. As a whole, covert research is deceptive and ethically un-sound, it does not give your informants the respect they deserve. Furthermore, it may undermine your whole project and blow any chances of re-visiting the fieldsite in the future. As arduous and mind-numbing it can be, to conduct research in a credible manner ethics applications must be observed and full consent given from your informants. If you respect this you will find, as I found, that people open up and trust you more fully knowing that the intentions behind the research are for the purpose of furthering knowledge and not pulling skeletons out the the closet. With my ethics cleared and consent forms signed I found it fulfilling to talk to people knowing that the data I gathered was solid and could be used in the write-up, while maintaining the relationships I had fostered in the field.

As this discussion illustrates ethnographic inquiry is messy work and involves a lot of flexibility, re-drawing of plans, and constant negotiations. However, at this late stage in the internship with my final piece and poster nearly finished, it is fulfilling to reflect on the journey I have been through. The skills I have learned on the ground – conducting interviews, writing notes, observing events with an analytical eye – and the confidence I have gained in the logistics of planning research – emails, phone calls and meetings – are things I would never have developed making coffee for corporate parrots in an office somewhere. I have also met a great bunch of individuals who are working hard to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people integrate into life in Scotland. While the personal relationships I formed with Syrians over the past few months are not temporary, they will last far beyond this internship. All in all, it’s been a privilege.

 

Lasering rocks in Norway

Rocks won’t come to you, so you’ll have to go to them: one of my reaons for studying Geology! My Laidlaw project concerns an area in Norway, so I spent ten days studying the rocks over there. This involved lasering them with a novel spectrometer, which formed the crux of my project.

When continents collide, the immense resulting forces thrust rock bodies onto each other. These rock slivers, ‘nappes’, can get stacked into huge ‘imbricates’ (figure 1). The creation of such intricate structures is often linked to the presence of a weak layer, e.g. a muddy horizon that acts as a “grease”.For my Laidlaw project, I studied such an area, the Porsa Imbricate Stack in Northern Norway, where stacking seems to be enabled by the abundant graphitic slates.

fig. 1 – cross-section of the Porsa Imbricate Stack, note all the tiny slivers on the left!

Graphite (e.g. your pencil lead) is essentially organic matter that became crystalline under exposure to high temperatures, deep in the Earth. This process, graphitisation, is gradual and irreversible, which makes graphitisation an indicator of the maximum temperature a rock experienced (fig 2)

fig. 2 – diagram of graphitisation (2)

This is were the laser gun comes in. By measuring the ‘Raman’ backscattering of the laser hitting the rock, you get a spectrum that tells you the rock’s graphitisation grade (fig 3). Normally, one would have to collect many samples and analyse the rocks at home, but this new handheld device allows you to measure the spectra right in the field.

fig 3. example of an Raman spectrum. The area & height ratios of the peaks will change, depending on the temperature the rock was exposed to.

However, this involves having software that quickly analyses the spectra for you. This, I came to realise over the latter course of my project, is far from a wee two-week task! Especially obtaining an accurate spectrum-temperature correlation turned to out to be difficult. Each Raman set-up gives a different “signature” to the theoretical spectra, which makes it impossible to take a correlation from another paper (that uses different equipment) without incurring some level of error (1). I did manage to create a functioning, accurate fitter, but until we manage to obtain calibration data on our samples, the data can only interpreted as relative, not absolute temperatures. Sadly though, I won’t be able to obtain those constraints before the end of the summer: the lab technician is on holiday, the convential laser in the chemistry building is about to move away and my supervisor left to the States for fieldwork…

Thus, whilst I’m currently trying to finish the report and poster, it will be another while before our laser gun is completely fit for work. I’m very keen to keep working on this though; hopefully fourth year will leave me at least a bit of time for that. Research projects like this often make little impact, but I’m excited that this project might just slightly contribute to enhancing our “old-fashioned” field trip equipment (hammer, hand lens, compass) with compact analytical devices as this one.

Overall, the Laidlaw internship has been very rewarding and enjoyable, but there also were harder moments every now and then. Especially after a month of dissertation field work in June, keeping myself motivated in Norway sometimes was difficult. The overall research question, furthermore, is becoming larger and more difficult, the more I look into it; it’s quite a challenge to keep the report’s synthesis neatly framed.

Part of the excitement of Laidlaw lied in that somebody apparently deemed you ready to do academic research! Whilst of course I still feel pretty unknowledgeable compared to my supervisor and all the other staff in the department, I do feel I gained confidence throughout my internship. I really enjoyed completely submerging myself into my research topic and learning more and more about it, something I’ll definitely look for when planning out my future.

Lastly, I’d like to express my gratitude towards my supervisor Tim Raub for his time, patience, guidance and sharing his inspiring thoughts, Catriona and Eilidh for organising such thought-provoking, inspiring events and Lord Laidlaw for offering me this invaluable opportunity.

the “office” in Norway, bathing in the midnight sun

The field area on a sunny day

A nicely folded volcanic rock in the mapping area.

Example of the graphitic slates in the mapping area, with some quartz veins running through them.

References:
1: Kjøll, H.J. (2015) Structural Evolution of the Porsa Imbricate Stack (Finnmark, Northern Norway) [master’s thesis: NTNU]
2: Gao, Fengge. (2002). The future prospect of polymer nanocomposites in reinforcement application. e-Polymer. 2. T_004.

Genetic Modifications, Memories and the Smell of Mice

Have you ever had something on your mind and suddenly forgot what it was? The way our brains function, and sometimes don’t, is fascinating. During my project I have been working with genetically modified mice and looking at the ways memories are coded in the brain. Half of the mice had a special gene inserted which resulted in a termination of the function of the layer II of lateral entorhinal cortex (LEC), one of two major inputs to the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is crucial for episodic memory. The aim of my experiment was to examine the role of layer II of LEC in episodic memory formation.

In combination with the lab work, Laidlaw events and action learning sets, the first weeks of my internship passed very quickly. At the beginning, I was handling mice and habituating them to a box in which the testing took place in the following weeks. This was happening in a clean unit where people need to have a special access or be on good terms with lab technicians to let them in. I had to wear overalls on top of my clothes and also shoe covers. Even though the clothing prevents contaminating the unit, it does not protect researchers from acquiring animal smells. If you guessed that I started smelling like a mouse, you were right (subsequent apology to the people who sat near me at networking lunches).

Testing consisted of four behavioural tasks, each running for a single week. These tasks involved combinations of objects, places and contexts that were presented to the mice. Every trial was recorded on a video and I subsequently measured how much each mice was exploring the objects in particular settings. It was hypothesized that the exploration times in relation to novel and familiar configurations of objects, places and contexts would differ between control and experimental mice. This part of my internship was rather lengthy and initially it was difficult for me to estimate how much time it would take. It has taught me the lesson that in science everything lasts much longer than one initially estimates. The internship has given me invaluable experience to successfully designing my future research projects.

Experimental setup: A mouse is presented with new and familiar objects.

Indeed, the Laidlaw internship programme has confirmed me in my decision to pursue research in the future. I am definitely going to apply for a PhD in neuroscience and I believe that the experience I gained by participating in this programme will help me to secure a good place. I have learned a lot during my internship not only about the brain but also about leadership. I am now designing my poster and look forward to presenting my findings at the poster event and the Northern hub conference. I am very grateful to Lord Laidlaw for this amazing opportunity. I would also like to thank Cat and Eilidh from CAPOD who have been organising for us a number of exciting events. It has been a blast!

Viewing Nature with Hopkins

Have you ever ventured out into the natural world to find yourself meeting it with a sense of rapture, of ecstasy? Gerard Manley Hopkins certainly did. Maybe the sun was shining, maybe the rain pouring. You might have been alone, with a close friend or in a crowd. Whatever the way, you found yourself looking out on the world as though it is charged with power and joy. Some might call this experience numinous, others mystical. Some might think nothing of it at all.When I first read the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins I knew he had a sense for the wildness of things, of nature, of birds and trees, and that he had a taste for their meaning. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,”[1] he exclaims, and calls his readers to engage with the created world. “Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!” he says, look at the “May-mess” and the “march-bloom.”[2] Though Hopkins writes about far more than just nature, for him a viewer who engages fully with the natural world thereby engages with God.

But why? We begin to catch a glimpse of the answer in the sestet of Hopkins’ sonnet, already quoted, The Starlight Night. With regards the wonder of the stars, and the majesty of the march-bloom, Hopkins explains

These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

For Hopkins, the world can barely contain the glory of God harboured within, ready to announce itself to the observant viewer, who, in rapturous response “rears wings bold and bolder/ and hurls for him [God/Christ], O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.”[3]

One of the purposes of my project was to consider how Hopkins’ view of nature fits within the wider Christian tradition. What is it rooted in and where might it lead?

To consider the first question I turned to John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan philosopher of the 13th century. Scotus’ influence on Hopkins is well documented, and even noted by Hopkins himself. Scotus’ most important innovation relates to the Christian idea of the incarnation. For most Christian theologians, the incarnation happened in response to and as a remedy for humanity’s sinfulness. Scotus, however, held the minority view that God would have become human even if humanity had not fallen into sin. Rather, the human incarnation of God was forever intended to be the glorious culmination of God’s plan of creation. Related to this idea is the notion that creation itself is a revelation of God a) because what artist can create something that does not reflect themselves? and b) because God is in the business of self-disclosure. Whilst any medieval scholastic philosopher would have agreed that the Good is self-communicative, Scotus’ vision is stronger than that because he emphasised that each thing expresses God in its own individual way, because of its individuality.

Where might this all lead us? To Thomas Merton, an avid reader of both Scotus and Hopkins. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who lived in the 20th century. He was a convert, a writer, a political activist, and a spiritual master for millions of Americans and people worldwide. Merton, drawing on Scotus, taught that each thing, simply by being itself, gives praise and glory to God. What’s more, such a message is central to the Merton’s understanding of Christianity; the human task is to simply be our true selves, stripped of disguise, pretence, anxiety and striving. If trees and flowers can do it, he asked, why can’t we?

Obviously these sorts of questions go deep and deeper, and can be approached from a hundred and one angles. I just know that when I go for a walk in the rain through the woods or along the Fife coastal path something in me comes alive like at no other time. Reading Hopkins I know that he had those experiences too, which is why I continue to read and enjoy him. I am grateful to Lord Laidlaw and the Laidlaw Undergraduate Internship in Research and Leadership for this opportunity to have studied Hopkins’ poetry under the magnifying glass. For now I am left with more questions than I started with but perhaps that is to be expected. Still, I look forward to further exploring the natural world, to more deeply reading Hopkins, and to pondering the big questions of life, all from somewhere within the Christian Tradition.

[1] Gerard Manley Hopkins God’s Grandeur
[2] Gerard Manley Hopkins The Starlight Night
[3] Ibid.