Friday, 27 March 2015

Home for Easter

As has become custom with the fast pace of University life, terms seem to end before they’ve even begun, flying by at the speed of light. It feels like only yesterday when I was taking my January exams after coming back from the Christmas break and now the Easter break is upon us!

One of my friends from the Art Society happened to have her birthday party organised for the last Thursday of term and, seeing as I had no lectures on Friday, it also doubled up as an end of term celebration! The party had a ‘children’s TV show characters’ theme and seeing as I’m never one to turn down a fancy dress opportunity, I happily dressed up as everyone’s favourite penguin: Pingu! Adorned in great costumes, which included all three the Power Puff Girls and Art Attack’s Neil Buchanan, we headed down to a local nightclub which is best known for their cheesy pop music! Needless to say, we had a great time!

Pingu and his best friends: Neil Buchanan and Spiderman! 

The next day I had to think about packing, as I had planned to go back home early morning on the Saturday. This was because as a family we had decided to move Mother’s Day from Sunday 15th March to Saturday 21st instead, as it meant we could all be together. In years gone by my parents would have just come down to Southampton, but since my sister graduated last year it has become increasingly difficult to find times when we’re all free. Luckily though, we managed to find time to meet up as a family for an evening meal and confuse people by giving Mother’s Day cards and presents a week late! Moving celebrations has become a bit of trend in my family, as last year even my birthday was shifted for convenience!

The Gray family celebrating days as and when we please! 

Coming home early also means I have more time to get on with work. I remember in First Year looking forward to four weeks off at Easter. Now in my fourth University Easter break, the story couldn’t be more different!

My main aim of the Easter break is to finish off my Masters project. A few weeks ago my project partner and I managed to produce a graph that revealed a very interesting conclusion to do with the origin of an effect called radio-loudness in a type of astronomical body known as an Active Galactic Nuclei. The graph was a culmination of five months of work and, although it was a great feeling to have a final result, there is definitely something comical about spending five months making a graph with two lines on it!

We have almost finished all of the data gathering and therefore it shouldn’t be long until all the analysis can be wrapped up too. In the meantime, I am also writing up my final report for the project which has a cap of 7,500 words. As a Physicist who spends most days dealing with numbers, this seems like a huge mountain to climb. However, talking to Humanities students puts my word limit into perspective - I know one of my friends is writing a 15,000 word thesis!

Despite my workload, I do still have a few fun activities planned over Easter, including taking a mini-break in Derbyshire with my girlfriend. I think it’s important not to get too bogged down in studies over the break and find time to enjoy yourself (after all, it is called a “break”).

So, on that note, I wish everyone both a fun and productive Easter!


Thursday, 26 March 2015

A change of pace

I write on the eve of a train journey back to my home in the North of the country, in the midst of many last-minute preparations – there’s never a dull moment at the University of Southampton, it seems! Suitably surrounded by bags and suitcases, laundry, books, pens, paper and ‘to-do’ lists galore, before I return to the comforts of a warm fireplace, cats and an ever-stocked fridge, there’s probably more productive things to be doing than sitting at the computer, watching television and trying to cram all leftovers into portions which are vaguely justifiable as ‘meals’! However, after what’s been undeniably my busiest, most hectic and yet most rewarding term at the University yet, it’s quite representative of just how life has been recently:

Packing in being in two shows (including one in the amazing Nuffield Theatre on Highfield Campus!); directing another; rehearsing for a third; producing a couple; successfully organising and pitching another to go on tour at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer and seeing out a term of Presidency of the musical theatre society (Showstoppers) there’ve been no shortage of productions and theatrical affairs to be involved with and keep things ticking along. It makes time seem to pass far quicker than it ought to!

A final committee picture at the Showstoppers Annual General Meeting last week – we’ve had a great spell, but it’s over to the next committee now!

On top of that, I’ve still been co-hosting a show on Surge Radio (the Students’ Union radio station), I’ve started reviewing shows for the Edge (the Union's official  entertainment magazine – as was on my start-of-final-year bucket list!) and Soton Tab (the independent student tabloid), and I’ve continued serving on the overall Performing Arts committee and as a volunteer student ambassador for the Nuffield Theatre. There have been plenty of other creative outlets for me to make use of too! Here’s hoping all the experiences will help me in the job market should I choose to go forward in those circles.

From a more academic perspective, there have been January examinations to study for, a whole new set of modules to contend with, lectures to attend, the deadline for the written Group Design Project report and codebase (including end-user trials!) to meet, the end-of-project presentations to deliver, and coursework and group projects galore to tackle. Well, it is fourth and final year, after all!

Yet, somehow, it’s all still balancing, with there being plenty of time every day to spend either at the well-stocked Hartley Library or wired-up Zepler Building computer labs on all things course-related, before heading off to elsewhere on campus in the evenings to take on that day’s theatrical challenge. As proof that it’s possible, just the other day our group from the Group Design Project were delighted the other day to be awarded a First overall, which, although we’d worked hard, still came as something of a surprise, given just how much of a challenge it seemed at the time!

Along the way, there have been the usual incredible experiences, memories and friendships made, collected and savoured, just as I’ve come to expect from daily life in an inspiring institution such as this one.

With only one term left here, I think it’s that aspect I’ll miss most about University life – you never know what to expect from the day when you wake up in the morning, with so much variation and so many obstacles to overcome and potential accomplishments to attain. Even if things don’t go your way, you tend to learn quite a lot the day after - it’s very true what they say about learning from your mistakes.

It’s been a great – if busy – term, during which I’ve met plenty of brilliant new people!

Having said that, I am quite looking forward to heading back up North soon, as doing all of the above has left me fairly exhausted! It’s been completely worth it and I wouldn’t give up the experiences for anything in the world, but it is a lifestyle from which you need a break from time to time. Surrounded by family, pets and old friends at home, I’ll be sure to take the necessary time to rest and recuperate – and maybe eat a decent meal or two (thank you in advance for the vegetables, Mum)!

It’s a curious feeling returning home as, even taking into account the complete change of pace, there is always a slightly strange aspect to it, with an entirely different setting, group of friends and lifestyle in general. At the same time, I know within a few days of being back I’ll be settled, having met up and shared stories (and maybe a drink!) with plenty of old friends, and will be very well-rested indeed, so I’m looking forward to seeing everybody again.

What a term, Southampton – thank you, and here’s to a great break before the final one!


Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Southampton Science and Engineering Festival and Global Village

Last weekend I spent my Saturday helping out at one of the stalls for the University’s annual Southampton Science and Engineering Festival. The day is a great way for members of the public, both adults and children, to come and visit the University, learn about what research the University is undertaking, why it is important and how it has an impact on our daily lives. For the kids there were also a number of activities at the different stalls which they could get involved in. For example, at the stall I was based at - which was about the research the University is doing around breeding better varieties of lettuce for traits such as longer shelf life and drought resistance - kids were able to collect different types of lettuce seeds to take home and grow for themselves. We also had a microscope based at our stall which they could have a go at using. It was great to see so many people with an interest in science visiting the University and so many kids curious about science and keen to get involved in the different activities. The day was a great opportunity for me to practice my science communication skills.

Here’s the stall I was helping out with during the day. 

The boards behind me helped explain how breeding better varieties of lettuce tied into the bigger picture of food security and needing to feed a growing population under climate change.

During the day we were also given a free lunch for helping out (which is always nice!) and some free time to go and check out the some of the other stalls. I was based in the Biology section but there were also stalls from many other research areas including Engineering, Medicine, Psychology, Physics and Archaeology.

Last Tuesday AIESEC Southampton and SUSU’s International Committee organised an event named Global Village which was held in the Students’ Union. The event allowed the different cultural societies to represent their country. There were stalls representing a number of different countries including Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Pakistan, Japan, the Philippines, Brazil and Sri-Lanka. Each stall had some of their national cuisine which you could taste, some stalls had traditional clothing which you could try on, others had games and there were also performances from each society during the day! It was a lot of fun and everyone was really friendly. My friend and I even went around the stalls twice, the food was really good!

Some of the super friendly girls from the Malaysian Students Association Southampton society, two of whom I know through International student meetings. 

Finally, I’ve just finished my last week of lectures before the Easter break. Time is passing by unbelievably quickly and I can’t believe how close graduation is. In any case, this year I won’t be heading back to Sweden over the break as my family has now moved back to Australia. This is probably a good thing as I really need to focus during this break to finish writing my dissertation while also preparing for my final exams. However, I know I’ll still find some exciting things to do in Southampton over the next four weeks of the Easter break.


Tuesday, 17 March 2015

A different kind of social

When people hear the word ‘socials’ – when a society gets together - they tend to think of nightclubs and bars. However, there are a whole array of different, ‘non-alcoholic’ socials that you can do instead. Even when I think back to my Fresher’s fortnight there were plenty of events that didn’t involve heading down to the nearest club and that still remains true today. In fact, a few weeks ago I went on two alcohol-free socials in the space of three days!

My first was a trip into Portsmouth organised by the Physics society (Physoc). Perhaps you might be thinking that we visited a famous landmark, a science museum or a Physics-based company to further our education. However, the truth is that we actually went to large indoor play area called 'Playzone' to run around for ninety minutes!

Playzone is a favourite and staple social for many societies across campus. Although by day it’s a play area for children, in the evenings they open it up for adults to enjoy (despite our hyperactivity, students do actually qualify as adults!). The indoor play area features four different slides, including a giant vertical drop slide and a four lane racing slide, which are surrounded by a maze of climbing obstacles, rope swings and rotating pads that serve only to make you extremely dizzy.

The vertical slide is genuinely scary! 

As soon as our minibuses arrived, we dropped our conservations about University work and regressed by at least ten years. After diving straight into the obstacles and slides, we soon set about creating a thirty person game of ‘it’ and a competition to see who could climb up the slide firsts – you never quite learn that slides are very slippery, even as Physicists!

Needless to say we were all exhausted after an hour and a half of climbing, running, sliding and jumping. The next morning I woke with every muscle hurting, including those I didn’t even know existed, but despite this it was one of the best socials I’ve ever been on and would do it again in a heartbeat. It was a great way to let off some steam!

The second of the two socials was with the University’s Art Society (Artsoc). After a session in which we practised our portrait drawing skills, we headed to a committee member’s house to begin a ‘pudding social’. The idea was for everyone who was attending to bake or buy a dessert and bring it along for everyone to enjoy. Being a keen cook I decided to bake a lemon drizzle cake and I was very happy with the end result, despite a small accident occurring when I tried to remove the cake from its tin!

The lemon drizzle cake before its little accident

In the end we had twelve cakes between eleven of us and despite our best efforts (and one cake being dropped on the floor) we could not finish it all in one sitting. That’s not really surprising though, is it?!

We may have underestimated how many cakes we'd have! 

I would say that the fact I now prefer these kinds of activities over going clubbing must be a sign of me growing older, but considering they consisted of going down sides and stuffing myself with cake, I think a claim of maturity might have to wait a while…


Friday, 13 March 2015

Spreading the word

At the time of writing, performances of the latest show I’ve had the pleasure to be involved with, directing as part of SUSU Showstoppers (the musical theatre society), titled The Drowsy Chaperone, are well underway! In fact, almost as soon as they’ve begun, they’ll nearly be over, with our final shows on this Friday (10th) and Saturday (11th) at 7.30pm in the Annex Theatre on Highfield Campus before there’s a new show in there next week; no rest for the wicked!

(If you’re looking for an alternative light-hearted evening’s entertainment, please come along and say hello, as it’d be great to meet you there!)

Show week is always a curious feeling from the view of a production team member, particularly when you see members of your cast rushing around before every show to get ready while you’re safe in the knowledge you’re not going on stage that night! With the show fully prepared in terms of rehearsing, there’s very little the Directors can do every night except watch, enjoy and occasionally cross your fingers whenever you know a big production number is coming up!

Of course, there’s no need to be worried. For me, it’s the greatest sense of pride I think I can experience and why I love being part of the theatrical world as, when the lights go down on opening night to signal the start of the show, you get to appreciate the impact of every small task or piece of work leading up to that first moment, even when they seemed menial at the time. They all come together to form a fully-fledged production. It’s always a feeling that sends a shiver down my spine, seeing how far the show has come from its early days, and how much everyone involved has improved on the stage and developed their skills off it.

The Drowsy Chaperone has been no exception, with a shorter (and more intense!) rehearsal period than any show I’ve previously known due to everyone involved being so busy beforehand! As a result, the level of talent and commitment on display from the cast and production team has had to be outstanding, the creativity and endeavour of the technical crew incredible, and the band brilliant – and thankfully, all of the above has rung true, and we’ve got what we hope is a great show on our hands!

 The cast and production team of The Drowsy Chaperone! Credit: David Aggus

The really surreal element is how I get to watch every night and observe a show which, due to a previous project being unfortunately cancelled, I didn’t know anything about before the start of the year (and found just by browsing YouTube one November night!). Somehow only four months later it has morphed into a project involving over fifty people!

It’s strange to see how such a small idea has grown and grown over the time period. However, it’s because of the hard work of first the production team, then the cast in auditioning and rehearsing, and finally the technical crew and band in making it all happen, that it has somehow all come together on a huge scale beyond anything I and my co-Director Andy could ever have imagined at the start – and we can’t thank them enough!

Aside from sorting any loose ends props-wise (looking for rubber chickens on Amazon the other day probably demonstrated to my housemates that it’s a very unusual show!) our only job has been to try and sell the show to as many people as possible. This is a tougher task than usual, with it not being too well known, despite its previous success with Tony Award wins and the like in the United States.

Once again, the task of spreading the word and getting The Drowsy Chaperone out there has been facilitated by a hard-working cast (selling tickets to friends and families, and flyering outside in occasionally less-than-perfect conditions!), some wonderfully creative individuals (my Producer, David, has been working round the clock on some amazing material!), and engaging publications, all of whom have reached new potential audience members and pointed them in our direction.

From preview interviews in the Students’ Union entertainment magazine, The Edge, to working with SUSUtv (the Union’s television station) to film the trailer (see below!), and working with Surge Radio (the Union's radio station) to have it broadcast through their Culture department, there are loads of ways to get involved with spreading the news, so if media or marketing is your thing, there are opportunities aplenty here at the University of Southampton!

Our trailer for The Drowsy Chaperone, as created by SUSUtv

We’ve also been working to welcome in as many reviewers we can from The Edge and Surge, as well as independent bodies like the Daily Echo and the Soton Tab, including a visit from the National Student Drama Festival (NSDF). Hopefully by the end of the show we’ll have lots of feedback on how we can do better next time!

Thankfully, the reviews we’ve received so far have been very positive indeed – The Edge described the show as “impossible not to love” and gave it four stars out of five, whereas SceneOne, a local company, described it as “something special” and “highly recommended” – so here’s hoping for more of the same in the near future!

Regardless, I couldn’t be prouder of everyone involved in The Drowsy Chaperone. It’s been quite an experience from start to finish, working with a larger cast and team than I’ve ever done before, but somehow it’s all come together to form a production which everyone can take a huge amount of pride in. 

Best of all, though, it’s been an honour and a privilege to work with everyone so closely over the past four months, and their achievement in bringing the show to life cannot be emphasised enough – and for that, I can only thank them! Here’s hoping we can get the word out there, and give them the audience numbers they deserve! 


Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Sustainability festivals and green spaces

Over the weekend I had a great time attending the 2015 Southampton Sustainability Festival with fellow Green Action members. The day was organised by Southampton Hub and focused on raising awareness of sustainable consumption and inspiring students to take action. Throughout the day there were a number of really interesting workshops which included speakers from various initiatives and organisations including Southampton Repair CafĂ©, The Environment Centre, Labour Behind the Label and the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development. I particularly found the talks by Positive Money, on how new money comes into circulation, and The Real Junk Food Project, on the principles behind ‘pay-as-you-feel’ cafes and preventing food waste. They were really eye opening.

Over the lunch break one of my committee members and I were also able to set up a stall for Green Action to share what our society does with people at the event who may be interested, which also ended up being a great networking opportunity. We were set up next to a stall by ‘The Bug Shack’ who promoted insects as a sustainable source of protein - something I’ve actually been really curious about. It was great to have the opportunity to ask them some questions and learn more about the potential of insects.

The festival was held during Student Volunteering Week at the University.

I really feel like I’ve been gaining a vast amount of new perspectives on various issues I feel passionate about through the lectures and assignments I’ve had this semester, as well as through additional events such as the Southampton Sustainability Festival.

A couple of weeks ago Green Action teamed up with SUSU's Marxist Society and Southampton and District Young Greens for a joint event on capitalism and the environment which again was really interesting and eye-opening. Studying biology, I tend to focus more purely on the science behind a lot of the current environmental issues society is facing, but I feel it’s very valuable to able to see these issues from various perspectives in order to gain a greater understanding on how best to tackle them.

Attending so many green events does make you appreciate nature more. As a third year student, while I have been able to attend a number of fascinating events I also spend a lot of time in front of my laptop by a desk, so my one of my housemates and I have been trying to find ways to spend more time outside. In my last blog post I wrote about taking part in one of the Conservation Volunteering Society’s Sunday tasks at Chilworth Conservation Area.

This weekend my housemate and I decided to go for a 5km run on Southampton Common. For those who don’t know, the Common is a large green space close to the University and the city centre. It’s been a long time since I last went running but thankfully I didn’t feel too exhausted and I definitely got to fill my lungs with some fresh air!

A refreshing morning at Southampton Common.

I always enjoy stepping away from my desk and mixing with different groups, learning more about the environment or making time to enjoy Southampton’s green and natural spaces.


Thursday, 5 March 2015

The career pathway

This week the Career and Placements Fair took place in Garden Court on Highfield campus, which is one of the many different career-based activities that the University of Southampton’s Career Destinations puts on. Unfortunately I couldn’t spend much time there, since a double lecture and two hours of project work with my partner coincided with the majority of the fair’s opening time!

Despite this, I have still been thinking a lot about my future after I graduate in the summer. Regular readers will know that my interests lie in the field of Medical Physics, in addition to educational jobs and, of course, writing-based careers! Although I do have a firm direction in mind, it’s always good to still be looking, as there are many different types of jobs that you’re not aware of.
I attended another Careers Fair in February, which was aimed purely at Engineering and Computer Science jobs, which of course have a huge overlap with Physics. This is especially true for me because I have taken two computer coding courses and last semester I also took a sustainable energy engineering module. Although a lot of the jobs involved technical computer science knowledge, there were still a good number of businesses on display that both appealed to my interests and aligned with my skill sets. There was even one business that used similar Physics that underlies Medical Physics, but for a completely different use!

The other advantage of a careers fair – the goodies! 

In fact I’ve found this to be true for a number of different industries. In early February, the Physics Society (Physoc) held a talk from a local company called Symetrica, who are an offshoot from the University’s Physics department. They work in the field of radiation detection, producing detectors for ports and other high-security locations that range from small handheld devices to giant portals used for scanning trucks. The interesting part of their work is that these detectors use the same core Physics that a hospital’s PET scanner makes use of!

After the talk, which outlined the Physics principles behind their work and their growth and development since leaving their original home on Highfield campus, attendees were offered the chance to go on a tour of their premises two weeks later. I signed up straight away as I was keen to see more of their work and I was also interested to see what a Physics in industry looks like – I’ve always had images of mad scientists in cluttered warehouses!

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you want to look at it, there were no mad scientists in sight and their workshop areas were meticulously tidy too! The tour took about two hours, during which they showed us their products and production methods, whilst explaining more about the theory behind how the detectors worked. The company was very impressive, but more importantly they showed me that were are many different avenues into careers related to and involving the concepts behind Medical Physics.

Finally, I attended a teacher training course open evening at the University one evening last week. There currently seems to be a giant demand for Physics – and general science - teachers, and after having conversations with some of the University staff and teachers from local schools, this particular career avenue definitely remains an option for me.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned that there are so many different careers out there and, more importantly, that there are many different ways of getting into a particular field – something I hadn’t really considered before and something I would definitely recommend investigating yourself when you start looking for you career pathway.