Friday, 23 November 2007

First exam

It's been a difficult week somehow. I think I've just done too many things and not spent enough time recovering, so I need to try and ease up next week. It's all fun; I don't want to stop going out in the evenings, but the early starts really wear me out, and it looks as though next semester I'll have to travel five days a week instead of four. As well as having to get up early on more days, this is bad because it's a 25% increase in the cost of fuel, which now costs more than £1 a litre everywhere. It works out at £10 a day in diesel to go to university and back. And based on recent experience, I can't begin to estimate the cost in wear and tear on the car...

So this week I played badminton, revised and had an exam, played squash, went to a wine tasting (I recommend the Argentinian Viognier), went to the gym (twice), had lectures and a practical, and attended Student Ambassador training. Then I received my exam timetable for January. The first exam is on the first day of the new term. The second is on the Thursday, and then the third appears to be on Saturday, at 4.30! I thought it might be a mistake at first, but perhaps not? The last is on the following Monday, so at least there seems to be a free week before lectures start again.

Our first proper exam was last Tuesday, a short multiple choice test on 'Whole Organism Biology' in a freezing cold room, so we were all sitting in coats and scarves. The story is that the heating is controlled on a completely different university site 15 miles away, which I thought was a myth until it was confirmed by the office staff. The actual test wasn't too bad, although the 'negative marking' scheme distracted me a little. The idea is that wrong answers are penalised with a negative mark, as a method of neutralising pure guesswork. The whole thing is only worth 10% of one module, a tiny contribution to this years ultimate total, but it was very informative. I learned the following:
  • Not to forget to bring my official student card
  • Try to ignore the negative marking thing
  • A rubber is vital for multiple choice, as well as a pencil and pencil sharpener
  • Woolly hat, fingerless gloves and thermals are also essential exam equipment.
After the test, when I would normally want to wind down in a quiet place with some music, we went straight into a practical on plant hormones - not too bad in the end, but it was pretty hard to concentrate.

Of course, this wasn't the first assessed work contributing to final marks, but the first we've done in exam conditions. The other coursework has been handed out for us to do at home, and most lecturers have arranged a tutorial session before the deadline to help out with any queries. One tutor was particularly helpful in a tutorial, essentially giving us the answers. This isn't quite how it sounds, because it's not always clear to us novices what the questions are really looking for. The answers I'd already prepared before the tutorial were mostly wrong, either in the level of detail or the aspect of the question that I thought was being asked. That tutor probably doubled my mark!

A highlight of another module was a lecturer who delighted in telling us all about the microbiology of the gastro-intestinal tract, going into detail (with pictures) of all the microorganisms that can cause significant disease. Lovely!

The Dietetics element of the course continues to be interesting, with a couple of Community Dietitians speaking to us about home visiting, obesity management on an outpatient basis, and a discussion about the origins and politics of the NHS. We've talk about the need for counselling skills, learned about the professional bodies that regulate dietetics in the UK, and we've taken a diet history (7 day and 24 hour recall) for nutrient analysis. My aim for this weekend is to get that bit of work written up.

Last thing on Friday was the Student Ambassador training where we learned to balance a pyramid of Ferrero Rocher in one hand while representing the UK abroad. Not really. Student Ambassadors attend Open Days for prospective students and their parents, take them on tours of the campus, and generally answer questions about anything and everything to do with student life. I volunteered because of the lack of older students when I attended an Open Day, which meant I couldn't really get answers to any of my questions relating to living off-campus or managing studies after so long out of full-time education.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

What I'm reading at the moment

Image of book cover
White Teeth
by Zadie Smith

narrated by Jenny Sterlin
"Archie's life has disintegrated. Fresh from a dead marriage, middle-aged Archie stretches out a vacuum hose, seals up his car and prepares to die. With the opening of a butcher's shop, his life is saved, and soon he is on his way to beginning a new life with a young Jamaican woman looking for the last man on earth."
I haven't listened to many serious modern books - the audio medium seems to work better for the classics and for light, frothy detective novels. The previous exception to the rule was "The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy, narrated by Carole Boyd (Lynda Snell from The Archers), and what a good job she made of it - my best ever audio book, alongside Alan Rickman narrating Thomas Hardy's "Return of the Native." I thought I'd try this one to test the theory again, and while the book's not bad, the rule still holds. Oddly, the reading seems to be from a US version: there are little clues like the use of the word 'diaper' for nappy and 'bangs' for fringe.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Bariatric surgery

I'm well behind with news, but then I remember that not everything can go in this blog. Can it be true that some of my life is of no interest whatever, to anyone? So more slash and burn in the garden, the trip to the tip to get rid of the evidence: garden waste, old shoes, radios, cat food (don't ask) and hoovers, Mr A's accounts, playing squash, badminton, the arrival of loads of classical music CDs ordered from Germany - who cares? Apart from me, that is.

At school there has been much learning activity, and one day this week started at 9am and ended after 6pm. Add the extra hour at each end for driving and it's almost as long as most days I used to work, back in those almost-forgotten days of full employment. I was exhausted! I'm looking forward to a night out in Birmingham catching up with ex-colleagues in a couple of weeks when my coursework deadlines are less pressing.

The most interesting classes recently have been around the Dietetics module. We do very little about actual nutrition this year; it's mostly about getting us all up to speed with basic biology and biochemistry. But in Dietetics the group is relatively small, and sometimes we get to discuss rather than absorb what's being pushed at us from the front. One of the lecturers has returned to full time practice in a hospital, but before she went, she told us about her work in bariatric surgery - the 'stomach stapling' or 'gastric banding' surgery that you read about in lurid detail in shiny magazines between stories about WAGs and TV 'celebrities'.

There are government-led guidelines, laid down by NICE - the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence - about who can receive gastric surgery on the NHS, free of charge. To qualify as a prospective patient, as well has having a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or above, "all appropriate non-surgical measures have been tried but have failed to achieve or maintain adequate, clinically beneficial weight loss for at least 6 months." Nothing needs to have been tried previously if BMI is 50 or above.

This is all fine as far as it goes. I don't have a problem with surgery to help weight loss per se. I was concerned to hear that the pre-surgery appointment with the dietitian is only 30 minutes... but my real question was whether the 'appropriate non-surgical measures' included psychological help, or counselling, or therapy. No, they don't. We were told that "there aren't enough places where such therapy could be delivered anyway".

This has seriously blown my mind. No counselling or therapy available, before spending a fortune on an irreversible surgical operation, with all the associated risks during and after the procedure, for people who must clearly be desperate to lose weight, and haven't succeeded before? Aren't we treating symptoms here, rather than the cause?

Nobody would suggest that someone who compulsively cuts himself or herself should undergo irreversible and risky surgery to graft a cut-proof teflon skin onto their body to prevent self-harm. Much more likely is a referral to a psychiatrist, or psychologist, or psychotherapist, or someone who can help with sorting out the reason for the behaviour. Why isn't morbid obesity classed as self-harm, and given appropriate priority and resources, and suitable treatment?

Yesterday I listened to a Radio 4 podcast (how I love them) about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME (that's the official classification, I learned). Not too long ago, there was some debate whether this was real, physical or psychological, or just malingering. NICE officially recognises this condition now, and recommends onward referral to specialist provision under certain circumstances. The specialist in the broadcast (who works with children) was very pleased with this, because she said that very little provision exists, and the NICE guidelines provide a lever that she can use to approach NHS Trusts or whoever, to get funding for more.

So perhaps that's what needs to happen for bariatric surgery. Clearly I'm not in any position to influence the situation, and perhaps I've got it all wrong anyway. What do I know after less than two months at university? It really brought me down to earth - dietitians aren't the paragons of virtue that I'd hoped; the situation is imperfect; people get what they get. I have no idea whether I'm even going to be involved in diet for weight loss in later life, but if I do, I hope this is something I'll be coming back to with a vengeance.


The library at Sutton Bonington

Friday, 9 November 2007

Practical science and coursework

I'm not fond of practicals in the labs. I don't like the feeling of being out of control, and I'm fairly clumsy when it comes to pipetting or handling little bits of glassware. I don't think I've ever seen anything clearly through a microscope and have given up adjusting the lenses, trying with and without specs, using one eye, both eyes, focusing and the rest. The lab work was the part I was looking forward to least about this course.

Having experienced a few practicals now, it's been much better than I feared. I wouldn't say that I look forward to the lab sessions, but the lecturers and demonstrators have been so helpful and approachable that I can usually get explanations when the procedure or equipment are baffling, or when things don't work as expected.

The best thing has been to experience the experiments that I've only read about. As a keen science reader, I'm aware of genetics experiments with fruit flies - now I've seen the results! I've pipetted DNA into an electrophoresis gel and seen the 'barcode' results under UV light! I've used a spectroscope firing different wavelengths of light through a sample and measuring absorbance - actually, that wasn't too exciting. You put the sample in a box, press 'Go' and write down the number that comes up on the display.

The latest practical was one that I didn't anticipate. It was in the physiology lab under the heading of 'Autonomic Nervous System', that's the unconscious control of internal body systems: heartbeat, pupil dilation, digestion and stuff. We were given a short length of fresh rabbit gut, so fresh that if kept in a special solution with oxygen bubbled through it actually contracts as it would inside the now-deceased rabbit. It looked like a little piece of pink macaroni. We dripped adrenaline and acetylcholine into its bath, and measured how it reacted, by decreasing or increasing the strength of peristaltic contractions.

Now that we've done some significant work, the deadlines for handing in coursework have started to come thick and fast. This week I handed in four lots (two of them early), with another one due next week. It actually takes a bit of time to hand stuff in - there's a front sheet to fill in to identify the bit of work and the module and lecturer it belongs to, sign to say you understand the plagiarism rules, fold over the top to conceal your name and make it anonymous for marking, fill in and cut off a receipt to keep, then date stamp both bits. Then post it through a slit into one of the many boxes with labels on the front - this is actually the most daunting bit, making sure it goes in the right box. There are dire penalties for late submission (5% docked per day late) and putting coursework in the wrong box would be the most stupid thing to do.

Car park with holly bush
Holly bush and the car park at Sutton Bonington campus

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Fun and games this week

The fun started on Wednesday, when we came third in the pub quiz, thanks to an unusually large but intelligent team of sober girls and inebriated boys. This was despite the round about fictional bands in novels, TV and film, where we didn't understand what was going on until after the round was over.

Then on Thursday we held a gathering of ex-Avon badminton members who are now too old, fat, lazy or unfit to go to the club any more, plus their partners and me of course. Rog was there too, but left before the photo.

Andy, me, Sally, Pete and Eric
The bad news came on Friday, when I went to a different garage for a second opinion on the replacement of the driver's seat base. They sucked in their breath the way that tradesmen do, and told me to try going direct to VW for a replacement spring, otherwise it would indeed be many hundreds of pounds. I'm very disappointed in VW, which I had thought was a quality manufacturer. Of course things will always go wrong, but to be forced to replace the whole seat base for want of a spring seems very poor. And that's on top of all the other major and minor items that have broken: window mechanisms, aerial, fascia lighting - you can't even change a headlamp bulb yourself, it has to be done at the garage at the usual rates. So the next step in this saga is a call to a VW dealer.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

What I'm reading at the moment

Image of book cover
Blue Shoes and Happiness
by Alexander McCall Smith

"Now that she is finally and happily married to her long-term suitor Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency of Botswana might have expected life to grow more sedate. But the many problems that lead customers to Mma Ramotswe's door seem, if anything, to have multiplied, and no sooner has she settled her traditionally built person into the married state than she finds herself looking into several troublesome matters at once."
I know there are mixed opinions about this series, and it's mocked unmercifully by Radio 4, but I like these books. It's difficult not to hear the voice of the radio satirist sometimes, though.

Image of book cover
Saving Fish from Drowning
by Amy Tan

"Businesswoman, patron of the arts and socialite Bibi Chen has been killed in mysterious circumstances. Her death may or may not be linked to the disappearance of eleven American tourists in southern Burma."
Another one loaned by Lola II. I didn't like it at first, but it grew on me. I still wouldn't give it five stars, perhaps just two or three.

Image of book cover
Life: a user's manual
by Georges Perec

"Such is its scope, such is the marvel of Perec's lapidiary prose that the Chinese-box structure, the jokes and the typographic games enhance rather than diminish the vitality of those who people the puzzle."
Translated from French and two inches thick, I haven't a clue how this book came into my possession. I'm not sure I'm going to like it, given that I don't know what a Chinese-box structure is, and can only guess that 'lapidiary' relates to jewels. But I'm prepared to give it a go.