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Students and staff gather for the Wallace Watson Award Lecture

The annual Wallace Watson Award lecture is firmly entrenched in the St Catz calendar, providing an opportunity for staff and students to learn about the exciting expeditions and journeys which have received funding through the Wallace Watson Award scheme. The programme, established in honour of St Catz student Wallace Watson, allows students to undertake an expedition to a remote region with a travel grant , and thereby to foster inner strength of character, an appreciation of other cultures and a broadening of the mind.

On Thursday 12th March, the winner of the 2019 award, Oliver Vince, described his travels across the largest ice cap in Europe, the Vatnajökul.  The ice plateau covers 8000 km² between two ridges of active volcanoes.  As part of the unsupported expedition, the team mapped glacial retreat, discovered artefacts which had been buried for over a hundred years, and were the first to conduct fully off-grid DNA sequencing of polar microbes.

The journey followed in the footsteps of a 1932 University of Cambridge expedition, which lasted for seven weeks and produced a wealth of data.  In following the trail of this twentieth-century expedition, Oliver and his team were able both to uncover new scientific information and to reveal historical material.  As Oliver notes, “we found a handwritten note from the 1932 team that had lain buried for eighty-seven years in a cairn, and we spoke to descendants of Icelanders that the 1932 team had met. We were also able to retake several of their photographs and re-conduct their glaciological surveys.”  Their surveys and research bore fruit, and, after compacting an entire genetic sequencing laboratory onto the back of a sledge, the team successfully sequenced some of the microbes present on the northern edge of the ice cap using solar power alone. With verification from academics, it has been established that fifty percent of the microbes sequenced during the expedition had not been seen before.

On the impact of the award, Oliver commented that the team “would like to express our sincere gratitude to the Watson family for their encouragement, enthusiasm and support” which enabled this expedition to take place.

The winner of the 2020 Wallace Watson Award was named as Clare Leckie for her ‘Time-travelling through Tibet” project.  Two Wallace Watson Career Scholarships were also awarded: the first to Raquel Chanto Viquez for “The indignant middle: assessing the link between Latin America’s growing middle class and the fight against corruption,” and the second to Phoebe Whitehead for “Lab project at Harvard University: Behavioural changes in zebrafish when responding to orientation-based stimuli.”  A full report of these projects will be provided at the Wallace Watson Award Lecture in 2021.

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