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December 2020

An interview with Geoff Howsen, the first McEuen Scholar

Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? What year did you receive the McEuen Scholarship?
My father was an army chaplain, so for the first 13 years of my life we lived in various parts of Canada.

In 1968 my father retired to his home city of Peterborough Ontario. I went away to school in Quebec from 1970 to 1973. During this time I got to know the McEuens (Dolly and Mhairi). My father had known them since the 1930s when he was in Montreal.

I received the scholarship in October 1974. I had been the runner-up to the scholarship but the person who had been granted the scholarship did not seem to feel St. Andrews was a good fit so he or she left after a couple of weeks. I had decided to attend regardless of whether I received the scholarship or not. I received a call from Colonel John Smith, the development officer of the university, asking if I would accept the offer of the scholarship. The rest is history.

As the first scholar, what did receiving the McEuen Scholarship mean to you?
It meant a great deal to me and allowed me to continue to study at St. Andrews. I was thrilled to receive this gift and it gave me confidence. I was in love with St. Andrews and Scotland, so the scholarship only deepened my resolve to make the most of my time there. To this very day I feel a deep sense of gratitude for being the first scholar. The time spent at St. Andrews has left an indelible mark on my being
I still feel that Scotland is my spiritual home and continue to read Scottish history, poetry and fiction. I made lifelong friends at the university.
I would have stayed in Scotland if at all possible but towards the end of my time at St. Andrews, my mother became seriously ill and so I returned to Canada in 1979 when I graduated with an MA in Medieval History.

What program did you study at St.Andrews? 
I read Medieval History focusing on Medieval Scotland, Ireland Cceltic spirituality) and Byzantium. 
At one point, I was accepted at Guelph to do my PHD in Scottish history but that did not come to fruition for various and myriad reasons. Life is like that. My time studies at St. Andrews was incredibly enriching and my passion for history has stayed with me all these past 42 years. Ouch!

What ways have you stayed involved with the foundation?
When I arrived back to Canada in 1979 and then entered theological college at the University of Toronto I stayed in contact with the foundation and when I moved back to Ottawa, I was a member of the board.

Message to future scholars 
I follow the letters and reports back to the foundation from the scholars that are studying at the university and thoroughly enjoy reading what is occurring in their lives whilst at St. Andrews. What an incredibly gifted group of scholars. I wish we could all raise the profile of the scholarship here in Canada and at the university. I also wish there was a way the scholars could interact and meet others from the decades that now seem to pass by very quickly. 

An update from scholars Marika, Katherine & Malcolm

The foundation spoke with the current McEuen scholars: Marika, Malcolm and Katherine, to see how their experience of dual delivery has been thus far. Here are their updates.

Marika Schenkels - 2019 recipient 
The past few months in St. Andrews, although uncertain, have been wonderful in so many different ways. I’ve been adapting to the new reality on campus, relying on friends, strolls on the Scores and a phone call or two home when necessary to help keep me grounded. Seeing just a few friends at a time and spending more time outside has allowed me to appreciate the beautiful town I live in and community I feel so incredibly lucky to be a part of. As a medical student, I have in-person teaching more often than many of my flatmates, and my friends, and I have been enjoying immensely the second year of clinical and communication skills sessions. For the elements of my course that are not in-person, I have been amazed by the university’s efforts to move all necessary teaching online, and in a way that is still meaningful and purposeful. I have been continuing to dedicate time to committees, my research endeavours and helping to mentor first-year medical students. Despite the ever-changing situation, I feel settled into life here in Scotland and as always, am so thankful for the McEuen Scholarship Foundation for the opportunity to call this place home.

Katherine Lacroix - 2018 recipient 
I’ve been enjoying the dual delivery format and being able to still have in-person seminars while taking lectures at home. Fall is looking beautiful on Saint Andrews, we’ve had a lot of sun and warm weather lately! We are keeping busy with our schoolwork and so not much is changed on our end!

I’ll be returning home for Christmas if the scholarship needs anything from me in Montreal.

Malcolm Risk - 2017 recipient 
Although I would certainly prefer to be able to attend classes in-person, the semester has been proceeding well thus far. Most of my courses are in statistics this semester, so they have been heavy on programming content that works well virtually. It has been interesting to learn some novel ways of presenting programming and data analysis to people who might be less experienced in the area. I think that problems often arise when technical work becomes opaque to the people who are trying to use it to draw inferences for policy or research, and some of the tools I have learned to use are really useful for making sure that the work that I produce is transparent. I have also greatly enjoyed writing my dissertation project on space-filling curves, perhaps most prominently for some of the historical research I conducted. It is rare that mathematicians are encouraged to prioritize learning the history within their field, and I find myself continually impressed by the amount of progress made by mathematicians more than 100 years ago who had access to far fewer resources and less conceptual machinery than we do today. I have also managed to create some visualizations of the curves that I am studying, a nice benefit of having access to far more computing power than when the curves attracted the most mathematical interest, from about 1870-1920. Below are visualizations of the Sierpiński (left) and Hilbert (right) space-filling curves, generated by some python code I wrote on my laptop (see designs below).

Despite not being in St. Andrews, I have been able to help a fair bit with the debating society as we have been running most of our events and training sessions online. I judged at Bogwall, the Scottish first-year competition, where 14 St. Andrews first-year students competed, making this the best semester for new members I can remember. I have also been helping teach the newcomers at training every week, even though the time zone difference means that I have to be up a tad earlier than normal. 

I have started work on and am planning on submitting applications for PhD programs in Biostatistics later this month, primarily to schools in the US. Most of my motivation comes from how interesting the work I did this summer on life expectancy analysis was, but I would say that the last few months have certainly driven home how important statistics can be for anticipating and reacting to not just infectious diseases, but also the multitude of challenges we can expect in the healthcare sector over the coming years. 

It must be said that the pandemic has been pretty disruptive to many of the things I planned to do in my final year, and that sometimes it can be difficult to stay focused with the deluge of worldwide news from the US election to the course of the virus. My family is also moving to Kingston so assisting with that process has taken some amount of time as well. Basement workouts, a big year for reading and exchanging letters with my friends in the UK have all been a big part of staying motivated and productive. 


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A big thank you to our recent donor Sandra MacPherson

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