Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Thoughts on being a student

Autumnal tree
Four things I remember most vividly from being a student the first time round, in my late teens and early twenties:
  • Freedom to do what I wanted in my own space for the first time. I could read a book or take a shower at 3 am without any questions asked.
  • A sinking sense of bafflement and perplexity at the subject matter. I really didn't have much of a clue about engineering.
  • Meeting many people who have become long-term friends, who make me laugh and make me think, and who still seem to like me despite everything I've done.
  • The 24-hour nature of the role of student. There are no boundaries to the day, no 9-to-5 routines. No time off. Any time spent having fun was time that I should have spent working, because there was always more to do.
Being a student now is very different in these four respects.
  • Living with Mr A means conforming to conventional behaviour on the whole. This is a shame, but the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Most of the time.
  • I absolutely love my course, and unlike engineering, I really 'get' the subject. I do extra just because it's interesting.
  • I don't think that I'll be in touch with anyone I've met through university in five years' time, let alone after 25 years. This is undoubtedly my problem, not theirs.
  • I am able to work in the early morning and into the evenings because at my age I'd rather be sitting at my desk than sleeping late or climbing over the college gate at 2 a.m. And there's nothing on TV worth watching.
Apart from my badminton and mealtimes, I've been working 12+ hour days for the last week, and am set to continue until mid-November, apart from a little break for a family gathering this weekend. I've nearly finished two of the three pieces of coursework, but we are set some more very soon. It doesn't need to be handed in for a month, so I'm definitely taking at least one weekend off.

Friday, 23 October 2009

End of a long week

Spider in the centre of an unfeasibly large web
It's Friday morning, and I'm very tired, sitting in the library anticipating my last lecture of the week.

The coursework situation became critical earlier this week, when I discovered that I was getting nowhere with the gene polymorphism one and I had to phone the supervising tutor. Thankfully, he was very helpful, and I'm back on track, but it feels as though there's hardly any time to the deadline. Instead of Apolipoprotein B I'm going to be writing about microsomal triacylglyceride transfer protein (MTP), and I'm sure I'll provide more details in a future post, perhaps even speculating on why it isn't abbreviated to MTTP.

After our last Diet Therapy lecture there was a short discussion about Mrs Sparrow, whose nutritional requirements (it turns out) have to be justified by reference to the academic literature, which will probably double the amount of time this work will take. Not that I thought it would be trivial, but now it's really something.

At least I'm doing OK with my leaflet about barriers to promoting healthy eating to the Vietnamese population of the UK. If I can get that one finished at the weekend I'll feel much better - unfortunately I don't think that will be possible. I now have the equivalent of a revision timetable to make sure I give enough time to each bit of work.

Apart from all the coursework I've had a good week, with badminton club on Monday night, a match on Tuesday night (we only lost 7-2! Result!) and then I played again yesterday at university with a couple of random postgrads and one of the sports centre staff. It all contributes to the exhaustion, but I definitely feel happier when I've played badminton - three times in a week is probably overdoing it, though.

The spider in the picture at the top built his amazing web in our garden in September. Unfortunately, he built his wonderfully intricate home exactly where I wanted to hang the washing.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

What I've been reviewing

Image of the book cover
Study and Communications Skills for the Biosciences
by Stuart Johnson and Jon Scott

"Written in a practical, motivational style, with plenty of examples and advice to help the reader master the skills being explored, the book explains how to get the most out of lectures, tutorials, and group work; how to get the most out of the vast array of information that is available in books, in journals, and on the web; how to communicate your work and ideas effectively to others; and how to revise for and complete exams to give yourself the best chance of success."
This is another of the free books that OUP have given me to review. I've read it from cover to cover, and even though it's aimed at someone going to university for the first time, it still has some useful advice for an old stager. It has come up with some suggestions for solving the problems I have when researching - I tend to find too much material, and get side-tracked by interesting but irrelevant information. I shall try starting from a textbook and gradually widening the scope, rather than starting with a general search on the Internet or PubMed. There are also some useful ideas about working in groups, and on creating a poster, which is often the way that original research is presented. Altogether, very good value for money, especially as I didn't pay for it.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Third year coursework

Tree stump with leaves growingI have three lots of pressing coursework at the moment, and being the third year, it is all rather difficult. They are all due to be handed in during the first two weeks of November, which doesn't seem that far away when I consider all that must be done by then if I am to achieve decent marks.

The first one involves a case history: Mrs Elsie Sparrow, frail old lady, she's been in hospital and has also lost a lot of weight. We have to fill in a hospital record card for her and... actually, I have to admit that I haven't really started working on this one yet.

I've done much more about the second piece of coursework, part of Health Promotion. It's the sort of assignment where we're given a brief, and we have to go and research it and then produce an original leaflet. It needs to be aimed at health professionals, and provide information about how to promote healthy eating to one sector of the community.

I do find this type of assignment very difficult. I get very involved in the research, and go off at a tangent, and then forget what I've read in which document, which is very bad because it all has to be very tightly referenced. But writing everything down as I read it, which would help with the referencing, doesn't work because at the point when I read something I don't know if I will need it for the final document.

The third bit of coursework is a doozy. I have to say that the lecturers have come up with a great formula: in a group of five we are asked to imagine that we are all speaking at a conference. We are assigned a broad subject, but we have to decide the theme of the conference, and each choose topics that we might present. We don't actually have to create or deliver a presentation, but instead we have to write the abstract as if we were. The assignment that goes in for marking is in the form of 'Proceedings', containing an introduction, contents page, each of our abstracts, and some sort of index.

It combines the same type of research above that I'm bad at, together with the necessity to work in a group. Luckily, the group I have ended up with looks as though it will work well, with people who, like me, don't leave things to the last minute. The subject is a corker: Gene polymorphisms in lipoprotein metabolism. No, we didn't understand it either. I am to write about Apolipoprotein B, and I hope that today I will find out why. Yes, I haven't really started this one either.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

The bathroom

Bare boards in the empty bathroomOur bathroom continues to consume time: days and days of choosing baths and toilets and basins, going from shop to warehouse to showroom trying to buy the right bits. We assembled all the different components in the hall and the plumbing brothers A and M looked them over when they arrived - only one missing item, so that was pretty good.

There are so many variables, and it was pure luck that we bought a basin and taps that might actually go together - I hadn't noticed that the basin had a single hole for a mixer tap. It would have been quite easy for us to buy two single ones, but luckily we didn't. And waste pipes, and fixing kits, and valves... When the plumbers had looked over our water delivery system, they recommended that we replace the ancient hot water tank, and that will probably happen in November.

Bare boards and a new bathThis meant that all of my 'spare' time last week was spent on bathroom stuff, and Tuesday and Wednesday were frequently interrupted to look after the lovely plumbers, supplying them with tea and information and porcelain-based items. We have asked a designer/decorator to help us make the room nice afterwards, so she came round too, to see what the plumbers were up to and to make various helpful suggestions.

She was having a cup of tea in the kitchen with Mr A afterwards, and it turns out, almost unbelievably, that she recognised him from when she was at the Central School of Arts and he was at Camberwell College in London in the 1970's, and they lived in the same Halls of Residence. How she could have recognised him is beyond me, seeing as how he would have had some significant hair back then, and was a couple of inches taller because he hadn't yet had his major bike accident, and he said he didn't really talk to anyone when he was there.

A and M working in the bathroomOn Tuesday the plumbing brothers A and M ripped out all the old fittings, and managed to install the new bath and nearly the toilet. On Wednesday, they completed the toilet and installed the basin. They were tidy and polite, they put down dustsheets, they cleaned up when they were finished, and were generally a pleasure to have in the house. Admittedly they did drive me to the edge by talking interminably about bikes with Mr A - they are both keen on motocross, whatever that is.

So now we have a new bath, toilet and sink in the bathroom, although we still have to be careful because there's no flooring down and the wall around the bath isn't yet complete. It should all be over by Christmas.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

"Smoke, foam or bubbles?"

Group of people surrounded by bubbles
Today I am feeling a little low. I think it is partly because the weekend was so much fun, but I have returned to the reality of a lot of work to do, and many reasons why it is difficult to get it done, not least that our bathroom is being ripped out and replaced today.

It was a very good weekend trip: we stayed with J & C, visited Mr A's parents who live in the area, and then onwards to other friends for a most interesting assignment. While sorting out dad's stamps and coins a while ago, we looked through some ancient family heirlooms - old jewellery, little trinkets, that sort of thing. Mr A has an old friend who's an antique dealer, so we arranged to take round the shoebox with all this treasure, so he could look over it and see if there was anything of value in the hoard.

Mr F and Mr A looking over the treasureHe had a great time sorting through the little boxes and bags at all sorts of odds and ends. He was so enthusiastic, and got out his lenses and a little weighing device and his acid kit for testing metals. There isn't anything particularly valuable, although he thought one of the watches might be worth a few hundred pounds.

The real reason for the weekend away, however, was Mr B's 60th birthday party. Mr B is one of Mr A's oldest friends; they used to fix up old cars together for racing, and churned up the New Forest in their Landrovers when that was still allowed. Mr B was the one who invited Mr A to join him on a car rally through Africa, and introduced us to a set of great people who have turned out to be lasting friends.

Mr B is an eccentric chap, while his wife is a solid rock of sensibleness. He has a large workshop full of detritus from 60 years of not throwing anything away - cars (many cars), dressers, biscuit tins, rusty tools, chairs, machinery, bookcases, other random furniture - I'm sure I once saw a piano in there.

Last time we saw him was at the wedding party, where he let on that he had just acquired a smoke machine, a foam machine and a bubble machine. The groom told us how at one point Mr B had approached him, and simply asked "Smoke, foam or bubbles?" After trying for some time to produce bubbles, Mr B realised that he had filled the machine with the liquid that produces smoke.

Anyway, Mr and Mrs B and their two daughters must have put an enormous amount of effort into the party - a marquee, tables and chairs, lights, balloons, food and drink. It even had a pirate theme, although this message hadn't percolated through to us at all, so we were in the minority dressed in standard outfits, surrounded by a motley crew of pirates.

Towards the end of the evening, sitting chillin' in the marquee, we asked Mr B why he hadn't set up any of his smoke, foam or bubble machines? A little while later, smoke started to billow in, and within minutes the entire company disappeared into the fog, emerging from the marquee when it became pointless to remain there, in fits of laughter and coughing. The bubble machine was more successful, especially when paired with the smoke machine to produce smoke-filled bubbles.

uploading ipodStop press: the ipod played perfectly fine with headphones and on my little base station, so I replaced the cassette device in the car that it was playing through, and all is well. Hooray!

[I can't get the image onto the blog without it rotating itself, so you'll have to rotate your head instead.]

Sunday, 11 October 2009

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
The Flight of the Falcon
by Daphne du Maurier

"As a young guide for Sunshine Tours, Armino Fabbio leads a pleasant, if humdrum life, until he becomes involved in the murder of an old peasant woman in Rome. The woman, he gradually comes to realise, was his family's beloved servant many years ago, in his native town of Ruffano. He returns to his birthplace, and once there, finds it is haunted by the phantom of his brother, Aldo, shot down in flames in '43."
This is by no means the best work of Daphne du Maurier - her famous works like Rebecca and Frenchman's Creek are a great deal better. But it is still quite a good read, set in Italy in a town apparently recognisable as Urbino, and with an interesting twist revealed towards the end.

Image of the book cover
The Ladies of Grace Adieu
by Susanna Clarke

narrated by Simon Prebble and Davina Porter

"An enchanting collection brimming with all the ingredients of good fairy tales: petulant princesses, vengeful owls, ladies who pass their time by embroidering terrible fates; endless paths in the deep, dark woods; and houses that never appear the same way twice."
This is just as good as the previous one by Susanna Clarke, and in the same style. In a way it's more accessible because of the short story format, but without my long journeys to university, I haven't been listening to audio books, just podcasts. So it took me all summer to read this in little chunks with big gaps, and the stories lost a bit of their coherence because of that. I'd definitely read it again, though.

Image of the book cover
The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy

narrated by Carole Boyd

"Set in Kerala, India, during the late 1960s when Communism rattled the age-old caste system, the story begins with the funeral of young Sophie Mol, the cousin of the novel's protagonists, Rahel and her fraternal twin brother, Estha. Beneath the drama of a family tragedy lies a background of local politics, social taboos and the tide of history, all of which come together in a slip of fate, after which a family is irreparably shattered."
An atmospheric, poetically written book, which skips about in time but never left me confused as to what period we were in. I first listened to this book a long time ago, but never forgot the impression it left - musky and evocative of India.

Friday, 9 October 2009

The ipod story continues

Well, readers, last thing on Wednesday I hopped over to the big electronics store with my stack of vouchers and made my purchase. A lovely, new, shiny, black ipod. I even took photos, on the basis that I would need to illustrate my delighted blogging.

The chosen photo refused to upload to the blog properly - each time I tried, it rotated itself by 90 degrees. I gave up.

Never mind, your loss is incidental, I have a new ipod! I even gave the one I was using back to Mr A. My new ipod sparkled next to the computer as it uploaded more than 3000 songs and podcasts and books and photos (and my calendar).

On Thursday I hitched it up to the car radio and off we went. But I couldn't get the levels right - too loud and the sound was distorted, too quiet and there was a load of hissing. This morning, as I plugged the ipod into the car radio, I noticed that it started playing white noise. There is something wrong with it.

This morning I have lectures, this afternoon I am collecting a bathroom radiator, valves (and lightbulbs) and then Mr A and I are away for a weekend of celebrating a friend's 60th birthday. The ipod saga is not over yet.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Home news

Red and green tomatoes growing in the garden
On the home front, Mr A and I continue to inhabit Lola Towers with enthusiasm.

I managed to sustain three tomato plants over the summer, which continue to provide the odd tomato, although I think it's probably time to bring the remaining green ones inside to ripen on the windowsill.

Next door, Smurf and the pub are flourishing. We don't visit that often nowadays, certainly no more than once a week, but we feel very lucky to have such a good neighbour. When a friend came over for a day's shopping in Leamington, Smurf offered to keep an eye out for the traffic wardens, and move her car if necessary.

We couldn't supply her with a visitor's parking permit because Mr A has bought himself a vehicle and has not yet bought a resident's permit. He has made some big life changes, and is now occupied primarily in studying for an Open University degree in Computing - the first two modules have arrived and are spread over his office.

He is also delivering IT training courses, and so needed some independent transport because I have exclusive use of the car during term times. Unwilling to abandon his biking ambitions, he went for a van just large enough to transport his bike to events, even though he is not likely to be able to afford to ride at many events in the near future. We will be using it to transport wood and camping gear to our next planned camping trip in November, where participants have been promised a fire.

My sporting ambitions continue with the badminton club - we moved to our brand spanking new venue a few weeks ago, and have already lost our first league match. It's a lovely hall, though, and a few new people have joined, so perhaps one day we could end up winning our matches. Last season, we lost all but one match, and would have been demoted if we hadn't already been in the bottom division of the league.

The most significant improvement to Lola Towers is taking place over the next month or two - we are renovating the bathroom. About a year ago, Mr A applied great gobs of sealant around the plughole to stem the flow of water through the ceiling below. Then a few months ago, the bath itself cracked, and is currently being held together by gaffer tape. We have engaged a plumbing team to assist us, we have bought a bath, a basin, WC, taps, and I shall be collecting a radiator on Friday. Then the decorating team enter the fray, renewing the walls, ceiling and floor.

The latest ipod news is that my vouchers have taken an eternity to arrive thanks to industrial action at the post office. As soon as I can justify a break from thinking about barriers to health promotion in UK ethnic populations, or Mrs Elsie Sparrow the undernourished old lady, I'll head off to choose myself a lovely shiny noise-making gift.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Starting Year 3

Roast pork with knife stuck in it
I imagine some of you may be interested in how the new term in Dietetics is shaping up. It's year 3 out of 4; this year at last we are putting all the theory we have sweated over in the first two years into a practical context.

In two years we have been taught about the chemical properties of nutritional molecules like proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and so on; metabolic systems in the body like how fats are transported in lipoprotein particles of different densities; biochemical pathways like digestion and the disposal of lipids and glucose in cells, and about most of the main organ systems in the body. And much more. Looking back, I have learned an enormous amount, but I also realise how little that is in the pool of knowledge about human health and disease.

The modules this semester are Health Promotion, Nutrition and the Health of Populations, Diet Therapy and Molecular Nutrition. Diet Therapy stands out as the highlight so far - it takes place every Monday until mid-December, and we cover the dietetic principles surrounding real medical conditions. It's where we get started on turning into dietitians who meet and treat people who are ill. Our next clinical placements aren't until next summer, but we're clearly being prepared to go out into the real world.

Health Promotion seems a bit like a continuation of the work we did on Communication Skills, but rather than one-to-one in a consultation or one-to-many in a presentation, it's about putting nutritional health messages out into the wider community, and sets the scene for Public Health Nutrition. The Health of Populations module actually covers nutrition through the life cycle from conception to senescence, and is managed by my favourite tutor, who also wrote the textbook. Molecular Nutrition is about the effects of nutrients at the cellular level - an obvious example would be how glucose triggers the secretion of insulin.

The class is still complete - there have been no dropouts over the summer. We seem to have found our places within the class; there are quiet students and outspoken ones, some that I find sympathetic and likeable, some obnoxious, and some I really don't know at all, even after two years. The workload is certainly going to be heavy this year, and coursework has already been set for delivery by early November and onwards. After a pretty lazy summer, I wasn't really looking forward to all the work, but as usual, it's been really interesting so far.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

School's 90th birthday

Three Old Girls in front of the school
The secondary school I attended from 1975 to 1982 is housed in:
"a building of great character, the former manor of Highams built in 1768, and has extensive and beautiful grounds designed by Humphrey Repton. The school opened in 1919." [From the school website.]
Of course, I appreciated none of this when I was there, but I returned last weekend to celebrate its 90th birthday, at an event run by the Old Girls Association (for it was, and still is, a school for girls only).

View of the school from the back terraceThe main reason I attended the event was that, as an 18th century building, the school had a good deal of character, and I wanted to explore the nooks and crannies: the 'twisty passage' between the dining room and the main corridor to the Hall, the hidden spiral staircases and corridors of classrooms. I was no longer able to join together the fragments of memories of classrooms and corridors and staircases into a coherent whole. The fact that a lot of other Old Girls would be getting in my way was inconvenient, but manageable.

It was hugely satisfying to explore, especially the places we weren't allowed to go when we attended the school - entering by the big front door was forbidden to all but members of staff. As I wandered, I found corridors and rooms existed that I had completely forgotten. For seven years the geography of the school had been imprinted on my brain, seemingly unforgettable, and now I couldn't even remember where the art room had been.

Spiral staircase up to the turretI found my way to the upper sixth form 'flat', right at the top of the building, accessed via a narrow spiral staircase. I imagine that this is where the servants quarters were, in the original manor house. Within this flat is a 'turret' with windows all round, and in my time this area was the preserve of the prefects and Head Girl. Back then, the door onto the roof wasn't locked, although I'm sure we weren't supposed to go out. The views all around were spectacular.

Wooden board with inscribed gold names of State Registered NursesI visited many of the classrooms, strolled down the corridors, climbed up and down staircases with wonderful wrought iron detailing, peered through windows into familiar labs. The 'Honours Boards' showed Old Girls' achievements in the 1950s, including those who had become State Registered Nurses, of whom the most notorious is poor Ina Buckett. We all felt for her - what were her parents thinking when they named her?

Going into the library, I was taken aback by the memory of that exact smell, when I used to retreat there to do a bit of quiet reading. In the geography room, the time when Mr Nivison sang the national anthem of the Isle of Man came to mind. I peered into the physics lab and remembered the rheostats: large cylinders wrapped in wire with a big old slider. I glanced into the biology prep room, where my mum used to work in the last two years of my school career.

French door with stained glass panel of the Essex coat of armsThe medical room was where we lined up for our BCG vaccination, next to the rack where hockey sticks were kept. The Hall, with the same light fittings, same huge steps up to the stage - not bad for more than thirty years' service, although of course we girls weren't allowed on the stage in normal circumstances. It seems the details of where we were and weren't allowed to be are almost more vivid than what I did in the various rooms.

Meanwhile, the formal timetable for the School Birthday continued, and the scarily familiar sound of the school bell called us to assemble in the Hall. The vice-chairman of the OGA proceeded to conduct the AGM in a wonderful, half-serious, half-teasing manner, encouraging us in our rendering of the school songs, which were belted out in the most enthusiastic manner imaginable. This was followed by tea and chat, when I finally got round to talking to those of my peers who were also there.

I have written previously about our class reunions, but for me this event was more about nostalgia for the school building itself. I hardly visited the grounds, which are also amazing, and the newly built (in the 1970's) lower sixth form block, which stands apart from the main building. I didn't go to the brand new sports hall, and missed seeing what is now in the building that used to be the swimming pool. But no matter, I achieved my main aim, and renewed my acquaintance with a quirky but much loved old building, in much the same state of external decrepitude as it was in my day. Some things don't change.

View of trees and distant buildings on the horizon