Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Moving in

On Saturday I moved back down to Southampton after spending the majority of the summer at home in Surrey. The annual task of packing clothes, bedding, bits of furniture and brightly coloured ring binders into the back of your car, like a challenging game of Tetris, has now become a well-practiced drill for fourth years like me!

However, for some of our readers, this journey down to the sunny south coast has yet to be made, and will soon be the start of their own ‘life at Southampton’. Everyone experiences nerves before they move into halls (it’s a natural human response!), but I want to give five tips from my own experiences that will hopefully let excitement be the prevailing emotion you feel!

1. Invest in a Doorstop.  There’s a reason why the word ‘doorstop’ is on almost all fresher advice lists; because it’s good advice! If your door is open during the first few days, other students from within your halls who are exploring or on a friend-finding quest are bound to stick their heads round and say hello.

2. Put on music.  When I was moving into halls in my first year, the person living a door down from me put on some music while he began to unpack. When I heard music playing I was drawn out of my room and when I realised I liked the band that was playing it made starting a conversation easy! Many students find this to be a good ice-breaker (just make sure it’s at a respectable volume) and clearly it works, because I still live with that same friend three years on!

The view of Glen Eyre Halls from the kitchen of my flat in first year 

3. Explore Southampton.  When you move into halls for the first time, you receive a Uni-link bus pass - so why not make the most of it and explore what Southampton has to offer? That’s exactly what my flatmates and I did in the days following moving in; we visited West Quay, a giant shopping centre in the middle of the city, and went on a toaster-finding mission!

 4. Say ‘Yes’.  During your first week, and indeed first year, you’ll be confronted with many new things to try out. The Bunfight is the best way to discover all the weird and wonderful societies the University of Southampton and SUSU have to offer and you’re bound to come across things that you’re not sure about. My advice is to say ‘yes’ to these new activities and try to give everything a go. Many societies will have taster sessions allowing students from all years to try out the activity with no obligation to come back; so why not give it a go?

Action from a Physics badminton competition I took part in last year 

5. Get involved with your course.  Whether it’s playing sport for your subject, attending socials or running for a position on the committee, getting involved in your subject’s society can be a rewarding process. Also take advantage of everything your subject offers academically from your very first year; attend any seminars held by guest lecturers, apply for internships and utilise all of the learning infrastructure available. At the end of your course you’ll be glad that you made the most out of the opportunities available to you here at Southampton!

Ultimately, the most important part of starting your university life is to enjoy yourself and to do whatever makes you happy. If you explore all that Southampton has to offer, and get involved with whatever you’re interested in, I’m sure you’ll love the city and the university as much as I do!


Monday, 15 September 2014

A creative induction

And so, but only two weeks after the roller coaster of a lifetime came to an end in Edinburgh (for another year, at least!), I find myself fully immersed back into the equally crazy, if ever slightly more steady, sunny Southampton lifestyle, racing around to get plenty of things done (as ever!) and having a fantastic time to boot – so things have well and truly kicked off with a bang!

It’s weird to think that term, along with the return of lectures, coursework assignments and dissertation-style work (this year in the form of a Group Design Project, in which we’re charged with tackling an engineering challenge originating from an industry application – so pretty much professional experience to add to the portfolio!), is still a fortnight or so away, and yet at the same time it seems to have come around very quickly. Indeed, as much as the past three years feel like they've flown by and all of a sudden I find myself writing this on my 22nd birthday, the summer holidays too appear to have gone by in a flash, and it is with both great trepidation and excitement that I await the beginning of my final year here – it promises to be memorable, to say the least!

And yet despite it technically still being the summer holidays, life at Southampton is already back in full swing. There are plenty of people around to meet up with and rehearsals are already underway for the next play I’m lucky enough to be involved with (surprise surprise!); this time, John Kolvenbach’s comedy/romantic play “Love Song”, showing at the end of the month – definitely the most difficult show I've been a part of so far acting-wise, and with only a three week turnaround!). Highfield campus, inundated with recent Open Days, renovations and early arrivals, is as jolly a place as ever, if a little quieter than usual – the calm before the Freshers’ storm!

But one particular event has dominated the SUSU calendar (and cafĂ© space!) over the course of the past week, and that’s been the Creative Industries induction training week, brilliantly organised by one of the Students’ Union’s Sabbatical Officers, our VP Democracy and Creative Industries, and Training Manager, and freely available to all volunteers, student leaders, committees and society Presidents looking to act as representatives within the ‘Creative Industries’ zone next year.

This ‘zone’ (category) incorporates societies and groups ranging from Showstoppers (the musical theatre group) and the Performing Arts to Student Media, including SUSUtv (the television station) and The Edge magazine (the entertainment review publication), and even the Computer Games society. So, with sessions included in the programme such as ‘society speed dating’ (having three minutes to talk about how your respective groups can help one another or collaborate on potential future projects), it soon became pretty apparent to everyone just how great a variety there was in terms of interests in the room!

Producing a mind-map of what goes on in all the other zones took a fair while – we’re a busy Students’ Union!

Being lucky enough to go along to the week as both next year’s Performing Arts Web Officer (helping societies get on their online feet) and Showstoppers President, the week was certainly an eye-opener to many factors I’d not previously considered in the roles, with training revealing some surprise elements of topics such as inclusivity, collaborative possibilities and management skills – as well as the need-to-know facts regarding the often-startling and potential legal minefield of health and safety around the Union!

Having always been an interested onlooker into the world of Union politics but never really a heavy participant, I still find it a little weird to think of myself as any kind of ‘leader’ at all in truth (then again, I’d say the same about going into fourth year!), but through such a great set of informative sessions, workshops and activities (not to mention a few mind-maps and team-building exercises along the way!), it was great to learn so much extra detail about this fascinatingly complex organisation which supports every group’s activities and makes them all possible, offering free further training to build up skill-sets and put groups in a position to grant their members further opportunities themselves.

Taking on the Spaghetti Challenge (to make the tallest tower with the ingredients provided) was a great way to get groups of newly-acquainted people working together – although it’s just a shame our team didn’t include an engineer!

Performing Arts were also tasked with creating and presenting an edition of the Edge Magazine promoting diversity and inclusivity, a tricky but very fulfilling assignment.

And it is with greater awareness of this incredible backing, as well as many fantastic memories from across the course of the training week, that I feel all the more emboldened, ready for the challenge and, in turn, prepared to work to support the Union’s aims and objectives through my own societies’ potential achievements – and put on a few great shows along the way, hopefully! So here’s to a great – and creative - year ahead!


Thursday, 11 September 2014

Field experience in Italy

I’m now back from Italy and have had a few of days to rest up, settle back into my home in Southampton and start preparing for the new term. Freshers’ Week is approaching and the start of term is not far away, so there are a lot of exciting things in the works!

However, I thought I’d dedicate this post to my field experience in Italy for my Biology course. So getting straight to it … on the 25th of August I left Southampton and took a coach to Stansted Airport, where I met up with one of my course mates (who had also chosen to do a field project in Italy). The flight to Turin, in the north of Italy, wasn’t until early the next morning, so my friend and I had arranged to stay at a hotel close to the airport. We chose this because it was easy to get to as well as being the cheapest accommodation we could find at the time of booking, so we felt quite lucky! That night we spent the evening using the pool and spa facilities while catching up on what we’ve been up to over the summer. We had to wake up at 3.30am to get ready to meet the project supervisor and other researchers going to Italy at the airport. We had planned to get an early night but ended up staying up the whole time - I guess we had a lot to catch up on!

So, without a wink of sleep, we made it to the airport and met up with everyone. The check in and flight went very smoothly, and once we arrived in Italy we picked up two hire cars and made our way to the hotel. During the drive we were able to talk more about the field site, our individual projects and the WATBIO project. The hotel we stayed at was really nice, both the hotel itself and the staff. I shared a large room with my coursemate and every day we’d come back to a clean and fresh room after completely messing it up in evenings with our dirty field clothes and shoes!

 Our hotel in Savigliano

We arrived at the hotel in the afternoon on our first day in Savigliano, so after we had lunch we had time to go to the field site to mark out the trees to make it easier for us later when we would begin collecting the data. This would also allow us to familiarise ourselves with the field site and layout.

We spent the next couple days collecting samples of leaves and taking images of them for one of the projects on leaf area and development, and then another few days measuring heights and diameters of the trees for the biomass data. In the end we had collected measurements on about 6,000 poplar trees! In between this work we also each had different tasks for collecting data for our individual projects. Mine included taking stomatal imprints, which I will be looking at under a microscope later. It was great to not only collect data for our own projects, but also be a part of a large collaboration project like WATBIO.

Above is a photo taken from the field site. You can see the poplar trees on either side of the path and then if you look closely you can see the Alps in the distance. This is the wonderful view we had from the field site during the days when the sky was clear blue.

Every evening we ate a very generous dinner at the hotel, consisting of a minimum of three courses - sometimes four! All in all, I had a great time and I particularly enjoyed experiencing what real field work is actually like, especially in an area of research which I’m genuinely interested in. It was also really good to talk to the researchers, and hear about how they got to where they are now and just to get a better insight into what a career in science and academia is like.

I loved the opportunity to carry out field work and research in Italy!

On our last whole day we were given the day off and got to explore Savigliano which was really nice because it would have been a shame to go somewhere new and not have a chance to actually explore the area.

A lovely lake we stopped by.

We left Italy on the 4th of September and again the journey back to Southampton went very smoothly. It was strange saying goodbye to everyone, as we all worked really well as a team (if I do say so myself!), but not to worry, I’ll be seeing them again soon.


Monday, 8 September 2014

Gardens and grottos

As summer merges into autumn with the arrival of September, I found myself enjoying the last of the glorious sunshine. Painshill Park, located about an hour away from Southampton, runs along the River Mole in Cobham, and is a verdant stretch of sloping hills and tranquil water pools, envisaged and realised in the eighteenth century by the Hon. Charles Hamilton.

The park today has been restored to resemble as closely as possible the views that were created by Hamilton and shared with other high society peers. The park is 158 acres in size and visitors are given a recommended route around the site, designed to make you stumble across the most stunning views, just as the original head gardener once did.

The gardens themselves were created in line with the Landscape Movement of the early eighteenth century, which favoured a more natural approach, rather than a geometric based methodology. The paths through the park are centred upon the expansive lake; the water for which is pumped from the nearby river. Amongst the foliage small pieces of architecture can be found, almost by surprise, which add to the picturesque landscape.

Standing inside the Gothic Temple

The first of these you discover is the small Gothic Temple perched on the top of a hill with a fantastic view of the winding landscape and the Great Cedar, which at 120 feet high is thought to be the largest of its kind in Europe. After descending towards the river, you are greeted by the ruins of an abbey built from brick, but rendered to have the appearance of stone.

The shimmering lake with the Chinese Bridge in the background

The path then guides you towards the lake, which features a handful of small islands, connected by a series of bridges inspired by architecture from different cultures, including the well-recognised Chinese Bridge. The Crystal Grotto, built into the side of one of the islands, is a magical cavern where crystal walls and stalactites shimmer in the half-light, whilst small water features trickle merrily around you. This mystical setting is used in the winter as Santa’s grotto, but sadly I came too early to receive any presents this time around!

Inside the magical Crystal Grotto

The gardens then lead you along to the Waterwheel which powers the pump that supplies the lake with water. The setting now changes from lush vegetation into forest, where you can find both the Gothic Tower and the Hermitage amongst the trees. The story goes that Hamilton had hired a hermit to live alone in the small house in the woods on a seven year contract. However, within a few weeks of his hiring, he was found less-then-sober in a nearby pub after he disobeyed his contract and left the park. The hermit was subsequently dismissed, but was never replaced.

A happy hermit!

The final view over the park comes from the reconstructed Turkish Tent, which is nestled on the opposing hill to the Gothic Temple. It gives one last vista across the landscape and allows the viewer to take in all that they have seen. I could reflect on enjoying a lovely walk around the park with my girlfriend, making the most of the last of the summer sun and its heat; I highly recommend a visit!

For those of you who are in Southampton during September, or are coming back down in the next few weeks and want to go for a similar trip, the New Forest is also a fantastic place to explore on foot. It’s easy to get there and the wilderness provides a perfect place to take a break from student life. Earlier in the summer I went there myself to visit Beaulieu, where you can walk round the Palace House and visit the British National Motor Museum, all whilst taking in the wonderful landscape!


Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Edinburgh adventure

And with that, it’s all over for another year – the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The pinnacle of the performing world and an event that, on the past couple of occasions, has seen me want to adopt the beautiful city (and its incorporated manic lifestyle!) as something of a second home, is over for another year. We’ve all, as a cast and crew, come crashing back to the reality of normal life – and regular sleeping patterns (well, comparatively, anyway)!

A journey that started many months ago, with auditions, call-backs and early rehearsals for Gone Rogue Productions’ production of the fast-paced thriller Tape and their gender-swapped twist on Oscar Wilde’s classic farce The Importance of Being Earnest in February has now come to a close… and what a journey it’s been. Writing as a cast member of Earnest, it’s been a truly memorable, and at times admittedly very challenging, rehearsal process. In the midst of getting to grips with our characters of the opposite sex (mine was a ‘glamorous’, iPhone-obsessed Gwendolen!), we’ve all had to acquire certain skills, mannerisms and performance techniques which we never could have imagined we’d have to when we started with SUSU Theatre Group years ago – like learning how to apply make-up and walk in high heels, for example!

But ultimately it’s been an absolute blast from start to finish, and has been another brilliant year of working with some hilarious, talented and inspirational people, without whose mutual support we wouldn’t have been able to pull it off. For me there’s no feeling quite like being part of a close-knit, supportive cast, working as a solid team to put on the best daily performance you can, and this show was no exception. I can’t thank them, my directors Jed, Joe and Poppy, or the company’s producers Chris and Jamie, enough for the opportunity – it’s been terrific!

Having to dress in this way every day for two and a half weeks was an unforgettable, if pretty weird, experience! (Credit: Joe Hart)

The rest of the Earnest cast and team – a fantastic bunch of people to work with, it’s been great getting to know them all, and I’ll miss our (fairly different) rehearsals!

The best thing about Edinburgh, though, is not only is it a great chance to step outside of your comfort zone and perform to audiences beyond the 'student bubble' (although this does have the side-effect of making them slightly more forth-coming and honest in their opinions sometimes!), but also the way the city becomes completely enveloped in a Festival feel in its entirety, from the sheer number of people walking around, to the celebratory atmosphere they carry and the merry smiles they wear. It almost seems like wherever you go, a performance of some kind or another is taking place, be it theatres, clubs, street pavements or, of course, the spectacular Royal Mile, where performers of every discipline you can possibly think of – theatre, comedy, musicals, magic, dance, cabaret, 'improv', circus, opera, choirs, and more – compete for attention (and, fingers crossed, ticket purchases!) in spectacular fashion.

Indeed, my personal favourite street performer this year was a mute clown who, at the beginning of his show, set-up a jukebox on a pavement corner and, despite juggling in quite an innocuous fashion at first, soon set about using a wireless remote to cause havoc, changing songs on the fly and in turn entrapping unsuspecting passers-by in some hilarious situations, like giving one passing car an impromptu provocative car-wash (I’ll let you imagine the music!) and putting on sunglasses (to the theme tune of The Godfather) whenever an elderly gentlemen walked by! It was simple stuff but ingenious, and it had his amassed crowds in stitches throughout. Other highlights included an improvised silent movie troupe, an impromptu performance of the Haka, and a giant dinosaur or two making its way down the road! If you’re looking for fresh ideas, international culture and performances of the highest quality, there really is no place quite like the Fringe!

And as for our company results, I’m delighted to say that, following on from last time around with Hanging Bruce-Howard, Gone Rogue Productions had a brilliantly successful year both commercially and critically, with its two shows Earnest and Tape, attaining mostly three and four star reviews across the board, particularly in the case of the latter, whose team also managed to be long-listed for the National Student Drama Festival Edinburgh award 2014 - a fantastic achievement. Likewise, we as the cast of Earnest had a wonderful time and were seen by some very receptive audiences for which we’re very grateful, including one on very special (and surreal!) day in particular, when a quite-possibly-famous guest (and accompanying media!) were in our audience – but more on that in early 2015 (when I’m allowed to talk about it)!

But even with a great deal of fundraising undertaken before we went up, the costs of the trip were huge in terms of venue hire, show rights and other expenses, so we were hugely grateful as a company to be granted this remarkable experience by the University of Southampton, without whose generous and benevolent support of our efforts, both through the G F Forsey fund and, personally, the ECS Student Development Fund, granted us this amazing opportunity. Overall, we were delighted with how things went and we truly believe that the company’s future looks set to be a bright one at the Fringe in the future, whichever lucky people are flying the flag for the University  next year.

So once again I return from the famous Scottish city with stories aplenty to tell, and not enough words to tell them all in! Highlights of the three weeks included a repeat of last year’s memorable Arthur’s Seat climb (carrying on the tradition of playing a round of the classic drama game ‘Ninjas’ at the top!), catching in the region of 70 shows over 21 days (trying to get full value out of my company pass!), witnessing a Southampton alumnus and great friend, Joe Hart, place 3rd in a national comedy competition final (with an incredible set in the So You Think You’re Funny? event, whose previous finalists have gone on to do amazing things in comedy!), bumping into plenty of celebrities around and about (including John Bishop, Simon Callow and Jason Manford – a judge at the final – with some people in Gone Rogue even seeing Jack Gleeson, also known to some as King Joffrey!), and ultimately having the time of my life once again.

The annual ‘Ninjas’ Edinburgh championship took place – and things got suitably intense!

Meeting and chatting to Jason Manford was a surreal, and awesome, experience!

Another brilliant day in Edinburgh!

And so it’s time to get preparing for my fourth, and final, year in Southampton. It’s strange to think that, from now on, most things I’ll be witnessing down there will probably be for the final time – but I’m pretty sure that, at some point or another, I’ll be back in Edinburgh again, hopefully sooner rather than later!


Friday, 29 August 2014

Some advice for soon-to-be students

As I mentioned in my previous post, when this appears online I will be working away in Italy! I’m hoping that I will be able to collect a lot of good data and do a good job. Wish me luck!

Anyway, giving advice can be hard sometimes because I think one of the best ways to learn is to experience things for yourself and just see what you think when you get here. However, if my friend Ivy and I were to summarise a few things we wish we would have done a little differently, or thought we did well, it would be these few things…

First of all, don’t wait for people to come to you; go and introduce yourself! Everyone is in the same boat, even though it might feel like you’re the odd one out. When I first moved into halls I arrived a day late. Well, technically I arrived in the middle of the night of moving in day because of my flight from Sweden, and at that time no one was around because there was a welcome party on campus for the Freshers). When I met everyone the next day I thought it seemed like everyone already knew each other really well. However, in hindsight I've realised that everyone was still just getting to know each other. I shared a kitchen with twenty other people in my first year so there were a lot of people to get to know in my flat! I was quite shy and waited until someone else introduced themselves first, but looking back I really didn't have anything to lose and could have made friends in halls a lot quicker had I just made more of an effort to introduce myself to everyone. And, just like you might feel grateful if someone came over to talk to you, I’m sure the other person would be thinking the same thing and would be grateful if you went and spoke to them too!

Me and some flatmates from my first year at the Freshers' ball.

Some of my first year flatmates and I celebrating my 20th birthday at halls.

Secondly, join societies. In my first (and second) year, I tried so many different societies and met loads of people who had similar interests as me. Go - even if you have to go alone! You will meet people there. I was the only person I knew when I joined the SubAqua Club and after a year I got my ocean diver qualifications as well as having met some people who I would have never have spoken to had I not joined the society. Furthermore, some of my best friends at uni are from the dance societies, but when I first arrived I went to all the classes without knowing anyone else there. Some people join in their second year but many of them regret not trying it out in their first year. Eventually, I got to know everyone and now I can’t imagine uni life without them. Having said that, as with my first example, I could have made friends with them much faster had I made more of an effort to get to know everyone and not waited for them to approach me first. Don’t be afraid to talk to the existing members. The first friends I made within the dance societies were also freshers, but now I’m just as close with those who were in the years above me. I’ll admit I was a little intimidated by them in the beginning but knowing them now, I really had no reason to be!

On the note of trying new things, just go to as many of the taster sessions as you can. Most of them are completely free and you are not obligated to join the society if you feel like it isn't really for you. You’ll get more information about taster sessions at the Bunfight during Freshers Week, where you can meet all the societies and student groups in one place! Just to give an example, in my first year I also tried a film society, archery and the athletics club amongst others and while I did enjoy them I knew I wouldn't have time for all of them, so I prioritised the different dance societies.

In terms of studying, I think everyone has their own methods which best suits them. I would just like to advise first year students to still put the extra effort into their work even thought your first year grades won’t directly count towards your degree. Some people might joke around saying you don’t have to work too hard during your first year because your marks don’t count, but the reason I’m mentioning this is because if you plan on applying for placements or internships during your summer break, they will often ask to see your first year grades and therefore you will want to have good grades to help you get the position you want.

These are the most important things Ivy and I could think of. While you might have heard some of them before it can sometimes be good to hear something a few times for it to really sink in. Hopefully this was inspiring or helpful and I wish you all a great start to uni life, and hope that you’re excited!


Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Phantom of the operating table

I have spent a lot of this month at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading as a Medical Physics work experience student, but sadly now the two weeks are over. I mentioned in my first August blog that I wanted to apply to a training scheme that would allow me a route into medical physics and after working full time within a hospital’s physics department, I am even more certain of that career aim.

I spent the majority of my time there working within the Radiation Protection Branch of the Medical Physics Department, under a Non-Ionising Radiation Specialist, who deals mainly with ultrasound imaging.

Probably the main role of a medical physicist is to carry out procedures called Quality Assurance tests, known simply as ‘QA’s. These QAs involve testing all different types of imaging machines to check that they are producing the correct results and, ultimately, that they are fit for clinical use. These tests are carried out on things called ‘phantoms’, which are physical objects built to simulate a specific part of the human body, so that tests can be carried out without the need to have a real patient with you.

A phantom designed to replicate blood flow

During my two weeks of work experience I performed eight QAs on ultrasound machines, including probes used for urology, obstetrics, gynaecology, cardiology and even a machine that is on its way to Ghana to be used in the diagnosis of breast cancer. These QAs involve performing a routine series of checks for different characteristics of the ultrasound probe, before writing up a report and concluding if the probe can be used or not, and if not what alterations need to be made.

 I used this phantom for a QA on an ultrasound bladder probe

The other part of the job is based in research. Whilst working within the Radiation Protection Department, I used some of my time to construct and test a new type of phantom that uses computer technology to simulate the human body, which would remove the need to have physical phantoms.

I was also asked to build my own phantom which was to be used as a training tool for inserting needles into the prostate, guided only by a real-time ultrasound image. I used layers of solidified gelatine to mimic the tissue, before placing a plastic practice golf ball in the middle to replicate the prostate. I made two of these and the next day they were used in a seminar given by the department.

My DIY phantom in action 

Despite spending most of my time with ultrasound I did get the opportunity to experience other types of medical imaging. This included working within the Nuclear Medicine Department to learn about their role within the hospital. Their main work involves injecting a patient with small quantities of a radioactive element and imaging the body, so that they can assess the function, rather than structure, of different organs.

My final expedition was off to Radiology to work with x-rays. X-rays are probably the most commonly known type of medical imaging; however there is so much more to this branch of physics than hospital dramas portray. This is because the x-ray film on TV is a thing of the past. Now the image is produced on either digital cassettes or by a computer. CT scanners also exist, which produce 3D images of patients with x-rays, as well as the growing field of radiotherapy, which uses radiation to kill cancer cells.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time visiting the different departments at the Royal Berkshire Hospital and now that two weeks of work experience are over, I can safely say medical physics is the path I want to take in the future.