In brief...

I'm a Nature-lover, aspiring conservationist, and wannabe traveller in search of outdoor adventure.
My interests vary from conservation to education to heritage to Nature (biodiversity & wildlife) to outdoor activities to life in general.
They occupy most of my waking moment.
Do read my blogs, follow me on Twitter (@jocelynesze) and friend me on Facebook (subject to my discretion). Visit my Nature blog, Nature Rambles, at http://natureramble.wordpress.com.

UPDATE 2 Apr 2017 - This site is no longer maintained, please visit jocelynesze.wordpress.com if you're interested in more recent writing.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The point of exams.

It's a question that comes up during every exam season, when you feel like as hard as you're trying, nothing examinable is going into your brain and despite you enjoying what you're learning and knowing what you're supposed to have been taught, you still don't think you can regurgitate that in timed, exam conditions.

As flawed as the method of examination by writing essays in timed conditions is, I guess it's still the best, most efficient way at the moment of testing a whole bunch of people to see who's actually taken away something from the year of lectures and who hasn't. It doesn't work for some people, though in some way, it's a self-selecting process (we got into Cambridge cos we did well for A levels where exams were done in pretty much the same manner). Every year, I find some of my friends intermitting to take exams the following year, because of some reason or other that prevents them from taking the exams in the right frame of mind (though I've never come across that in rg/rj. That might speak more for the friends I hang out with than anything else though?)

It's gruelling, Cambridge exams. We might not have learnt more things, either in depth or in breadth (it's difficult for me to say objectively, not having experienced any other university degree), but the way the system works, with 8 weeks of cramming in a term, and taking a set of exams at the end of the year (of three years) which will determine the class you graduate with. It's probably more the stress of almost everything hinging on what you write in 14 hours (for Zoology anyway), than the actual difficulty of the exams, that get people. That's the case for me anyway.

After three years though (and the previous 12 years of formal schooling), I think I finally managed to take my last set of exams in the best (right?) frame of mind and attitude. I've been spending a lot more time in prayer and contemplation the last half a year or so, and watching Monsieur Vincent, a film about St Vincent de Paul and his charitable works, the day before exams probably helped put exams in perspective for me.

Exams may not be necessary for education, indeed plenty of education can be gained without any formal examination. But if we have to do exams, we should not see it as the entire point of education, let alone the end point. 'Our worth is not measured by our grades & we're judged in life not by the class we graduate with' was what I said on Facebook, and I wholehearted believe that. The outcomes are important for our self-esteem and assurance (getting a grade we feel reflect the amount of work we put in), and for our short-term goals (getting into the graduate programme, securing the job etc), but ultimately I would like to think that no matter what class I graduate with, I will still be happy knowing that I had obtained an extremely invaluable education and have learned as much as I expected to when I matriculated 3 years ago.

I really liked that, in half of my modules this year at least, I can see direct applications for the real world. I felt like I was studying something that is important in tackling some of the most important and urgent global crises. Stuff like conservation, food security, influenza outbreaks, they're current and relevant and I'm really really glad I'm fortunate enough to be lectured by people who are at the forefront of these research. That's not to say that only studying these issues are important and worthwhile, and therefore all other subjects are useless. I really enjoyed the other half of my modules on vertebrate and mammalian evolution. They made me feel like I was actually a Zoology student, and they're just fascinating and interesting topics in themselves, which is all that is important in deciding what to study.

It really pained me therefore, when I had a terrible set of exams yesterday. I've had enough exams previously where I just didn't know what the questions were asking for, and they just ended terribly. But that's usually for lack of effort or caring. Yesterday though, the essays I had written were on topics I really cared about and have thought a lot about, and it's just terrible cos I felt like I had inadequately answered the question. It just feels so shit, when you know you probably got a 2:2 when you could have easily written a 2:1 essay (or if God willing, a 1st).

Anyways, I'm done with the week of all my exams now, and today's went a lot better thankfully. I got through the entire exam season (the months/weeks leading up to and preparing for the exams) without any major breakdown, still managing to do soup runs between my exams and being able to make the time to go for lauds (morning prayer) everyday. They kept me grounded and reminded me of the important things in life and of why I live. I have never felt more strongly than ever, that what I want to do with my life revolves around reducing the inequality and the injustice that's so prevalent in our world in some way or other, and working to leave this world a better place.

And that's what I think the point of exams, or what the point of education is. To make us better prepared to deal with the problems in this world. As I said before the start of my last exam today, better and cleverer people than I are deprived of the opportunities that I have been blessed with, and I did my exam for these people Because of my privilege, and because I want to give back.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

lethality of writer's block during exams.

Less than a week to go to the start of exams. 13 essays in 5 papers and 5 days. I've gotten to the stage where I'm just so bored with studying (revision fatigue). Which is not to say that I already know everything, cos I still don't. I'm just tired of spending every waking moment reading papers, looking over notes, attempting to write essays and thinking about exams.

Attempting to write essays because I have been unable to write essays properly these few days. I painfully force myself to write, the words struggle to get out and the whole thing looks like a terrible 2:2 essay. If I don't get myself sorted by next week I'm screwed.

I'm already studying a science which has an excellent narrative, topics that fascinate both children and non-scientists. You'd think that would make essay-writing come more easily.

I think a musical on deep-time evolution, mass extinctions, climatic upheavals, the arrival of humans, and the impacts we've had/disasters we've caused would help with revision.

Friday, May 15, 2015

the pressure of expectations.

I woke up this morning to my alarm and, as most people now probably do, lay in bed checking my Whatsapp/LINE/Facebook/Twitter (and Mail if it's a particularly boring day). Un/fortunately, it was not particularly boring, and I started out my day reading some particularly depressing articles. One, the news of Rohingya people drifting on boats for days to months with little food and water. The whole time I'm reading articles, I'm just going wtf, these are people and lives we're talking about. I know, there isn't an easy solution, but still. When the Nepal earthquakes struck, people sprung into action so quickly. Just cos these people have no land they are allowed to call their own, means we don't do anything? >:( (not that I'm any better, all I do is sit here and shout angrily in my head at the authorities but do little else...)

Another was on social perfectionism and how that was driving male suicides. I'm obviously not a guy, and one of the main points of the article was that males often find they can't admit they're 'failing' and don't receive support and so see suicide as their only solution. I sure hope my brothers and male family members and friends never feel like they're alone in facing a problem cos they can't talk about it to anyone, or feel driven to suicide as the only option, and I do agree there is a great need to break down that stereotype (that guys must be 'man' and not show weakness). And if anyone ever needs a listening ear, I am always happy to offer mine, no matter the circumstance. But what really struck me when reading the article was the pressure to succeed, to meet the expectations of what you think society/your parents/your friends expect of you. Cos I can definitely empathise with that.

I do expect quite a lot from myself, just cos I want to be better (a better scientist, a better friend, a better person etc). But I also know for certain, that there are people who do expect something from me, usually something fairly great (one of my friends gave me a 'Great Expectations' mug and it's staring right back at me now). And perhaps somewhat bizarrely, or perhaps not, I feel the high expectation from people who've never mentioned anything of this sort before either. So I end up pushing myself not just for myself, but for others, and whatever life decisions I make, I make with all these in mind. Of course I know we live life for ourselves (and for God), and not for others, but the expectation is there and I can't get away from it.

At least though, these expectations are largely in line with what I want from myself too, and they end up being some source of motivation especially in exam time when I just feel too stupid to get the grade I want. (And I try to convince myself my worth or success in life is not tied to my grades) While in those cases, it seems it's mostly the pressure to conform to societal expectations and norms/standards (of achievement and of behaviour). I don't know if I would blanket call it unhealthy to have societal expectations and norms though, cos after all a society functions largely because of expectations and norms? But I guess society's perception of 'perfect' is damaging, no matter which way you look at it? But people pushing themselves to become better isn't necessarily a bad thing, that's how we improve as a society isn't it.

I can't go into any deeper analysis (too tired to think further and I need to focus on exams), and all I really wanted to say was that all these expectations and pressure can be damaging. Not just expectations in terms of career, or behaviour but also in appearance, which is perhaps something girls are more affected by than guys. I found out that a flippant comment about her weight triggered an eating disorder in one of my juniors at school. Most people still don't seem to realise how their words can have huge impact on others, even if casually mentioned. Even if you think the person you're talking to knows you're kidding, or that he/she can take these jokes, these words stick and can cause major self-esteem issues. I have terrible self-discipline, read too much (about what eating disorders are like, how it's bad for health and concentration etc), am too critical and honest with myself to starve myself or make myself throw up after every meal, but people occasionally making comments about how I've gotten fat do make me think a lot more about my weight. (I know I'm not fat by BMI standards) Complimenting someone about how skinny he/she is could backfire as well, especially if he/she has an eating disorder cos it might be taken as affirmation that he/she should carry on. Which is why in general I don't comment on people's weight. You never know what other people are going through.

One of those 'how do you react under pressure' stories.


Expectations could go either way for a person I guess, depending on what kind of person he/she is. Drive them to success or suicide. Thankfully for me, I have a God whom I trust wholeheartedly to be my rock and refuge, my source of strength and my shepherd. And my self-esteem issues are all short-term (sleeping usually does the trick). I just have to trust that His plan for me is in line with what I expect from myself. It's still a constant internal battle though, between 'yes I can, with Him', 'whatever His will is', and 'I'm just too stupid'.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Convincing others of your worth.

That's the whole point of exams really, isn't it. To convince your examiners that the three years' of education (of money, time and resources put into YOU) wasn't wasted.

So on top of the 4 papers that covers the 4 modules we did over the past 2 terms, us Part II zoologists also have to do a general essay paper. "The Essay paper is an opportunity for you to write an extended piece on a topic of broad zoological interest." 11 questions covering science methods, evolution, environment/policy, science/policy, and a bunch others. We only need to write one question, and we've got 2 hours and it's worth 5% of our total grade.

I kinda wish I could just submit my Nature blog and be like, look, I've been thinking very seriously about this for years, I might not be able to write a first-class essay for exams but trust me, I have been thinking super super hard about it.

And then, I attempt to revise for my vertebrate and mammalian evolution modules and be like fml argh I'm never gonna get all this in my head in time. It doesn't help that the names are all so similar. Sphenodon (the tuatara, like a weird lizard) and Sphenacodon (extinct 'pelycosaur', ancestor of mammals) and the endless -saur and -thyris :/

The Sphenodon. Image taken from: http://www.waza.org/en/zoo/select-a-region/oceania/reptiles/lizards-and-tuatara/sphenodon-punctatus
The Sphenacodon. Image taken from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sphenacodon

It's sometimes perhaps easier to convince others of your worth when you have lots of money and power.

I posted this on my Facebook a couple of days ago.

"The thing about being a billionaire (having power & money) is the huge influence you can have.
One guy puts in lots of money to save a national forest, get it protected, improved schools and clinics in the area and get lots of people employed (turn poachers to rangers).
http://mosaicscience.com/story/wilson-and-carroll
One guy wants to build a 173-mile canal across the country, supposedly boosting the economy but potentially displacing 10000s people inc indigenous, destroying 400,000ha of natural habitat, dredging the largest freshwater body in the region, threatening endemic biodiversity and introducing invasives.
http://e360.yale.edu/…/nicaragua_canal_a_giant_projec…/2871/
Money makes the world go round."

And I think that's what capitalism has done to us. I'm not an economist or any kind of analyst, so I feel like I'm not really qualified to pass judgements, nor do I really have any substance/evidence to back me up (too much effort right now). But so much wealth is concentrated in the hands of so few, and they have got so much power over the rest of us. I hope they realise that whatever actions they take, they have profound consequences and effects on hundreds of thousands or even millions of lives.

Image taken from: http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/do-poorer-countries-have-less-capacity-for-redistribution-a-new-paper/

But our worth is not judged based on our wealth. And do we really need to convince others of our worth? I guess that's what birthdays and mother/father's days are for.  To show these people that they're worth way more than a grade on an exam. 

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Countdown.

2.5 weeks to the start of exams, 3.5 weeks to the end. And less than 2 months to graduation.

I'm trying to concentrate on revising vertebrate evolution - particularly the origin of jaws, paired fins and digits. But I realised I had to settle my post-exam plans cos there were things that needed booking in advance, and that made me realise that I really have very little time in Cambridge after exams. 8 days, to be exact. 3 years' worth of memories and friendships, and I only have 8 days to celebrate all that.

Ah wells, nothing much I can do apart from ensuring that I do get to have a proper farewell with the people who matter.


Walk In The Rain - Passenger

I walked the steps of my father today
Worked till I froze and my face turned grey
And all of my fingers calloused and worn to the bone
And I felt like a child in a world full of men
Trying to capture that something again
Strong as an ox but slowly turning to stone

Walking away from this room dark and grey
Smoke hangs in clouds and the old echo plays

And the music is soft
And the voice it is hushed
And the boy he has loved
And the man he has lost

And I walk out in the rain
All over again

I felt the touch of my mother today
Gently pushing me forward again
Closing my eyes but still feeling the way
And I'm clutching at fingers through crumples & creases
I came to my senses it cut me to pieces
'Cause I needed more but I was pulling away

Walking alone with these legs made of stone
I'm almost dry and I'm almost home

Where the photographs smile
And I'm still someone's child
And my place it is set
So I'll stay for a while

Till I walk out in the rain
Like water would stain
And I'm born all over again

Monday, May 04, 2015

Stepping out of the closet.

No, not the way it's usually used, or at least how I've heard it used. I've said this numerous times, but again, I'm reminded that the thing I'm most thankful for being in Cambridge is not the world class education system, or the quaint antiquity of academic traditions, or the intellectual stimulus and rigour in everyday conversations, but the Catholic chaplaincy Fisher House. Long after I've left this place, it won't be the revision notes and random facts I've to remember for exams (though to be honest I think most of what I've learnt is pretty worth remembering) that will stay with me for life, but how much FH has helped me grow in faith.

I usually separate my faith from all other aspects of my life - mainly climbing and conservation (lol not much else going on in my life) - in what's known as being a closet Catholic apparently. I guess that's largely cos I've always felt that the evangelical protestants can sometimes be rather preachy about their faith, and I didn't really want to be associated with somewhat negative feelings, as well as the fact that I feel my faith is very personal, and I didn't see the need to seemingly 'force' it down on others. Being in multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore where we are all super conscious of diversity and of their feelings, I also just tended to veer away from broaching religious-related subjects as well, again, not wanting to be perceived as trying to convert others or ruin religious harmony or something. (Not gonna go into the right/wrong about being made to feel this way, that's a whole other discussion) Ultimately though, it's probably cos I feel like I won't be properly respected for what I say, in terms of the science I do or the views that I hold, if I were very openly, obviously religious. It seems like being a girl could already be a disadvantage, being a religious one at that might cause people to start question my sanity/rationality. Of course, it shouldn't be the case, but I think we have to accept the fact that the world is imperfect and shit still happens and you know, I'd rather not give people any reason to kick a fuss, whether valid or not.

So anyway, although you can see in my biography that God means a lot to me and is what I 'like most', I don't openly talk about it or even mention it in most of my blogposts/social media posts. Recently though, I'm starting to realise that my faith is personal, but it doesn't mean I need to hide it either. And as Fr Mark our chaplain mentioned during homily on Sunday, it's personal but not private.

The realisation got triggered when I attended a seminar last term by the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy on Climate and Sustainability in Multiple Dimensions. I don't know what I was expecting really, but it definitely wasn't how the Vatican could help in tackling the mammoth issue of climate change. That seminar was related to the more recent announcement about the upcoming Papal encyclical on the environment and the Vatican Science Academy (I hadn't even known it existed prior) hosting a summit on climate change. St Paul's Institute in London also recently had an event on a similar theme (Climate Change and the Common Good), which I heard about through a friend, reflecting the increase in Christian leadership on environmental issues. While poverty alleviation has always been a central part of Catholic social teaching, it seems that environmental protection is growing in prominence.

The seeming distinction I drew between my faith and everything else is rather arbitrary and self-imposed and quite a facade really. My guiding principles, motivations in life, and the reasons why I do what I do are undoubtably shaped by my religion and faith (and how I've been brought up by my parents), and largely what I believe I am called by God to do.

I've always enjoyed the outdoors, nature and the wilderness for the opportunity it provides for spiritual reflection. The diversity of life, wonders of God's creation (though evolution yes, I'm not a creationist), huge expanses of 'wilderness' where one feels the smallness of one's own being and all that. I always thought that nature and religion went rather hand-in-hand, in the spiritual sense. God gave Moses the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness (which would definitely have been more wild then than now) etc. And of course, it's not just restricted to (Judeo-)Christianity, buddhism appeals to many of my ecologically-minded friends, with it's ethic of doing no harm to animals. I was watching the BBC Wild China documentary (my de-stress activity) on Tibet, and it showed these villages feeding cranes in winter, and not viewing them as pests as they swarm the fields. Feeding animals seem to be a thing with humans (everyone feeds ducks in the pond, pigeons in the plaza/squares, monkeys in Bukit Timah etc.) which is not always a good thing. Encourages association of humans with food which might promote aggressive behaviour (and human-wildlife conflict), and also we're feeding processed food that's not supposed to be part of their diet. Anyway, I digress, sorry.  

Back to being openly Catholic, the annual Fisher lecture last Friday was given by Baroness Scotland on 'Is it possible to be a Catholic in public life?' She's way cool. Her main point, unsurprisingly, was yes, it is. [So at this point, I Google-d about being a Catholic scientist, and came across this rather interesting blog: Reflections of a Catholic Scientist that discusses how one can be a rational scientist and still have faith. Can't really process all these deep words (now, or anytime soon), but he did mention this book Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Palaeontologist, which was authored by one of my professors. Only he got the (first) name wrong...]

It's getting late and I'm getting tired, and I'm having increasing difficulty focusing my thoughts (as you can probably tell), but anyway, my main point in this rather lengthy and tedious post is that I love my God and my faith and the Catholic church and that I think I will try to be less of a closet Catholic. Today was a good start; it's the day Fisher House was officially opened in 1925, and apparently the then Feast day of St John Fisher (Fisher House's patron saint) and the Cambridge Martyrs (Catholics martyred for refusing to acknowledge King Henry VIII as head of the Church of England and were associated with Cambridge), so we had the Fisher Mass, which is naturally the biggest celebration in Fisher House calendar. Mass was at midday at Great St Mary's, the Anglican cathedral right in front of market square (instead of being in the chapel in the chaplaincy), and for the first time I didn't have lectures and so could serve mass. Appointed as crucifer and we had to move all our stuff over to GSM before/after, and so I kinda paraded through the market square (on a Bank Holiday no less) in my server's cassock with the crucifix in hand. Kinda fun, it probably isn't something people usually do (in this country). Definitely got stared at, but that's what fellow servers are for right, to spread out the awkwardness of being in public view.

Fisher Mass 2015. Photo credit Ryan Christopher Day, taken from Fisher Society FB page