Wildlife Photography |#WhyILove

This is the first post in a mini series, where I’ll be dedicating posts to all the things I love. The first in the series is all about Wildlife Photography. You can have a look at some of my photos here. 

Every animal – much like humans do, has their own individual personality. Just by dedicating a few minutes with an animal you can start to gain an impression of what the animal is like, are they sleepy? are they playful?  That kind of thing. With some animals, I totally believe it’s possible to read some of their expressions.

“The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?” – David Attenborough 

Some people agree, some people disagree with giving animals some kind of human aspect to them. This is basically because animals are separate from humans – and well, we cause so much damage to them. However, I think giving them human characteristics could help to protect them. There’s over 40,000 species which are endangered and they need our help. The reason this many animals are endangered ranges hugely, from altered climates, to deforestation and general human destruction. The key I believe to protect, is simply to educate. We need to understand the animals, what makes them ‘tick’, what makes them special – and ultimately why we should protect them. One of the easiest ways I think this can be done is with the field of wildlife photography. Programmes like the BBC’s ‘Blue Planet’ has shot the field of wildlife photography and cinematography to fame – the field has gone from strength to strength. There’s now loads of wildlife competitions. Have a look at this one for some of the images which featured in the Wildlife Photographer of the year competition. You’ll see in lots of these kind of images, a real showcase of the animal in question. By looking at these images you can start to gain a real impression of the animal, it’s strength, fragility and ultimately why the animal is so great. This is something I really hope I’m beginning to scratch the surface on with my images which you can see here.  I think if you can give someone an insight into how an animal acts, an insight into its world – then why would you not do that?

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This is one of my shots of a Ring Tailed Lemur at Wingham Wildlife Park near Canterbury, Kent

Faster. Higher. Stronger |Part 3

This is the final installment of my mini-series on my back operation. Things were finally looking up –  I was getting stronger and a little bit faster. This is where I really should mention my Dad. Sometimes (actually a fair amount 😉 ) he drives me bonkers – he’s all about exercise. But to be honest I really don’t think I would have come out as I did had I not been walking about as much (under his instruction) before hand. After the operation Mum and Dad alternated their time off work week by week so I’d always have someone at home. Dad had the first week after I’d come out of hospital. We’d go on small walks near forward and back to our local postbox which makes it about a 20 minute walk. It’s not much but that probably played a vital role in building up my muscle strength!

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These are my before and after x-rays – the one on the left is the before shot. The slightly strange bits on the x-ray are the metal parts of my back brace!

My physical ability kept on improving and so did my stamina and concentration. That seems like a funny thing to say but after the operation it takes a while to build up your stamina and concentration. Sometimes it would be challenge to do stuff like watching a long TV programme, you’d have to do things in short bursts. Throughout my recovery I continued to have work sent home from school – as much as I hated school I wanted a lot more work, I wanted to be busy (again not much has changed!). After two weeks at home, I went back to school part time doing only the really vital lessons. I was told to expect 6 weeks, so this was pretty amazing! Of course I was off sports for about 6 months until my spine had fully fused – I was a year, so again this was another fab milestone to hit! Don’t get me wrong at no stage was I doing any athlete level sport, but being active – yes. I was pretty much back to normal – all be it this new version of normal. In the context of time, there was all the pre-London 2012, build up – I had absolutely no hope in hell of being any where near even remotely good at any sports but equally the whole Olympic spirit and atmosphere inspired me. I wanted to be faster, higher and stronger.

I had various follow up appointment, x-rays and so on. X-Rays I initially had creeped me out a bit – suddenly seeing this metal monster acting as scaffolding keeping me upright – yet I could feel absolutely nothing. I also had one appointment of hydrotherapy, that was the biggest waste of time EVER. Not saying it wouldn’t be useful to other people, but I’d gone (in my opinion), way too deep into my recovery, I was stronger – not the strongest, but equally it felt a bit like like doing a gorilla doing perfect mini pigeon steps. I was capable of much, much more.

During 2012, I visited Italy with school, and attempted what I believed to be the impossible – I managed to climb what we did of Mount Vesuvius. It was hot, I was comfortably last but I did it.

I set off metal detectors but apart from the odd ‘woaaahh’ feeling, I’m perfectly normal. No pain – I’m unflexible as hell but who even cares? I can do everything I want to do. At school I was always known as the person who couldn’t do sport, or was simply just a bit rubbish – the type that would have a tennis ball come at them at 2mph, comfortably a HUGE distance away from her and would still flinch and shut her eyes!

BUT…

I’m proving all the doubters wrong. I know I’m no athlete but I’m still someone who’s gone from complete couch potato to running 3 half marathons and a 10k for a charity, with at very least 2 more half marathons on the way. I’m just coming to the beginning of my 3rd year at uni – I’m not perfect, I’ve still got tonnes more I want to do and will continue to do but I’m doing sooooo much I would just have straight up laughed at you for beforehand.

I should also mention how much the paralympic movement has done for me too. I’m not disabled, but equally paralympians like Hannah Cockroft, Kare Adenegan, David Weir and Jonnie Peacock and have continued to inspire me in the sense that being a little bit physically disadvantaged isn’t actually a disadvantage. It’s a benefit. It’s a push to make an even greater impact on the wider world and if you put your mind to it, anything is possible!

I really hope this series of articles can act as some kind of support for people who have or are going through a similar thing. You can do this – and soon you’ll be doing things you’d have had no idea you would have done before. If anyone who’s reading this has any questions at all, or if you’re about to go through the same thing then send me an email clairenicholson078 at gmail.com or fire me a tweet @WildlifeClaire.

I made it. I’m all straightened up – a bit more bionic than before but this is just one little part of what makes me the person I am today. I truly believe that in a weird way this gave me so much extra confidence and gave me a push in the direction to really believe in the person I am – I wouldn’t have changed anything. In September this year, I’ll be 7 years post op and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am faster, I am stronger.

Crisps, Naked Nurses and Other Strange Goings On| Part 2

After the operation I had no idea about anything, someone had literally substituted my brain with a lump of cotton wool. I had a number of slightly strange things happening initially – I was adamant the nurses were naked, and very confused as to why they hadn’t put any clothes on. I was of course assured that they did have clothes on and this was just the anaesthetic talking! At this stage I had no pain whatsover – but it felt weird, reaalllyyy weird. The best way I can describe it is having my entire body attached to a giant sheet of metal and I just couldn’t get the metal off. I suppose in essence that’s true but it was just sooooo odd. I also remember having to move about a bit so they could do a mini x-ray of my back just to make sure everything was all in place. Another thing which was massively out of line was my sense of time, I was suurreeee it was about 3/4pm and the nurses were discussing how they wanted food – I think salt and vinegar crisps and I kept telling them that at this time yesterday there were lots of these places open – I’m pretty sure it may have been about 3/4 in the morning at this time!

I felt pretty good after the operation, I was fully aware that there were people a heck of a lot sicker in the intensive care unit than me – I didn’t really see why I was still on the unit but needs must! One thing that did scare me though, I became paranoid about the machines. Hospital machines are highly sensitive so an alarm will sound even with the slightest change in stats – but every time mine beeped scenes of ‘Holby City’ or ‘Casualty’ kept flashing through my head. That’s just my anxious mind – everything was perfectly normal. After a night of some sleep, but being as well as could be expected health wise, I’d made it onto the ward – I think D2.

A taste of freedom

Going onto the ward was essentially the first hint I’d had at suddenly being on the up. Strangely, I remember the ward quite well – there was a nurses station in the middle, with 3 or 4 huge rooms surrounding it. These were divided into bays, if I remember correctly I had bed B1. The ward was a general kids ward, which one boy next to me who was quite seriously ill – or at least such that he hadn’t left hospital for weeks. I had no idea about the condition of any one else on the ward, apart from a girl who arrived a few days after who had just had the same operation by the same specialist.

It was a simple set up, with my bed, a small bedside table and a wardrobe which had a magic pull-out bed from it so someone could stay over with me. As much as I love Dad, Mum was the person of choice considering the intimate nature of some things I’d had done!

ENTERTAINMENT PLEASEEEEE

Being in hospital was strangely the best and worst thing to simultaneously happen. I never felt ‘ill’ – apart from a couple of times where the morphine levels all got a bit much. Never really feeling ‘ill’ had it’s disadvantages though – I was perfectly aware of what was essentially the level of confinement. I wanted entertainment – I wasn’t okay with either sleeping or just doing nothing. To this day, I’m still like this, I never sleep at times other than the night, I HATE being bored and I HAVE to be doing stuff ALL the time – much to the disappointment of more or less everyone I know ;). At this stage I just wanted to be getting out there – moving, exploring and seeing what this new found world, at a height 2 inches more than what I had before had to offer. I’d been told to expect anywhere between 5 and 10 days in hospital – so the next 5 days after the operation were full of physio and more tests to see how I was doing. I also had a few blood tests as I had lost a fairly significant amount of blood during the operation so my blood count was really quite low. This didn’t really have any effects other than maybe feeling a bit tired – but was sorted with a blood transfusion pretty easily! I had plenty of visitors throughout the week, friends from school family and so on.

Food was a bit of a challenge. I’m a foodie anyway so hospital food didn’t fill me with heaps and heaps of excitement. I remember my breakfast food of choice was a bowl of dry frosties (cereal dry is my thing, not a weird operation based thing) and an orange – they’re the same wherever you are! I filled up on lots of other, wayyy more exciting food items from the wider hospital. I’m not surprised in the slightest that I’ve accidentally written an entire paragraph on my food choices!

Before you leave hospital there’s certain milestones you have to pass before you can escape hospital. These vary from eating an essentially normal amount, to normal bodily functions and having a pretty decent level of mobility and being able to do things like climbing stairs.

 

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Although the area I had was far bluer than this, this is the kind of format I had!

We had to fight a bit, but I’d done it – I got discharged 5 days after I had the operation. Finally the freedom of home! Part 3 is on the way to you soon with what happened after that!

 

I’m round the bend (literally not mentally)…. | Part 1

I can do anything I want – unless….

Unless you give me some reallllyyy awkward sandals to put on, tell me to bend and touch my toes or anything which requires a similar level of flexibility – those are incredibly small things to complain about, and I’m not complaining at all, those are just my little quirks that set me apart from the others!

Finding Out…

Although I’m a little bit crazy, I’m not really around the bend, it’s my spine that decided it wanted to be! Towards the end of year 7, my PE teacher (she knows who she is – and without a doubt, she’s one of my favourites from school 🙂 ) noticed I had a bit of a disfigurement on my right ribcage and told my Mum and Dad at a parent’s evening. Our school had a swimming pool so everything was a bit more visible in a swimming costume! At the time we didn’t really think much of it – I guess we didn’t realise that something like I had could realistically happen, but as they say expect the unexpected! So we went to the doctors – they wanted to investigate it but we still didn’t really think much of it. I had an x-ray and my spine had a curve of 65 degrees! For sure that was far greater than any of us expected and this was at a time where even going to the doctors was an unbelievable and at times almost unbeatable challenge! So given my age, about 11/12 at the time monitoring and non-surgical answers were the initial plan of action.

Becoming mummified

I was referred to a specialist in Cambridge at Addenbrookes hospital. The first step was to get me set up with a brace. For those who don’t know what one is – essentially it’s a piece of carbon fibre moulded to your back, with straps at the back to tighten. The idea being that everything is all kept in place and any curve doesn’t get worse. The production of the brace is an interesting one. Of course I can only speak for myself and my experiences but essentially this involved being put on an ‘oxford frame’. I’m fairly sure that’s what it’s called – but it’s this metal frame which keeps you in the air whilst the moulding takes place.  I then got plaster of paris bandages wrapped around you to create a plaster cast of my back for a brace to be created from it. I can remember this being a strange experience with just very strange sensations as the plaster of paris dried. A few weeks later I then returned for the final brace fitting. This essentially just the last few alterations to make sure everything is as comfortable as they can be.

After I had the final fitting, I had a few instructions, the first being that I had to wear it for 23 out of 24 hours, I also couldn’t get it wet, and I also had to wear a vest underneath the brace to stop it rubbing and just for additional comfort. I had my brace space themed, complete with blue swirls, and I remember feeling almost quite excited. I was sort of bribed with a trip into Cambridge town centre after the appointment to go clothes shopping ;). Having said that the clothes were totally necessary – because if you’re wearing a vest and a chunky plastic thing, you don’t have a lot of choice if your current wardrobe doesn’t fit or clings in allll the wrong places!

I got used to the brace fairly quickly – almost felt a bit like new shoes feel when you first head out of the shops with them. Strange – but not uncomfortable. The main challenge I faced was the hot weather. Anyone who knows me now knows I absolutely hate heat – give me shivering arctic conditions any day.  Then if you put me in 30 degree heat on a hot summers day in a vest, giant plastic thing, then clothes over the top – a furnace!! Initially, I was also told to take the brace off for physical activity like PE, but that was also a challenge. Over time my muscles got used to not having to do any work at all to keep my back up straight – I couldn’t do the brace up tight enough after PE to give me any kind of support at all. As I result I just kept it on – not sure if that was right or not, but it was extra protection from bumps and knocks! The thing with a brace is you need someone else to do it up and someone who isn’t afraid of yanking it as hard as they humanly possibly can – another thing I didn’t like was how visible it was if it wasn’t done up tight enough. But in retrospect these are so minor – I could have been, particularly as I found out afterwards, so so so much worse.

We’ll try, try and try again…

Sadly, towards the end of 2010, they confirmed the brace wasn’t really creating any difference in my spine – yes, it might have stayed in place a bit more but the curve was still a big old 65 degrees. This was the point at which an operation was first mentioned. Don’t forget I was still at the stage of the GPs filling me with dread!

We all wanted to do anything and everything to stop this from happening – next stop the chiropractor. There’s no clear evidence (as we knew then) whether or not these kind of treatments have any effect at all, but at this point we were willing to try anything. So we headed off to our local chiropractor and embarked on a treatment programme. This ranged from physical manipulation of my spine to really weird exercises. These included things like using a balance board and even doing the alphabet backwards which I was completely rubbish at to start with – I’m still not great! Meanwhile I started doing all sorts of exercises in an effort to do something, some more stupid than others – swimming, hanging from door frames, that kind of thing!

As strange as it sounds I really enjoyed the chiropractic treatment and I came out of each one buzzing – I don’t really know why but equally, it was probably worth it just for the positivity element. Unfortunately this still didn’t work – my curve was – you guessed it – 65 degrees. This brings me to an appointment I had in early January 2011. This was an appointment I’d rather forget. I had an x-ray as usual and essentially got told that I was an urgent case – and that my spine could ‘collapse’ – which of course is a very scary word for a 12 year old petrified of anything health related to hear. I was told I’d have the operation by April 2011. At this point as well, my spine was a purely cosmetic issue – I wasn’t really in any pain. I was being told it was urgent yet all I could see was a slight disfigurement on my back – so what was the point?

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It might happen, It will happen

What followed was a series of issues with the NHS and a bit of a battle. Despite these issues I still think the NHS is an incredible organisation so I really don’t want this article to be all about the issues. In short – we waited and we waited. We waited through the entirety of the school 6 week summer holiday and still nothing. Finally – in early September I had my pre-op appointment letter – the appointment would be 12th September. During this appointment I had a whole range of tests to make sure I was ready for surgery – lung function, an x-ray, MRI that kind of thing. The strangest of the tests was a neurology one. I had electrodes stuck to my head as they measured my nervous system. They send electrical impulses down your body and funny things happen – like my thumb at one stage was moving of its own accord! During this appointment we also decided my surgery date would be Monday 26th September 2011. 

The next challenge I had to face was all the ‘lasts’ – the last time to do different bits and pieces before the surgery. I had no idea what would happen or how different things would be after the operation. It’s funny the the things which are suddenly so important, like my last violin lesson, the last day at school – even a school open evening. They all felt like really weird days. Someone later told me my operation was the equivalent danger level of a heart or lung transplant – thank goodness I didn’t know that before! Weird days, but equally I’m still typing this now, so spoiler alert, all worked out okay!

D-Day

This brings us to the weekend before the operation – of course, still verrrrryy scared. It’s so so strange what you remember but… We went to the hospital the night before as there was quite an early start in the morning. Weirdly, I remember being in the car with Mum and Dad – I know I was drinking an orange Lucozade at the time! We got to the hospital, and we were staying in one of the rooms they have for people who are having an operation the following day. Mum, Dad and I got the keys then we headed to the main hospital grounds for dinner. This would be my last meal before the operation – it needed to be a good one! If I’m right, I think we went to Burger King, then we all had dinner sat outside in the not-so-picturesque surroundings of a hospital exterior. Dad stayed with us as long as he could as I could only have one guest with me overnight. There was just a huge feeling of unease, and on my part terror over the following day.  I can still remember the room we had – it had a very student accommodation feel to it, essentially a small flat, we had a room and a communal kitchen. I’m pretty sure I was given a baby’s cot however, which was quickly sorted out. I’ve always said it’s funny what you remember, I’m pretty sure me and Mum were watching the BBCs ‘Spooks’ that night. I’m not sure that was the optimum TV programme for a 12 year old, but equally I’m pretty sure the theory there was to distract :). We also had a final reminder of our instructions. No food, but I could drink plain water until early morning before the operation.

We woke up early that morning and slept as good as could be expected – our first stop ward F2 or potentially F5 – but number’s irrelevant. This was essentially a ward for kids just before they went to more or less any kind of operation – big or small. A visit from the anaesthesiologist had one huge revelation – I actually wasn’t allowed to drink fluids so the operation had to be delayed. Just to let the nerves build a bit more – what fun! I also got given this ‘pre-med’ – essentially a really VILE tasting drink designed to make you relax or be sleepy before your operation. I think I got given it a bit late as I’m not sure it made any difference at all, but equally I have no idea what the alternative would have been!! After a fair bit of waiting and seeing all kinds of doctors and nurses I’d go in for the operation. This was my first experience of the hospital TV. It’s amazing how far technology has advanced as now, looking back on it I can’t see what’s special about it at all. But, it moved, I think it was touchscreen therefore it appealed :). After a period of time I got taken down for the operation with my Mum and my childhood bear.I was given 100% assurance my bear would stay with me for the duration – I’m still not quite sure how he (the bear) has overcome the post traumatic stress of seeing my insides – but he seems to be holding up quite well to this day ;). I arrived by a trolley into this medical looking room to have the anaesthetic. This was weirdly the bit I was least looking forward to. I’d had in my head that the tricky bit will be up until I get the anaesthetic, after that, it’s onwards and upwards. I had the anaesthetic, a white milky liquid, by injection. I have no idea what happened in that room which is probably a good thing 😉

As far as what actually happens in the operation, I had parts of my spine broken up into small pieces, almost ‘bone shavings’ to act as a bone graft, a set of screws put either side of my spine along with two rods either side. These then all get tightened up so you’re spine is straightened as much as possible. 26th September 2011 saw me grow about 2 inches in the space of hours!

After the operation I got taken to a recovery area for 20-30 minutes, before I saw Mum and Dad after the operation. In the next post, I’ll take you through what happened after that, and the recovery which followed. Stay tuned for part 2!

Getting Food Inspiration… |#FoodieFriday

If you’re on a budget, trawling the supermarket aisles for inspiration on that night’s dinner can be a challenge, particularly if you’ve made the rookie error of being hungry before you head off to the supermarket. Sometimes it’s also easy to slip into old habits, and just pick something you always have – it is the easiest option after all. But here are some of my tips on making sure you always stay inspired when it comes to what you eat, and ultimately when you eat it!

Absorb as much food related content (not actual food) as possible! Look to the TV and YouTube to help!

The people you watch on TV or YouTube are full of inspiration – and countless ideas! Watch as much stuff as you can, when you see something you like the sound of, write it down in your phone notes page! My favourite TV programmes for inspiration come in the shape of the BBC’s Eat Well for Less, featuring Gregg Wallace and Chris Bavin as well as MasterChef. Surprisingly I also LOVE the Australian MasterChef which sometimes makes an appearance on UK TV – full of a touch more drama than the UK one! I think even if you’re watching something that you know full well you’re not going to cook – it’s still great to pick up enthusiasm for being in the kitchen, mixing flavours, experimenting and coming out with an amazing product! On the YouTube front – Nadia and Kaye are a fab watch. They’ve released a book – Disaster Chef, essentially for all cooks who are just completely lost in the kitchen. The book also has some great ideas for people who just fancy trying out new, simple recipes! They also do lots of cooking ‘lives’ with super easy to do meals – one of my favourite of their recipes has to be their garlic prawns! Tasty also have some great ideas to try out! In my next #FoodieFriday post I’ll be talking about some of the inspiration behind the cookbook and how I put it together.

Make a shopping list!

This seems like an obvious one but it’s easy to think lists are totally restrictive. If you don’t want to put every single ingredient down – what about making a list of the days you want meals for then as you’re walking around the supermarket you know for sure you have the meals to cover the period of time you want!

Try other kinds of lists!

Have a store, whether it’s in a physical list or not make a list of the core ingredients you love – then build meals around them. So for example the core ingredients I’d go for are prawns, chicken and vegetables like mushrooms. You can then make a list of carbohydrates such as pasta, rice and all kinds of chips. Then pick out different ones and see which of them go together – try out new combinations! Don’t be put off if they don’t work – just try others next time! Remember a balanced meal should contain each of the 7 food groups; water, minerals, vitamins, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fibre, (My Very Fat Cat Plays With Frogs).

Fresh is best!

In every sense fresh is best, and whatever you do, avoid already prepared fruit and vegetables! You’ll pay way more for these than you have to. If you have no idea where to begin with preparing them then type in “preparing (insert food item) tutorial” into YouTube and you should find you can sort it out!

Your freezer is your friend! 

Fresh is most certainly best, but if you’re just cooking for yourself, there’s one slight exception to the rule. You can use your freezer to expand the range of food you have, decrease your food waste and above all save money! Have a go at preparing some of your meals in advance and freezing them. If you’re a fan of Bolognese for example, then use sandwich bags and put some sauce ingredients prechopped up into the bag and freeze. If you freeze tomatoes, you’ll find that when you cook them you’ll end up with more water but that’s no issue if you’re preparing a sauce. Heat the sauce a bit more to remove any excess liquid.

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Remember my second cookbook – Cooking Goes Green: Second Helpings is available to download from the Amazon Kindle store for £1.99.

The Eurasian Bear

The Eurasian bear is one of the subspecies of the brown bear – it can be huge as males can reach 800 pounds and females between 300 and 500 pounds. To put that into perspective, 800 pounds is like taking at least 57 fully grown adult males and converting them to bear form!

As far as their diet is concerned, it’s quite similar to their cousins, the Syrian and Grizzly bear. They’re omnivores so feed on a mixture of plants, roots, sprouts and animal based foods. They also have a particular taste for fish! Strangely, until the middle ages, the Eurasian bears were about 80% carnivorous, then as humans started to prevent them hunting their livestock, the animals started to adapt and find other food sources around them.

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This is one of the Eurasian bears cooling off at Wildwood near Canterbury

The Young Scientists Journal Conference |#ThrowbackThursday

Every Thursday I’ll be posting a throwback to a previous event, whether that’s in my own life or a scientific event in history.  This post is taking us back to 2014 when the Young Scientists Journal hosted its first annual conference at The Kings School in Canterbury. I attended the conference as a blogger, editor and contributor and after the conference I had the amazing opportunity to write for the Guardian about my experiences at the conference and you can have a read of it here.

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Cooking Goes Green: Second Helpings

Today, my second cookbook has gone live on the Amazon Kindle website! It’s an ultimate guide to getting started in the kitchen, along with lots of recipes to give you some more inspiration in the kitchen! The recipes range from stir-fries to pasta dishes and sweet treats and are all budget friendly.

The book, published by Canterbury Christ Church University aims to encourage students to get started in the kitchen. We’ve also had the pleasure of working alongside The Gastro Hub to open up more opportunities for students in the world of sustainable food.

Download the book for £1.99 here.

Cooking Goes Green: Second Helpings