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  • Writer's pictureMaren Hunsberger

My Last Term in London—Castles, Half Marathon, Travel, and Research!

Updated: Oct 31, 2019

After my friends and I returned from our Europe trip over Easter break, we jumped straight back into school. It was nice to be able to dive immediately back in, as it helped me be less homesick after coming back from a long stretch at home! London is truly in full bloom now, and the days are very warm and improbably long. It often gets to 9:30 or 10 pm before it's fully dark, which is absolutely lovely but occasionally very disorienting, and not at all conducive to early bedtimes—which, to be honest, is quite fine since I have so much to do!

The warm weather and elongated days make for beautiful exploring conditions, and I'm still enjoying taking new routes to familiar places, continually stumbling upon new London surprises. I walked past both Sigmund Freud's and T.S. Eliot's houses the other day, and made my way to this famous London bookshop, savoring all of the meandering and side streets in between.

Right after school started again, a great friend from undergrad came to visit--Sabrina came to London! It was such a joy to see her again—even though we'd kept in touch, we hadn't seen each other since graduation (which is now TWO years ago, HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?!) Having Sabrina here, as with any visitor, helped me see London anew, and really impressed upon me again just how much I love this city. We did things I'd done before and saw brand new sites, and enjoyed long catch-ups and deep chats about everything that's happened since graduation and how we've changed in the short time since we last saw each other. I'm so impressed by and proud of how we've grown, and I'm so lucky to have such intelligent, emotionally intuitive, generous, kind, and hilarious friends like her. We visited St. Paul's Cathedral, where Christopher Wren (after whom the main building at William & Mary is named) is buried—what a small world full of unexpected connections. She toured the Tower of London and visited some museums while I went to classes, and we made a little day trip to Hampton Court Palace—Henry the VIII's primary abode!

It was just starting to get really warm while we were on this trip, and we wandered through the vast, highly-manicured, well-tended gardens that were beginning to bloom.

While Sabrina was visiting, I had to leave her to explore on her own for a bit while I attended Imperial College London's biggest event of the year--the Imperial Science Festival! Researchers from all over the university put on exhibitions and interactive activities for two days. It's free and open to all members of the public, and it attracts thousands of people every year—it's such an excellent opportunity for scientists to share their ideas and their research with the public. Citizens from every kind of background--teeny kiddos or adult scientists, science enthusiasts or those with no scientific predilection whatsoever--can all come and enjoy the fun. There's student-produced live music, delicious food trucks, and fun demos and lectures on everything from neuroscience to robotics to superbugs to...communicating, which is my area of study!

For my master's thesis, I am studying the changing nature of audience trust in the era of 'fake news', so with the Festival I had the opportunity to run a booth with a thought-provoking, interactive activity over the two-day festival, collecting survey responses for use in my finished dissertation. I got to meet and speak to hundreds of different people, and it was fascinating to gain their insight into a subject that has been a research focus for me over the past few months. While totally exhausted at the end of two 9-hour days on the move, it was such a great experience in public engagement, data collecting, and event organization! Many of my colleagues from my course put together other exhibitions and activities, and one of our cohort ran an entire zone of the Festival—I couldn't have pulled it off without them, and it went splendidly.

Since the Festival and Sabrina's visit, I've really been concentrating on school. This term we are taking our practical modules, where we get to do all hands-on work and actually produce real-world science communication products! I chose to take 'Documentary' and 'Web Design' as my two practical modules. In a group with two other students, I am in the midst of making a 20-minute mini documentary—we're in the middle of shooting and it is so. much. fun. I'm really happy with the topic we've chosen to tackle in our film, which I'll talk about in another, more in-depth blog post when it's wrapped in a few weeks. It's been so rewarding to speak to the characters who are going to be in the film and get them to tell their stories on camera, as well as work within a highly creative team to pull together so many different ideas—and pull off the logistics!

sneak peek of the documentary!

In the Web Design module we have been tasked with creating (from scratch) an interactive web page that will deliver scientific information to the user in a fun and unique way. We're learning the fundamentals of HTML, CSS, and basic JavaScript, and it's such a blast. It's literally like learning a new language, and I'm getting that same thrilling feeling you get when you start to be able to string sentences together in a language you couldn't decipher a few weeks ago. But in this case you're talking to a computer and telling it what to build! To be able to write a series of words and symbols and have a computer turn that into pictures, layout, and interactive design seriously feels like some kind of magic.

Both of these classes are incredibly fun and very challenging, and I'm gaining so many new skills as we go along. All of these projects are due at the end of June, and there's a long way to go before they're done, so it's going to be a crazy, jam-packed sprint to the finish! As I try to stay on top of all this work I'm also trying to chip away at my dissertation, analyzing the data I collected from the Festival, and of course, trying to see more of London and spend time with my friends. At the beginning of this term I decided I was going to say 'yes' to as many things as possible. I notice that I've often thought that I'm too tired or too busy to go out and do things with friends or explore, but every time I do go I never regret it--and to squeeze in as many experiences with these wonderful people as possible, I've been doing some pretty surprising, spontaneous, exciting things!

To start, I ran my first-ever half marathon. You can read more about the race and how I prepped for it on this blog post over here, but suffice to say it was exhilarating and empowering and I would totally do another one.

My friends and I have also discovered some really amazing hang-out spots lately. The Magic Roundabout is a bar and restaurant in East London that has a very Sergeant Pepper's, circus-y vibe to it, and BOUNCE is a ping-pong bar and club that is perhaps my new all-time favorite place for a night out on the town where, that's right, you play ping-pong—occasionally under black light.

Again in the spirit of saying yes, I also took my first trip to Scotland with my lovely flat-mate and friend Emily. The train ride up to Edinburgh was gorgeous, and we got to spend a night with Emily's friend Claire at her parent's house in Edinburgh. We walked all over the city as the weather was uncharacteristically beautiful—80 degrees F and sunny! It felt like everyone in the city was outside, having a picnic and a barbecue in the green space called 'The Meadows'.

I felt so lucky to be in Edinburgh with locals because they gave me an excellent mini-tour of all the landmarks as we walked around on that gorgeous evening, telling me all about the difference between Old Town and New Town, and the changes that the city underwent during the centuries-long struggle over British rule. You can see Edinburgh's history written on its face, so to speak, in its architecture and planning. It's a jumbled mix of centuries and styles, histories and cultures, and it's absolutely breathtaking.

(Pictured above: View of the city out to the water from the top of the castle hill, and a statue of the famous terrier named Greyfriar's Bobby, after whom the pub behind him is named, who supposedly guarded his owner's grave for 14 years until he also passed away).

We also got to have dinner--the traditional Scottish haggis, neeps, and tatties, of course--in The Elephant House, the cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote the first few books of the Harry Potter series while she was still trying to get published! The bathrooms of this establishment are famously covered in floor-to-ceiling graffiti left by Harry Potter lovers from all over the world—their favorite quotes, 'thank you's to JK, and general scribblings of devotion.

After Edinburgh, we got up bright and early to drive with Claire and her husband up to the Scottish Highlands, where Claire's parents have a small cottage and are building their second house! The scenery...there are no words to describe the majesty of the place. There are also many, many sheep.

The house that Claire's parents are building is eco-friendly in its energy consumption, and to help with its heat regulation and insulation the house has a living grass roof—that you can go up and stand on! The photos below are taken from the roof and inside the house respectively--you can stand on the roof and survey 'the kingdom', as Claire's Dad puts it. The view from their soon-to-be living room isn't half bad either.

The neighbor to this property lives in a castle—a legitimate, refurbished castle—and as there ended up being quite a few people staying in the little cottage, Claire and her husband got to stay in a room at the neighbor's.

We also went swimming in the Loch on the property—very, VERY cold but invigorating, to say the least!

In the week that's passed since we returned from Scotland, I've been hunkered down with dissertation and school work, but got to take a break last night to see Tony Kushner's 'Angels in America' at the National Theatre (the first play of two, 'Millennium Approaches'). It's a heart-breaking, fantastically-staged and acted production starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield, among others. Even though it's set in the mid-1980's, it feels unbound by time, and happens to be extremely relevant to the current political climate.

I think it might be the best stage production of a straight play that I've ever seen, and it reminded me how experiences like that are why theatre, acting, and art really can be world-changing. I think it's very easy to get caught up in the frivolous, meaningless culture of celebrity and fluffy Hollywood movies and say, 'What does this add to our world at all?'. And then honest, raw, essential writing and performances like those in the production of this play sort of thump me in the chest as if to say, 'This. This is what it does. It makes you think and feel and see yourself and your world in new ways.'

I'm now sitting in the library of the Wellcome Collection, a museum and creative space that has become one of my favorite places in London. I'm thinking about how I'm flying home to California at the beginning of July. And although I'm so excited to be back home with my family and to crank out the final months of my dissertation work and to (hopefully) start a full-time job in August, I'm also heartbroken to be leaving this wonderful city so soon...but I'm not going to think about that yet. I'm going to stretch as much life and exploration and joy and discovery out of the long summer days of this last month, and be present in the now.

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