Graham Priest: A True Leader

President, Australasian Association for Logic; Chair of the Council, Australasian Association of Philosophy; Elected Life Member, Clare Hall, Cambridge… With more than 240 papers published and 6 books, the list of his achievements never seems to end. The distinguished Professor Graham Priest has had an impressive academic career, to say the least, but what differentiates him from most people is far from an impressive award, it is the example he sets, it is his natural and wise leadership that really makes him stand out and, ultimately, the reason why you are now reading a post on what he represents.

Graham Priest [2]

Graham priest is exactly the kind of person that defies the stereotype, held both outside and inside of academia, that a great academic cannot be a well-rounded person, that a man that is capable of producing research at the very edge of knowledge does not have the time to be well read in many other fields; that he cannot understand the complexities and intricacies of art if he has spent too long thinking about mathematical sciences or that he cannot possibly have the time to exercise on a regular basis or practice tai-chi. This common belief comes from the apparent fact that the cost of being a renowned expert must have been that you only had time to specialise in that one thing and nothing more. It partly comes from a western idea that developing the body antagonises the goal of developing the mind. And it comes from the thought that if that you, by any chance, have the highest academic goals, then you must give up all those other hobbies and interests that you enjoy and take up a good part of your day because they are a waste of time.

I think this is exactly the wrong way to approach life and that Graham Priest is a valuable leader because he sets a path for many to follow that illustrates how to go about getting rid of this dangerous stereotype. Graham Priest is a leader that inspires me on many fronts, the academic is only one of them. He clearly has achieved academic excellence, which I think is admirable in itself. But the kind of excellence that he brings to the table is uncommon. He is an integral academic, one that is not afraid to cross boundaries between subjects like mathematics, philosophy, politics, psychology and after graduating from a maths degree at Cambridge he went on to spend almost the rest of his life exploring all the sorts of philosophy areas one could think of. He dares not vow to the traditional canon of overspecialisation; instead, he takes initiative and links ideas together in a creative way. People have only recently started to realise the importance of interdisciplinary richness and how an unexpected piece of knowledge in one area might spark a brilliant idea in some other.

Graham Priest and his caption saying:  “…and the Scottish water was bloody freezing” [3]

Priest challenges stereotypes, thinks outside the box, brings together fields that most people often categorise as completely separated and disjoint: mathematics and philosophy, eastern and western traditions, philosophy and martial arts… These are all examples of things he has combined as if they were not that different to begin with (they probably are not). Priest is a leader that shows originality and lives a congruent life, he has great influence through his work and yet he is never pretentious. His humbleness is one of his main virtues when we analyse why he is a great leader. Moreover, he leads a healthy life and remains approachable and friendly (which I know from my personal experience). As the pre-socratic philosopher Thales once said: “What man is happy? ‘He who has a healthy body, a resourceful mind and a docile nature’.”[1] I suggest the reader one must learn from Thales, remember to never be content with just a resourceful mind and aspire to all three.


My Laidlaw research has led me to work extensively with philosophy of mathematics, a field Graham Priest has led for several years. In particular, his two books In Contradiction and Non-Classical Introduction to Logic have been extremely useful in my research. He is someone I truly look up to but not just because of his intellectual achievements but because of who he is and how he lives his life. To me, that is exactly the kind of legacy that I look for in a good leader and not just an example of how to be good at one particular thing but an integral example of how to lead a superb life altogether.


I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw and everyone that took part in this joint effort to make this scholarship happen. Overall, I think I have made really good progress and I feel fortunate to be learning so much through my research project and the leadership workshops.


[1] As quoted by Diogenes Laërtius. Accessed from Perseus Digital Library: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/

[2] Graham Priest. Photo by Maureen Eckert. Accessed from http://grahampriest.net/

[3] Graham Priest by the North Sea in Scotland. Accessed from http://grahampriest.net/

My Global Minimum

I’ll start by introducing my research, but I don’t want to lose my good audience so I’ll keep it brief. I’m just over two weeks in and, despite some rough debugging, I have by now settled into a fairly comfortable tempo. I’ve been working with machine learning algorithms, the same kind of techniques used by the likes of Facebook and Google to target ads on the internet, and applying them to solve problems in physical chemistry. The hot topic of the day in machine learning is the deep neural network, which aims to mimic the way animals and people learn (in a much simplified way) to find patterns in vast amounts of data. The network is taught to recognise some particular feature in the data using a training algorithm.

If you think of the variables in the network as defining a landscape, with hills and valleys, then the algorithm learns by running downhill. It’s chasing after the lowest point, the so-called global minimum, where it has learned everything it possibly can from what it has been given. I picture the algorithm as a little hiker trying to find its way home, traversing a perilous path over towering mountains and gaping ravines. Every leap carries with it a risk that the numbers will suddenly explode away to infinity and the hiker will lose its way forever, but if it is too timid it can get stuck in the safety of a local minimum, lacking the courage to make the jump over the next hill. With every improvement added it’s almost heartwarming to see it develop into a confident navigator of this unpredictable terrain.That it can learn to replicate the complicated and often unintuitive results of quantum chemistry – with no guidance but the raw data – is a testament to its flexibility, and although it’s really a simple model I get a kick out of musing that it sheds light on the process of learning in general. I even wonder if there is not a (somewhat strained) comparison to leadership in there somewhere. One recurring theme in the leadership sessions seems to be that in order to improve as a leader you too must have the bravery to push yourself over obstacles when those around you might hesitate. It may be some great challenge in your work, or one as small as being the first to make a suggestion, and both can be daunting, but as you improve your techniques and add new tools to your repertoire the challenges that seemed frightening or insurmountable before can become familiar, even enjoyable.

 

I’ve really had a blast with this project so far and I’d like to thank Lord Laidlaw for making it possible as well as the CAPOD staff and speakers who run this fantastic scholarship. Your time and effort is well appreciated.

The King and The Cyclops

Frederick the Great was furious. It was 1747 and construction had just finished on Sanssouci, the Prussian King’s summer palace and personal retreat. The showpiece was to be a spectacular fountain capable of jetting water over thirty metres. Not a single drop ever rose above the basin. The pipes kept bursting under the enormous pressure and the costly project was abandoned. The man who Frederick blamed was Leonhard Euler, his “cyclops of a mathematician”. The disparaging sobriquet was a reference to Euler’s ailing sight, he would later go blind. “My mill was constructed mathematically, and it could not raise one drop of water…Vanity of Vanities! Vanity of mathematics!” Frederick later complained to Voltaire. In truth, Euler had warned the architects that the pipes were not thick enough and the project would fail should they go ahead. This advice seems never to have reached Frederick, or he chose to ignore it.

It’s hardly surprising that the two men failed to get along. Frederick was often seen as a bold and brilliant character, more an admirer of poetry and philosophy than the “sterile field” of mathematics. Euler, on the other hand, was an outwardly unremarkable man, not much interested in the flummery of court life. In the annals of history Frederick is by far the favoured subject, but to disregard Euler would be a mistake. He was not only the most prolific mathematician to ever live, many also regard him as the greatest. It was said that he “calculated without apparent effort, as men breathe, or as eagles sustain themselves in the wind”. Hardly any area of mathematics or physics remained unaffected by his work. At a young age he offered a solution for the Paris Academy’s annual Prize Problem, to determine the best placement of masts on a ship. Euler was born in landlocked Switzerland and had never seen a ship in person. He placed second, beaten by “the father of naval architecture”. Showing characteristic resolve, he went on to win the prize eleven more times. Such stories are typical of his extraordinary career.

[1][1]

Despite the animus between the pair, Euler and Frederick did have something in common. They were both, in very different ways, exceptional leaders. In the mind of the military historian, or the ambitious statesman, Frederick the Great was a model leader. He was decisive, courageous, and an expert tactician. In military campaigns he led personally and faced the enemy at the side of his men, having six horses shot from under him during battle. Napoleon admired Frederick so much that he had a bust of him made for his bedroom cabinet. Frederick personified the Romantic image of a great military leader, a man whose character and brilliance alone were enough to inspire devotion and confidence. Euler possessed none of these qualities. He never fielded an army, raised a nation to pre-eminence, or gained an honorific like ‘the great’. Nonetheless, Euler had ambitious designs and inspired others to seek their fulfilment. He did this not by command but by example, as was fitting for his battleground. Euler led mathematical science during his lifetime and paved new paths for future generations to follow.

If Frederick’s style of leadership was martial, Euler’s was intellectual. History has seen an abundance of leaders like Frederick and, regardless of what they bring about, demand hardly seems to wane. Recent trends, however, suggest a change in this situation. Already one is more likely to see the face of Austen, Smith, or Watt rather than Churchill when reaching for their wallet. Personally, this is a welcome shift in focus. They might not be good at leading armies, or getting fountains built, but the world could benefit from a few more leaders like Euler.


I hadn’t thought much about leadership before becoming a Laidlaw Scholar, these reflections were prompted by some of the things I’ve learnt about leadership since then. I’d like to thank Lord Laidlaw for creating and sustaining this excellent program and the superb team supporting us at St Andrews.

[1] Left: Handmann, Jakob Emanuel, Portrait of Leonhard Euler, 1753Kunstmuseum, Basel. Right: Camphausen, Wilhelm, Portrait of Frederick the Great, 1870. Both accessed from commons.wikimedia.org.

Battling the Hump

The bright Scottish sun taunts me from my glistening window pane, calling me to step out from the lonely cell I call my room into the salty embrace of the beach; the lush scents of Lade Braes; the cheekiness of a pint . . .

Diverging from a scheduled curriculum and jumping head first into undirected, independent research, above all, tests my will and self-motivation to do the research. I’m lucky enough to have my area of interest chosen for this amazing programme, and to have gotten a supervisor who is interested in my research topic who is also inspiring in his passion in his own field of research (Shoutout to Mr Duncan!). Alongside with the hard work and encouragement of the Laidlaw team, these factors help me to persist with my research on days where I feel monotonous and uninspired.

I think getting started with reading secondary materials (on theory) has been the most difficult part for me as I’m more excited over the conferences to attend and banned plays to read that can only be informed with theoretical knowledge. With the research topic of “How the Singapore theatre reflects and shapes the queer cultures in Singaporean society”, a good understanding of queer and theatre theories are pertinent, and so far, my reading on different theories and their nuances and implications have fascinated and captivated me. A wider knowledge pool of theory has made me even more excited to do hands-on research and inputting my analysis on the plays that I read and watch. I have the Queer Asia Conference in London that I am attending at the end of June, and this gives me the opportunity to hear from a large pool of experiences and knowledge that are specific to being Asian.

Beginning the journey into research through this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and with a supportive team that helps me to develop as a researcher, a leader, and as a person, is something that I would eternally be grateful for, and all I can do is hope that my contributions to the programme and society make an impact, no matter how small.

The Laidlaw scholarship so far

As a medic, I feel like I have no right even attempting to write something eloquent, so instead I’m just going to share a few of my thoughts about what being a Laidlaw scholar has meant to me so far and what I hope it will lead to in the future.

Comparing myself now to what I remember when I wandered into the introductory session, I feel like not much has really changed. Not really surprising considering it’s only been a few months; I haven’t had an epiphany of any sort, nor a great revelation about my future as a leader or researcher (primarily because I haven’t started my project yet). However, the small details that come with being a part of the Laidlaw community have given me a feeling of anticipation. This is because I feel like I have been given a taste of something that I want from life in the future. Not necessarily the Laidlaw scholarship itself, but being part of a community of that encourages pursuing your passions and personal development. I have also found that having to reflect on my abilities as a leader has led me to question what is going on around me more as I consider how I can make a difference in a particular situation.

As for the future, I think what I hope to gain most from being a Laidlaw scholar is a better sense of how things work in the world of research. This is a relatively new concept to me as I have only had one year at university, so the prospect of having to carry out my own research is somewhat daunting – but still exciting. Hopefully this will be the perfect gentle exposure to the process of medical research and not a baptism by fire. Despite not knowing much about research, I am drawn to it, as I am considering pursuing it in the future as a clinician. This means that the summer project will also be something I will use to help guide me as to whether or not research would be something I will enjoy doing. If it fits the image in my mind – the exciting opportunity to contribute to scientific advancement – or not remains to be seen.

I’d also like to express my gratitude for the chance to do this to Lord Laidlaw and the team at St Andrews; this will no doubt be a brilliant experience.

Image result for accessory nerve

Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinal_root_of_accessory_nerve#/media/File:Gray791.png. Accessed on 08/06/2018.

Some thoughts about learning

I’m afraid I have no earth-shaking results to report from my research yet, since I have not yet started it. Nonetheless, there is no shortage of topics which I am happy to babble on about. The nature of this year’s cohort of Laidlaw Scholars is one area upon which I would like to share a few thoughts, which are in fact a continuation of something that I’m sure many university students ponder from time to time.

In secondary school, the dominant narrative regarding learning seemed to be that it was deeply uncool, and certainly not something that a well-adjusted pre-teen should enjoy doing. For many years, those who spent their free time graphing parabolas or trawling through Wikipedia pages about Medieval wars instead of kicking a football around were relegated to the lower social strata.

As a side note, I’m aware that this is often a point made by people who are bitter about the fact that their lofty interest in the pursuit of knowledge wasn’t given the social recognition it deserved, and who want you to know that they are probably a lot smarter than you. I do not aim to do that, nor do I want to pretend that I taught myself calculus for fun and never got bored in class. I completely understand why such an aversion to learning arises in Western secondary education. Among many other reasons, school is simply a less enjoyable place if you struggle academically, or if a pupil has a difficult home life.

Moral judgements about any of this aside, it has become apparent to me as I progressed through high school, and then into university, that the social environments I find myself in are totally different to how they used to be five or six years ago. Those who get a thrill from learning something new are often admired and respected, rather than giggled at. In a university setting it would be unusual, not to mention perplexingly self-destructive, for someone to claim that reading is for ‘nerds’ and that a truly cool cat wouldn’t be caught dead going to class.

The leadership weekend with all the other scholars really hit this point home for me. I was suddenly surrounded by people who were in no readily evident way different from a typical group of young adults, but when asked about what they were researching would widen their eyes and show genuine enthusiasm as they explained it. No irony, embarrassment, or pretence of apathy was required to disguise the fact that they were excited to be learning about such a topic in their field of interest. Needless to say, there were countless times throughout the weekend when fellow scholars would mention something intriguing about their subject, and others would remark at how fascinating that was, or question them more about it. Something similar certainly would have rarely happened in year 10.

This is, of course, an environment that many adults are familiar with, but the memory of secondary school is still (somewhat) fresh in my mind, and the contrast of these two social systems is both new to me, and quite compelling. In light of that, I’d like to thank Lord Laidlaw for giving us the opportunity to experience the world of research, and for giving me the chance to do so along with so many smart and engaging people. I cannot wait to see what these next weeks hold.

Finding Footprints on Another Planet

For many of us, our research project is just around the corner. For some, this will mean many hours in the library, for others, countless hours in a laboratory, and some will even travel during their projects. No matter what the means, each of us will tackle a fundamental question within their own field of study. For me this question is: are we alone?

If somebody were to find life outside of our own planet, it would arguably be the most profound scientific discovery ever made. Therefore, many scientists are racking their brains trying to solve this question from every direction. For my project, I am looking at the fingerprints that life leaves behind in the rock record. For much of Earth’s history (around 4 of the 4.5 billion years) life existed only as microbes, and it thus seems that any life we find on other planets would probably be microbial. These are far too small to be seen by the naked eye, and thus for a rover traversing the Martian landscape, there is no chance that its camera can spot them. However, even microbes leave discernible traces in the rock record, and these are what I will be looking at. My goal is to find these traces, both very old (billions of years old) and very young (thousands of years old) on Earth and compare their likelihood to the Martian surface. Ultimately, I want to develop a computer program that can analyse pictures that the rover will take to discern whether there are any traces of life in them.

I’ve always envisaged geologists to have the luxury to travel the world, pointing their hammer at the rock suite they want to study, showing up there with little or no preparation and be perfectly fine. In the build up to the start of my project, I’ve learned that there is a lot more planning required than meets the eye. During the leadership weekend we spent time discussing project management and had the opportunity to speak to researchers. The skills I learned through these seminars have been very useful and have helped me overcome issues I had not foreseen.

I am more than excited to begin with my Laidlaw project, and cannot wait to see all the wonderful things all the scholars here will present after the summer. I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw for the wonderful opportunity he has provided us, and many thanks also go to the wonderful team running the programme here in St Andrews who have been so incredibly helpful to get us to this point.

Water and the Earth’s Crust: Using Hydrogen and Oxygen isotopes from rocks of the coast of Nova Scotia (Ian Cawood)

My 10-week summer project involved using a selection of rock samples from Nova Scotia, Canada to determine how they had originated and been emplaced onto the Earth’s surface where they are visible now today. The rock suite I was investigating are known as Appinites, these are igneous rocks that are rich in a mineral called amphibole. This mineral incorporates large amounts of water into its chemical structure and by studying the two components that make up water (Hydrogen and Oxygen) and their isotopic fractionation one can determine the origin of a crystallising magma and its interaction with water during its generation and intrusion into surrounding country rock. These elements have heavier and lighter isotopes that are preserved differently depending on the interaction of water, their mineral composition etc.

The first part of my labwork for this involved significant amounts of time spent characterising thin sections of my rock samples under a light microscope to assess their texture and mineralogy. This was key to further developing my skills which we have studied in lectures over the last few years and gave me a lot more confidence in interpreting the relationships of different minerals in respect to their crystallisation history (i.e. which mineral crystallised in which order). This in turn enabled me to understand the units I was analysing and determine appropriate samples that I could use for isotope analysis.

My work was largely split into 2 time blocks due to a significant amount of my summer being spent mapping rocks for my dissertation in the Pyrenees. Thus, when I returned from this work, my internship then took me to the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) located in East Kilbride (a short distance from Glasgow). Here first class scientific research facilities are housed. Working with Prof. Adrian Boyce and Alison McDonald I was able to record δ18O and δD values for my rock samples using some rather complicated geochemical techniques. Predominately my labwork focused on Silicate Laser Ablation using Chlorine Trifluoride as the reagent. An image of this machine is attached – this collected my samples into mass spectrometer tubes that were later analysed for the oxygen isotopic composition. A complex array of valves needed to be opened and closed at the right times in order to move the sample from one chamber to the next whilst removing excess gas from the chamber. When I first arrived the thought of using the machine seemed impossibly complicated, however after some guidance and many notes I was eventually able to understand the procedure.  A second image also shows the machine used to collect my hydrogen isotopes.

Working in the lab again was a fantastic experience to understand research environment relationships and workflow. It also encouraged me to think independently and utilise any available resources. A fantastic experience in both developing my leadership skills and my ability to act proactively and efficiently in an intense working environment.

I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw for the generous funding  provided to support this project.

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