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6 December 2023

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St Hugh’s MCR celebrate students’ cutting-edge research

As her tenure as MCR Academic Representative comes to an end, Caroline Taylor (third year DPhil, English) reflects on the past year’s MCR activities and their contribution to St Hugh’s academic community:

When Shakespeare described study as a “barren practice” (Love’s Labour’s Lost), he unwittingly hit upon a perennial problem for graduate students: academic loneliness. The independence of graduate study has many advantages. Its main disadvantage is that it is often solitary. This is where the St Hugh’s MCR comes in!

In a bid to combat the sense of isolation many graduate students face, the MCR organises a programme of events which aim to foster intellectual curiosity across disciplines, and a strong sense of academic community within college. Events range from opportunities for graduates to present on their research to non-expert audiences, to workshops on how to navigate the thornier aspects of graduate study.

Our first event of term was our regular “Spotlight on Graduate Research” evening on 26 October. The informal, conference style affair provides the opportunity for two members of the MCR to present on an element of their research for around 15-20 minutes, followed by a Q&A. The papers can be very specific, e.g. The reproduction rate of algae in a half-square-mile of the Amazon rainforest; or incredibly broad, e.g. An introduction to the Elizabethans. The aim of the event is for graduate students from across all disciplines to learn more about each other’s research, and to gain experience in conference etiquette (both as speakers and audience members) in a friendly, home court environment.

On this occasion, we had two fascinating papers from opposite poles of the Humanities-STEM spectrum. Bethan Wallace (second year DPhil, Biology) gave a paper summarising her research on the history of wildlife of Yellowstone. Her project – mapping the animal population prior to the first scientific records – seeks to rediscover the state of the park’s ecosystem before the extinction of wolves (its top predator) in the early 1900s, and their reintroduction in 1996. The inclusion of ethically sourced animal skins made for an unusually tactile presentation!

In a paper especially befitting St Hugh’s, Jacqueline Smith (first year DPhil, English) spoke on the duality of good and evil in Tchaikovsky and Petipa’s enduring classic, Swan Lake. In comparing the most famous full-length ballet to other nineteenth-century plays focused on doubles (notably Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), Jacqueline explored how both speak to a Victorian fascination with psychology. Jacqueline deserves a special mention for delivering such an insightful paper less than a month into her research project!

Both papers were thoughtful, considered and riveting. The Q&A allowed fellow attendees to inquire about more specific elements of Bethan and Jacqueline’s research, and gave the speakers plenty to think about.

By popular demand, our final event of the term was a DPhil Application Roundtable. Many masters students have mentioned feeling overwhelmed by the complicated and mysterious application process for further graduate study. The Roundtable aimed to dispel some myths, clear up some confusion, and generally reassure potential applicants.

A panel of seven DPhil candidates (STEM – Joseph Davies, Athira Menon, Jyoti Sehjal; Humanities – Kathrin Nichel, Juan Mendez Alvarez, Rebecca Boyd) spoke about their experiences and were on hand to tackle any anxieties about the process. We had only one rule: there is no such thing as a stupid question!

Questions ranged from the pragmatic: ‘How often is too often to email a potential supervisor?’; to the existential: ‘What is the greatest challenge you have faced in your DPhil so far?’. I hope that potential applicants came away with a clearer picture of what to expect from the process.

Michaelmas also saw the end of my term-in-office as MCR Academic Rep. I have thoroughly enjoyed celebrating our students’ cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research. It has been my privilege to continue fostering the supportive academic community that Hugh’s graduate students know and love. I look forward to attending the events organised by my successor, Montse Vallet, and seeing the academic community at St Hugh’s continue to thrive.

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