Back to Battambang: Thesis Fieldwork and Reunions in Cambodia

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Thanks to the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund, I had the opportunity to return to Battambang, Cambodia to complete my MSc thesis fieldwork in medical anthropology.

Battambang is beautiful. Located in the northwest of the country, two hours from the Thai border to the west and five hours from Phnom Penh to the south, the province is known as the “rice bowl” of Cambodia, and spreads out in emerald green paddies in the rainy season. Its capital, Battambang City, is known as the centre of Cambodia’s arts scene, with many of the most famous singers and authors over the past few decades hailing from (and making art about!) the area.

Battambang is also special to me personally. I lived there for a full year in 2014-2015, working for a Khmer-founded and -run NGO called Buddhism for Development. During that year my colleagues and friends in Battambang took me in: they taught me how to live respectfully within Cambodian culture, spent hundreds of hours trading Khmer and English phrases, and shared their decades of experience in community-based support for people living with HIV. The year also raised many questions for me, such as: what does it mean for entire health programs to be foreign-funded? Why might so many Cambodians rely on local unlicensed medics for healthcare rather than going to the hospital? I thought a return visit might allow me to answer some of these questions, and wanted very much to see everyone again.

Before I left I was worried about how the research would go. The anthropological approach of participant observation basically means, “get as close as you can to people and to a community while maintaining a critical distance”—but it’s slim on specifics and maintains as much flexibility as possible. In my previous research in molecular biology and public health, I had protocols and surveys written out from the beginning. Here, I had very little; what would I actually do?

In the end, the research was very informative, and the flexibility was key. Research turned into social visits, and social visits turned into research. One weekend I met up with a classmate who was also doing her thesis work in Cambodia. Instead of talking research as I’d expected, we debated the merits of bikes vs. motorcycles for our daily commutes and I gave her a list of good foods to try. The next day, I caught up with a good friend from Battambang intending purely to visit, and we ended up talking about the anthropology field of kinship and how that framework applied to both our families. Similarly, a coworker’s invitation to a social event he was holding led to some very informative conversations.

In the end, the return trip was a wonderful experience both academically and personally. Many thanks to PGAF for allowing me to build on previous relationships, and see how much more there was to learn in a place that felt so familiar.

Mathematical Topology in the Beautiful Galápagos Islands

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Thanks to the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund, I could attend the Topology Ecuador 2017 conference in the Galapagos Science Centre, San Cristóbal, Galápagos. The conference was four days of talks, presentations and interactive classes, starting on the 14th of August organised by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito covering a wide range of mathematical topics with the primary purpose of developing these fields.

What made this conference so engaging for me was the chance to learn more about complex mathematical biology, a continuation from my studies in forth year, and is something that I find incredibly fascinating. I found Katheryn Hess’s talk on the relationship between neuroscience and topology particularly interesting, and used core material from the Mathematical Biology course as the basis to build upon.

Moving forward as a graduate of the University and into a working career, I found new mathematical sub-divisions at this conference that particularly interested me and are something I would consider studying as a Postgraduate Masters at Edinburgh University. Mathematics has always been something I loved, and the Topology Ecuador conference has reaffirmed my enjoyment of the subject by demonstrating it out-with the University learning environment.

Before I left for the conference I had very much looked forward to listening to the key note speaker, Sara Azzali and her talk on Flat Bundles, R/Z-K-theory and Rho Invariants and I was very interested by her algebraic approach. Azzali promotes her Women in Mathematics exhibition tour, which looks at the difficulty of being a woman in the subject of mathematics, a predominately male subject. I found it refreshing and empowering to see the success of women in the field, and along with other female speakers, such as Claudia Scheimbauer and Kate Poirier, Azzali really emphasised the impact that women are having in modern mathematics.

Part of what made this trip so special to me was the setting. The Galápagos Islands are some of the most beautiful and fascinating places on Earth. The wildlife was so abundant and so fearless of humans, due to the limited number of predators on the islands I learned, and I often found myself having a coffee by the pier in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno with sea lions and pelicans almost in arms reach. Looking back, I feel I better understand what must have fascinated Charles Darwin about the place. The constant conservation efforts in the islands made me feel comforted in knowing that the Galápagos Islands will always be a unique place for scientists in all manner of fields.

This conference was truly unique, and it is unlikely I will have another chance to see as many esteemed scholars and speakers, in such an iconic place, ever again. I can’t thank the University of Edinburgh enough for allowing me this opportunity, I believe the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund is an extremely worthwhile cause and gives students, like myself, the chance to experience once in a lifetime events without worrying about finances and an experience I will definitely be sharing.

 

Kilimanjaro

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This summer I travelled to Moshi and Zanzibar in Tanzania with the charity Childreach International along with a group of other university students. It was a thrilling experience, meeting so many new people as well as immersing myself and learning about the culture in Tanzania, from the language to the singing and dancing that they love doing there to express themselves. It was an experience that I will never let slip from memory.

The main purpose of the trip was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and to visit previously poverty stricken areas which have been improved due to the charity Childreach International. Visiting the deaf school was both pleasant and sad. Children living in the area already have a difficult chance to succeed in life as they have to battle disease, malnourishment, illiteracy and poverty. However, if you are a child with a disability you’re casted out from your family and seen as having a life with no hope. The school I visited gives these disabled children a chance to get an education and learn other skills like sowing and farming in order to prove their parents and society wrong and have a chance to succeed in life as well. But the best thing I saw there was that it was next to impossible to capture a moment where the children or teachers were not smiling or laughing. A real testament to their courage and determination.

Apart from being nervous as I didn’t know any of my group members, I honestly wasn’t really worried about anything before I left. Perhaps I just didn’t think about the trip beforehand too much. But I did learn some stuff when I got there. The pressure that the altitude puts your body under can be quite intense. When I was climbing Kilimanjaro particularly when we were around 4500 metres and above, your body really starts to feel it when you exert a little more force than normal in any of your steps. I of course have heard of altitude sickness, but as I have never really experienced it before I didn’t think too much of it. Climbing Kilimanjaro has definitely changed my perspective of this. I also don’t think I will ever consume the same amount of soup, potatoes and rice that I did in six days, ever in my life again.

The whole trip was an unforgettable experience and something which I am so happy I did and am very grateful for getting the chance to do it. The locals have an envious amount of positive energy within them. No problem seems to faze them and they are ultimately grateful for absolutely everything they have. Coming back to climbing mountains, who knows after this maybe with enough money I might be able to climb Everest?

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Volunteering with MedVint Serbia

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For three weeks during the summer I volunteered with MedVint in Serbia, a charity providing healthcare to refugees making the journey to Europe. I chose this charity as I was inspired by their work when I read about them online.

Prior to going on this trip, I was apprehensive as I had read about police violence in the area and the potential dangers. I had previously volunteered with similar organisations in Piraeus, Greece and Calais, France and so had some understanding of the main issues. I was also concerned that language barriers may be an issue, particularly when talking about health conditions.

Throughout this time, we offered medical care to over 300 people – ranging from small surgical procedures such as stitching wounds to giving pain relief for injuries. The team consisted of myself (a final year medical student), a General Practitioner, a Nurse and field co-ordinator. We worked in three main areas whilst in Serbia: Sid, Serbian-Croatian border, Subodica, Serbian-Hungarian border, and the capital city, Belgrade.

Subodica had particular issues with police violence and many of the refugees chose to stay hidden– staying in tents in fields or derelict buildings far from the main roads in small groups. We were only able to reach these groups with the help of other volunteers who had GPS coordinates pinpointing the exact areas. In total there were 12 groups in the area and the conditions were harsh, with limited access to food and water in the extreme heat. Many of the refugees were under 16 and told harrowing stories from their home country and their journey so far. Many of the boys talked about ‘going to game’, the term they used for attempting to cross the border, and this provided some solace for them. However, many attempts were not successful and I vividly remember treating a group of 10-15 refugees the morning after, whereby they had police dog bites and open wounds from the police beatings they received when they were found at the border.

Similarly, Sid had its own problems particularly surrounding violence within the refugee community. The Serbian-Croatian border was perceived as less violent and hence more refugees were attempting to cross. Around 150-200 people were in this area at any one time and the volunteer community was much bigger, lots of people were working many hours to provide cooked meals and offer showering facilities for the community. In this area, we were able to set up daily clinics which coincided with the meal times.

I have learnt a great deal, particularly around providing healthcare in emergency situations. For example, many of the acutely unwell patients were reluctant to go to hospital as they were concerned about deportation and this raised issues with how to provide care. Also, whilst many of the refugees spoke English, it made me reflect on the importance of learning languages. I found this experience very rewarding and I am very grateful to the Principals Go Abroad Fund for their support.

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A 3-month language test

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My three months visit to China this summer could be compared to a modern-day adventure into an alien civilisation. Even without the test of communication, there were many challenges to overcome and experiences to take way and keep for a lifetime.

Applying to teach English to a family of a foreign country naturally came with apprehension. How would I communicate, explain, express culturally appropriate gratitude or problems? How much experience do I really have working with children? I made sure to keep active in the Chinese language before I left, speaking and listening to fellow students, watching Chinese movies and drama shows (some were quite peculiar) and reading short Mandarin stories. On top of this was my lack of general travelling experience. I had never travelled abroad on my own before, certainly beyond Europe, and felt both excited and nervous about the prospect of landing in an entirely unrecognisable environment with nothing but my thoughts to keep me company.

Upon landing, I realised the many ways my body was in shock. This worsened over the first few days. Differences in diet (rice and noodles) air, temperature and active community culture certainly took its mental and physical toll. However, I embraced this, deciding that this was what I had to be able to withstand if I wanted to start appreciating the more enjoyable aspects of the city. The second thing I realised was, after all the study I had spent, I didn’t know the language. Learning from a textbook is different from learning from real life and the experience of different speeds, dialects, word choice and slang of the Mandarin language was enriching to handle head on. Trying to invent creative ways to teach new English grammar and spelling was just as beneficial for me as it was for the children. I started to realise the fluidity and parallel patterns between seemingly un-relatable languages, an understanding I would never have found had I not been immersed in the culture, whilst also pressured me to be critical and analytical about my own English in order to teach it adequately.

The outside environment was highly stimulating, this led to another important learning experience in the appreciation of a new culture. Tourist attractions were not my interest, however, the difference between the initial perceptions of the country before arriving and actual immersion into it were staggering. Asking for directions, ordering meals and trying to decode street signs were much more revealing of a community and culture than visiting famous monuments. I learned to value it was indeed the small-scale trips to a city, relaxing in a park, walking down an alley, that could create valuable memories when looking for refreshing perspectives on an exciting and unfamiliar environment.

Researching Racialised Urban Landscapes in the USA

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This June and July I travelled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA to conduct my dissertation research with the help of the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund. The focus of my research was the production of racialised urban landscapes through a process known as gentrification, in which urban investment redevelopment initiatives are unequally distributed according to class and race. In just six weeks I held interviews with 20 residents of the neighbourhood I was studying, and met with local churches, non-profits and community development organisations. I learned a great deal about the various processes affecting the residents of the neighbourhood, and gathered more than enough data to write my final year human geography dissertation.

Before I left, I had been concerned about how I would be received in the neighbourhood. Gentrification is often a controversial topic, and people tend to have strong opinions about how their neighbourhood is changing. In some cases, people have been evicted from their homes as the area in which they live was slated for complete redevelopment. Gentrification also disproportionately impacts those who are already socially marginalised. Therefore, I was eager to be as sensitive as possible when conducting my research. Fortunately, everyone I met was welcoming and friendly, and people were very keen to share with me their experiences of neighbourhood change. I stayed with a local family for the duration of the research, which also helped me to get to grips with the local context and the nuances of the neighbourhood I was studying.

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While in the USA I also took the opportunity to visit a friend in Washington DC, just a short drive away. Through a contact of my friend, I had a personal tour of the US Capitol building, which was a surreal experience!

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I am extremely grateful for the grant I received from the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund. Without it, I would not have been able to afford to go to Pittsburgh and conduct my research. I recently presented my research during a conference to academic staff from my department. They were very positive about the research, and the findings that I had extrapolated, so I am hoping it will form the basis of a strong dissertation.

MAD – AGASCAR

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During this summer, thanks to the go abroad fund, I have been able to travel to the north of Madagascar as a research assistant in various ecological terrestrial and marine projects.

I have spent 2 weeks in the temperate deciduous forest of the Mahajanga province and 2 weeks at the marine study site of Operation Wallacea in the stunning island of Nosy be. During the time in the forest, I was part of the researcher team in 3 different camps, Matsedroy close to a sacred pond, Mahajanga in the middle of the forest and Antafiameva, close to the estuary of a big river.

In these sites I had the opportunity of knowing fantastic people, from the very passionate and insipiring science team to the native Malagasy local guides and catering company.
The daily schedule was pretty tight and we were mainly conducting surveys on birds, herpetofauna, invertebrates, plants and lemurs. Twice a week we would have a workshop to analyse the data collected under the guidance of the numerous PHD students present on the site. At nights, when no lectures were on the science team, the research assistants and the locals were gathering together to try and conversate with each other even if most of the times no common language was spoken. It’s at times like this that I could really experience the Malagasy culture and enjoy the fact that it is possible to connect to each other without words. Once the work at the terrestrial site was completed, I moved to the marine site, where during my first week I attained the PADI open water qualification. The marine site was still characterised by a very tight schedule but being at the seaside, it did not even feel like it. During my second week of staying I conducted some underwater benthic surveys, surveys on the health state of the coral reef and on the health of fish.

At Nosy be, I would have two lectures a day on marine ecology and identification of marine species so that I was able to collect data with accuracy and precision.
The trip has been probably the best experience of my life, and honestly speaking I was never really worried of anything in particular, but I have been incredibly curious and ended up acquiring numerous skills and meeting really happy and enthusiastic people.
Being an Ecological and Environmental science student, the opportunity that go abroad fund offered me was valuable and enjoyable. I made incredible friends while I was supporting the studies on conservation and sharpening my skills and ability as an ecologist. The trip made me understand that what I decided to do at university is really what I want to do for the rest of my life and made me know a little bit more of the stunning Malagasy culture. I would really thank the Go abroad fund for the opportunity that has given me and gives to other student like me!