(Statistically) Significant Travel (Part II)…

…by Joshua / from the United Kingdom / PhD Genetics and Molecular Medicine / 2nd Year

Happy New Year! The tale of my cross-UK travels continues with the second part of the Academy for PhD Training in Statistics (APTS) courses – see my previous post for more on the first two weeks in Cambridge and Southampton. The final two weeks were among the most fun I have had during my PhD studies; I made friends from across the world, and had a great time at the social events and impromptu pub nights.

Week three was at the University of Durham, for courses on high dimensional and computer intensive statistics. I arrived early on the Monday, as it’s not a long train journey from Edinburgh, and went for a walk around the bailey. The Durham bailey (including both the cathedral and castle) is a UNESCO world heritage site, and owned by the university. While I was there and had the time, I took the chance to visit the amazing Norman-era cathedral. The photo of it below was taken from a path that runs along the River Wear.

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The high-dimensional statistics course was very relevant to genetics work – in fact that was the first example the lecturer gave. Although I haven’t used it yet, I know other students from the IGMM found it corresponded exactly with what they needed for their project. I’m starting to look more at large-scale genetics data now, so I think the notes from those lectures may prove very useful in the near future.

The local student committee had organised a football match as the social activity on our afternoon off, and we were all given t-shirts (sponsored by AstraZeneca) on the first day with our team names stamped across them. The teams were “Bayes” and “Fisher”, both famous statisticians. Football has never really been my sport though (I’ll talk about my non-research interests in another post!), so my girlfriend came to visit and we took the Durham castle tour instead. I highly recommend it, and I still find it kind of shocking that some lucky undergraduates in University College are able to live there. I can also strongly recommend the Fat Hippo restaurant if you’re ever in town – it’s so good, later that summer we seriously considered getting off the London to Edinburgh train at Durham just to go for dinner.

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Durham was an amazing experience. I’d been to the town several times before as an undergraduate, but it had always been dark and raining, and I would usually have to spend the whole day out at the edge of town. Getting a chance to walk through the historic centre, and see the oldest parts of the university completely changed my opinion of the place. We stayed in Hatfield College (pictured above), which is the second oldest and definitely among the prettiest of Durham’s colleges. I had a view of the cathedral from my room, and although the bells ringing every hour (all night…) became irritating very quickly, the location made up for it – we could walk through the back of the college straight onto the Wear path. It was a very different experience to my previous, more rushed, visits.

The final APTS week was at the University of Oxford, for experimental design and curve fitting. For my project, this was by far the most relevant week, and I expect to use a lot of what we covered in the lectures during my research. We covered some sophisticated ways to fit curves to our data without assuming straight lines or pre-set parabola, and how to set up and design rigorous statistical experiments. The lecturer for the latter had brought along a small foldable paper helicopter for use as an example, and apparently has his undergraduates make and test them to generate data (we lacked the time with such a compressed course though).

Oxford is an incredible city, and really needs little introduction. Home to one of the most famous universities in the world, it’s filled with impressive colleges, churches and halls. As if to emphasise this, we were staying at Baliol College – one of the oldest at the university, and the former home of many of its most famous alumni.

The social activity this time was punting on the river Cherwell. Everyone in my boat turned out to be surprisingly good at it, so we got to enjoy the sight of the other groups drifting into a six-way collision from a safe distance. Bar an encounter with an alarmingly large bevy of swans, we had a great trip, and I was able to guide us back into the dock quite easily. We finished the evening with a barbecue at a restaurant overlooking the river.

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To cap the year off, we had our final APTS meal at Exeter College. The dining hall there is, to my mind, even more impressive than the one at Baliol – with a full wall of stained-glass windows. We went out to the pub afterwards, and settled our pint debts with a last round of drinks.

This programme is designed to facilitate cooperation between statisticians and researchers across the UK, and if your degree offers the chance to join a similar programme – I highly recommend you take it. I made so many friends on these courses, and I can’t overstate how great the opportunity was. I’m genuinely quite sad I don’t get to go to more of them in second year.

Next time, I’ll take a break from describing my travels, and give you an insight into my day-to-day routine at the IGMM and a little of my life outside the office. Check back soon!


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