Attending the ISAE Congress in Aarhus, Denmark – Jen-Yun Chou

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The International Society of Applied Ethology (ISAE) is the biggest and most established society for global research in applied ethology and animal welfare science. Every year ISAE holds an international congress gathering researchers and students from around the world in this field and any individual or organisation who shares the same interest. This year it was organised by the Aarhus University in Denmark. I am very excited at but also very nervous about presenting my work as a speaker in the congress in front of so many renowned scholars and experts.

Aarhus is the second largest city in Denmark and home to the Aarhus University. The city is also crowned as the cultural capital of Europe in 2017. The mayor is proud of its cultural heritage as she welcomed us in the city hall, and indeed the liveliness and at the same time a cultural harmony can be felt during my stay.

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The congress kicked off with a full day workshop on tail biting in pigs and feather pecking in layers, the former of which is my current research topic. Almost 80 delegates joined in this workshop, including those from Latin America and Africa. The workshop included talks by experts and group discussions for more interactive brainstorming and networking. It was a very fruitful meeting where I gained ideas on how to develop my PhD project.

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The congress officially opened on Tuesday by a lecture in memory of the most prestigious contributor in applied animal welfare science, Prof David Wood-Gush. This year the organiser invited an ethologist Dr Peter Madsen to share his love for studying audio signalling of whales. During the course of his research, he was also involved in reinventing the US marine sonar to prevent whales from stranding at the beach due to audio disturbance.

The topics this year’s congress covered ranged from the basics of animal senses and perception, animal cognition, stress, social/maternal behaviours and affective states, to broader topics of human-animal relationships and how to apply these understandings to the keeping of animals in a manmade environment. I am delighted to finish my presentation successfully and also attend many talks and poster presentations. My focus was on pig studies which are closely related to my own research, but I also learned a lot on other species. Moreover, the variety of social events really helped with networking and exchanging ideas. I was able to talk to many PhD students and researchers from around the world.

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On the last day, I visited a commercial organic dairy farm, and the organic pig farm and mink farm from Aarhus University in Foulum. It is exciting to see organic farming up close and it is stimulating for my future research ideas. This is the first time I visit any fur farm, which is an economically important farming in the Scandinavia, so it’s a unique experience. Overall this trip has been a successful journey in terms of academic development and knowledge exchange, but also as a cultural learning experience.

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Stories from Coimbatore

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This summer, I had the privilege of travelling to Coimbatore, India for a medical volunteering trip. Coimbatore is a small city in Tamil Nadu, India, located on the foothills of Nilgiri Mountains. Growing up in Singapore, where there is a significant international population, I was always intrigued by the stories that my Indian friends told of their culture and traditions, and I had always wanted to visit the country. So when an opportunity arose to volunteer at a government hospital in Coimbatore, I did not hesitate to take it.

Being a female student with no knowledge of the local language, the two things I was most worried about was my personal safety and language barrier. I made sure to do thorough research on appropriate accommodation, transport, and paid particular attention to food and water consumed whilst I was there (I was determined not to become a victim of the infamous Indian stomach bug). The most dangerous experience I had was probably the commute from my accommodation to the hospital – people in India indeed do drive on the opposite lane to overtake cars, buses, and cows. There is no doubt that I would have had gained a deeper insight if I had understood their language, but I am forever grateful for the doctors, nurses, and patients for their patience in many games of charades, and words lost in translation. I encountered some of the kindest people I have ever met, in Coimbatore. How they can be so trusting and hospitable to a stranger is still beyond me, I feel extremely fortunate to have met such people.

Through my stay in Coimbatore, I not only gained a valuable insight into the delivery of public medical care in India, but also how significant the underlying cultural values and political issues are connected to medical care. The lack of governmental regulation of automobiles leading to numerous road traffic accidents, people transferred from temples due to injuries from religious customs, patients losing lives due to their trust in astrologists and herbal gurus instead of modern medicine. It was a priceless experience to be able to witness such incidents that I would never have had the chance to anywhere else in the world. I met many inspirational doctors during my travels, and have learnt life lessons that I will treasure throughout my future career.

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Archaeology in Romania

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This summer, I was fortunate enough to go on an archaeological dig in Romania. I chose to visit Romania in particular because of its rich history, most particularly the story of Vladimir Tepes (most commonly known as Dracula) and their experience under the control of the Soviet Union until its fall in 1991. I was interested to see what Romania was like, as it had only recently begun living under a capitalist system that we have here in the United Kingdom. As a History student, I thought doing an archaeological dig in Romania would be the best of both worlds: I would be finding and handling artefacts, all the while learning about a culture that seemed totally different from my own.

While I was excited to begin my journey to Romania, I was terrified about travelling there, as I had to go alone. Growing up, I came from a background that simply couldn’t afford to go on holiday, and so I had barely travelled outside of the UK before coming to Edinburgh. I was fearful of travelling in an airport and getting lost, and as a result missing my flight. I was also worried about not finding my driver who was taking me to my accommodation when I arrived there, as I arrived at the airport very late at night and I don’t speak any Romanian. However, the journey both to and from Romania were smooth sailing, and overall, I was very pleased with how I handled travelling alone for the first time.

I believe my archaeological dig in Romania has taught me a lot of things about archaeology, but most importantly, about myself. As soon as I arrived at my accommodation, I unfortunately fell down the stairs and fractured my ankle. As a result, I had to come to terms with the fact that while I had travelled halfway across Europe, I was physically unable to do what I had set out to do. At first, I admittedly was miserable: it was a large financial investment for me to make the journey in the first place, and so I was very disappointed in myself for getting injured. However, once I was able to go on the excavation site and realised that archaeology isn’t simply just about digging, I was able to make the most of my time there. I wasn’t able to physically find items, but I could catalogue, wash and attempt to put back together the pieces of ceramics that my colleagues had. I also visited a University bone lab, and attempted to put back together a human ribcage from a body that was over 5,000 years old! By participating in these varied tasks, I have a new-found respect for archaeologists and all the hard work that they do to ensure classicists and historians like myself have primary material to base their research on. Therefore, while my trip wasn’t what I expected, it wasn’t time wasted: I still had an excellent time and loved every minute in Romania.

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The supervisors on the dig site, who work at 1 Decembrie 1918 University, Alba Iulia, Romania.

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Fieldwalking (when archaeologists walk around near the digging site to see if they can find any material on the ground). As the materials that we found were not “in context” (meaning we could not trace what time period it was from through what level of the soil it was found in) we were allowed to keep what we found for ourselves!

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A picture of me next to some castle ruins in northern Romania. On the weekends, we had free time and could go on trips such as this one. This castle had been previously been owned by a Hungarian noble family, and through this I also learned the Austro-Hungarian influence on Romanian heritage.

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Me & the other volunteers on my trip (who were from all across the world) and our supervisor when we were trying to put back together pieces of ceramic from the Neolithic era. Ceramic is the most common thing to find on archaeological sites, and this picture is certainly evidence of that!

Macau in Picture

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There are 85 people per square kilometer in Greece my home country and around 260 for the UK as a whole. Macau has 21,000. What does life look like there? Well, have a look.

Once a Portuguese trading port, Macau is now an autonomous region in East Asia, 65 km away from Hong Kong and the buzzing resort of Chinese gamblers.

The view on top of the Guia hill reveals the busy but beautiful skyline of Macau, dominated by the Grand Lisboa Casino on the right and the Macau tower in the middle.

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Real, daily life unfolds in the shadows of these gigantic buildings. There is a lot of wealth and with it comes high quality education and entertainment. This glamorous life however is not lived by everyone. A significant portion of the local population is struggling and is lacking access to quality education and exposure to international stimuli, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty. A team of students from Edinburgh have thus decided to devote our summer to providing free classes of English and other disciplines to students of lower income (most of whom had never travelled outside of Macau).

Rather unexpectedly, the school at which we taught was a low, colorful example of Portuguese architecture.

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The class started slow, the students were not confident in their English let alone delving deep into specific disciplines. Yet, it only took a couple of days for them to realize we were on their side and for them to feel safe to experiment with and expand their knowledge of English.

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I delivered a class on Online Business and was overwhelmed by the interest in the subject. Frank, one of the students, had been selling shoes to his classmates and wanted to take his business online. Even though some University level material looked scary at the beginning the students were extremely eager to grasp it and the class revolved around interactive activities to break advanced concepts down to basic, easy to understand ideas.

Teaching isn’t easy, but eventually you learn how to hide everything about your last night and to find the energy to entertain your class for the whole day. It helps to get to know the class on a personal level. Bowling worked for us, as all but a couple of the teachers were pretty terrible at it, thus relaxing and reversing the student-teacher relationship.

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Over a month, 12 students who did not know each other or what to expect and a teacher who felt even more intimidated at first, came together to make life-long friends and find the courage to present their comprehensive business idea in front of 50 attendees (including government officials).

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However it was not all easy. There were times when the teachers felt helpless and lost. Thankfully, Macao’s delicious snacks came to the rescue.

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Medical Research in Sweden

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This summer I travelled to the Karolinska Institutet for medical research in Stockholm, Sweden. I spent my six week internship with the Integrative Physiology research group who are doing research on obesity, muscle tissue and physical exercise.

I wanted to do this internship in order to improve my lab skills, learn essential research techniques and be more comfortable in a lab in general. In addition I wanted to find out about an area of research that really interests me in order to help me decide on future course choices, postgraduate programmes etc.

Before leaving for my ‘go abroad experience’ I was quite worried about not being able to understand the people in Sweden. Luckily, almost everyone spoke English and the language spoken in the lab was English as well. I also learned simple Swedish phrases that were very useful for basic conversations. Furthermore, I was hoping to get along well with the host family I was staying with. Not only were they very welcoming towards me, but I also spent my free weekends with them exploring the city.

In addition I was worried of not being able to follow what people were doing in the lab or not being able to understand the tasks that I was supposed to complete. This actually did happen to me more than once. It was quite foolish to believe that I would be able to comprehend everything my co-workers have been doing research on for years or even decades. I have learned not to be afraid to ask for help – I found it easy to approach university staff, but I felt uncomfortable at first interrupting my supervisor or other co-workers to ask for their help. However, everyone was more than happy to explain things to me and to make sure I learned as much as possible.

In conclusion I strongly recommend going abroad, no matter how short your stay might be. Not only did I learn essential data analysis and lab techniques, but I also managed to understand quite complex but extremely interesting medical processes. Additionally, I feel more comfortable travelling on my own. My ‘go abroad experience’ has definitely encouraged me to undertake similar trips next year, to gain an insight into other cultures and expand my scientific knowledge even further.

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Reflections on Empowerment

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On a visit to a local university with some of my students.

At the Harpswell Dormitory and Leadership Center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia this summer, I had the opportunity to live and work with thirty-one university-aged women whose work ethic, resilience and care for each other constantly inspired me. Never before had I lived in such close quarters with people who have faced gender discrimination, limited educational opportunities and other challenges from a young age. Each student I worked with modeled for me what hard work and endurance look like; most woke up around 5:30 or 6:00am to study, clean or cook and many went to bed well past midnight. Although I was formally there in a teaching role, in many ways I know I learned just as much from them as they did from me.

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The five other summer Leadership Residents and I pose for a photo at a local restaurant.

Harpswell’s mission is to empower young women to become the future leaders of their country by helping them to cultivate leadership, critical thinking and networking skills. All students come from rural areas where there is limited access to quality education. Many have families that cannot afford to send them to Phnom Penh, where university and living costs are high. Figures like Hillary Clinton and Ing Kantha Phavi, the Cambodian Minister of Women’s Affairs, have praised Harpswell for its work in supporting intelligent young women to pursue higher education, study abroad opportunities and leadership positions they may not have had access to otherwise.

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My students taught me how to dream big.

In a Gender and Development class I took this spring, I learned to become critical of the way empowerment has become a buzzword in the NGO world; empowering women is not an end in itself, a goal to reach in order to pull developing countries out of poverty or to equalize the number of men and women that hold seats in national parliaments. No, empowerment is a process, a realization over time that you have the power and potential to reach your goals regardless of the institutional biases that may stand in your way. This became crystal-clear for me at Harpswell, where I was taught what facing your fears and challenging yourself can produce.

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A student faces her fear of climbing to the top of a rock wall.

There were countless moments in which I witnessed what I call “everyday empowerment.” Reading six pages of a Goosebumps book in one hour was a huge accomplishment for one student, who patiently worked with me to make sure she pronounced each word in English correctly. At a local rock-climbing wall, one student conquered her fear of climbing to the top with the encouragement of her peers. And I learned I was capable of biking around a new city where traffic rules are essentially nonexistent. In each of these moments, I observed in myself and others what the process of empowerment looks like and how rewarding it can be to conquer your fears head on. I hope to return to Cambodia someday soon to visit the girls who inspired me in so many ways to view empowerment not as an end but as a beginning.

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A tearful goodbye.