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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