Laboratory training in Germany

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I had the fantastic opportunity to work in a Laboratory in Tuebingen, and gain valuable knowledge and interesting data as part of my PhD in Stem Cell Research at The University of Edinburgh. My placement was in Prof Olaf Reiss’ laboratory, which has published leading papers in the field of my research. Prof. Reiss’s laboratory is situated in University town of Tuebingen, which is located near Stuttgart. I had not previously worked in a laboratory outside of the UK before, so the Prinicpals’ Go Abroad Scheme also allowed me to gain experience of working abroad should I decide to do so in the future.

Tuebingen was a very charming University town, through which flowed the River Neckar. The Neckar was very popular with both the locals and tourists, who were often seen using Stocherkahn which are small boats similar in shape to punts seen in the UK.

My work placement was at the Institute of Medical Genetics and Applied Genomics, University of Tuebingen. I took microscope slides which I have produced during my PhD to Germany, in order to learn new techniques and analyse the results produced. The laboratory lead Dr Nicolas Casadei recommended a new antibody to use for immunohistochemistry (IHC) experiments, and helped teach me a new staining technique which is used to identify aggregated protein (Thioflavin S). Although we could not identify aggregates within our samples, the IHC produced interesting results which indicate this antibody is potentially very useful.

I have since returned to the lab and recommended the antibody that we are using. The antibody produces a distinctive pattern of immunostaining which appears to co-localise with markers of synapses, and it is likely that this antibody could be used to analyse conformational states of the alpha-synuclein protein. This is important since the mutation that I am working with is likely to disrupt the normal alpha-helical formation of alpha-synuclein, and thus this antibody could be used to investigate changes in potential conformational state of this protein further.

Dr Nicolas Casadei also helped advise on experiments which are likely to be informative and useful as part of my PhD studies, and helped provide an overview of data analysis methods that he has used as part of his projects.

I very much enjoyed my experience in Tuebingen, and I would definitely recommend students to apply for the Prinicpals’ Go Abroad Scheme. The Scheme provides a very valuable opportunity in gaining PhD training, potentially new data, and experience of working abroad which could influence potential career opportunities in the future.

Life In The Thick of It in Pune, India

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My plane touched down in Mumbai on the third night of the monsoon season, which was making international news for the unusual amount of havoc it was causing in its overture. I left again from Mumbai on a clear night, 12 weeks later, as the monsoon was beginning to give way to fall. During the raining season I worked as a tech consultancy intern in Pune, the sister city to India’s tech capital, Bangalore. Both cities covered massive areas within the Western Ghats, a range of lush mountains and foothills the runs the entirety of India’s west coast.

The combined output of these two cities – where luxury apartments with iPhone-triggered AC stood next to bazillionaire mansions in neighborhoods shaded by 300 year old trees, which stood next to more modest neighborhoods filled with tiny houses constructed from corrugated iron and blue tarpaulin over firmly packed dirt, with a mess of electrical wires and grey satellites dishes sitting on top – was a source of within India for the pace at which they were developing steadily. Bangalore created Flipkart, Indian Amazon, and Ola Cabs, Indian Über, as well as Roadrunnr, a smartphone bicycle courier service that recently given $ 10 million in investment money. It was a dynamic and exciting environment – one that never ceased to pose challenging questions to me about what human development looks and acts like.

In my daily commute, I passed neighbors both more impoverished and more privileged that any I’d ever seen before in my life, and so my trip was one of insatiable curiosity about the world’s largest democracy and (soon to be) largest economy. The metropolitan skylines were filled with cranes, concrete, and glass. Wilder lands were never far beyond, with villages acting as satellite societies with oddities and marvels of their own. Environmentalist nightmare, a product of the opportunities of the Internet Age, or a country whose potential has been mired by colonial rule? Fortunately, almost everyone I met was eager to answer my questions and ask many of their own. Sitting on a rock wall that overlooked the backwaters of Poovar, a town 15 kilometers from the southern tip of India, I began to talk with some men who were attending classes at a Christian church nearby. The topics jumped from my favorite Keralan food, to the different agricultural products of the United Sates, to the geography of my hometown, to what I thought about the hopefuls in the 2016 US presidential election. “Modi is India’s Obama,” the group’s anglophile (Hindi wasn’t spoken at all in Kerala – the Malayalam language had a different root and writing system, and no Hindi words I knew were of any help) told me. “All talk. No action.” I smiled, not because I agreed with him, but because of how many of the social barriers I normally experienced in such conversations were completely disregarded, with refreshing effect.

During the course of my internship I was given the opportunity to explore the subcontinent’s geographical and social extremities from my relatively small, low maintenance home base. I travelled to south to Kerala, where one third of the population is Christian, the government is communist, and India’s most literate and hard-drinking citizens live. North, to Delhi, the political center of the country and it’s hottest, busiest, least-friendly urban landscape. I wanted to know how everyone was getting on in a country that’s experiencing growth at a frightening pace – especially in regards to quality of life and availability of technology.

“Seven years ago,” my friend told me as we sat on my scooter in a mass fifty or sixty more two-wheeled vehicles that had accumulated at the front of a hundred meters of deadlocked traffic, “you would have had maybe ten motorcycles and three cars waiting at this traffic light.”

Spanish travels — Agnes Woolley

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The go abroad fund offered me the opportunity to travel to Spain for a month in order to do the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage as well as to learn Spanish and teach English in the city of Granada.

The pre-Christian history of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route dates back to the ancient pagan peoples of the Liberian peninsula, for whom the route is believed to have had a great significance, among them were the Celets and later the omens who conquered Spain. Many historians and archaeologists also claim that the cite itself is a Roman Shrine. The  pagan influences are strong and it is a hugely interesting site. I however was interested in the Christian interest in the route as it has been visited by Christians from the 8th century, it was the most renowned medieval pilgrimage.

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I was researching the history of medieval Christian women pilgrims in order to gain information for my 4th year dissertation about the position of women in major religions worldwide historically and in the modern day. The around the route was rich and actually doing it provided me with the chance to gather epistemological information via a kind of cultural immersion.

Before I left for Spain I was nervous about the embarking on such a long and physically challenging journey by myself. I also has the added concern about not being able to communicate with people as my Spanish conversational skills were not sufficiently enough for me to be entirely comfortable. However, my Spanish improved immensely quickly and this was helped (not hindered) by the fact that I travelled alone as I did not have the option to speak English to anyone! I gathered a huge amount of information about medieval Christian women pilgrims through a variation of research tactics, particularly by making friends with a local history professor in one of the towns I stayed in. She provided me with information about local spanish library’s and academics who had written extensively on my topic, she even agreed to help me translate chapters into English.

My time in Spain was unforgettable and hugely rewarding on a personal and academic level.

CCTVs in the Gut at ICMI 2015, Berlin, Germany.

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On a fine Sunday in mid-July morning I arrived in Berlin to attend the International Congress for Mucosal Immunology. An 8 day long conference on all topics Mucosal with bits of Immunology thrown in there. My mission: present my data, get feedback and learn more about the field from distinguished experts.

 

 

The conference started in typical fashion where the experts and professors lounged around and criticised the work of others, while the students and junior scientists tried their best to appear knowledgeable. However by lunch time on the first day the “experts” were nowhere to be found having ran away to the nearest Bierzelt. The rest of us followed suit soon after the end of day 1, which was long. In fact all the days at the conference were very long and it was a packed schedule. We started at 8am and the last presentation finished at 8pm with 2 hours of poster presentations after that; for 8 days. So it was often found that attendees were sneaking off for a nap in their rooms during the more “boring” talks.

I was presenting on the third day of the conference and was mostly confident. I had solid data and had a clear plan in mind. I was presenting my work on M cells and the wild theories I have on their development.  M cells act like CCTV cameras to survery the gut area for anything out of order, or potentially harmful, and then present them to our immune system (essentially the army, police, and law courts) to sort out them bad ‘uns.

I had 20 minutes to present 3 years worth of research so I had to be quick-tongued and concise. I planned it all out perfectly: 3 introduction slides (a couple of minutes), 15 results slides (around 10 minutes), 4 discussion slides (4-5 minutes); leaving 3-4 minutes for questions. I though this was a solid plan.

So on conference day, I got psyched up, listened to Eye of the tiger in my hotel room, went over my slides, did some push-ups. My presentation was after lunch, which oddly enough the conference did not provide, so I had a Currywurst Berliner und einen Weiβbier  at the hotel bar.

I started the presentation fairly well but something in the Currywurst had done something to my belly. So I forgot half of my introduction and repeated the same slide 4 times. Instead to taking 2 minutes on the introduction I ended taking around 10 minutes as I composed myself. At this point one the senior scientists interrupts me and asks a self aggrandizing question. This cut  further into my time and I now had around 6 minutes to present the rest of my work. So I blitz through the rest of my 19 slides in 4 minutes and finished with an awkward silence Q&A.

So alongside learning a tremendous amount about the Mucosal Immune system, I also learnt to never have a Currywurst  und Weiβbier before a presentation.

I would like to thank the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund for funding the opportunity for me to attend this excellent conference.

 

 

A summer in Tanzania – Miranda Clarke (PGAF)

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What was I doing?

In the summer of 2015 I travelled to Tanzania as an Expedition Leader for the Edinburgh based charity First Aid Africa (FAA). It is a young charity committed to delivering first aid training and integrating first aid kits made of local, sustainable materials in rural parts of East Africa where access to emergency healthcare is limited.

Part of our role as expedition leaders was to work with in-country staff, community leaders and school heads to set up and run all 2015 Tanzania teaching placements. As a result we had to manage the logistical arrangements associated with having 32 UK volunteers spread across 20 rural placements. In addition we had to assemble and manage the five-figure 2015 budget, deliver all in-country inductions for volunteers and give pastoral support when required. It was an absolutely fantastic, albeit a little overwhelming, 3-month experience that I will never forget. Having been to Tanzania in 2010, stepping off the plane felt amazing and instantly brought happy memories flooding back. I felt embraced by the warmth of the Tanzanian evening sun and found myself giggling with delight as the inevitable chaos of the disorganised airport arrival ensued.

What was I worried about before I left?

Before leaving I was worried about many things but the main thing was how I would cope with the responsibility of having 30 volunteers in my charge across the summer months, as well as getting everything ready in time for their arrival. I was also extremely worried about driving myself – and others(!)- around on the crazy Tanzanian roads!

What did I learn?

I learned an awful lot throughout the role. I learned a lot about people-management and how no matter what age someone is or experience they have, they cope with complete change in totally different ways and require varying degrees of support. I found methods of executing my role so that I gave ample support to those needing it, without patronising those who felt they didn’t.

I learned a lot about myself and my coping threshold. I found that I thrive under pressure and that being alert and ready to deal with anything 24 hours a day for three months is indeed possible!!

Final Note

In addition, by finding numerous placements for our volunteers to teach first aid at, I was privileged to have the opportunity to make meaningful connections with so many people from completely different walks of Tanzanian life. My love for Tanzanian culture and the never-ending spirit of community deepened enormously. One morning in my final week, I had driven two volunteers far out of town to teach in a Maasai tribal village nestled between sugar cane plantations and it was unforgettable. I found myself pretending to be unconscious (for teaching purposes!) lying on a cow-hide, surrounded by children and adults alike, when a goat narrowly missed my face as it trampled on by. I felt paralysed with happiness and laughter. How had I got here? How had I weathered three months of utter mayhem? How had my 23 year old self coped with all the responsibility? I didn’t have many answers but it felt euphoric!

A country in which the national catch phrase is ‘pole pole’ (or ‘slowly slowly’) can only teach you to take life a little slower and enjoy it. Here’s to not finding unimportant things stressful, working towards rebuilding community and finally being grateful for every moment! POLE POLE!!

Thanks again to the PGAF for helping make it possible.

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International Childhood and Youth Research Network in Cyprus

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Over the summer, I had an exciting opportunity to attend the 3rd international conference of the International Childhood and Youth Research Network in Cyprus thanks to the Go Abroad Fund. I submitted an abstract paper which was accepted and included in the conference programme. My paper was “All voices matter “exploring experiences of children and young people in conducting child-led research as a vehicle to influence decision-making processes.”

The Go Abroad fund has a strong academic component and I thought this international conference will connect me to an important academic network that aims to promote the inter-disciplinary study of children and young people. I was complete right! This conference helped me to have a better understanding of the theory and methods in child research using a critical lens to examine epistemological frameworks. The conference also opened my eyes about the emerging channels to engage children in producing knowledge. Many of the attendees were looking at epistemological issues and their impact policy-making and practice and how this work impacts the development of theory and method in child research.

One of my major concerns was to meet many of the scholars who have been writing extensible about these topics, and I felt that as a new comer I will be in a weak position. I believe this feeling was normal as this was my first academic conference. Fortunately, my experience was very positive. The conference opened my mind to new perspectives and equipped me with more tools and knowledge to initiate my career as researcher.

From a personal perspective, this conference was important for my individual development and improved my abilities to interact with peers in a relaxed and positive environment. I also learned many new things about Cyprus and its deep and long-term tension between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities, and how this affects children from both sides of the island. Each ethic group maintains its own culture, linked to the cultures of Greece and Turkey, and there is little cultural interchange between the two groups.

The Go Abroad gave me a great opportunity to be exposed to different ways of viewing the world and allowed me to be connected with a research environment where the voices of children are clearly heard and understood.

Italy 2015 — Fern Whitelaw

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I spent the month of July travelling round four cities in Italy which were Rome, Siena, Florence and Milan.  My principle reason for this venture was to learn Italian, attending a language school 5 days a week.  In searching for suitable schools I came across what seemed an almost “too good to be true” opportunity.  Scuola Leonardo Da Vinci, a chain of language schools, offered an “Italian Tour” course which allowed me to travel between cities, attending one of their schools in each, beginning at one school where I had left at the last.  I was determined not just to learn “textbook Italian” but to learn idiomatic, colloquial Italian.  I wanted to take full advantage of actually being in Italy, and learning not only about the language, but also the culture.  From Renaissance splendour in Florence, to fashion central in Milan I aimed to experience as many different aspects of Italian culture as possible.  As a student entering my 4th Year of a Classics degree, the chance to spend time in Rome was of course almost a dream come true!

Before leaving I was worried about travelling alone for the first time; the thought of busy train stations and airports seeming somewhat more daunting than when others are with you, a definite ‘small fish in a big pond’ kind of situation!  I was also slightly concerned about my accommodation, considering that for 2 of the weeks away I would be staying with a host family and expected to be speaking in Italian all the time; a big ask for someone who had only been studying Italian for a week! While I was aware that there would be a lot of English spoken in Rome, I was far more aware of the fact that in Siena there were far fewer English speakers, and that I was going to have to be willing to put myself in situations whereby it may take more than one attempt to convey what it was I was trying to say.  Indeed, in the end I did occasionally have to resort to use of some acting skills!

Of course my Italian progressed rapidly over the four weeks.  However, beyond this I learned a lot not only about culture (although I do have far more churches and museums under my belt now!) but also about people and interaction.  Due to the kindness and patience that people showed me, with no hope of anything being given to them in return, I am now aware of just how nice people can really be.  People were willing to sit through my stunted attempts at Italian and were always ready to give help in difficult situations.  Despite being constantly bombarded by media telling us of the abhorrent actions of horrific people, it was more than just refreshing to experience first hand the goodness that so many people do in fact have to offer.

Huduma Ya Kwanza Katika Tanzania

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Roughly translated as “First Aid in Tanzania” I thought I would take this opportunity to show of my very limited swahili skills. I was making progress – but sadly I had to leave after my 7 week stay. On arrival to Moshi – our centre for all things first aid we were greeted with the magnificent sight of Kilimanjaro!

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Our Inductions began on the roof of the building this photo was taken on, where I got to meet my expedition partner and good friend Pedro. Really can’t express just how grateful I am that he was my partner.

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After our induction we were sent off to placement to begin teaching in schools, community centres and vocational centres. We were placed in Uchira secondary school about an hour outside Moshi – where we stayed in the provided accommodation for teachers.

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The accommodation was simple and functional: no flushing toilets, 1 light, 1 power outlet… Sorted. There was no kitchen so we took to the task like Bear Grylls himself. Toasting over fires, buying our own chickens – alive of course… You know what happened to this chickens but I’ll save you from those images. Have toast instead.

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So we set off to life here for the next 4 weeks and began teaching the 400 students at the school class by class. Everyday we would work for 4 hours and that’s not including the amount of preparation required. Hope we all know our DRSABC!!

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For 4 weeks we stayed with the teachers (most of whom were our age) and just got so immersed in the lifestyle. The guys we stayed with helped make the experience what it was so I’ll give them a cheeky wee photo.

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At the weekends we were free to do as we pleased. The whole group usually meets up in Moshi with some sort of plan for the weekend! No weekend was greater than our trip to the N’gorogoro crater.

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I could give you a lesson on what it is but I only have so many words here but the whole experience left me speechless!

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The safari weekend was an incredible experience – I would highly recommend it to anyone, animal lover or not.
Around the third week of placement we started getting a regular wake-up call from our newest friend Elson. He would chap our window for hours. He was sassy – look at that pose!

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Time went so quickly in Uchira and at week 4 it was time to leave. The students whom we taught were examined and those who passed received first aid qualifications. The “graduation” ceremony was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. I can’t do it justice here but I made some serious friends there and leaving them was painful – even if I am smiling in these photos.

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In the words of the living legend. UCHIRAAA!!?

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Das Leben auf Deutsch

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Having spent a good year of my life studying the German language, I felt like I needed to actually experience what it was to ‘live in German’, as it were, and see for myself how the stereotypically stern Germans truly behave. Thus, with the aid from the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund, I ventured into German territory and into a city of unparalleled liveliness and diversity, shattering my preconceptions of the German lifestyle. My goal was to attend some lectures at the Univeristy, as well as take an intensive preparation course for German C1-C2 examinations.

Although I had arranged my accommodation prior to my arrival, I did not know what to expect from what would be my home and my housemates for the next few weeks – I had only skyped with the couple I would be renting the room from while they travelled. And so, I went from the airport to Samariterstraße in the middle of Friedrichshain in what was the GDR not that long ago, wondering how much my German had corroded over the years. Daniel and Mirza received me with open arms, open beer and open wine-in-a-box – the perfect recipe for unfurling my German conversation skills.

Talking about the city, they told me of two clichés that I was able to easily recognise in the next few weeks. Firstly, that there are virtually no Berliners in Berlin other than those you can buy at the bakery (delicious cream-filled doughnuts). If I’m not mistaken, only one out of all the Germans I met was actually a Berlin native, the rest had flooded in from either the countryside or other cities. And that’s just Germans. According to some statistics, around 900.000 citizens out of the 3.4 million come from abroad – hence its nickname, the ‘Multi-Kulti’ city. My flatmates themselves were not from Berlin, but from Heidelberg and from Croatia.

And secondly, that Berlin is unlike any other place in Germany. Whilst I wasn’t able to personally experience this latter point, I trust what all the Germans I met (none of them actually from Berlin, of course) told me along the way. Berlin is a bizarre historico-cultural melting pot in which anarchy and lawfulness seemingly and merrily coexist (the image of a loud anarchist demonstration being followed by public cleaners and cleaning vans comes to mind).

Aside from being a gold mine for history buffs such as myself, it seemed to me that Berlin has everything to offer no matter what your tastes. In this was surprised and pleased to find a city in which people not only are open-minded but also respectful of others’ lifestyles. I guess its torrid history as well as the high volume of foreigners has had some influence in the collective mentality of the city. As my friend Mirza pointed out, “Berlin is Germany’s freakshow… and that’s how we like it.”