Friday, 22 May 2015

Heads down, funds up

So with assignments now well and truly out of the way, and my final couple of exams on the horizon, it’s really been the time, if ever there were, to get my head down in the books! As you can probably imagine, there’s not been too much on the agenda this week in terms of getting out and about in Southampton, as the final, final push towards four years of working on my Software Engineering degree takes place – and it’s a both intimidating yet incredibly exciting prospect!

With every page of my diary currently consumed by lists of topics to cover, from the mathematics of social network dynamics (unfortunately not an excuse to go on Facebook for revision, though I’ve tried to justify it!) to the operations of biometric sensors, there’s a lot of material for me to get through if I’m to be ready in time for next week’s exams.

Then there’s exam technique to practice, including making sure to figure out in advance as many question timings in possible, and hand-write as many summary notes sheets as physically possible. After a year of Computer Science, it’s almost a strange phenomenon using a pen at speed once again!
But having been in a similar situation so often before over the past seven-or-so examinable years, I feel more determined than ever to get through the usual tests and rigours of the summer exam period.

This is my last chance to potentially make the difference in terms of accumulating marks towards my degree, and indeed academic career as a whole, so it’s crucial that I do my best – particularly as I’ll have finished with the whole thing in the next seven days!

It’s never easy, particularly when, at this time of year, the weather decides to be at its best, almost as if it’s just to increase your resentment towards the whole situation! But I happily shut myself away from my housemates (most of whom have now finished for good!) safe in the knowledge that the few weeks afterwards are going to be terrific. Featuring Balls, meals, picnics, road trips, the annual 24 Hour Musical show (where an entire show is learned and performed in that time period for charity!) and much, much more, many memorable occasions are on the horizon and I can’t wait!

Every student needs a release of energy from time to time, however, and during exam period, mine has been preparing to direct one of the University’s entrants into the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, the (hopefully spectacular!) musical Dogfight. As this is the first time I’ve been involved in directing and producing a show on tour, it’s been a great learning experience in many ways as I attend meetings, prepare marketing materials and publicity strategies, write press releases, and attempt to plan for all the logistics incurred by bringing a show on the road – and there are plenty!

As this is a significant responsibility, and one which requires being a team player to make sure all’s sorted, I’m delighted to be backed up by the Students’ Union and Performing Arts societies in my efforts. This is a great scheme common across most Student Groups, as I’ve been leant a brilliant opportunity in a form of large-scale project management. I am working alongside an incredibly efficient and imaginative team, while simultaneously receiving constant support and advice from the Union and elsewhere in case a safety net is required, allowing me to learn and pick up skills on the job without fear of adverse consequences. So far, so good!

One of the most crucial aspects of taking a show on tour is the fundraising element. We ask all our members to pay for large chunks of the expenses involved in performing on the world-renowned and incredibly exciting stage of the Edinburgh Fringe, but we still have venue, transport, accommodation and many more costs to consider when taking the show on tour. So we seek out as much funding before we go as we can - any donations we can get towards the cause are hugely appreciated!

This year, fundraising has manifested itself in many ways, with upcoming events including sports tournaments, radio challenge broadcasts (I’ve been promised the challenges will be very entertaining – for everyone not involved in the show, that is!), film screenings and one-off performances to mention but a few. However, the most prolific of our events so far have been our sales of refreshments at one another’s performances and out and about around the Students’ Union, including the classic cake sales – a great excuse for us to attempt (and usually fail) at baking as a temporary distraction from revision!

As part of our last cake sale, we held an entirely improvised online cake auction, which proved surprisingly popular!

So if you see one of us around the University's Highfield Campus Concourse in the next week or so, please do come across, have a chat and, if you’re hungry, buy a cake – your support would be hugely appreciated by many of us! Or, if you’d rather, feel free to tell me to get my head back down in the books as soon as possible. With only a few days left, it’s time to make things count!


Thursday, 21 May 2015

Highlights of my life at Southampton

This will be my penultimate post for the Life at Southampton blog! My first and last exams are this week, after which I’ll hopefully be celebrating, packing for Europe and preparing for my move to Australia. I thought it would be good to dedicate this blog post to some of the highlights of my University experience, all of which I’ve written about in more detail in previous blog posts.

Here’s a summary of some of the amazing things I’ve been up to over the past few years (apart from the obvious which is working towards my degree…)

First year biology field trip to Spain

One of the highlights of my first year was definitely the 10 day Biology field course in Bolonia, Spain. I was able to see, do, learn and experience so much and all in a gorgeous location with wonderful weather. You can’t really ask for more! You can read about the field trip in detail (including lots of lovely photos) see my past blog post “Easter break past and present”.

Getting involved with the dance societies

In my first year I joined three dance societies: Jazz Dance, Ballet and Contemporary, and I auditioned for the advanced competition squads for all. Before coming to the University of Southampton I had never been in competitions and I had mostly danced Ballet, but after making it into the squads I quickly made some of the coolest friends I have at University and I found other dance styles which I really love too. We had an amazing time training together, attending the competitions and taking part in the annual Pure Dance show in both my first and second year. Also, in my second year, after enjoying dance so much in my first year, I took on the role of president for the Jazz Dance Society. I’ve written a lot about my dance experiences in previous posts (also with lots of photos), for those of you more interested in the dance societies you may want to check out these past blog posts: “Getting you up to speed…”, “Dominating at the BNU Dance Competition”, “My last dance competition” and “Pure Dance 2014 and more”.

Mandarin language course 

During the summer of my first year I applied for a place on a three-week intensive mandarin language course which I still feel very lucky to have taken part in. The teacher was super supportive and encouraging and I was amazed at how much I had learnt in just three weeks. If you want to read more about my experience you can check out my past post “Light at the end of the tunnel”.

Obtaining my ocean diver qualifications

At the end of that same summer I finished my ocean diver qualifications with the University’s Sub-Aqua Club. I still find it a little funny how my first ever dive was in dry suit in cold and murky UK waters rather than somewhere in Australia (I had only ever been snorkeling when I lived there). Nevertheless, it was still a great experience. The second location we dived in was pretty cool; the water was clear and there were different parts of wreckage placed around the site so when we were diving we swam past things like a sunken car, a humongous, old, industrial tumble drier and aircraft wreckage. The instructors were really great too.

Third year project

This includes both my field experience in Italy over the summer and the lab experience in at the University during my third year. I’ve learnt a lot during both of those experiences and I had fun while doing it too. I’ve mentioned bits of my lab experience in more recent posts and if you’re interested in my Italy experience check out my past post: “Field experience in Italy”.


Green Action

In my third year I took on the role of president of Green Action Society. I was actually completely new to the society when I ran for the role but I was very keen to get involved. I’ve met a lot of new people and learnt so much, gaining new perspectives on global issues, particularly environmental issues but also social issues and the links between the two. I’ve had opportunities to network with people and organisations outside of the University and attended many events connected to the interests of Green Action. Overall it has been a great experience. Past posts where I’ve written about Green Action in more detail include: “Green Action and student campaigns” and “Sustainability festivals and green spaces”.

There’s a whole lot more I could write about but this blog post would be never ending and I need to get back to revision with my exams fast approaching!

I wish everyone good luck in their exams!


Tuesday, 19 May 2015

A wonderful year of art

I’m writing this blog post on a Wednesday evening, which can only mean one thing; that ArtSoc (the University’s Art Society) sessions have finished for the year.

I decided to join ArtSoc when I saw their stall at the annual Freshers’ Week Bunfight, all the way back in September, when all societies get together to recruit new members. After the speed portrait drawing taster session, I decided to become a member, missing only one meeting all year! Since then I have met many new people and learnt some new skills, such as using oil paints and working with Plaster of Paris - but most importantly I have had a fantastic time with the society.

 A Ferrari Formula One car I made from a plastic bottle and Plaster of Paris

The two sessions we have had this term (they finished after two weeks to allow members to focus on revision instead) have been more relaxed affairs. The first of the two was for the society’s Annual General Meeting (AGM), which is a very important event for all societies, as it is where the new committee for the following year is formed and plans are made for the year ahead. In the end, the meeting was very quick and easy, as one person ran for every role that was available, making the voting process a piece of cake!

I was pleased to see a few of my friends who weren’t leaving this year taking on roles on the committee and I am confident that the society will only continue to grow! If I was staying another year I would have definitely run for something myself!

The second of the two sessions this semester was another ‘cheese, wine and charcoal’ night (the third of the year), which manages to combine my love of cheese (and I really do mean love – I was bought six types of cheese for my birthday by friends!) with my passion for art.

However, with all that cheese available, not much art was done. Instead it was nice to just sit around and chat for what was our last session of the year. Afterwards most members, including the new and old committees, all went out to celebrate a wonderful year and say goodbye to final year students who, like myself, are making their way into the ‘real’ world.

 A post-session sundae with ArtSoc friends before the Easter break. 

When I look back at my Masters year I can definitely say that the highlight has been joining ArtSoc, which makes me slightly regret not joining the society sooner. Nevertheless, I have met some brilliant people there, including someone who is equally into Mexican food and Formula One as I am (a strange combination of interests I know) and I will no doubt stay in contact with all of them after I’ve graduated.

Speaking of graduation, this week I ordered my Graduation robes and booked a ticket for the Park and Ride service that the University offers on the day. The ordering website required my measurements, but having no tape measure or string, I had to use my creative side and measure myself using strips of paper - the ArtSoc sessions proved useful in the end!

I will graduate on July 15th, which is the first day of the two week summer graduation period. Now that everything is booked it seems much more real.

All I need to do now is complete those pesky little things called exams over the next two weeks and graduation will become a reality. I cannot wait!


Monday, 18 May 2015

Building a portfolio

After nearly eighteen years of education, from early homework assignments in Primary School to the full-blown essays, lab reports and dissertations of University, there was a surreal feeling in the air as I clicked the “Submit Assignment” button for the very last time.

It’s become very much second nature to check a diary of some sort and to see assignments aplenty staring back, so knowing that the final deadline had been met was a mixture of relief tinged with a weird sense of sadness. Now, with only two exams left, it feels like I’m on the home stretch of University and academia as a whole – slightly terrifying, but equally (if not more so) exciting!

My relief mainly came from getting through what’s usually the most challenging spell of the academic year, when assignments can often start to pile up. This three or four week period after Easter and just before exams is what everybody comes to know as ‘deadline season’, when every module competes to set deadlines which give you enough time to assimilate and apply the material covered before the holidays, while still allowing you enough time to actually produce the work. There’s plenty to get done, as reflected in the number of fellow students flocking to the ever-useful Hartley Library!

The result can often be something of a mad rush to keep on top of lots of assignments at once, particularly when the topics covered are as eclectic and interesting as those I’ve experienced. It’s sometimes quite difficult not to get so into one assignment, researching it more and enjoying it, that you neglect the others you’re tasked with, like with a design module I recently undertook - I spent most of my time on drawing up interface sketches, and nearly forgot about the written report element!

Likewise, deadline season is one of those times where the more you get done in advance (for example, at home over Easter – easier said than done when there are so many distractions!), the less pressure you’ll be under when the deadline date looms. Luckily, although I’d be the first to confess most of my Easter was spent reading for pleasure and career-researching, not to mention catching up with very important television, I’d covered enough ground with my work that I’ve been dealing with a very manageable workload. The end result of it all, though, is hopefully something I can be proud of.

I think one thing which people perhaps might not associate with my course in Software Engineering as part of the School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) is a surprisingly vast element of creativity. Quite often you’re tasked with quite an open project brief and asked to apply the theoretical aspects you’ve learned to an idea you might have. The end result is usually a project that’s personal to you, featuring your own creative input, while also academically quite progressive, and in this way you begin to build up this portfolio of ideas which even, one day, might be taken forward commercially (with the permission of the University), giving you plenty to talk about in conversations and interviews alike.

This isn’t just your dissertation or research projects, although these generally form the crux of such discussions – having spent so long on it last year, I still feel like I could talk for hours about my work on automated camera selection in footage of theatrical shows!

From first year assignments, where we were tasked with building a personal and professional website (although I’ve not quite updated it since!), to creative programming exercises including an app which produces solvable crosswords (a few late nights went into that one – I kept getting distracted by playing!), to research-based tasks like one I recently handed in (the design of a biometrics-based feature extractor and classifier), the ball is very often in your court.

The traditional celebratory ‘hand-in selfie’ my group took following our Group Design Project submission in January, featuring many bleary eyes!

It’s this sense of personal attachment which not only makes coursework assignments so interesting (particularly in terms of that link between course content and your own ideas), but which also drives you to want to achieve the best results you can – if more out of personal satisfaction than anything! Although not every coursework assignment follows this format, and you probably won’t enjoy every single one (I’ve always struggled with some of the heavier Maths-based content, for instance), it’s great to have such a variety, particularly in terms of the skills you pick up along the way.

And so, with only exams left to revise for before I face the real world, I’m glad to say I’m relatively proud of the portfolio I’ve amassed, and look forward to trying to present it in future interviews. That is, once I stop getting distracted by that crossword generator…!


Monday, 11 May 2015

Project presentations and birthday celebrations

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I recently handed in my BSc Biology Third Year Project which has a weight of two modules worth of credit towards my degree. Included in the final mark for your project are the marks you get for presenting your work to a panel of lecturers. Last week I had my Third Year Project presentation which, while feeling slightly nervous, I actually really enjoyed doing. It was fun to talk about the work I had been doing for the past year. The presentation had to be within a five minute limit which is surprisingly challenging. There’s an awful lot you could talk about regarding your project; from background knowledge, your methods, the results, statistical tests, the discussion and importance of your work, ideas for future research, and more! The list is long, so trying to organise everything I wanted to get across into the five minute limit took some preparation - but in the end I think I succeeded quite well.

While I was a little nervous, I think being President of a society for the past two years has really helped my oral communication skills. I think speaking in front of a group of people only gets easier with practise, although when talking to members of a society you’re not being marked which makes it much less intimidating but still great practise nonetheless.

The actual presentation went by in a flash. After speaking for five minutes we then had about five minutes of question time during which the panel could ask you about something they were particularly curious about. Your ability to answer the questions was also marked. Then it was all finished! Both my coursemate and I still felt a rush of adrenaline after we finished our presentations, and luckily we could get rid of the left over nerves and energy in a kickboxing session. This was a lot of fun, especially because we had missed the past two weeks because of all the deadlines.

After doing well in the presentation I really wanted to celebrate, but with additional deadlines and exams around the corner it’s really time to focus. However, on Friday it was birthday (with so much going on I had actually almost completely forgotten about it!). My housemates suggested we go out to eat to celebrate, which was fun. They also surprised me with a present and cake back at the house.

It’s been a while since we were all together because everyone has been so incredibly busy with third-year work. We also started talking about when each of us has our last exams and dates we’re planning on moving out. I’ve become really comfortable sharing a house with these girls for the past two years, so it’s going to feel really weird packing up all our stuff, cleaning the house and leaving it ready for a new group of students to move in.

In the end one of my housemates, who also is on the same course as me, managed to convince me to go on a night out to celebrate too. I guess seeing as we had both just done our presentations earlier in the week we felt it could be justified, and so I had a really fun birthday despite being very busy!

Me and my housemate/coursemate (who I’ll also be travelling around Europe with after exams), can’t wait!

Exams begin in just over a week, so revision mode is on. Knowing I’ll soon be preparing for a trip around Europe is a good incentive to work hard for a bit longer and then enjoy some free time to travel.


Thursday, 7 May 2015

The dreaded P-word

It is finally complete! I handed in my Masters thesis in the first week back after the Easter break and on Friday I had the corresponding Viva, which means that I can finally say that my project has come to a close.

A Viva is an interview in which academics (two in my case) scrutinise your final report and you are expected to defend your decisions, whilst showing off your wider knowledge of the theory behind your results. In the morning before it I had re-read my report several times (finding a few unfortunate typos, although none as bad as my partner’s 'lover mass black holes', instead of 'lower mass black holes') and had thought about how I might answer certain questions if they came up. Fortunately I was well prepared for the topics that arose and the thirty minutes seemed to whizz by! It’s a major relief to have that behind me – now I can turn my full attention to revision.

The print out of my final report I took to my Viva. 

Revision is something that every student knows all too well and although I wrote about it during the January exams, I wanted to discuss it again in today’s blog. It is my final set of University exams (and when I say set, I do mean set – I’ve never had fewer than three exams in a semester – my highest number has been five!), so I feel like I have enough experience to give some advice.

Those of you who have read my previous revision technique blog post will know that I have quite a peculiar method of revising. I pretend that I’m teaching the material to someone, either to an individual or to a whole class of imaginary students. It might sound weird, but just like my Space Plasma lecturer said this week, “If you can explain these concepts to a friend unaided, then you’ll do fine in the exam”.

Recently, I’ve even gone as far as investing in a whiteboard for my revision method; there’s just something inexplicably fun about using them regardless of your age and any way to improve the revision process is worth it in my book!

My imaginary class found 'Magnetospheric Size' enthralling! 

However, it was not the revision techniques I wanted to discuss, but more the ways to avoid the dreaded p-word: Procrastination. We all know the feeling; you’re half way through revising a chapter and suddenly you find that you have Facebook, Twitter and YouTube open on your laptop.

One of the ways I avoid procrastinating is not having my laptop turned on, unless I need it for work. This means it actually takes more effort to look at the sports news or my emails than it does to actually stay revising. If this means moving to the library or another quiet space, instead of your distraction-laden bedroom, then go for it – there’s plenty of revision-friendly spots on campus!

Another technique I use is to write a to-do list of manageable tasks that I know I can achieve in the day. Having five or so small and detailed tasks, for example ‘Revise Chapter 7’ or ‘Do questions 5-12’, instead of the open-ended task of ‘Do revision’, helps keep you focused and allows you to track your progress too.

A reward for revising hard all morning! 

The final step I take is to ensure there’s always something to look forward to when I’ve finished my to-do list. This can be video games, TV shows, a pack of fruit pastilles or, like I had at the weekend, a lunch time trip to Trago Lounge (a popular local cafĂ© in Portswood) with my housemate. As long as you set yourself realistic goals and rewards, and minimise distractions, then revision should be a piece of cake!

I hope this helps and I wish you well with your exams and other deadlines!


Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Making memories

It’s always the night I look forward to most in the calendar: the annual Performing Arts Ball, this year to take place at the grand venue of the home of Southampton Football Club, St Mary’s Stadium – you couldn’t ask for somewhere more swanky!

 It’s the one night where almost everyone you know 'dresses to impress', where a sumptuous three-course dinner makes a great break from the usual pasta dishes and beans on toast, and the one where you get to spend a night in euphoric and celebratory surroundings with great friends to see off a grand year of performing in style. As this was my final one (as a student here, at least!), I was naturally hugely excited and couldn’t sit still come Sunday morning in eager anticipation of the evening ahead. Little was I to know beforehand just how incredible this year’s would be.

It started, as usual, with a house trip to the huge shopping centre in the middle of Southampton, the ever-popular West Quay. The Ball is an occasion which almost everyone treats pretty seriously in terms of looking smart – when it’s once a year, you have to! – so we set about stocking up on supplies, grabbing formal bits and bobs and making sure we were set for the night ahead. From my perspective, I remembered just how amazing it is that your pair of cufflinks can somehow vanish when you’ve not worn them for a year – though I bet I’ll find my (now “old”) pair soon enough (typical)!

After successfully raiding shops galore, we returned home and spent a few hours attempting to be productive. Unfortunately, for almost all of us this just entailed a general pretence of working, while in reality we were actually just eagerly checking the time while hovering in anticipation!

Soon preparations began; suits and dresses were on, photos with one another taken, and people came round so we could all take taxis together to complete the glamorous experience. I was also sure to conform to what now seems to be tradition, getting a photo with my housemate of nearly four-years now, Robyn, just beforehand!

It’s been a brilliant four years!

We arrived at St Mary’s Stadium to a very salient reminder of just how flashy the venue was, with champagne reception, striking decorations and photo booth ready to go. Luckily, as we were one of the first groups to arrive, we were able to take full advantage of the lack of queues for the latter to begin with, getting in pictures while we still all looked relatively prepared for the evening! 

Me and my housemates for this year – the affectionately-nicknamed “Aviary”! Credit: SUSU Photographic Society

St Mary’s made for an incredible venue – thank you so much for having us!

Enjoying such an amazing reception and greeting what seemed like a fair number of the few hundred people who walked through the door, we were swiftly reminded of just how many people are involved in the Performing Arts. It was a great chance to see everyone looking their best, enjoying one another’s company and celebrating loads of achievements together.

It was then time for the three beautiful courses that always befit such an occasion. Sitting with a table of many of the Showstoppers (the musical theatre society) who I’d progressed through the University career alongside, we had a great time talking about the future, reminiscing about former shows – and cracking jokes at one another’s expense, particularly after an accidental drinks spill or two (if you’re reading this, sorry Josh)!

Following this, we had a boogie on the dance floor, during which I again kept up a personal tradition of losing to one of my friends at a pretty terrible standard of ‘dance-off’, before heading on to a nightclub to enjoy the rest of the evening.

We had great company at our table! Credit: SUSU Photographic Society

After three other Performing Arts balls, all incredibly well organised and put together, I knew the night would be a terrific one, and I was enjoying every moment of it. That was, however, until I became completely overwhelmed; I was chuffed to see many of my best friends achieve so highly in the annual Performing Arts awards, including Highly Commended for both Achievement and Commitment to the Performing Arts, but I could never have imagined I’d have the honour and privilege of receiving the overall award for Commitment to the Performing Arts, with an incredible glass trophy and card to boot. I couldn’t believe that I was amongst such incredibly talented hard workers and legends of the Performing Arts, and spent the rest of the evening in something of a fluster as you can see in the photo below!

A little bit overwhelmed towards the end of the evening – thank you so, so much, everyone!

Because my friends on Facebook have already had to endure a long (quite soppy!) status full of thanks to them, and because I can still only struggle to articulate what this meant to me, I won’t write too much here. It suffices to say: I will never forget that night!

And because I can’t resist: just another huge thank you to everyone who nominated me, although it left me in a state somewhere between disbelief and euphoria for the rest of the night (and hasn’t really worn off yet)!

And so another Performing Arts Ball has been and gone and, as a heavy batch of coursework assignments finds its way onto my metaphorical plate, I feel hugely invigorated by an evening, and resulting set of memories, that I will truly never forget. Thank you so much to everyone who helped organise the ball (especially the brilliant Caitlin and Anna), and thank you to everyone who was there! What a night.