Colima, Mexico 2017

I celebrated New Years with my grandparents in Colima, Mexico, enjoying an entire week in this tropical paradise. This post describes a day in Colima, a day trip to Tapalpaan afternoon in the magical town of Comala, and shows the Colima’s residents unique relationship with el El Volcán de Colimaformed from two majestic peaks.

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This is the location of Colima in Mexico

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Location of Colima City, Tapalpa, Comala, and the Volcano!

A Day in Colima

I wake up to the screechy squawking of the chachalaca bird, then go downstairs for breakfast, el desayuno, with my grandparents. I feast on fresh fruit, toast with chia seed jam, and a cup of cold milk or orange juice. Once in a while we have tamales, an absolute treat. Knowing lunch takes place at two or three in the afternoon, I stuff myself with as much food as possible, then change into my bathing suit. After coating myself with an absurd amount of insect repellent (to avoid being infected with diseases like Zika and Dengue) I head over next door to my aunt’s house to meet up with my little cousins. We read books, play cards and hop in the pool once our breakfast has been thoroughly digested. I watch the kids splash around in the icy winter water while I absorb every ounce of Vitamin D as humanly possible. Sometimes I jump in with them, but it seems like children under the age of 10 have an incredible tolerance for cold temperatures in exchange for the fun of a swimming pool. While the water was freezing, the air temperature hovered around 32 degrees celsius.

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Post-pool everyone gets ready for lunch, el almuerzo. It can be quite the event when both houses, my aunt’s and my grandparents, join together for the meal. Lunch is the biggest and most important meal of the day in Mexico, and in my family the menu could include cold avocado soup, octopus and shrimp mixed with romeritos (ancient native greens), leftover paella, steak, nopales, and chicken with green or red mole. After lunch is la siesta, nap time. After filling ourselves with delicious food, the warm weather and a comfy armchair are the perfect recipe for a nice long snooze.

In Mexico we typically have a merienda, or a light snack, instead of dinner. Sometimes we buy pan dulce from la panaderia, the bakery. This sweet bread comes in many shapes and sizes, such as conchas, garibaldis, and orejas. If we’re extra hungry we sometimes whip up quesadillas stuffed with cuitlacoche (corn mushroom).

The Climb to Tapalpa 

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Tapalpa is a “magical town,” recognised by Mexico’s government as historically and culturally significant, a title attracting tourists and bringing pride to residents. The road crosses over deep valleys as it climbs up the mountainside. The view from the bridges with the volcano in the background makes the car ride equally as impressive as the town itself.

Tapalpa is a colonial-era mountain town in the state of Jalisco, with small cobbled roads on steep hills. Residents of the large neighbouring city Guadalajara retreat to Tapalpa for the weekend, relaxing in their “ranches” just outside this little town.img_6894

After several hours of driving we arrive at my uncle’s house around mid-day and immediately begin cooking the giant paella. The small children run around the garden while the adults drink some agua de jamaica, or hibiscus juice, and enjoy each other’s company. The paella served about 20 people, followed by cake and coffee. The property includes a few farm animals, such as ducks, roosters, chickens, and rabbits. We were very lucky to have nice weather that day, normally it is quite chilly due to the high altitude. We set off just before sunset, to avoid the danger of driving at night in Mexico’s open desert.

Ice-Cream in Comala!

Comala is another one of Mexico’s magical towns, known for inspiring the important literary work Pedro Paramo. A 20 minute drive from Colima, Comala’s beautiful town square stars this magnificent church.

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My family decided to take a quick trip into Comala, treating ourselves to local ice-cream in a cafe near the town’s square. We walked around los portales, tasting the food and buying some story books.

Los portales is a type of market-place along the front of the buildings lining the town square. Comala’s portales are decorated with colourful piñatas and sell a range of goods, from food and alcoholic beverages to books and clothing.

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El Volcán de Colima: It’s Complicated

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El Volcán de Colima is studied worldwide as one of the most active volcanoes on earth. It is an excellent case study of lava, ash, and impact on humans, a gem for the scientific community. The most active volcano, el Volcán de Fuego, lives in the state of Colima and is known for its spectacular lava flows and ash clouds. The larger, snowy counterpart peak stands in the state of Jalisco, aptly named el Nevado de Colima.

For the residents of Colima, the volcano holds a deeper meaning, in a natural and spiritual sense. The volcanoes place the little state of Colima on the map, and locals have expressed their love/hate relationship for this monumental geographic formation through art forms such as visual art, books, and poetry. Folklore and fables originating from Colima are filled with stories about the volcanoes. People go on hikes and even paraglide near them (ash conditions and weather permitting). The volcanoes are featured as a Snapchat geotag, portrayed as cute little cartoons in the photo below, on the right. The city’s newest and most luxurious neighbourhood is actually located quite close to the volcano, in the countryside, far away from the bustle of the city. The community includes a country club, attracting tourists to play golf while enjoying the scenic backdrop of a volcano. My family sometimes goes to the club’s cafe, hoping to witness the spectacular plumes and some lava flows as we sip our afternoon coffee and tea.

However, the downsides of living 31.7 kilometres from a volcano are pretty obvious. While there is no eminent danger of lava reaching the city, ash frequently floats down into residential areas, coating the streets and cars in a thin gritty layer. It must be wiped away carefully so not to scratch car windows. The ash also has negative health impacts, such as inflicting lung problems and a slight burning sensation of the eyes. As Europe experienced in 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland, air travel is severely affected by nearby active volcanoes. The screenshot on the left below is a news article from the day before my flight was due to depart from Colima. A 1.5 kilometre ash plume had just been emitted, shutting down the airport for an entire day. My cousin was not so lucky, because her flight (set to leave the morning after this ash cloud emission) was cancelled due to high levels of ash.

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Operation Graduation: Undergraduate Dissertation

What is Diss?

Dissertation season is in full swing as the April 6th deadline races relentlessly towards us. For both Human and Physical Geographers, the laborious process kicked off in February 2016, with the submission of our dissertation proposals for Research Design. This six week course allowed us to explore methodologies and literature pertaining to our chosen topic while developing a strategic plan of attack, I mean outline and timeline for our dissertation. That was one year ago. Plenty has transpired over the course of 12 months: topic changes, presentations, surveys, sporadic tears, interviews, and fleeting feelings of accomplishment. I now invite you to hop on the “diss” bus and ride the bumpy road to a 12,000 word undergraduate honours dissertation.

***DISCLOSURE*** This is from the standpoint of a human geography dissertation. Also I have not yet reached the (so close yet so far far away) finish line, so as an expert level 3000 procrastinator this is my own unique experience.

My topic

I am researching Intentions and Receptions of Public Art in the Washington D.C Metro (a working title). I began by a literature review consisting of public art in public transit systems throughout the United States as well as Europe. I looked at both geography and art journals, news articles, and transportation magazines and reports. As a commuter of the D.C Metro (I’m from the state of Maryland) I noticed the often bare and grey walls of the underground transit system. While the massive vaulted ceilings of the underground stations are artistically designed, the general aesthetic of the metro, while classical, is from a different time (1970s) and commuter demographics/purpose has dramatically diversified since then. My research consists of looking to why certain public art installations are chosen for certain stations, and how the commuters and surrounding communities respond and interact with the pieces.

Summer research

Flash forward to summer 2016. The typical diss plan involves getting it all done in the summer. I do in fact know of a few students who successfully met this challenge, entering their final year of Geography with diss all done, however I was not one of them. As always, life gets in the way. Because I was considering a career change into education, I worked full time in a nursery-preschool back home during the summer. It was the best experience of my life and made me confident about my decision to pursue primary education teaching after completing my undergraduate degree. Meanwhile I was slowly but surely getting on with my research by doing readings and contacting most of the people I would need to be interviewing. This proved to be a time-consuming process. Contacting 30+ individuals through their email addresses, phone numbers, and speaking with them was not always as simple as a quick google search, contrary to my expectation.

Semester 1 (Autumn 2016)

Throughout the semester I met with my diss supervisor who guided me as to what kind of questions I should be asking and the best methods for my research. The next requirement for diss was the Dissertation Conference, which took place on October 12, 2016. Everyone presented their projects in a powerpoint to a group of about 20 peers and 2-3 professors. This was good public speaking practice and provided much needed feedback.

It is now winter break 2016-2017. 

*Record scratch. Freeze-frame* You’re probably wondering how I got myself into this situation. I, Andrea, have been a procrastinator for 21 years. Let this be a warning to anyone starting to work on their proposals: diss is like a bandaid, might as well rip it off in one fell swoop, sooner rather than later, before it starts to attract bits of dust from your jumper and get a gross little fuzzy edge. Slowly peeling off the plaster and feeling the pain of each hair and skin cell being plucked off your arm is highly unpleasant and always a regret.

Semester 2 (Spring 2017)

Anyways, in January I had an intense couple of weeks doing research, conducting several interviews and surveys in the nation’s capitol. I interviewed both artists, community members involved in art projects, and the head of Art in Transit at Metro. The surveys involved me standing outside of a busy Metro station exit holding a sign that said “15 SECOND SURVEY.” My survey was literally 15 seconds long, a fact verified by a few comedian commuters who decided to time it. I did this several times until reaching my desired amount of survey answers, as well as creating, posting and sharing an online survey. In the following weeks I will be wrapping up my research with some phone and Skype interviews alongside writing the core chapters of my diss: introduction, literature review, methodology, analysis, and conclusion. Of course, these chapters will be broken up into various sections, and I may add more chapters if necessary. The appendix will hold all of my raw data such as scans of the surveys and bits of interview transcripts. My personal deadline is Saint Patrick’s day, on March 17th, giving my supervisor a couple of weeks to comment on my final diss draft. Here’s to finishing university, and good luck to my fellow fourth year geographers!

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The penultimate semester

Each semester goes quicker than the last as an undergrad. It’s probably the same for anything other multi-year commitment you make.

As a final year student I’ve been busy taking the last courses I’ll do as an undergraduate student, and there’s been lots to do.
We started the year off with our field trip to Oban (west coast of Scotland). There we had a lecture or two a day about what we’d be getting up to and the kind of knowledge we’d need to understand all the cool stuff we were going to see and do. We saw the most productive community owned wind farm in Scotland and went to the beach to learn about shoreline ecology. We planted some tree seedlings and met with park rangers to talk about forest diversity. We picked a field project topic, planned it, and gathered all our data in the last 2 days. But still had time to go to the pub once or twice.

Back in Edinburgh we had to analyse our data with our group, make a poster presentation that explains it all and display it to the rest of our class at a poster conference (tea and biscuits included). There were still two hand-ins for this field course however; the project report, and an essay from a choice of two topics.

Everyone also took a course called Critical Thinking. This consisted of a weekly journal club for the first 4 weeks or so, where we’d all meet having read the same papers over the week and then discuss them as a small group of around 5. Once we’d got the hang of that we had to organise and lead our own paper discussion. This meant picking papers for people to read (that were related) and leading the discussion once we were all together round the table. There were questions to come up with and conclusions to make. Finding a time where everyone is available sometimes seemed like the hardest part with our other hand-ins to think about, but once we’d lead our session there was a synthesis report on that same topic as our last piece. But that wasn’t due until the second semester.

Professional skills in Ecology and Environmental science. This course aimed to prepare us for the real world of science. We learnt how to effectively communicate science, how to give informative and interesting presentations (by understanding your target audience, be they children, students, non-scientists, journalists or what have you), and we also had several weeks of statistics lectures and a stats assessment using the program ‘R’ (R is great when you know how to use it).
This was the last course I’d take that actually had an exam at the end too.

I took an optional course called Conservation Science with my remaining 20 credits of that semester. All the ecology students (Geoscience and bioscience) were given priority over the other bioscience students because of it’s popularity. Although it was running for only the second year, the hype was justified.
There were weekly paper discussions like in Critical Thinking, but these were interspersed with lectures and group problem solving activities related to each week’s main topic. We chose a ‘hot topic’ in conservation each and created a poster presentation to communicate our analysis. (There’s also a blog page for that course: https://conservationscienceblog.wordpress.com/)
That weekend many of us went off to the Cairngorms national park to talk to different land owners and park rangers. There they talked to us about how they manage their land, what for, and why the methods they are using are right for what their goals are. It was incredibly Autumnal, as well as being a fun weekend seeing parts of Scotland which really do differ from the rest of the UK.

On top of that there is also a dissertation to be thinking about. After choosing (from a suggestions booklet or from your own imagination) a topic and getting a supervisor assigned to yourself and your project, you can get on with planning and doing your experiments or data gathering whenever you like. Some people are really on the ball and do a summer dissertation. You could conduct an experiment in the lab or in the field, or it could be entirely research and analysis based. Either way you will have the second half of your second semester free of classes so you can focus on writing it.

In amongst all this I had time to compete at the Scottish student sport (SSS) team cup for Karate. Edinburgh has two karate clubs; I train with Shukokai, and there is also a Shotokan club. Everyone that day that competed in kumite (point sparring) won a gold medal! I hope we have as much success at BUCS this year, the biggest competition involving many of the UK’s universities.

After the term had suddenly finished I met up with a friend from an internship I’d done more than a year before, and stayed in a bothy in the Cairngorms for a night to take some pictures. It was strangely warm for December (~7 degrees C) and it really showed in the number of grouse that were flying around. We also saw two eagles, one was definitely a golden eagle and the other could have been a white tailed eagle… I’m not too sure.

In my final semester I’ll be working on my dissertation alongside two courses that only run up until the end of February: Current Issues in Ecology, and Conservation and Management of Natural Populations.
The preparation for the BUCS karate competition is also underway. My last chance must be my best one!

 

-Chris

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My University Courses Part 2: Evolution of the Living Earth

Evolution of the Living Earth

This course is more Environmental Science than Geology. It is a good counterpart to Earth Dynamics as it explains how life and geology interact to create Earth as we know it today. The course contained lectures given by Dr. Steve Brusatte, Dr. Alex Thomas and Dr. Bryne Ngwenya. Each week we had a 3 hour lab. The course was broken down into 4 sections:

  • Origin and Evolution of Life (Quick crash course in Paleontology)
  • Global Climatic and Environmental Change (How does our Planet stay warm?)
  • Environmental Geochemistry (Chemistry that we needed to know)
  • Global Biochemical Sites (The 4 important chemical cycles on Earth [C, N, P & S])

I found all 4 sections very informative. They enhanced my view of the planet, showing the beautiful complexities of this restless being. The material selected was top notch.

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Equipment from the lab work

The 4 sections in more detail bellow:

Origin and Evolution of Life:

This section of the course told the history of life. Steve gave us the timeline of life from the earliest microbes to modern mammals.He explained the basic principles of Evolution. He gave us a good idea how geology influenced the formation of life but in turn how life influenced the proceedings of geology. It was neat to his work in the field ranging from Scotland to China. The labs were as good as the lectures. In the lab we handled and sketched fossils. We studied and drew up evolutionary trees.

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Candy was used as a visual tool to help us create an evolutionary tree

Global Climatic and Environmental Change:

In this section we touched on Earth’s Climate and its relation to global temperatures/ We learnt about key concepts like the Albedo effect, the effects of Earth’s orbit on the climate and the different techniques that are used to study past climates.

Outside the lectures Alex recorded extra videos that explained key components from the lectures. For this section we had to read scientific papers for the practical. We had to explain their contents only using 250 words. It was a good introduction to their structure and language.

Environmental Geochemistry:

This was the chemistry part of the course. It was a nice summary of the subject of chemistry, teaching the basics but dipping into advanced parts here and there. We started out with the atomic structure and finished with the laws governing chemical reactions. Out of the course the practicals for chemistry were the most complicated but in only 4 lab sessions we manged to cover vast fields like hydrology, environmental pollution, environmental chemical analysis and such. We had the chance to work in the labs of the Zoology building with a wide variety of equipment. We got plastic gloves, goggles  and white lab coats giving the feel of being real scientist, working on real research. After each lab we created mini scientific reports, further pushing our skills.

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Section of the lab work

Global Biochemical Cycles:

The last section of the course had a look at the 4 important chemical cycles around the globe. The 4 chemical cycles were the Carbon Cycle, the Nitrogen Cycle, the Sulfur Cycle and the Phosphorus Cycle. Each cycle was explained to us in detail including how they interacted with each other, how they affected biological life around the globe and how they influenced the global temperatures. The Gaia theory was introduced explaining how Earth might be a self regulating body. Organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings keeping the chemical balance on Earth in check, keeping global temperatures relatively stable.

This course was was very educational especially when it came to the subjects of chemistry and the global climate.

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My Travels Around Scotland: Arbroath

Last year I wrote a blog post for the RSGS about Arbroath. I consider it a neat little thing, so I hope you don’t mind if I share it with you:

https://rsgs.org/favourite-place-scotland-arbroath/

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Scottish Parliament Cross-Party Groups

One of the great things about studying in the School of GeoSciences post-graduate programmes at the University of Edinburgh is the university’s very close proximity to policy-makers whose own work is often informed by our programmes’ research and teaching. The Scottish Parliament operates a wide variety of Cross-Party Groups, which are forums for its elected members to interact with leaders of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the general public on matters of public interest. Several of the groups are dedicated to topical areas of concern to us in GeoSciences; these include food, renewable energy, animal welfare, crofting, oil and gas, among many others.

Meetings usually feature presentations from experts in government, academics, and industry, followed by opportunities for all present to pose questions and offer comments to the presenters. Members of the Scottish Parliament, for their part, use the information presented during the Cross-Party Group meetings to inform the policy decisions they take at Holyrood. Coffee, tea, and light refreshments are available for all participants.

One of the best parts of these Cross-Party Group meetings is that anyone is welcome to attend and even to join their memberships, regardless as to citizenship. These groups represent excellent opportunities for post-graduate students seeking opportunities to meet future employers, to gain contacts for research and activism, to influence public policy in a meaningful way, or simply to deepen their own knowledge in areas of their own concern.

For further information on the Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Groups as well as contact information for the group convenors and secretaries, point your browser to http://www.parliament.scot/msps/cross-party-groups.aspx.

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Exams are over (and I’m still alive!)

Hello and happy New Year!

I hope you’ve all enjoyed your winter holidays and are ready for uni to start again!img_1559

At the moment I’m still in Germany, enjoying the first snow. It was so nice being here for Christmas, having some real German Lebkuchen and Glühwein. For New Year’s Eve, I went to Kiel, which is a city right at the Baltic Sea. I lived there for a while before I came to Edinburgh. Most of my friends are still there, so of course it was great to be back! We had great fun making cocktails and cooking amounts of fingerfood that will probably last until the end of February! Still, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to stay in Edinburgh to experience Hogmanay next year!

Afterwards, I visited another friend in Hamburg and then went on to the North Sea to spend some (very cold) days with my family. After two days of fog, rain and litres of East Frisian tea (first put a big chunk of sugar into your cup, listen to the nice sound it makes to pour in the tea, add some milk using a small spoon and by all means, DON’T STIR!), we were really happy to have at least one day which really was as nice and sunny as it looks on these pictures:

I feel very lucky compared to my friends at home, as I’ve already written my exams before Christmas and they are just starting revision now. Exams seem soo long ago already, and luckily, there’s more to university than those endless hours of sitting in my room trying to remember the life cycles of plants and feeling guilty the odd time I left the house with other plans than going to the library. I promise!

Actually I’m really looking forward to the new semester (Although the Spanish book I have to read for my course looks quite daunting). It will be nice to come back to Edinburgh not being new: I won’t stumble from one freshers event to the next, desperately trying to meet people or get that free toaster, and I won’t get lost around King’s buildings anymore (or so I hope). I’m looking forward to seeing my friends again, to meeting my three new flatmates, and to my new courses!

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New Year, New You?

2017

Okay. So it’s January. 2017. A hideously scary thought isn’t it? As we contemplate just how we have managed to survive 2016, chances are you’ve either thought about, or you have produced a list of New Year’s resolutions as the majority of us do entering the new year with the hope of transforming our sluggish post-Christmas selves. Personally, experience has shown me that let’s be honest, keeping these resolutions is not all that easy, and quite frankly by February it’s likely that I’ve waved them goodbye already. But NO, not this year. This year I’m determined to make realistic, achievable goals that I WILL (try my best to) stick to. And you will to. So here I offer you my best tips on how you can be successful on your quest, we’re all in this together folks so let’s give it a whirl.

  1. BE REALISTIC

One of the most important things when creating resolutions you can actually stick to, is making them realistic and being straight with yourself. Don’t kid yourself. You’ll just end up giving up prematurely and thinking you’re a failure. If you’re currently out of breath walking up one flight of stairs, chances are you might not be able to run a marathon by February. Likewise, if you’ve set foot in the library once since starting University, perhaps promising yourself you’ll now be going nine till five, seven days a week may not be a great idea. This brings me on to my next tip…

  1. SET SMALL, ACHIEVABLE GOALS

Rather than ‘run a marathon’ or ‘never eat chocolate ever again’ go for smaller mile stones that can be realistically achievable, perhaps along the lines of ‘run for 2 miles by the end of February’ or ‘cut down chocolate intake to one bar a week by Easter’ or simply ‘make healthier choices’, if improving health and fitness is on your 2017 agenda. Smaller goals that are actually in sight will give you more motivation to persevere and believe in yourself.

  1. REWARDS

Being kind to yourself is important. If you’ve set yourself the goal of eating at 5 portions of fruit and veg a day, and you’ve succeeded for the whole of January, TREAT YOURSELF. Go wild and get yourself an ice-cream sundae or go and get your nails done. Or even just a pat on the back. This will give you greater incentive and drive to continue reaching for those goals.

  1. DON’T BEAT YOURSELF UP

If you slip up or only manage to go to one gym class a week instead of two, don’t revert back to square one and sit in a pit of doom and gloom feeling useless. It’s totally fine, no one is perfect, by any means. Perhaps take a step back, re-assess, maybe break down your bigger goals into smaller parts, and get back on that path to success.

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Hogmanay :)

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Hogmanay was nothing I had ever dreamed of in a new years celebration. In the past, I have watched, from my television, a colourful sphere slowly drop down in Time Square, and I have visited a temple while in Japan, living with a host family. This New Years, however, I had the opportunity to participate in an event as fun, warming, and happy as Hogmanay. I joined the street party with my friends from the United Kingdom, and we went to one of the stages that held a trio of bands play music. There were so many people cheering, laughing, and singing, and it felt absolutely wonderful to be part of such a joyful moment. Thank you Edinburgh for creating another amazing memory, and bringing in the new year with a beautiful display of fire works 🙂

 

 

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Reflections on First Semester

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As the dust settles at the end of the first semester, life admin tasks are taken and sleep has been recovered, I can finally start to reflect on what has been a crazy 14 weeks or so.

You always come to university with the best of intentions, which are made even more ambitious in freshers week, you find yourself signing yourself up to 3 societies and 5 sports clubs, you’re going to run that marathon you always wanted to run, why not? You can fit it around your studies can’t you?

And them boom,

you get lulled into a false sense of security from the first two weeks and then all at once the work hits you and you start on a treadmill, albeit it not the one you expected. It’s a very different marathon you have embarked upon. I always thought that if I worked hard I could contain my working week to a monday -friday 9-5. By week three you do your first late session at the library working until 9. Fast forward 4 weeks and this is just the norm you’re sprinting just to keep up.

Exams roll around, by this point you’re settled in, you have your spot in the library, you’re on nodding terms with the security guards, the library is your life, you are at one with the books.

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A 5 Bengala-pesa note, from a lecture regarding alternative currencies. 
But all of this sounds like a bad thing, yes the work has been intense, the hours has been very long. I study Ecological Economics, and as a consequence I now have a manageable understanding of micro and macro-economics (and what’s wrong with Neoclassical Economics)! That in itself is a massive achievement. Within the first semester I have been able to meet so many like-minded people, who are all pulling in the same direction with ambitions in creating a better, fairer and more sustainable world, my course has formed into a really close knit group of 22 people all of whom I find remarkable. I was able to take breaks and the amount of work you undertake means that the time you do manage to take off feels amazing, that day trip to the highlands is a real treat, your study break can be exploring the summit of an extinct volcano or even visiting the grave of Tom Riddle!

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Day trips away become so much better when you earn them! This is Killin in the Autumn
One of the real bonuses of doing a masters degree at a Scottish University is that you start a month earlier, but it also means you finish before Christmas, no worrying about exams or coursework over the festive season.

Doing a masters degree is a lot of work, more than you may even suspect, but it’s worth it when you get there, at least that’s the view from the end of semester one!

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Merry Christmas from the Ecological Economics students!

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