Wallace Watson Award lecture: reflecting back, looking ahead!

The winners of this year's awards - George Todd (2015, Engineering) and Alexander Langedijk (2015, Physics), and Katarina Martinovic (2014, Physics) and Guillermo Pascual Perez (2014, Mathematics)

Wallace Watson Award lecture: reflecting back, looking ahead!

The Wallace Watson Award lecture is one of the highlights of the St Catz year. This year’s was no exception. Around 200 people came to hear Will Hartz (2013, Chemistry) and Angus Young (2014, Chemistry) share stories from their summer adventures, and find out who the 2017 award winners were.

After a short welcome from the Master, Professor Roger Ainsworth, Teddy Watson, Wallace’s Father, reminded the gathered crowd that the Award, set up Wallace’s memory, exists to open the minds and broaden the horizons of Catz students, by encouraging them to undertake expeditions or travel of a challenging nature.

The first half of the evening gave Will an opportunity to reflect on his journey across the Arctic island of Spitsbergen. He began by introducing his team mates, paying particular tribute to one of them, Jamie Gardner, who unfortunately died in an accident earlier this year. He said that Jamie’s contribution to the venture was central to its success and that he is very much missed.

After giving an overview of the rigorous training regime that they went through (including dragging old tyres around Port Meadow!), Will shared some spectacular photographs from his time in the Arctic, including some from the original 1923 Merton expedition which they were retracing.

As well as achieving personal goals, the team was conducting scientific research on the ice. They collected DNA samples from the plants and vegetation that grow on the island to see how much of the genetic material is shared across the glacial expanse. The team also created 3D models of the geography, using their camera-equipped drone to see how much the landscape changed over time. They also, unexpectedly, came across artefacts left by the previous expedition including OXO tin lids, and a handwritten note, dated 21 August 1923, signed by the original team members.

In contrast to Will’s five-strong team, Angus Young’s cycle ride across the Asian Steppe was a largely solitary experience, but no less physically and mentally challenging. Angus started by introducing the audience to his only companion – his bicycle. It was equipped with a customised saddle, pedals and aerobars, each chosen to the bike’s overall efficiency. While these enhancements only increased his average speed by one or two kilometres per hour, over the course of six weeks they saved Angus approximately two days!

On average Angus was carrying around 40 kilograms worth of supplies, including around ten litres of water at any given time, plus food, clothes and other gear. He found that, instead of casting of weight as he used up his supplies, the amount he carried increased at times because of the generosity of the people he encountered on his journey. For two of the six weeks he didn’t need to spend any money on food because people cooked meals for him or loaded him up with fresh fruit. He delivered the funniest line of the evening when he explained that “cycling up a hill becomes more difficult, the more melons you have!”

Angus and Will both said that at least one of their nights was the worst sleep they have ever had. Will’s came when he and the team had to share closed-quarters in the emergency shelter during a storm. Angus explained that his sleepless night was spent under a tarpaulin, with the sound of wolves howling in the distance! But both had no regrets about their experiences, and they are better people because of them.

This year's winners

The evening concluded with this year’s Wallace Watson Award winners being announced. George Todd (2015, Engineering) and Alexander Langedijk (2015, Physics), and Katarina Martinovic (2014, Physics) and Guillermo Pascual Perez (2014, Mathematics) are the beneficiaries of this year’s prize.

George and Alex will trace a route along the west side of Lake Malawi by foot and cycle. “We're incredibly excited to further plan our trip and embark on our journey across Malawi”, commented Alex, while giving an overview of their itinerary. “Our route will have us trekking the entire length of Lake Malawi; through national parks, tribal areas, high peaks and dense forests. Along the way we'll be immersing ourselves in the culture to learn as much as possible about this beautiful country and its people.”

Katarina and Guillermo intend to cross Cuba, from Havana to Baracoa, meeting local people and listening to their stories of life in the country. Guillermo is hopeful that their expedition is culturally enlightening as well as personally challenging. He explained, “We hope to understand the current situation in Cuba through the revolutions that took place on the island in the past 150 years”. Katarina added, “We see this as an incredible opportunity for growth; living in a tent while crossing Cuba will not only present a physical challenge, but promises to be an all-round enriching experience. By leaving our comfort zone we hope to become closer to the story of Cuba as told by its people and then share it.”

A full report from this year’s Wallace Watson winners will be given at the 2018 Award Lecture.