APEX 5: An Un-Bolivia-Able Experience

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It was the very early hours of Wednesday 14th June that myself and 3 others set off on what was to be a challenging but truly amazing trip. We were part of the organising team of the APEX 5 High-Altitude Research expedition to Bolivia, South America.

We were the ‘advance party’, heading in country 5 days early to prepare for the arrival of our 29 volunteers, 2 doctors and 3 remaining organisers. Why South America? And why Bolivia? Bolivia as a country is at a very high-altitude, which for a medical expedition investigating high-altitude illness is perfect. The 4 previous APEX expeditions, which were all incredibly successful, had been to Chaclataya mountain in Bolivia. So we were going back for round 5.

Our expedition had taken almost 3 years of planning, coordinating and fundraising. So, the worries we experienced beforehand were broad and almost always fully resolved. However, there were still some worries before we set off on our adventure. We were responsible for the safety and wellbeing of 30 other students whilst on Huayna Potosi mountain, and these students were also now our friends.

The biggest worry occurred in country, one day before our volunteer team was due to arrive. The lodge that we were meant to be staying in, at Chaclataya, was now no longer accessible due to a large section of road covered in ice. A very large problem. We were very close to having to cancel the entire expedition, but we came together and the alternative lodge was found. When 3 years of work is about to crumble, anybody would be worried.

What did I learn? Unfortunately, this blog is only 500 words, and I think I could write an entire book on what I learned over the whole planning and undertaking of the expedition. But I could summarise my learning with two main themes: teamwork and patience. The only reason that our expedition was possible was due to the fantastic team that was behind it.

We were all unique, bringing our individual talents, skills and knowledge to the table: but together we formed a fantastic team. Learning to work with brand new individuals, and forming new friendships along the way, was at times challenging, but wholeheartedly rewarding.

Secondly patience. Although it may sound odd, it was something I felt was pivotal to our team. There were times where the going got tough, and we had long waits for ethics forms or long nights in the library finalising documents. However, there was no other option, and you just had to learn to be patient. A skill we all found invaluable when stuck at 4800m in a cramped lodge with 30 other people!

APEX 5 was far more than a trip to the Bolivian Andes. It was a 3-year journey. One where new skills were learned, new friendships formed, and memories made that will last my lifetime.

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Issues of Global Health- A Truly ‘Global’ Adventure, by Manveer Rahi

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On my six-week trip, I travelled to Geneva, Switzerland to undertake an unpaid internship at the World Health Organisation (WHO). Here I worked within the Expanded Programme on Immunizations, developing global policy on collecting epidemiological data on RSV, a respiratory virus that kills nearly 120,000 children under five around the world each year.

Prior to starting, I had expectations that the internship would be a work-centric, hard slog where I would be poorly nourished and have little life outside of work. Instead, what I found was the opposite. During my time away, I found adventure and a deeper insight into the term ‘global’. Upon landing in Geneva, I felt mild trepidation. This was a new step in my life and my career. ‘I really need to make a good impression’, my overriding thought the night before starting work. On the first morning, I ensured I was well presented: trousers, shirt and tie. However, I was surprised by how different my experience was compared to my preconceived expectations. By 11am, the tie was gone and with it my expectations also placed aside.

I was worried that I would be doing grunt-work, menial tasks and treated by supervisors as unpaid labour with the odd opportunity for learning. Instead what I found was countless opportunities for self-development and learning. I was actively encouraged by my supervisors to attend lunchtime seminars. These were hosted by leading experts from around the world and held by multiple UN organisations. As such I attended talks at the WHO on vaccine development, emergency meetings on the recent Ebola and Polio outbreaks, food security, substance misuse policy and also talks by the Secretary General of the UN on Human Rights. With each of these experiences I furthered my understanding of the complexities of global health and just how many barriers are faced in improving global standards of living. The breadth of issues facing our world today scares me, but having the opportunity to see the worldwide collaboration of people and institutions all working with the common goal to solve these issues has humbled me.

Before setting off on this adventure I was fortunate enough to study global health for a year during my medical degree. I came out of this year with a deep appreciation for the need to improve global standards of care. However, I had never truly understood what ‘global’ meant. The opportunity to work with people from around the world and on issues facing multiple nations forced me to redefine my definition of ‘global’, as I had never truly grasped the breadth or magnitude of the task at hand. I learnt this best from the small group of interns that I strongly bonded with, having lunches, dinners and spending weekends together. Free moments would be spent teaching each other about our various projects and whilst learning I gained a group of ‘global’ friends.

I would like to thank the PGAF for helping this adventure to come true.

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Tianjin summer school

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This summer I attended a four week long programme at Tianjin university in China, located a stone throw away from Beijing city. The programme consisted of morning classes and afternoon classes. In the morning we learnt mandarin and about various aspects of Chinese culture. For example we had classes in traditional Chinese painting. In the afternoons we joined a laboratory group within the school of chemistry and assisted the members with their chemistry research. Undertaking completely new chemistry that we’ve never before experienced.

Before I left for China I was nervous about medical safety within the country, but after talking to a doctor, it was determined that Beijing is a relatively low risk area for issues such as rabies. I got all the required vaccinations, which put my mind more at ease. I was also concerned about living somewhere for a month with such a different culture from the UK. Because a new culture poses challenges like being able to fit in with the people and being able to enjoy new foods and a different diet. There was also the concern of a language barrier and how this would affect communication in class and in the laboratory. And lastly I was worried about missing family and friends from home. Although studying far away from my home has given me a taste of staying away from home for long periods of time.

I learnt so many things from this experience, first a foremost that even if there is a language barrier, it is still possible to develop strong friendships. While working alongside the Chinese students in the laboratory we developed friendships that extended outside of the laboratory. The language barrier however did make explaining some of the chemical concepts they were studying and explaining how to use the new machinery difficult in some instances. Normally it just took more time and some ‘sign-language’ type communication. Above all though I learnt new laboratory techniques as the research projects being undertaken were very diverse and not something I have covered in any of my classes at university. The Chinese have a very hard working culture and are very driven people, I hope to take from this a renewed determination to achieve the best possible results in my research project this year at university.

HypED trip to California for the Space X competition

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The trip to California was an invaluable opportunity for our team to present itself at the Space X pod competition. HypEd presented itself with pride and we were also the only team from the United Kingdom. Prior to the arrival, I was worried that other teams will not be keen to make friends and the other bigger worry was the logistics around Los Angeles. To my amazement, other teams especially from Poland, Spain and the United States were extremely friendly and we managed to build professional links with them which would be extremely useful for our team’s development in the future. As for the logistics around Los Angeles, it took a little bit of time to get used to the wide highways and that you need to drive everywhere because Los Angeles itself is bigger than it seems.

We also caught attention of the press and more importantly, we saw pods being tested in the purpose built tube which was a truly historical moment. Having seen Elon Musk and all his brainchildren like Tesla and SpaceX, was both surreal and inspirational. A third competition has been announced and I am sure that we shall take part in it next year and perform even better than we did.

We also had breakfast at the private residence of the British Consul in Los Angeles, that same day we also visited Hyperloop One headquaters. All these visits highlighted the importance of networking and that actually people are happy to share their knowledge and help you. Overall, it was a great opportunity for the team to be together and put teamwork spirit towards achieving the best possible result.

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Exploring Computational Neuroscience in Stockholm

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During two months I have undertaken an internship in the Neuroscience Department at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. As I am going into my third year of studying Biomedical Sciences, with my honours being neuroscience, I haven’t yet taken specialised neuroscience courses and hence my goal for with internship was to gain knowledge and experience within a more specific area of neuroscience to be well prepared for the future. For me personally, Karolinska Institute is the perfect university as I am very interested in going there for a PhD in the future, and since it is one of the top medical universities in the wold.

My expectation for the internship was for me to work hands-on in the lab with electrophysiology, but I was however instead placed to assist a PhD student within computational neuroscience. We worked on modelling and simulations of a neuron type present in the striatal part of the brain to better understand their properties. These neurons have been show a potential target for e.g Parkinson’s drugs. Working only with modelling was initially overwhelming, as I have no experience in programming. However I had great support from my mentor and could ask her questions whilst doing a crash-course in Python coding during my first two weeks. Retrospectively, I can say with certainty that being placed to do computational neuroscience was a great learning experience for me that I would have not gotten otherwise. In my degree we do not have a lot of programming included, and since the computational aspect is so frequently incorporated into all areas of research today, it has been of great value to learn it. I also got to observe the underlying experiments to our modelling, and got to try immunostaining of brain slices and patch clamping in mouse and fish brain.

Besides the pure academic experience I was positively surprised with the openness and social cohesion in the lab and neighbouring labs. I was worried that I might find the days at the lab lonely or that I would not make a good impression, but was not at all the case. Twice a day people from several labs would come together for “fika”, a very Swedish concept of having some coffee/tea, and sometimes a biscuit or pastry, and socialise, something I have never heard people in Edinburgh labs do. This allowed me to both make friends, get valuable contacts at the university for the future and receive tips preparing me to do a PhD myself. The nationalities in the lab was a great mix of Swedes and others from around the world, and I enjoyed also spending time with them outside the lab appreciating the beautiful summer-Stockholm. Overall my time at Karolinska has been a fantastic learning experience and a lot of fun.

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My time at the 23rd International Conference on Historical Linguistics

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I received the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund to support my trip to San Antonio, Texas, to give a presentation at the 23rd International Conference on Historical Linguistics (ICHL).

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Historical linguistics aims to unveil the inner working of particular languages and general patterns that can be observed across languages. The most important conference on historical linguistics, ICHL, therefore is an ideal venue for linguists from all over the world to present and discuss new findings, methodologies, and theories to explain the peculiarities and commonalities we find in various languages.

Because it was the largest conference I had ever attended, at first I was nervous about my presentation: Would I be able to finish my talk on time? Would I be able to answer all the questions?  What would people in my audience think about my presentation? Luckily, my presentation went fine and I received a lot of feedback that was both encouraging and helpful, with which I could further refine my arguments and connect my topic to the wider literature.

The conference was also like a crash course on many other linguists’ research and trends in historical linguistics. When I work on my research, it is sometimes inevitable that I lose sight of certain theoretical and/or empirical aspects of it, but being able to listen to others’ talks at the conference, which came from a wide array of frameworks and/or methodologies, made it possible for me to consider my research from different perspectives. I also learned a lot from attending a panel session on the development of historical linguistics over the last 50 years, New Directions for Historical Linguistics, which was to commemorate the 1966 symposium “Directions for Historical Linguistics” at the University of Texas at Austin that spawned the important publication Directions for Historical Linguistics: A Symposium. Thanks to the panel, I am now more familiar with the intellectual context and heritage of some aspects of historical linguistics that I have been working on.

At ICHL, I got to meet some old friends I had met at conferences. It was amazing: even though we live in different parts of the world, we are connected by our academic interests in languages and linguistics, therefore able to meet again and again at an international conference like ICHL. I also talked to some linguists whose publications I had read and even cited several times in my own work. To be honest, I felt star struck– my friends and I were like groupies, following linguists whose research we admire and talking to each other about how we thought about their presentations. My time at ICHL made me feel like I was really becoming a member of the international community of historical linguists!

Summer School in Amsterdam

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Thanks to the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund for providing me such a precious opportunity to participate in the Grant Writing and Proposal Development programme in the University of Amsterdam. The reason why I participated in this programme was that this programme could equip me with the necessary skills and knowledge on the development of project proposal. I spent 3 weeks in Amsterdam acquiring proposal writing skills and developing my project proposal. This 3-week programme facilitated me to develop a project proposal, aiming to establish computer labs for disabled people in order to help them to learn basic computer skills. At the end of the programme, we presented our project proposals in front of the class.

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Before I left for Amsterdam, I was worried that my experience and idea would not be sufficient to develop the project proposal during the 3-week programme. However, it turned out that through exchanging ideas with classmates and the teacher, I gradually developed my own project ideas and started thinking about the project from different perspectives. Every day was rewarding and filled with inspiring lectures and group discussions. I kept learning from constantly expressing and discussing my project ideas with my classmates and friends and revising my proposal drafts. In fact, developing a project proposal is a long process, which needs patience and repeated revisions.

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I was also worried about getting lost in a new environment. In fact getting lost is the best way to learn a city. No trip to Amsterdam would be complete without a trip to a museum. I spent a great time with my friends exploring the beautiful city, visiting museums and trying new food.

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During this summer programme, l have learnt basic skills about how to develop a project proposal. In addition, I have made friends with similar interests from different countries, many of whom have already had working experience in developing project proposals for non-profit organisations. I have learnt a lot when chatting with them.

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I really enjoy my stay in Amsterdam. This summer becomes distinct and meaningful for me, which entitles me the great opportunity to increase my experience and try new things. I will remember this summer forever.

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We often quickly forget, we are all human

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I went to Mbeya, Tanzania for a 3 month project from the 12th of May to the 4th of August. The project itself was to work with young people in schools, colleges and universities to deliver sessions on employability skills. Sessions varied from how to develop a business, to using your interpersonal skills in getting and sustaining the right job. The idea of the project came from a noticeable gap of young people who were unemployed in the labour market. As such skills are said to be missing from the national curriculum, the project aim was to give young people the opportunity to receive these skills to increase their employability rate.

Before I left, I guess my worry was ‘what would my day look like?’ In the sense that I am a part time masters student with a part time job as an development consultant. As such my daily work routine is based on a highly organised structure, some form of strategy behind every decision made plus I am very comfortable with the people I work with. So to put in simpler terms, my worry was- the team I would  be working with in Tanzania. Would they be the same? Would they be challenging to work with? Will they have a tight working schedule? A trello ?(a to-do list website that helps to organise your day, very popular at work) would I be far pushed from my comfort zone? All these questions boggled my mind. As it turned out i was right about my thoughts, but there was nothing to worry about. The Tanzanian working culture was so far different from the working culture I was used to, that in fact, the Tanzanians had to daily remind us to ‘pole pole’ that is to take things slowly. This however was one of my main challenges during the whole project.

I found it harder than usual to always take things slowly. I wanted to get up and go, have a daily structure, a set timetable, to be ‘organised’, at the end of the day it would allow us all to get going with the project rather than just seeing each day as it comes. But what I learnt at the end of the project was to my own shock. I learnt the importance of flexibility, not to always have a rigid routine, to set goals and aims and strategies but not afraid to deviate from them when need be. I was always so hung up on what needed to be done each day and the next day and the next week, that all the while what I forgot to do was to treat each day as it was, regardless of plans because at the end of the day, we are all humans and were dealing with humans who had their own individual ‘timetable’, with life having no regard for your routine but keeps moving forward nonetheless.

So in sum, what I learnt, of which I am grateful for, is everything in life is a balancing act. Plan, but also leave room to be flexible and being open to whatever new routines or new strategies come your way.

Lessons

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“You can’t park your bikes here!” the old man grumbled loudly in German, “It’s forbidden.” I said sorry and tried to unlock my bike faster so I could escape his disapproval. “Forbidden” he repeatedly emphasised. “Do you live here? Which apartment? Who are you staying with? The Italian? I see. Well it’s forbidden to park your bikes here.” I was in Berlin for four weeks this summer taking a social history and political science course at the Humboldt University, with the main goal of improving my language skills and learning about the Berlin Wall. This incident, not nearly as disagreeable as it sounds (he was just informing me of the rules after all), was the only time in my 4 weeks that I spoke German at all (beyond “Eine Streusselkuchen bitte”) and even here my most complex reply was “ich bleibe mit mein Freund” and each word took me 10 seconds to think of. So, my German skills are still pretty dire; though I did understand what the man was yelling at me so that is some improvement. But this doesn’t mean my experience was a disappointment, on the contrary, it went above and beyond any expectations I could have had! Even the course itself was more informative and interesting than I could have imagined. Our teacher was incisive (and frankly adorable; every Thursday he would take us on ‘excursions’ across the city to relevant museums and point out anything historically or culturally significant along the way, sometimes stopping to show us his favourite swing dancing spots). He taught us valuable lessons not just about German history and politics but about the presentation of history in general.

One of my main worries before going to Berlin was that I would be lonely for the time I was there, but I met some great people on my course, from all over the world, and made some real friendships. My other worry was that outside of class I would have nothing to do, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The university itself had a fantastic programme and organised trips to museums, beer gardens, tours of significant places and they even threw us a farewell party on our last day. I got to go on a specially organised tour of the Reichstag building, the Chancellery where Angela Merkel works, and the National Archives- home to amazing pieces of historical significance like the Zimmerman Telegram. I think I know more about German politics than British politics now! Beyond that Berlin is one of the most unique and vibrant cities in the world; there is never a shortage of places to eat, things to drink. From the trendy vegan Vietnamese restaurants in Friedrichshain to Punk anti-fascist clubs in Kreuzberg. And whenever the city got too much, you did what Berliners do, and escaped to the lake for a swim in the sun. I can’t explain in 500 words all the things I did and learnt, but I can say I loved it.

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Class photo, August 16th 2017

Working in Berkeley, California

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Due to University restrictions, we can’t use any pictures of the activities involving the campers on the SST program (Social Skills Track for kids with Autism and Asperger). However, here’s the amazing view from the camp’s location hidden up in the Berkeley Hills. If you look carefully, you can see the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.

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On the first Friday of each month, Berkeley’s boisterous neighbour city: Oakland hosts a street festival packed with wacky art shows, street performances and some of the state’s best food trucks.

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One of San Francisco’s famous never-ending streets. Most cameras struggle to capture the steep inclines of the streets throughout the city. If you’re going to cycle it – stick to the coast.

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A less known Californian beauty. The Chico Valley has some of the clearest water with just-deep-enough spots for some incredible cliff jumping.

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On your travels to Tahoe, don’t be fooled into thinking there’s only one great lake around. Just half an hour out, Angora lake is home to a spine-tingling 60 foot cliff jump to the bottom of a beautiful waterfall. And even in mid July you’ll find a field of snow above it, just reminding you that you’re at 2500m above sea level, and above your average European ski resort.

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The summit of Mount Diablo – named after its diverse wildlife including venomous snakes and scorpions. Home to the second largest panoramic view in the world after Japan’s Mount Fiji.

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Looking out over Yosemite from the top of Half Dome. The 10-12 hour hike is bound to challenge you, but be worth the wait once you’re up there. In a surprisingly non-safe-American fashion the last 100m consist of some dodgy cables, planks of wood and poles stuck in the rock to drag you up the sheer side of the dome’s summit.

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With a bit of effort and boulder climbing, you can make it to the small pool of freezing water at the bottom of Yosemite Falls – the highest waterfall in North America.

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No festival quite like it, Outside Lands Festival is tucked into the Golden Gate Park in the middle of the city. The eclectic and extravagant three day festival sees some of the biggest names in the world perform on stage. 

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The sunset following a stormy day at Lake Tahoe. Fun Fact: The amount of water in Lake Tahoe (39 trillion gallons) is enough to supply each person in the U.S. with 50 gallons of water per day for 5 years.

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One of the peaks of Zion National Park. A captivating scenery of red rock surrounds you on the many walks the park offers. Not far from Death Valley, be sure to prepare for the heat.

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Alien’s Landing hosts one of the best views of the whole Bay Area. If you’re lucky, you might spot one of the mysterious UFOs that gives it its name.

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One of California’s more unique beaches: Oceano Dunes in San Luis Obisbo. Very fun to slide down, not so fun to hike back up the 100m high dunes.