Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Stories to tell

It seems strange to say in the knowledge that there’s only a few weeks left of the Easter term, but there’s nothing better to remind you of how few days there are in February than a deadline or two creeping up on you at the beginning of March!

Such was the case in the past few days, when my first assignment of the term – preparing and delivering a short presentation on the principles of an IT-driven business investment within an organisation of our choice – suddenly arrived on my doorstep. I’d always known that this presentation was due to take place at the beginning of March, but somehow with fewer days in February, it came around a lot quicker than expected – if only it were a leap year!

As I wrote last time, my latest project as an amateur Director, The Drowsy Chaperone (with the musical theatre society, Showstoppers), goes on stage next week – so the appearance of an unexpected deadline caused a bit of panic amidst all the preparation being undertaken for that!

Nevertheless, after I’d realised, I was able to spend plenty of time in the ever-stocked and inspirational Hartley Library with my head in a book, making sure it was completed and delivered to the best of my ability, in between all the other intensive rehearsals and production-based activities last week!

Such an anecdote is just one example of the many stories I seem to have accrued during almost four academic years at the University of Southampton, many of which have formed the basis of my posts here on Life at Southampton. I was flattered recently to be invited to be interviewed about my time here (both from an academic and an extra-curricular perspective), just to chat about my experiences at the University.

As someone whose is always quite nervous during interviews, I of course went into it fearing that I would freeze and have nothing particularly interesting to say, and that I’d dry up completely. But once things got going, I found, much to my surprise, the exact opposite: I’d so many different answers, ideas and thoughts which the University has fostered through my course in Software Engineering, and through my time as a member of the Students’ Union, that I had to cut myself off lest we would talk for hours!

From the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to the programming laboratories, there were stories of interesting lectures and assignments (sometimes featuring relatively last-minute submissions) stories of plays and musicals, stories of trips and tours, stories of academic conferences and production activities and projects, and stories of learning experiences (I’ll never forget to boil the potatoes for long enough after my first-year attempt at sausage ‘n mash!).

There were stories yielded by friendship groups which fell completely outside all of the above. There’s nothing quite like just meeting someone new on the bus and getting chatting to them, or even just around the Union. It’s not a rare occurrence; the sense of community across campus makes it far less awkward than you might think! The majority of these seemingly unrelated stories were provided by my first-year flatmates, whom later went on to become my housemates for three years. We didn’t do much together in terms of shared academic courses or societies, but there are multitudes of memories, quotations and photographs which I don’t think I’ll ever forget!

My first year flatmates, and second and third year housemates, and I at last year’s astonishing Grad Ball event – it’s strange to not see them as often now, but we’re still in touch!

Having this myriad of experiences, anecdotes and even jokes to fall back on has already proven useful in terms of my job application efforts. Typical application and interview questions such as “Describe a time when…” and “What experience do you have in…” seem far easier to answer, even on the spot, when you’ve a number of scenarios in your head which you can apply to different situations and transferable skills.

In many ways, one of the best things I’ve found to do is to read this blog (and my 90 previous posts on it!) just to give myself a quick reminder of how much has actually gone on during my time here, and how much I’ll miss the University when it’s all over!

The stories continue to aggregate, with The Drowsy Chaperone now very much on the horizon and the associated challenges of directing a large-cast and large-scale musical fully in the forefront of my mind! It’s been a pleasure so far, and has provided plenty of new anecdotes (including ones regarding the difficulties of sourcing a revolving stage for the first time in the society’s history!). It looks like it will be a fantastic and hilarious spectacle of a show.

If you have any love of musicals at all – or even if you don’t, as it’s a parody of their tropes! – then Drowsy is the show for you, and we’d love to see you there! It promises to be a side-splitting feast of musical cheese, featuring a revolving stage, blindfolded dancing on roller-skates and even an aeroplane landing on stage, along with an incredibly hard-working cast, crew and production team to whom I couldn’t be more grateful.

So come along and catch the show! Who knows? It may even provide you with another story of your own!

The Drowsy Chaperone takes place in the Annex Theatre (Building 2a on Highfield Campus, by the Interchange) from Wednesday 11th - Saturday 14th March at 7.30pm every evening - we’d love to see you there!


Thursday, 26 February 2015

Conservation work at Chilworth

Last Sunday I joined the University of Southampton’s Conservation Volunteering Society to carry out various tasks in the nearby Chilworth Conservation Area, which I recently learned was established by the University of Southampton. I finally had a Sunday a free and am very happy to have been able to do some hands-on work outside in the fresh air. The various tasks we worked on included clearing bramble, digging and planting trees, removing invasive species and moving logs with the help of a pair of Alaskan Malamute working dogs. The society provides all the tools and gloves used during the day, so all we needed to bring was a pair of sturdy shoes and lunch!

Despite a bit of rain in the afternoon, it felt great to be outside, and the conservation area is really lovely. The work was good exercise, especially guiding the dogs who were pulling the logs for us. They were very strong and at times I wondered who was leading who but they were also extremely friendly and enthusiastic workers! Whenever I have a Sunday free I hope to continue taking part in tasks with the Conservation Volunteering Society. It’s also a great way to see different local areas as they carry out work in not only the Chilworth Conservation Area but also in Southampton Common, Portswood Recreation Ground, the New Forest and several more.

Entering the Chilworth Conservation Area. 

It was difficult to capture in a photo but in the midst of those large trees is where we set up the base for the day, to keep the spare tools and peoples’ belongings safe and dry as we worked. We were able to take a couple breaks during the day for some warm tea and for lunch and these trees provided good shelter from the rain.

One of the Alaskan Malamute working dogs. Running around with those guys was a great way to keep warm! 

I am lucky enough to have a housemate with similar interests as me, who also studies Biology with a focus on plant sciences and ecology. We were both keen to get more involved with the Conservation Volunteering society. However, even if you don’t have a friend to go with, it shouldn’t prevent you from joining. During the day we got to know a lot of really nice people from a range of different courses from Archaeology to postgraduate PhD students. In addition, my housemate and I weren’t the only ones joining for the first time this year, so there were actually a number of new people giving conservation work a go.

Lastly, I thought I’d give a quick update on the progress of my third year project. I’m happy to say that I’ve now completed all of my lab work and have all of the raw data I need. The whole processes took longer than expected and I had to repeat a couple of the steps along the way but I think through doing so I have gained a much better understanding of the protocol and techniques I was conducting in the labs and feel much more confident in the skills that I’ve learned.

Now I’m beginning to tackle the values I’ve obtained from my lab work and will soon begin the somewhat daunting task of the all important stats for my project. Wish me luck!


Tuesday, 24 February 2015

A week of celebrations

It’s always nice to take a break from studying, assignments and project work, especially when you have something to celebrate. In the last week I’ve had several excuses to put my work away and enjoy time with friends, leaving me feeling very refreshed!

Last Saturday was, of course, Valentine’s Day and my girlfriend came down to Southampton to celebrate it. Although we had a table booked for dinner in the evening, it didn’t stop us going to the local ice cream parlour for lunch. The venue had been decorated in Valentine flair, with heart-shaped balloons and roses on the tables, which made our indulgent lunch feel very romantic! Afterwards we attended a matinee showing of Romeo & Juliet at the Nuffield Theatre on our Highfield Campus.

The play was put on by the Students' Union Theatre Group and featured a very talented cast, including fellow Life at Southampton blogger Robin! I have seen several shows that the society have put on over the years, but this was easily the most impressive, helped massively by the lighting, sound and set capabilities of the Nuffield Theatre.

Looking forward to a chocolate covered waffle! 

In the evening we headed down to Oxford Street in the heart of Southampton’s Old Town. The street is dominated by high quality restaurants, all of which were busy with couples enjoying their Valentine’s Day meals. We had booked a table at a restaurant which does traditional – but exquisite! - British food. The evening was the perfect end to a very romantic day, but ordering puddings after the main was probably the wrong move!

Dressed up for a romantic evening together. 

On Tuesday I celebrated Pancake Day with my housemates. We had prepared three batches of batter – two English-style, and one American. I ate the English pancakes with chopped bananas and biscuit spread, whilst the American ones I topped with crispy bacon and golden syrup – a combination that works surprisingly well! As usual Pancake Day quickly turned into a pancake flipping competition, with each of us awarding scores out of ten like it was an Olympic sport! At some point it became Physicists versus Engineers (since there are two of each in our house), but the outcome was uncertain – looks like we’ll just have to organise a rematch!

The house celebrations continued with Chinese New Year, with our housemate of Singaporean heritage cooking up his best egg fried rice for all of us, as has become the tradition. It’s a shame that we don’t get to cook together more often as a house, because when we do we always have a great time. Maybe after the end of exams in the summer we can have another Come Dine With Me competition, like we did at the start of the year. However, this would mean potentially risking my title as winner of the competition!

The final cause for celebration came with the release of exam results on the same day as Chinese New Year. I’m pleased to say I got the grades that I wanted, which is the perfect reward for all the time that I spent revising over the Christmas break.

I now have one final semester to complete and hopefully I will be celebrating again in the summer when I come to graduate!


Monday, 23 February 2015

Into Industry: the Software Engineering Group Design Project

Phew! Just days after the (thankfully pretty successful!) conclusion of the performances of Romeo & Juliet by the Students’ Union’s Theatre Group in the Nuffield Theatre last week, I find myself thrown back into the directing chair for the next project, the Spring season show for the musical theatre society, Showstoppers. Called The Drowsy Chaperone, it opens in two and a half weeks, leading me to ask:

“Where on earth is the time going - and how is it nearly the end of February?!”

I know it’s a clichĂ©, but I’ve found that time really does fly when you’re at university, particularly when there’re so many interesting things to be absorbed by along with so many ways to fill every day. Be they shows, projects, trips away or coursework assignments, it always seems that one day you’ll find yourself agreeing to take something on . Weeks of planning, meetings and effort later, you’ll be finishing it off, eventually leaving you wondering what actually filled all that flash of a time in between!

This was recently the case for me and my group with our Group Design Project, the Electronics and Computer Science equivalent of a Masters’ dissertation. As I wrote last time around, last week saw the conclusion of everybody’s projects with final presentations and Q&A sessions. Afterwards, we all headed to the Turner Sims Concert Hall on campus for a poster display and buffet event, where we got to chat to other groups about their achievements as teams since the start of the year.

As ever, the lure of a free buffet also helped bring people along to the session!

One common theme subject amongst these talks was just how quickly the overall timescale had seemed to shoot by. Given how we were assigned our project briefs at the end of September, all derived from problems in various scientific or commercial industries with real-world clients providing professional specifications, you’d think three or four months is plenty of time to put together a product.

However, if there’s one thing the project taught us, it’s that it’s seemingly impossible to account for just how much else goes on in that time, both in terms of academic activities, other commitments, and unexpected delays, and just how quickly time passes when all you need is for it to slow down!

Therefore it was incredible to see just how much people had achieved, with many a display of excellent work on show at the event. From interactive advertisement performance monitoring systems - which were positively stuffed with features - to electronic implementations of safety inspection forms which had already been put to practical use around buildings and worked to splendid effect, as well as others like systems for improving communications within airports (on an incredible scale!), the variety of work at the event was huge and made for many an intriguing conversation, particularly as, three months into beginning developing, we were all talking in terms relevant to our new found industries and thus had a lot to explain to one another!

On the whole, it was inspiring to see, with teams showcasing commendable levels of creativity, diligence and professionalism in delivering some outstanding systems in such a short space of time. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that the majority of projects will end up going forwards commercially, which is a testament to just how well many groups performed, and just how close to industry the experience of the Group Design Project really is.

A huge number of brilliant projects were on display at the Turner Sims Concert Hall on posters abound!

As for our group, we were ultimately very pleased with the end result and had a brilliant experience in putting it together. With a few tweaks here and there, we believe we've provided a firm basis for future work in the development of a remote hearing test phone application. This was done through liaison with the on-campus Institute of Sound and Vibration Research (ISVR) Centre, and hopefully will go on to have huge benefits for clients’ quality of life in the future – fingers crossed!

So as I head now firmly into job application season, and potentially thence into industry, it’s been a great experience having a taste of what a professional development life is like, providing another string to my metaphorical employability bow and another project to place in the portfolio. Thanks to all involved with the Group Design Project’s organisation and that of the wrap-up event itself – and congratulations to everybody on its completion!

Now, back to directing those Chaperone rehearsals…!


Friday, 20 February 2015

Green Action and student campaigns

Last Tuesday Green Action held the first official event of the year. It was great to see a lot of new people with an interest in the welfare of the planet and the health of our environment as well as a willingness to get more involved in taking action towards making meaningful green changes. The aim of our first event was to remind and inform people of the importance of the campaigns we are running and to leave people feeling motivated to participate in the first Global Divestment Day event (which was held last Friday).

During the meeting on Tuesday I gave a brief introduction to the campaign for those who weren’t familiar with it, followed by a film showing of a documentary about the power and aims of the movement. The film covered the importance of taking action, and talked about the role we all can play in helping to make change happen. We also organised materials so that members of the society could contribute some art to the stalls we planned to set up at the day event. We made a large banner to hang on our stalls to help grab people’s attention during the day.

I was involved in the planning of the Global Divestment Day event, but due to lab work commitments I was busy for the majority of the day. However, I heard from my committee that it was a lot of fun and that they were able to gain a lot of signatures! The Marine Conservation Society, who have joined us in the campaign, also did a great job, collecting signatures and helping to raise further awareness by reaching out to more students.

It feels great to have taken part in the first ever annual Global Divestment Day and running our own independent campaign.

While at times controversial, it feels good to be able to work towards making positive change for something you believe in and to be able to work with other students who are also passionate about a greener future for our planet.

Social media has also been really useful in raising awareness and my committee were taking loads of photos during the day.

The Marine Conservation Society put together their interpretation of what an oil spill could look like.

It’s great to have another society to work with on campaigns so we can raise awareness from different perspectives.

Through being involved in this campaign I have been gaining a lot of experience in organising different events and coordinating different groups.

If you’re passionate about campaigning, or the environment, there are plenty of chances to get involved at Southampton as a student, and there are so many ways to help with causes which you feel strongly about!


Friday, 13 February 2015

Getting back into the groove of university life

I’m writing this blog post after completing my first assessment of semester two, which feels bizarre to say as it seems like we’ve only just started the semester! The assessment in question was a piece of group work for my Space Plasma Physics module that counts towards the coursework portion of the overall course mark. The assessment consisted of being split into predetermined groups of four in the lecture room and having to answer three questions that cover the topics learned over the last few weeks.

Usually Physics coursework consists of problem sheets that you can take away and work on for a week, but this is the first time I’ve had this kind of in-class assessment (except for the mid-semester tests of first year). Naturally this method is a lot harder, but it does give good practice for exams (not that I haven’t had enough over my four years!) and the nature of the questions require a lot of approximations to be made, which for scientists is a great skill to acquire.

Three weeks in to this semester and I feel like I am on top of all my modules and I am especially enjoying the Nanoscience module, which I was a little unsure about taking because it is a collaboration between the Physics and Chemistry departments. In addition to my modules, my Master’s project has progressed a fair bit; the most important development being the production of our first plots and thus our first results! I have also begun to write my final report - 500 words down, only 7,000 more to go!

In addition to getting back into the swing of doing university work and assessments, my extracurricular activities have restarted. I was looking forward to the first Art Society (ArtSoc) meeting of the new semester all the way throughout exams because it was the return of the cheese, wine and charcoal night that I missed last time around.

Anyone who knows me will tell you how much I love cheese, so it was no coincidence that I was the first to arrive, even beating the committee! Since it was the first event after everyone had returned from the Christmas holidays, the evening was mainly a chance to socialise and an excuse to pig out on cheese and wine. Naturally that meant that very little drawing was actually accomplished!

The first of many plates! 

Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to the following session, so the next Artsoc event I attended was this week’s Valentine’s Day-themed arts and crafts session. Seeing as my girlfriend reads this blog I won’t disclose exactly what I made, but I can tell you it took me an hour to assemble and involved a lot of cutting and gluing!

After the session had ended we began our first social of the new semester, which, after a brief stop in the University pub, saw us heading into Portswood to visit a fancy cocktail bar, where we enjoyed their 2-for-1 deals!

Susu (the Students' Union resident cat) came to take part in the Valentine’s Day fun, but sadly she declined to join us on the social afterwards! 

Although the last few weeks have definitely been some of the busiest of my University life, I have somehow still managed to squeeze in plenty of relaxing and socialising too. Getting back into the groove of University life has made me realise just how much I will miss the University, and Southampton in general, when I come to graduate in the summer.


Thursday, 12 February 2015

Congratulations, celebrations and the student social scene

Although life at Southampton has most recently been fairly hectic in terms of workload, career planning, and theatrical commitments aplenty (with rehearsals stepping up a notch for the Student Union Theatre Group’s production of Romeo & Juliet, which lands in the Nuffield Theatre this very week!), there’s another side you often hear about before you go to  university, and with good reason: the very active, varied and enjoyable social scene!

My Group Design Project wrapped up this week after the final project presentations and showcasing at the Turner Sims Concert Hall (the presentation weirdly somehow felt like another performance to prepare for!). Now it’s time to take stock of the year so far, do a bit of planning for the weeks and months ahead, and set some new goals for the rest of 2015 and my time at university.

While the semester’s new modules are still in that early stage where you’re being gradually eased into subjects, and content is a little more introductory in nature, you tend to be given a brief respite from the coursework assignments around the corner while settling in to the new term. This therefore makes it the perfect time to celebrate a first term well done by meeting up with friends, relaxing a little more, and generally appreciating one another’s slightly less library-centred calendars, at least for the time being!

Plus, while Romeo & Juliet rehearsals have been happening so regularly recently, it’s been great to be able to go along with the cast and crew to the Students' Union pub, The Stag’s, on a few occasions. After a productive session of Shakespeare or two, it’s the perfect way of getting to know one another better (rather than our Veronian characters!) and cementing the natural camaraderie that arises through being members of the same cast, particularly when you’re all struggling with a text which is at times quite baffling in terms of language – it’s good to reassure one another you’re not the only one!

The pub itself, The Stag’s, is a fantastically vibrant and homely place where not only are prices suitably cheap (and therefore great for living on a student budget!), but also the variety of options are perfectly tailored to the student market. For example, they’ve just introduced toasties to the menu, with plenty of options in terms of fillings; the annual ale festival offers plenty of tantalising selections local to Hampshire, and the atmosphere around when there’s a football game being shown is second-to-none, as I found out last summer during the World Cup!

Aside from The Stag’s, the University’s Highfield Campus also offers a communal restaurant, the well-stocked Jubilee Sports Hall and Gymnasium, the awesome Students’ Union cafĂ© (with some of the friendliest staff you will ever meet!), bars, a nightclub, a cinema, many sports halls and multi-purpose spaces aplenty - and that’s just scratching the surface! The best thing, though, is that there really is a social space for absolutely everyone to visit, regardless of how you fancy spending your time (catering for activities both alcoholic and non-so!) – so it’s very easy to end up adopting them as a home from home as a result!

On another social front, I’ve also recently been lucky enough to attend the Daily Echo Curtain Calls, the self-titled ‘Oscars of the South’ which are always a brilliant opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the amateur dramatic scene in the South.

This time around I went along to the glitzy ceremony to celebrate the achievements of my incredibly talented housemate of four years, Robyn, who had received a well-deserved (and unexpected - by her, at least!) nod for Best Actress in a Musical, and I also attended wearing the Presidential hat of the musical theatre society SUSU Showstoppers, to support its other nominated members.

A few of us at the Curtain Call Awards Ceremony 2015, a great occasion!

A nominee myself last year for Best Director of a Drama with my favourite production, ‘Equus’, I knew a fantastic evening lay in store for everyone, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. There was a vivacious atmosphere, stunning decorations and entertainment, a great disco and, best of all, a sumptuous three-course dinner that positively tickled the taste buds - a mile away from the beans on toast I’d been wolfing down before rehearsals every day!

In terms of the awards themselves, it was another hugely successful year as two members of the society, Ruthie and Scarlett, emerged with the coveted ‘Best Choreographer’ award, along with a member of our sister society, Theatre Group, who won “Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy.” Congratulations and celebrations all round!

So while my second and final semester here is slowly but surely gearing up into full swing, Southampton life seems to have retained its ability to never have a dull moment, and I couldn’t be enjoying it more!