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Louise - Second Year Astrophysics, 2013

I’m just starting my 2nd year in St Andrews and back to be being perpetually busy, both academically and with societies!

At the Star Ball

I chose 1st year entry as I was keen to see what else the University had to offer aside from the academia, and thought the gentler introduction would stand me in good stead for signing up to EVERYTHING! I also got the chance to take a module in Mediaeval History in my first semester here, something that I had not previously studied, and while it was a fulfilling new challenge, it made me very happy that I’d chosen to study Physics/Astrophysics. The Physics department seems uniquely marvellous within the University, as it is small enough that you become part of a close-knit community, and the nature of the subject, more contact hours, labs etc. means that you get to know pretty much everyone in your year- the Physics concourse/café area provides, especially in 1st year, a chance to sit with your course mates between lectures, make friends and even do some work once in a while!

As my degree intention is currently Astrophysics, I found that the 1st year Astronomy & Astrophysics course was a great introduction to the subject, going right from the basics to some more complicated/interesting stuff in the space of one semester, as it was not something I had ever covered in depth at school. 1st year Physics, although it covered a lot of familiar topics from A-level, went further than in previous courses so that we gained a greater understanding of the underlying concepts and allowed us to develop our problem-solving skills. As well, it introduced us to the University system and the department’s way of doing things- tutorials, workshops, labs etc. so that now going into 2nd year I feel completely comfortable with the system, know what I’m doing and what is expected and I look forward to the greater challenges that Honours Physics has to offer next year, having had the very firm grounding in 1st & 2nd year.

The Astrosoc group who went to Tromsø, Norway in January 2013
and got a chance to see the Northern Lights

The student-run academic societies related to Physics, namely QuantumSoc and AstroSoc, are highly active, running all things from academic talks & observing sessions to pub crawls/quizzes, BBQs and Wine & Cheese events and even a Northern Lights trip to Norway/Iceland! I was enthusiastic enough in my first few weeks in St Andrews to land myself the position of 1st year rep on both committees and in the 2nd semester the organising committee for the Star Ball (Physics/Maths societies annual ball) which involved me having a ridiculous number of glow sticks delivered to my hall of residence! As a result of all of this I was elected Secretary for AstroSoc and 2nd year rep for QuantumSoc for the 2013-14 academic year. I found this a great way to get to know students in upper years and I’ve made many good friends and found my academic parents this way. I now can’t walk through the Physics dept. without stopping for a chat with someone! Such society involvement has also made me aware of more opportunities within Physics on a national and international level- I discovered and attended ICPS (International Conference of Physics Students) held at Heriot Watt in 2013 and which is set for Heidelberg in Germany for 2014, and have also found myself on the organising committee for CAPS (Conference of Astronomy & Physics Students)- the UK equivalent being held in 2014 in St Andrews. Such student-led conferences give Physics students from around the UK/Europe/world the opportunity to get together to network, socialise, discuss Physics and of course have a good party!

Another way in which I came involved with the Physics department was through being a class rep and sitting on the SSC (Student Staff Council), as the new kid I found myself agreeing to be secretary, being handed a pen and paper and furiously having to jot down what everyone was saying whilst trying to learn all the names during the first meeting! This gave me great insight as to what goes on within the department outwith teaching, what is yet to come in the next few years of my undergraduate degree, and just how much difference the student voice can make- the department really do care about our learning and I saw many changes occur in response to feedback from class reps. Last year the SSC also organised a Burns Supper and Ceilidh for staff & students which was a great success and a great opportunity to socialise out of the teaching setting.

Alas, my life is not all Physics, though it takes up a fair amount of my time one way or another! I’m also involved with the University’s Celtic Society, and after a brief stint as a Publicity Rep, I am now their Treasurer (I know, I need to stop signing up for things!) and take part in their Beginners’ and Intermediates Scottish Country Dance classes weekly. This is not something I was involved in before coming to St Andrews and when people ask I say that I just sort of “fell into it” as after our hall Ceilidh I found the society at the Freshers’ Fayre, went along to some classes with some friends, happened upon their EGM when they had lots of empty positions and a year later the committee meetings are held in my living room!

There are just so many opportunities that everyone is bound to find something, or multiple things to get involved with, with many being unexpected before you come across them. For example, during the summer I spent 4 weeks teaching English in Romania in a Summer School through the ScRoLL society (Scotland Romanian Language Link) in St Andrews, something I never would have imagined myself doing until I stumbled across the society stall at the Freshers’ Fayre- and guess what- I’m helping out the committee this year!

ScRoLL students from St Andrews, Edinburgh & Aberdeen Universities
volunteering in Baia Mare, Romania, July 2013

St Andrews really is a unique place; there aren’t many University towns/cities where the fact that your flat isn’t allowed double glazing as the whole street, which comprises 1/3 of the centre of town anyway, is protected by conservation laws, you become a tourist attraction in your bright red gown, pour buckets of water over final year students, avoid certain cobbled letters on the street, get adopted, covered in a foam and run into the sea are things considered to part of the “normal” student experience. Choosing to study here, and in the Physics department, has been one the best decisions I have ever made, and it’s probably a good thing that my degree is 5 years long as 1st year passed so quickly and there is still so much more out there to do!

First posted BDS 26.9.13