Unexpected Lessons

 

Adapting to crisis and making adjustments is something that is intrinsic to good leadership and is a skill that has been widely discussed by all of us in the 2019/20 Laidlaw Scholars cohort. This summer has forced me to transfer these skills from theoretical debate to real world application, given the nature of the global crises and subsequent personal crises that have emerged during this period. Like all scholars in the cohort, Covid-19 hit my research for six- no longer could I travel to Hungary to conduct interviews as originally intended and instead, I was confined to my girlfriend’s flat in St Andrews to conduct my research. Furthermore, several instances of illness and bereavement within my personal circle and struggles with my own mental health made it increasingly difficult to conduct my research in the way I intended. Alas, the lessons I have taken from this summer are different to the ones I envisioned but are nonetheless pivotal as I go forward as both scholar and leader. I would like to use this blog to share what I have learned this summer;

• Go easy on yourself.
As someone who is highly driven and intent on maximising my potential, this piece of advice runs anathema to the way I’m wired. Nonetheless, it is of pivotal importance. After the death of my Grandfather, I experienced a bad bout of anxiety and spent weeks with a feeling of existential dread and worry that seemed to be completely detached from reality. Initially, I planned to soldier on with my Laidlaw research, hoping that it would provide a welcome distraction to what I was feeling. However, I decided the best thing to do was to delay the start-date of my research project by a month so I could come to terms with my loss and tackle the feelings of anxiety it generated. Whilst this was ostensibly a backwards step (I had lots planned for the summer and was eager to get started on my research), taking the time to get my head right was ultimately the more productive option in terms of my own happiness but also the progress of my research. When I did begin my research period, I did so revitalised and in a mental space conducive to learning. I also took additional steps, such as the reduction of my work week from five to four days so as to ensure I was not overwhelmed, having spent the best part of a month doing nothing. Taking the time to sort out a personal crisis is important not only for one’s own mental health but also for their productivity and effectiveness in their given field.
• Adjust the goalposts.
Research is not a linear process and it is important to adjust your goals as you go along. This is even more true under the current conditions, with the pandemic not only preventing me from going abroad but also from accessing vital workspaces and resources provided by the university library. Furthermore, as mentioned above, a month of my summer was rendered useless from a research point of view, therefore leaving me with less time to write an academic paper as I had planned. However, rather than stressing and forcing myself to go into overdrive, I decided to change my goals given the circumstances. Rather than viewing my summer as working towards the completion of a paper, I broke it down into weekly chunks where I could focus on certain elements of my research. I knew that, even if I didn’t achieve my goal, these weekly research projects would form the basis of my academic poster. Alas, I ended up surprising myself and have almost completed my paper! Had I not been forced to take a back step and reassess my summer, I may not have worked to this new plan which has worked incredibly well.
• Communicate with others.
This summer, I learned that communication is key when facing any issue. Whilst I toyed with the idea of pushing forward with my research, I was so glad I spoke to my supervisor about how I was feeling, as she was incredibly understanding and offered great advice throughout. I also reached out to friends and fellow scholars to get some advice (both personal and academic), which was another great help. By talking to others, I was able to pinch ideas about how to be more efficient in my research and how to come to terms with the losses I faced. I would urge anyone struggling with issues regarding to research or personal wellbeing to reach out to friends and colleagues- you’d be surprised about how many others have experienced the same problems and have invaluable advice!

I’d like to thank the Laidlaw Foundation for this opportunity and my supervisor Dr Peter and all the Laidlaw team at St Andrews for their understanding during these tough times.

Recent picture of me back at my best (taken on my lunch break)!

 

From Lab Bench to Dining Table | Research During Covid-19

Image

Hey there! If we haven’t met yet, thanks for stopping by to read my blog post! My name is Mostin Hu and I’m a Laidlaw scholar in the 2019 cohort. I am a soon-to-be third year medic from Toronto, Canada. My research project for both summers has focused on the same subject – I’ve been looking at impact of the intracellular parasite Trachipleisphora hominis (T. hominis) on host cells’ autophagy response. I promise it isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds..! You can read more about the background of my research in my post from last summer here

A picture from my time in the lab last summer! I’m looking down a microscope to check on my cultured cells.

My view down the microscope, looking at cells growing on a Petri dish!


It wouldn’t be appropriate to start this post without addressing the huge elephant in the room: COVID-19. A brief skim of recent posts on this blog from other Laidlaw scholars reveals our collective shock over the current events in the world. Bedrooms and dining tables have replaced laboratories and library desks as research projects were all altered to be completed online. Despite (perhaps as a result) of this chaos, I’ve been able to witness the incredible tenacity and adaptability of Laidlaw scholars.


The Original Plan
My research last summer revealed an interesting host response to T. hominis infection, but due to time and budget constraints, we were unable to investigate them further. Following on from last summer’s research, my supervisor and I originally planned to conduct five more weeks of laboratory-based research this summer using more specific reagents to determine:
1. the type of autophagy response that was occurring in the host cells infected with T. hominis;
2. whether this response was beneficial or harmful to the host cells;
3. the exact chemical trigger for the autophagy response in hopes of ultimately exploiting this response as a future pharmaceutical

Then COVID-19 Arrived…
To be honest, when it was announced that all research projects would be done online this summer, I was super disappointed because we had so many fascinating experiments planned, but as a medic, I understood the severity of the situation. I suppose it’s a little ironic that in the process of studying an infectious organism (albeit, T. hominis is not a virus, but still..), a prolific disease spreads across the planet causing levels of turmoil that few can fathom.

Like many other Laidlaw scholars whose projects relied on special equipment or resources, my supervisor and I had to drastically alter our research plans This summer, I chose to complete two weeks of research, putting aside the remaining three weeks for lab research later in the semester when it’s safe again.

A look at my giant Excel spreadsheet detailing notes for each T. hominis protein.

The New Plan
To make the most of my time away from the lab, my new two-week project involved a search through a database of 419 sequenced T. hominis proteins. The goal was to create a shortlist of proteins which may be responsible for initiating the host cell autophagy response we observed last summer. I copied and pasted each protein’s amino acid sequence, one by one, into five different servers which gave a readout on the characteristics of the protein such as the length of the sequence, predicted location in the cell, transmembrane regions (sections that were embedded in the cell/organelle membrane), and potential function based on specific sequences of amino acids called eukaryotic linear motifs (ELM) present.

Coming Full Circle
This is my second and last summer as a Laidlaw scholar, and as my time on the programme is drawing to a close, it’s bittersweet to think that we missed out on many face-to-face leadership development events and the opportunity to spend some precious moments with the other Laidlaw scholars before we all graduate from St Andrews in the coming year. These past 18 months have been transformative, and I’ve met some of the most driven, passionate, and intelligent people I know.

This summer, working from home has really highlighted to me the lessons I’ve learned as a Laidlaw scholar, especially in self-leadership. I still remember my Laidlaw interview where I was asked to define self-leadership – I was so flustered and I clumsily answered that self-leadership meant adaptability in changing circumstances and the ability to self-motivate when faced with challenges or disappointments. I could never have predicted spending summer 2020 researching at home, but I think the leadership development sessions prepared me well to adapt to these changes.

Looking Forwards
I’m optimistic that I will be able to complete the rest of my three weeks of research next semester. We are still waiting for approval from the School of Medicine to allow undergraduates to enter labs safely but I look forward to the day when we can restart our experiments.

At this time, I also need to send a sincere thank you to my supervisor Dr John Lucocq, my fellow 2019 Laidlaw scholars, the Laidlaw team at the University of St Andrews, and Lord Laidlaw for these amazing past 18 months. It’s been a wonderful learning experience and I cannot thank each and every one of you enough – can’t wait to see you guys again soon 🙂 

Researching Clouds from the Safety of the Great Indoors

I was ready to take on my second year as a Laidlaw scholar when disaster struck, the Coronavirus pandemic has made my project no longer feasible. At first, I was panicked and confused. Where will I work? What will I do to continue my work? How will all this be done without proper equipment? These were some of the thoughts streaming through my head as June 1st approached.

After much deliberation I decided I was going to attempt something I had never done before. I was going to create my very own cloud!

What are clouds?

Clouds are collections of water vapour that deposit at altitude as a result of thermodynamic processes that occur in the atmosphere. More precisely, when water evaporates it forms pockets of wet air (air mixed with water vapour) that has a reduced density with respect to the air around it. Since dry air is made up of exclusively nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the ratio 8:2, while wet air is a mixture of water vapour, nitrogen and oxygen in varying ratios. As water molecules contain less mass that nitrogen and oxygen, a volume of wet air will have less mass within it than the corresponding volume of dry air. These density differences allow for buoyant effects to take hold. Although a thorough understanding of the following mechanism is not required, it does shed some light on the complexity of computational fluid modelling:

Navier-Stokes Equations (Own Image)

We can view the air in our atmosphere as a continuous fluid which we can model with the Navier-Stokes Equation, this is essentially Newton’s 2nd Law of motion for a fluid. In our case, the force imbalance comes from internal pressure variations, natural diffusive motions and buoyant effect caused by density variations in the fluid. This mechanism will ultimately drive the convective motion of our plume of wet air and the air surrounding it.

A point needs to be made about the underlying background state of the atmosphere as there exists some natural gradation in thermodynamic variables as we ascend in altitude. Usually, we expect the atmosphere to have humidity and density gradients that consist of a well-mixed lower region followed by a steep drop off after a certain point called the dewpoint. In this region of the atmosphere, the pressure and temperatures has dropped to a level where water vapour turns to liquid which creates the familiar mist, we call clouds. What is interesting is that as water vapour condenses it releases heat, known as latent heating, which generates further convection, and this is what cause the vertical structures in some well-known cloud types. This effect has been included in the model in the buoyancy variable as two independent terms:

Buoyancy Equation. (Own Image)

The first part is the buoyancy due to the water vapour reducing the density of the fluid and the second term is accounting for the condensational heating after a certain scale height H. All of this together allows for a crude, but effective demonstration of how atmospheric convection is generated and drives cloud formation.

One of the most important conditions that needs to be enforced is that of mass conservation. This principle has its roots in experiments and is an assumption of fluid mechanics. It states that mass is neither created nor destroyed, only moved from one location to another. This condition is enforced via an equation called the continuity equation:

Continuity Equation. (Own Image)

In words this means; any local variation in density of a fluid is due to a net flow of fluid in or out of our system. Generally, if mass is conserved, the above equation must also be obeyed. The next condition we impose is not really for realism but more for simplification of the mathematics. We now impose that the fluid is incompressible, this means that a fluid particle will retain its density value as it moves through the flow and implies that the first term the above equation is zero.  This produces the following limiting condition for the velocity field:

Incompressibility Condition. (Own Image)

This is known as the incompressibility condition for a mass-conserving flow. It can be interpreted as there being as much fluid flowing into the system as there is out of the system, thus volume is conserved. The beauty of this simple condition is that it exactly enforces mass conservation and incompressibility simultaneously.

How does a computer model a cloud?

With great difficulty! However, with some patience and perseverance one can do it. To start with, we need to translate the above mentioned Navier-Stokes equation into the language that the computer speaks. The computer can only deal with discrete bits of data so instead of a continuous domain where the equation is solved, we need a discretised set of grid nodes over which the equation is solved and values placed at each grid node. Essentially what we will have is a set of grid points which contain all the information – like pressures and velocities – and nothing in between. This also means that we need to make the mesh of nodes relatively fine if we want to resolve any detail accurately! Finer grids equal more nodes and more nodes mean more computation! This is a headache that I have battled with these past five weeks and unfortunately there is not much you can do without access to a NASA scale computer! So there had to be some compromises between accuracy and time which I think is forgivable. Now, at this point I ran the code only to find that it was not working at all! The next problem was due to pressure-velocity decoupling which is a result of checker-board pressures on the nodes. This is resolved by staggering the grids and having multiple grids for different variables.

An illustration of a staggered grid methodology. Horizontal Arrows represent x-axis velocity nodes, vertical arrows represent y-axis velocity nodes and solid circles are pressure nodes. (S. V. Patankar – Numerical Heat Transfer and Fluid Flow – 1980)

I used a well-known method for implementing both the Navier-Stokes and incompressibility equations, known as the semi-implicit method for pressure linked equations (or SIMPLE) which works as follows:

  • We use the current velocity field (if this is the first iteration, the initial velocity field is used) and progress it forward in time excluding the pressure contribution.
  • Next, we impose the incompressibility condition and solve for a pressure field that satisfies it using a technique like Successive Over-Relaxation (or SOR).
  • This pressure field is used to correct the velocity field such that it satisfies the incompressibility condition.
  • Repeat 1 through 3 until max time step is reached.

This method iteratively solves for each of the properties (like pressure) at each grid node for each time step. Then we can plot the grid values of each property using a contour plot, which assigns a colour based on the value of the node relative to the data sets minimum and maximum. I have to say these plots produce some beautiful images and I hope to be able to animate them in the future!

Contour plot of the specific humidity and flow streamlines. (output from code)

Finally! On the final week I was able to produce a working example within my model. It clearly shows a beautiful vortex ring with strong convective currents shown in the streamlines. Although the model lacks a high level of detail in the cloud formation process, it demonstrates the feasibility of simple convection models. If there was more time, different aspects of the model could be expanded upon, including; adding precipitation to remove liquid water from the system, extending the model to three dimensions to allow for increased complexity, and adding periodic boundary conditions to assess the effects of uniform wind shears to name a few. The list of factors that go into cloud formation is vast and intricate which is part of the wonder of this topic and is definitely a very active area in the academic environment. I hope this small insight into the field has shed some light on what simple computational models can achieve and how clouds play a crucial role in the grand scheme of atmospheric processes.

Uncertain times, ever changing plans and Leadership during global crises

There is no over-exaggerating the situation of the last six months. These are indeed unprecedented times for all of us and we all had to adapt in many ways to a new way life. I was initially going to continue my project editing and refining an addition I had made to my supervisor’s supercomputer code; however, the virus had made access to it impossible. I learned that research never goes to plan and shifting topics is a fact of life. I feel this experience has made me a more resilient person; it has made me more welcoming of change. I feel now, with this experience, I have learned a great deal about self-leadership, the ability to motivate yourself in isolation and to persevere when things do not go to plan. One thing I found very useful was consistently trying to keep my goals minimal in scale and incremental in step as this helped me achieve more, with bursts of inspiration after each step forward. I feel this ability to rely on oneself for both inspiration and strength is an important personal quality that can always be tested and improved. This skill will naturally translate to better outward leadership potential as confident and strong leaders are exceptional sources of morale. It also is a good practice of being mindful of how your own reactions have impact as working in isolation forces you to reflect more on your own internal character.

I would like to end this blog by saying thank you to Lord Laidlaw and the Laidlaw Team for providing me with this amazing opportunity, I have learned so much and I feel my experience over the last two years will have a lasting positive impact on my future. I would also like to thank my fellow Laidlaw cohort for their support and friendship, it has really been a pleasure to work with you all!

General Sources for further reading:

S. V. Patankar – Numerical Heat Transfer and Fluid Flow – 1980

J. D. Anderson Jr. – Computational Fluid Dyanamics: The Basics with Applications – 1995

The moist parcel‐in‐cell method for modelling moist convection – D. G. Dritschel et al. – 2018

A Front-tracking/Finite-Volume Navier-Stokes Solver for Direct Numerical Simulations of Multiphase Flows – Gretar Tryggvason – 2012

 

 

Addressing three key questions faced on my journey to become a critical researcher

Screenshot from The 12 works of Asterix. My supervisor sent me the cartoon for support when I was deeply struggling to find my way around administration in Kenya to obtain a research license.

I am a scholar conducting my second summer of research in social anthropology. Last year, I started my research on elitist education in Kenya. I spent three weeks in Nairobi to discuss my research with the principals of the secondary schools involve, meet the relevant authorities to obtain a research license, and develop my knowledge and understanding of the local context. I had planned to go back to Kenya this summer to conduct my research, but unfortunately research abroad has become impossible. While it was an unfortunate change for the schools – as they told me they were really interested in the results of my research – and I, it allowed me to take more time to reflect on research methodologies, critical theories, and my journey to become a critical researcher.

My Laidlaw scholarship has been part of a challenging and exciting journey, from discovering the concept of research to trying to conduct critical research abroad, with new questions emerging at each step. In this blog post, I will take time to reflect on the key questions I faced in my journey, and how I can answer them now. They are to me a beautiful way to acknowledge the progress I’ve made, and I hope they will be useful to other young researchers!

 

What does research in social science mean?

What is so natural to many of us now was a huge shock when I joined the university. Coming from a family where studying social sciences is seen as relatively useless as it does not offer any straightforward route to practical jobs, I had no idea what social sciences were really about, and that research in social science existed. Discovering research in social science was truly a beautiful shock. It felt really mystical, and I quickly developed a binary view of research: researchers could only develop theories locked in an office, away from the world, or be somehow incredibly objective travelling journalists just reporting what they see. Do not get me wrong, I was not completely naïve or oblivious to structural issues. I started developing strong political opinions relatively young, acknowledging different forms of oppression, and becoming an activist acting to try to generate change. However, I believed that somehow academic research was different. That while the world is complex, messy and entangled, research was able to take steps away from that. Through long and intense readings and discussions with researchers, I discovered the colourful and impactful critical theories. It was incredibly exciting to finally discover how research could reflect deeply on the ‘real world’.

 

… so is it just like holidays with some overthinking involved?

As a quick answer: no, research is hard work.

As a sustainable development student, anthropology seemed foreign and exciting. I assumed research in anthropology would be a joyful mix of daily life activities, traveling abroad and being very curious of everything. Honestly, it sounded like the best job in the world. I went to Kenya with some ambitious goals to achieve for my research, but at the same time excited for what I expected to be a fun experience. While it was indeed an amazing experience, it took so much more work and energy than I expected.

First, I discovered how it feels to be an obvious stranger. I have been traveling a lot by myself but did not expect to feel such a strong difference in Nairobi. I arrived alone, slightly naïve, and largely unprepared. I thought blending in Nairobi would be relatively easy, but I was living in a part of the city tourists do not usually go to, and most white people do not seem to walk in. As a result, I stood out most of the time. I felt so lonely, but it was not just about knowing no one. It took me a few days to completely understand: I was now part of the minority. People would stare at me, be either particularly kind or aggressive towards me, and a group of people my age even stopped me in a park on my way back from grocery shopping to take pictures together because I was white. From the words of a researcher with whom I discussed this feeling of being such an obvious stranger, it was like being “a white alien”. I have never really had to acknowledge my skin colour before. I thought I was not racist as I knew many facts about the dramatic effects of racism and actively tried to work on my unconscious biases. But I realized in Nairobi that I had never fully understood how much skin colour can impact daily activities like walking down the street. I know I am lucky to rarely feel different because of my skin colour, and that even in Kenya I did not have too many negative experiences due to my skin colour and did not face any systemic oppression. However, I developed a stronger understanding – yet still limited – of how it can feel to be part of a minority, and of why it is so crucial to be actively anti-racist, both as a citizen and as a researcher.

Secondly, I discovered the need to be constantly proactive. I could not just remain passive and wait to see what happens: I had to actively look for new events to join, people to talk to. I did join many events, met new people and had diverse meaningful conversations, but I was limited by a fear to seem too awkward. However, I wished I had discovered earlier the idea that an anthropologist must be like a child: always asking about what’s going on around, always trying to join in anything.

And finally, I discovered what most researchers have to go through: the maze of the administration. That was truly an intense experience. I had to obtain the endorsement of the Kenyan ministry of education, which I thought would be relatively straightforward. Unfortunately it was not, and I spent dozens of hours calling secretaries and the secretaries of the secretaries, being told to send emails I would never get answers to, to ultimately wait a few hours in front of closed doors, hoping to get to see the good person. That was exhausting and deeply frustrating at times, being told to always try a different office, on a different floor, in a different building, or even in a different city. I received genuine help from some people, and patronizing comments from others. Despite all these difficulties, I am so happy and quite proud I made it through, and I discovered more of the reality of being a researcher.

Will I ever stop questioning my research?

The questions will never stop, but that’s a good sign. Aiming to conduct critical research is sometimes truly overwhelming. I have been questioning topics, methods, relevance of my questions, my legitimacy to conduct research… When I joined critical theory classes and the Emerging Researchers’ programme by the Third Generation Project think tank, I thought I found a way to suddenly get answers to all my questions. But actually, for each question answered new ones emerged. What I unconsciously took for granted became questioned, and I learned to rethink so many of my assumptions. I discovered I would probably never get all the answers with a complete certitude, because the world is so complex, and because there are so many ways to see any single element of research. However, instead of being frustrated and scared by all those questions, I learned to embrace them. As the researcher Bennett Collins I really admire told me not long ago, incertitude and a certain feeling of discomfort in research are often a good sign of being open to criticism and to being held accountable.

Luckily, this is not a journey that has to be done alone, and I am so grateful for all the support I have received. On this long, complex and rewarding journey, I wanted to take time to thank those who have helped me to become a better researcher – and a better person. First of all, my supervisor Mattia Fumanti for agreeing to be my supervisor on such a short notice, with more trust in my ability to conduct my research than I had myself at the time. In addition, his invaluable support, advice and friendliness really helped me through stressful times, including feeling lost in the Kenyan administrative system and in the middle of a pandemic. Then, I want to thank Lord Laidlaw and the Laidlaw team for bringing this concept to life, and for their incredible and constant support. In addition, naturally, I want to thank all the other Laidlaw scholars I learned so much from. And finally, Matt Sothern and all the members of the Third Generation Project for respectively introducing me to critical theories, and for supporting and challenging me on this long journey.

A Make-Believe Museum: Creating an Online Exhibition

As you may have seen in my previous post on the Laidlaw Scholars Network (or linked in, and twitter if you happen to follow me there), I have recently launched an online exhibition using the social media image sharing platform Instagram. Although the subject of this exhibition—Sickness & Saints: An Exploration of HIV/AIDS and Christian Iconography—is not directly related to the Laidlaw research I am currently undertaking, an Instagram exhibition is a new and exciting way for myself and others to disseminate our research, both Laidlaw projects and otherwise, to a very large audience. So, in this blog post I’m going to talk a little bit about coming up with the idea of an Instagram exhibition, the process of creating/curating the exhibition, and why I think this is an exciting and worthwhile pursuit.

First, I’ll give you a bit of background. I’m going into my final year of studying a joint honours degree in Art History and Philosophy, and after I graduate, I’m hoping to do a postgraduate degree in Museum and Curatorial Studies. I love art from all historical periods, and other archaeological finds; museums and galleries are my happy place, and if I could, I would spend all my time in them. For obvious reasons, that’s impossible at the moment. I had hoped to spend some of my summer working as an intern in an art gallery, but a global pandemic made that (and many other, much more important things) impossible.

 

Screenshot of my Sickness & Saints Instagram art exhibition, June 19, 2020. All images used in the exhibition are credited in their individual post. 

My best friend is a Fine Art student at a university in Sussex. Because of our shared interest in all things arty, we often send each other articles, documentaries, or book recommendations, and occasionally essays or other university coursework. Last semester I took a module on the Art and Visual Culture of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic, for which one of the coursework assignments was an exhibition proposal. This involved coming up with an exhibition theme, choosing five artworks which exemplified the theme and issues surrounding the theme, and then explaining why this exhibition would be interesting, and what it would offer to the current discourse. After handing in the assignment, I sent my friend a copy. She thought the proposed exhibition was really exciting, and after I expressed a desire to actually curate the exhibition in a real-life gallery space, she suggested I do so online.

 

The idea of an online exhibition is not a new one; museums and galleries have been posting video tours of their exhibitions online since technology allowed them to do so, and recent advancements in virtual reality have seen museums all over the world create realistic replicas of their gallery spaces online. These online tours allow people who are unable to travel, due to access requirements, the cost of flights, or the current global situation, the opportunity to see thousands of incredible artworks from the comfort of their own home. Now I’m not a technophobe, but I definitely lack the skills required to create a 360 degrees interactive virtual gallery space, and it would likely be very time consuming for me to do so. So, I found a way to share images of artworks, with captions containing all of the details you would see on a gallery wall, that I was familiar with: Instagram. I’ve been active on the platform for several years now, and often spend hours at a time scrolling through my feed, looking at images of art, cats, food, and selfies. I follow several art related accounts, and have heard of Instagram exhibitions before, but had never actually seen or been able to find one myself.

 

Once I had the idea to use Instagram as a platform for the exhibition, the rest of the process was fairly simple. I had already done most of the research for the coursework assignment, so just had to create an Instagram account, choose a few more artworks to include, get all of the posts drafted, and then post them all at once and in the right order so that the page looked aesthetically pleasing. Although a fairly simple task, it was actually pretty time consuming, and ended up demonstrating some of those core Laidlaw values—ambitious, brave, curious and determined—and developing other related qualities, such as self-confidence and time management.

 

While Instagram exhibitions might not be an ideal way of presenting everyone’s research, I would recommend trying it out if your research is based upon art, historical objects, archaeological finds, or any other visual material. Not only does finding a new use for social media and a new way to disseminate research help to develop skills and values essential for both research and leadership, but it has the potential to be beneficial to the wider community. Instagram is easily accessible, requiring internet access and a device on which to access the app, and currently has over 1 billion monthly users. That’s a really large audience who may not have access to academic journals or be aware of blogs like this. While it’s unlikely any online exhibition I post will reach that many people, there’s the potential for a lot of people to see my research and my ideas.

Drawing of the Kuntillet Ajrud inscription. Image taken from: Olyan, Saul M. Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1988

In the coming weeks, I plan on my Instagram account to showcase an online exhibition based upon my Laidlaw research, which is focused on goddess worship in the Ancient Near East. This research is not focused on art, but I can use images of the archaeological findings—such as Pithos A, c.800 BCE, from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, which I discussed in my blog post last year—and use the captions to explain the significance of the objects and inscriptions, in order to present my argument.

 

My account (@makebelievemuseum) currently only has around 50 followers, and only one small exhibition has been posted, but I will continue to use this platform to display my findings, and hopefully eventually reach a larger audience. I hope that this has provoked some thoughts about new ways of presenting research, particularly in relation to social media, and that any researchers will continue to find new ways to make their research more accessible to large audiences of the general public.

 

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Lord Laidlaw and all of the Laidlaw team for giving me the opportunity to undertake my research into ancient goddess worship, and for providing me with the opportunity to develop the skills and qualities which I have applied to other areas of my academic study and research.

‘The Curse of Living in Interesting Times’, Historical Materialism, and the Synod of Brefi

The story goes that there is a Chinese curse, wishing the recipient to live through interesting, or exciting, times. Like many oft-quoted nuggets of ‘wisdom’, the attribution has proved impossible to confirm, and likely false.[1] Whilst this pseudo-authority is probably largely based on early-twentieth century ideas about ‘the Orient’ (a backward belief in curses, and purls of ancient wisdom), that its use emerged in the years leading up to the Second World War,[2] and seems particularly pertinent to describe the first half of 2020, demonstrates something about how we perceive crises. That interesting times place extraordinary pressure on leaders seems so obvious it hardly needs repeating: normal ways of doing things are no longer possible or satisfactory, and decisions are required swiftly and with rapid execution. This stress, of constantly needing to adapt and find new ways of doing things, is something I have definitely felt taking on the position of School of History president.

‘Interesting times’ certainly have also affected us all as researchers. Superficially we have faced challenges, some certainly more than others. We have had to go without libraries, with their books, and labs, with their equipment. We all miss the comradery that both contain. We have learnt to go without the usual rhythm of university life, the ability to knock on a friend or supervisor’s door and have a quick chat. Social gatherings for ‘Friday Cake’ which once happened in the library collaborative space are now reduced to zoom calls. This is all on top of the personal burdens, of (mental and physical) health and family, that we have all struggled to carry over the last few months. A challenge is never a one-way street. These struggles, even if as as insignificant as being unable to get hold of journal article or bag of flour have shaped our perspective to different extents.

For the historian, who makes it their business to try to understand how people in the past acted in their own ‘interesting times’, a moment such as this for methodological reflection shouldn’t be overlooked. Historical materialism,  which at least indirectly informs a good deal of social history, is based in the idea that ‘it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness’.[3] Often this principal is applied to justify the study of economic conditions, and linking them causally to social structures and ideology. However, we must also be mindful of what implications it has for us as scholars. Our social existence has certainly been shifted. Our movements, locally and further afield, have been restricted. Many of us have lost family members without being able to say fare-well. Some of us face financial uncertainty. These shifts in consciousness have indeed been mapped onto pre-existing differences in social existence. Restrictions on movement are more tolerable when pleasant surroundings are close on hand, working from home is more feasible in ‘professional’ roles, and the morbidities of Coronavirus map onto pre-existing health inequalities of class and race. Our consciousness has been shifted, and therefore so has our perspective.

View down a colonnade of arches. It is only from one particular viewpoint that this view is seen

Shifting our perspective shifts our viewpoint, and what we see.

This must serve as a reminder to the historian, that just as the past was material, so is scholarship. Whilst we might sometimes act like it, entering an institution of higher education does not grant us occupancy of an ivory tower on which to gaze upon our subject. Rather we are like the bishops at the Synod of Llanddewi-Brefi (itself called in response to the ‘interesting times’ of the Pelagian Heresy), pilling our garments together to form a mound, desperately trying to make ourselves heard. A few are like Saint David, who was able to miraculously act unaided by his material context: ‘the ground beneath him grew higher, rising to a hill’.[4] But most of us are not saints. Our viewpoints are shaped by the garments, our privileges and biases, which we carry with us and mound up. This cognitive baggage naturally weighs us down, and makes the desire of the good historian, to be able to look upon the face of the past upon its own terms, a lot easier to say than to do. However, having experienced probably the largest material crisis in the West in a generation (if not, since 1945), we must take stock of how the ‘interesting times’ through which we live influence our view of the ‘interesting times’ of the past.

~~~

I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw, and all those involved in the running of the program at St Andrews, for making this opportunity available. A particular ‘diolch yn fawr iawn’ goes to Dr Alex Woolf, my supervisor, whose advice and assistance has been invaluable in my Laidlaw work, and the preparation of an article I am preparing for submission to a journal. I also would like to thank the rest of the Laidlaw scholars, who have provided a stimulating and cogent network of discussion.

[1] Fred R. Shapiro (ed.), Yale Book of Quotations, (Newhaven, 2006), p. 669.

[2] Garson O’Toole, ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’, The Quote Investigatory, Blog, 18th of December 2015, accessed online https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/12/18/live/ (accessed 3/07/2020)

[3] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, (Moscow, 1977), accessed online https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm (accessed 3/07/2020)

[4] Rhigyfarch, Rhigyfarch’s Life of St David, J.W. James (ed. & trans.), §49, §52, pp. 44-5.

The photograph is my own work.

Undergraduate Research Amid COVID-19

Many people told me to ‘expect the unexpected’ when it comes to research, but I certainly was not expecting anything as extreme as a global pandemic!

I was very fortunate that my project did not have to change too much content-wise compared to those of my peers, since technically all I required was a pen, some paper, and a laptop to do the mathematical-related bits of my research project. However, I did encounter a few challenges which I thought I would share, since I think it is enlightening to see how other projects have been affected and the new challenges people have had to face as a result of COVID-19.

My project looks at twelve tone music from an abstract algebra perspective, so the main restriction I’ve had is the limited access to sheet music of the works I want to analyse and collect data from. With many of the composers relevant to my project being quite modern, their music is still copyrighted and therefore not in the public domain, so the only access I would have to it would be through the library, archives, or purchasing it online for a hefty price. Since I wanted to conduct data analysis, the more music I looked at, the more data I would have and the better picture I would build. However, with no access to the library or archives, and with purchasing sheet music to the many works I wanted to look at not being very economical at all, I have had to shift my focus solely to the earlier composers rather than a mix of the earlier and later composers, and I have not been able to look at as many works as I had hoped, which has probably affected the accuracy of my results to quite a large extent. Coming to terms with this mentally has definitely been a challenge, but I’ve been constantly reminding myself that research does not always go to plan, so it’s not always possible to get the results you want.

The joys of research involve having sheets of paper covering the whole of your desk

In addition to this, COVID-19 seemed to exacerbate all the problems I faced last summer, which made the majority of the solutions I had found to those issues largely ineffective this time round. For example, last summer I found research pretty lonely at times, but the way I dealt with this was by maximising time spent with other people, including other fellow Laidlaw scholars who understood the way I was feeling and with whom I could discuss my thoughts and worries. With restrictions to social interaction such as lockdown, and the other Laidlaw scholars being spread all over the world, it was even easier to get lonely, so it was even more vital that I kept in contact with other people over the phone or via social media.

North Street, St Andrews during lockdown

Last summer, I also felt the ‘Bubble’ nature of St Andrews affecting my ability to work for long periods of time, so instead of forcing myself to work constantly 9-5, I made sure I took short breaks and that I switched up study spots once in a while to keep myself mentally refreshed. However, not only was I stuck in St Andrews this summer, but I was also confined to a single room for the entirety of the research period. Additionally, a few of my neighbours seemed to be quite the avid gamer, so hearing a lot of excited and intense shouting through the walls during the day and night, and not being able to relocate to a new study space, really highlighted the fact that I was trapped in this not-so-ideal-for-working environment. It was a struggle to say the least, but I’m sure that going outside to get some fresh air each day certainly had a part to play in helping me get through it all!

I could go on and on, but in retrospect, I appreciate that others have had it a lot worse than me. I’ve come out of the research period with one of the most enriching experiences ever, so I’m extremely grateful. More importantly, my heart goes out to everyone who has been severely affected by COVID-19.

I would like to express my gratitude to my supervisor, Professor Peter Cameron, for his help during these busy and chaotic times, the Laidlaw team for organising a valuable summer programme accessible from all over the world, and Lord Laidlaw for his generosity.

I wish I was Rocking All Over the World – Lockdown Research on Ancient Life in South Africa

In my blog post last summer, I recounted a series of adventures that my Laidlaw colleague, Lot Koopmans and I had in the game reserves and government facilities of South Africa. I talk about how I encountered challenges ranging from undertaking fieldwork in a different cultural setting, to gaining access to South Africa’s Council for Geoscience rock core shed. The latter proved particularly challenging as, even though I booked weeks in advance, I turned up to discover that nobody knew who I was or, rather surprisingly, why I was there. If you want exciting Indiana Jones-style tales of men with guns in government warehouses, wild animals around every corner, and hiking through the nearly-impenetrable forest to find signs of ancient life, then this is not the post for you. To avoid bitter disappointment, I direct you to my previous writings entitled “Rocking All Over the World – Ancient Life in South Africa” on the 23rd August 2019, which is a far more enjoyable read.

Sadly, this summer I am not writing my blog post from O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg after a two-week adventure across the Kaapvall, but instead from my conservatory on a rather dreich day in the Scottish Borders at the half-way point of my summer-at-home research project. Nevertheless, I am not going to be writing extensively today about how much coronavirus has impacted my life and how I had to change so many of my plans because you are probably quite tired of reading that sort of thing after 98 days of a global pandemic. What I will say is that my experiences in South Africa actually prepared me surprisingly well for dealing with the lack of certainty that the global health crisis has brought. As a self-confessed forward planner, lack of certainty can be very stressful for me. In South Africa, I experienced constant uncertainty, ranging from car hire, to access to the core shed and sampling, to finding and accessing field sites. To overcome this, I channelled some of my over-planning into preparing a series of contingency options, just to have some ideas in reserve. However, I also became a lot more chilled, accepting that actually by pushing myself far out of my comfort zone, I no longer had the luxury of certainty. Instead, by being open to opportunities and being proactive in both seeking them out and pouncing on them when they presented themselves, I achieved so much more than I would have if I had been restricted by a rigid plan in a very fluid environment. This is something that I think we have all experienced in the time of Covid-19, which has pushed us all out of our comfort zones. All certainty has vanished. This gives a change in the ways which we forward plan and personally has reminded me about some of the feelings I experienced in South Africa. I have found myself going back to my priorities and grounding myself in my values whilst keeping an open mind. This enables me to be flexible when opportunities do present themselves and enables me to achieve a different set of goals to the ones I originally envisioned for my second summer of Laidlaw Research. These have involved learning French, undertaking a fitness regime, and giving myself more time to relax and enjoy life, instead of working so hard at my research that I eventually just burn out. This has enabled me to gain a lot more life skills and experience out of my second summer of research, instead of the more academic-centric still set I originally envisioned.

My project has changed its scope too. I am still looking at early life and how it interacted with its environment, but instead at looking at the interactions with ocean chemistry 2.5 billion-year-ago, I am instead looking at life in rocks quite a bit older. This all came about because of the struggles in the core shed in South Africa. Ultimately, I really didn’t think that my project would work, and so I came up with a back-up plan, to collect samples in the field from a geological unit called the “Middle Marker”. At 3.47 billion-year-old, this unit has the second oldest generally accepted evidence of life on Earth, and so I was very very excited when I got the opportunity to collect some samples from it on the one day in the field that Lot and I allocated to my project. These samples were brought to Caltech in December 2019 by my advisor, Tim Raub, to have their magnetic properties investigated. What he found was really quite special. These rocks represent perhaps the earliest best-preserved record of rock magnetisation discovered on Earth. Furthermore, the data collected shows a strong potential for having evidence for the magnetotactic bacteria. These are single-celled organisms that biologically produce magnetic minerals like magnetite within their cells to navigate using Earth’s magnetic field. Finding evidence for these bacteria supports that argument that the last universal common ancestor was a magnetotactic organism, which has resounding implications for our understanding of the base of the tree of life and how early life evolved on Earth. Therefore, this summer I am reading extensively around the Middle Marker, performing a literature review upon this unit in the hopes of writing up a paper with my advisor in the coming months on our findings.

Sampling the Middle Marker Unit, South Africa. Credit: Lot Koopmans

A surprising feature of this summer of research that I have observed when comparing to last summer is that now I feel as if I am being treated interacted with by my advisor and other academics as an academic equal, instead of an undergraduate student. Whereas previously I would have been the one always asking advice and questions, now the conversation flows both ways. This is not to say that I have not felt respected by researches before, I have certainly always felt respected within my Laidlaw experience. However now it feels different. Now I feel as I am being treated as an academic equal, who can confidently lead aspects of the project, and propose and drive my own visions and ideas. This is a refreshing realisation, as I feel as if my academic journey involving leadership within the Laidlaw program has had a tangible impact on my academic experience.

Furthermore, I have discovered how much I enjoy sharing my research with others from a variety of backgrounds, even if they don’t ask in detail about it, a surprisingly common occurrence when talking about rocks. I was recently asked to give a brief presentation on my Laidlaw leadership journey so far at the Laidlaw Global Online Induction. After getting over the initial novelty of talking to over 200 people on Zoom, a very weird experience when you feel like you are just talking to a computer screen in your living room, I found that I really enjoyed sharing my experiences, stories, and advice. This is something that I will actively seek out in the future, an opportunity facilitated by the confidence in public speaking and presentation that the Laidlaw Scholarship has helped to develop in me.

Me with the Laidlaw team and the big man himself talking at the Laidlaw Global Induction via Zoom.


As a final point, I would like to take my final Laidlaw blog post as an opportunity to thank everyone in the Laidlaw team along with Lord Laidlaw himself for investing so much time and money in the future of every scholar. As you may have realised through reading this post, I got so much out of my experiences in South Africa and continue to talk about my adventure there and time with Laidlaw at every opportunity. I’m looking forward to continuing this summer of research, even if it was not quite as I had originally planned, and continuing my journey to become a more resilient, authentic, and active leader that the Laidlaw Scholarship has initiated.

I will leave you with one thank you for making it to the end of this blog post, and a final plea to read my one from last year if you want to be actually entertained.

The curious case of curves

In my blog a year ago I talked about my experience getting to grips with research and I related some of the discoveries I had made about the ideas behind curve plotting from James D. Forbes’ (professor of Natural Philosophy in Edinburgh 1833 – 1860) manuscripts. Picking up my work this year has amused me no end. I can look back and gawk at my naivete. To stride feels better than shuffling.

In my research this year I’m attempting to expand upon my previous work. While previously I honed in on a particular person’s work to see when and how their view of curves changed, this year I’m trying to understand how views changed across the Scientific community in Scotland and the UK more generally. I’m looking for networks of people who used curves and whether they were influenced by other important changes going on around them – such as the practices of engineers and whether the invention of certain recording instruments or squared paper impacted their views of experimental curves. Inspired by a note in Forbes’ papers I also want to find out more about who was teaching curves, to whom and how much those students then went on to avail themselves of the skill. A further question I’m interested in is whether people were cognisant of a difference between heuristic and experimental curves, if so why that might be and (as some of my findings have hinted at) whether views of heuristic versus experimental graphs differed between countries.

The note in Forbes’ manuscript regarding teaching curves was stark. He didn’t write any major textbooks and I didn’t find any such mention of the technique in his lecture notes

J. D. Forbes’ note. From St. Andrews archive special collections Ms Q113.F89.

to which the note was attached. I have to give a big thanks to my supervisor Isobel who transcribed it for me. It appears to be a list of suggestions as to how to start examining your observations once you’ve recorded them. If you have one quantity as a function of another you should try “projection by squared paper” which is a way of saying that you should plot a curve. Next written is “method of least squares” and “Graphical interpolation” (Forbes’ preferred name for drawing an experimental curve). So if Forbes was teaching his pupils the technique then the obvious question is: how much attention were they paying? Worth checking out. 

The cultural difference surrounding experimental curves and theoretical curves is well exemplified by Jean-Baptisite Biot. While he is not very relevant to my research I came across his work and got excited. Biot was a Mathematician and Physicist who had contributed to results in geometry amongst other topics. His papers are full of mathematical curves, so he most certainly had the technical knowledge to use experimental ones. I only have limited access to his manuscripts since I can only see what’s online so this is not a rigorous claim – however as far as I could find he never used or mentioned experimental curves nor have I seen his name mentioned in any secondary literature on the subject. Today this may seem strange since it’s easy to think that the step from theory to practice of curves would be simple. It’s a good example of how limited our ability to embrace original ways of thinking really is. Something that makes this project disconcerting and salient today.

To find out more about the networks of people and regional differences in developing ideas behind experimental curve plotting I have been conducting a comparison between papers from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Societies of London and Edinburgh from 1831 to 1840.

Example of a curve on the topic of tides. From the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rstl.1836.0019

This time period has been identified as an important era for this culture change and has already thrown up some interesting findings. The investigations scientists were conducting happened to particularly favour the use of graphs (research on the tides or on daily pressure variations) and they often needed engineers or other non-scientists to collect the data for them and it appears that they favoured presenting their findings using curves. It looks like the convention rubbed off on them. A machine invented by an engineer would automatically record the tide’s effect on the Thames by drawing a curve onto a roll of paper and this could also have influenced the opinions of the scientists doing this sort of research.

Exciting progress. I hope to write an article about all that I have discovered over this summer. This project is full of character and depth – I want to give a huge thanks again to my supervisor Isobel Falconer for the suggestion of the topic and her lucid, incisive guidance throughout.

Researching Remotely

Well, when I wrote my blog last summer, this was not where I thought I’d end up – back in my bedroom.

In fact, I was supposed to be in Australia right now. My original plan was to spend the first summer of my research in St Andrews and Edinburgh, beginning my research on the female computers at the Royal Observatory. That worked out pretty perfectly. Then this summer, the plan was to spend two weeks or so in Perth and possibly Melbourne or Sydney, Australia, to continue the work and expand into the Australian observatories. Life, it seems, had other ideas.

Although coronavirus has put paid to my travel plans, I am still managing to research the Australian observatories from the comfort of my bedroom here in St Andrews. This is due in no small part to the help I have been afforded by researchers in Australia. Kerryn Davis, a volunteer at the Perth Observatory in Western Australia, was kind enough to send me a summary of her research in the archives there – with her permission, I will hopefully make good use of this when I begin writing up my research into an article next week. Toner Stevenson, who I have not been in direct contact with, has also been extremely useful – her PhD thesis has provided invaluable insight into the work of the women in the other Australian observatories, and will doubtless prove to be a main reference point for my work. Without the work of these two modern women, I would be entirely unable to research the women of the early 20th century who form the focus of my project.

I have spent the past two weeks largely reading and collecting my information together, and trying to familiarise myself with the work which I undertook last summer. The research itself has been incredibly rewarding, and although I am largely unable to do any new original research this summer, I am still able to continue my overall project remotely. I just started to write my article, and that will probably take up my next two weeks. After that, I have a poster to make and a video to film, and then my Laidlaw experience is over!

Despite the difficulties caused by the ongoing pandemic, I am extremely grateful to have been able to engage with the Laidlaw Programme and research such a rich topic. It is a credit to the programme that research continues in the face of everything that is happening in the world today, and I am glad to be a part of it. Above all, I have enjoyed uncovering the work of the truly incredible women, who, in my view, deserve a time in the spotlight of the history of astronomy.

I look forward to sharing the results of my research – from my bedroom to the other side of the world – soon.

Image is my own.
Source: R Sampson, Correspondence, Printing. Royal Observatory Edinburgh: A50.433