What can I do today to change the world?

Asha de Vos (BSc 2002) was undertaking research on a ship in the middle of the ocean when she heard that she had won the South Asia Regional Award of the British Council Study UK Alumni Awards 2018. She used up her entire, rather small, allocation of internet minutes in submitting the short video required for the next stage of the awards. A few months later this proved to be time well spent as Asha also won the Global Award in the Professional Achievement category.

asha de vos british council website

Asha came back recently to the University, the School of Biology and the Scottish Oceans Institute (SOI) to catch up with her former teachers and to talk to students about her research as part of her prize for winning – provided by the British Council.

Phil Pass (Alumni Relations Officer, MA 2009) met her during her visit and spoke to her about why she chose to come to St Andrews, what she’s been doing since she graduated, how a degree from St Andrews helped her to achieve all she has and what it feels like to come ‘home’.


Having read Asha’s application for the 2018 British Council Study UK Alumni Awards at an early stage, I couldn’t fail to be impressed by the myriad of achievements she has accomplished in her career so far,  and there were so many turning points in her life that I wanted to find out about during my time chatting with her.

The first question I wanted to ask Asha, however, was the obvious one: why did she choose to come all the way from Sri Lanka to St Andrews to study marine biology, especially when Sri Lanka is also an island nation surrounded by such a vibrant array of sea life?

“At school I was very focused on becoming a marine scientist. I didn’t know St Andrews existed until the Principal of my school asked if I had thought about coming here, because even then it had a world-class reputation. So I looked through the prospectus (because that’s all we had back in the day!) and found out that there was all this amazing research going on around marine mammals.”

“I could sense that there was something special about St Andrews and that it was perfect for me.”

So the theory of coming to St Andrews was great, but what was the lived experience really like for Asha?  Mentioning lifelong friendships and the experience of halls, when asked if she had a stand-out moment from her life in Fife, there was no hesitation before her response:

“That has to be meeting the person who became my best friend during Freshers’ Week in University Hall! She was a curly, red-haired Glaswegian who talked to (at) me solidly for three hours. I didn’t have a clue what she was saying, and she didn’t have a clue what I was saying, but we developed a wonderful friendship for life that was born out of this unique place.

“I loved the community in University Hall. Everyone – cleaning ladies, dining lades, wardens and sub-wardens and students – was so friendly and became like an extended family to me. I particularly remember my cleaning lady Catriona Duncan, who looked after me like I was her child! As an eighteen-year-old who was so far away from home, that meant such a lot. I never felt alone or homesick.”

Asha de Vos

Talk turned to academia and the highlights of Asha’s time in the School of Biology: 

“My standout moment in my studies was working on a harbour seal pup in dissection class. There were several specimens available to dissect, and each group had to draw lots for the specimen it wanted to work on. Everyone wanted the harbour seal pup, and my team got it!  It was an incredible class, because for three weeks you could go into the lab at any time and dissect and explore. For the first time, we learned what research really was. I learned so much and – best of all – our group got top marks!”

asha_de_vos_cropPhoto Credit: Steve de Neef

Clearly Asha has had no shortage of impressive achievements following her graduation.  I wanted to know a bit more about her experiences after St Andrews and the path that led her to where she is now.  This led onto talking of her biggest venture yet:

“Ever since I can remember, I have loved water and everything in it, and wanted to be an adventure scientist. It was my degree from St Andrews that gave me the theoretical knowledge I needed to put that passion into practice. After graduating, I applied for field work experience in New Zealand. It was while I was living in a tent and using internet cafes there that I got an email from Dr Jonathan Gordon, who had taught me at St Andrews. He told me that there was a research vessel going round the world, that it was stopping at Sri Lanka and that I should try to get on it at all costs. This was the power of the network that I’d created by coming to St Andrews. I emailed the research team for three months until they gave in and let me join them!

“It was a combination of all these things that enabled me to set up Oceanswell – Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education organisation. I created it a year ago because it’s a way for me to achieve the dreams and goals I have for our oceans – particularly the oceans around where I live.  The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project, now in its tenth year, pre-dates Oceanswell and is our flagsip project. (See the British Council StudyUK video on Asha’s research)

“One of Oceanswell’s key aims is to promote the message that you can live in your local community and still drive global change. Marine biology has been perceived as very western-centric or developed-country-centric for a long time. However, contrary to this perception places like Sri Lanka do have the capacity and talent to change things – we just need support to create the opportunities.

“To save our oceans, every coastline needs a local hero. For example, when I discovered the blue whale population I wrote to scientists abroad for advice and support, and they said that if I could get the research permits then they would do the research. But I was determined to showcase that we could do the research, after all, it was my idea!  It took five years to start the project because of the lack of confidence that such research could be undertaken in south Asia. But I succeeded, and this has helped a lot of other students from the part of the world I represent – south Asia or south-east Asia – to feel empowered and to believe that they can also be part of the solution, and not just part of the problem.

“This leads onto our second aim: to train students from underrepresented nations, encourage them to interact with the oceans and create more opportunities in a part of the world where marine conservation did not exist before. We do this to encourage them to become ocean-conscious citizens, so in the long run they bring this awareness to whatever career they pursue.”


Undeniably remarkable, Asha and Oceanswell are working to change the destiny of the world’s oceans through education and research and it was exciting to hear Asha relate her achievements back to her education and experience at St Andrews:

“Studying at St Andrews and being taught by people who are world-leading researchers and genuinely love what they were doing helped me to become the marine scientist and the researcher I am today. At St Andrews, you’re not just part of a local community: you become connected to a global community because the quality of research here is internationally recognised. I owe a lot to this University. I’m very glad to have brought this award back.”

Having won such a prestigious award and due recognition for her work in such a critical field, I wondered what Asha had been doing since receiving the honour:

“Basking in the glory a little bit! I pride myself on being a good researcher and a good scientist, thanks to the incredible foundation that I gained from St Andrews and Oxford, and I think the award is a celebration of this. I also feel that by winning it, I’m giving back to the universities that gave me so much.

“I’m enjoying the fact that the award has caused quite a stir in Sri Lanka. It was all over the press, which was exciting! As a result, the Foreign Commonwealth Office asked me to become one of the education ambassadors for their GREAT Britain programmes – the first such ambassador from Sri Lanka.

“All this has allowed me to put St Andrews in the limelight and has given me a great opportunity to showcase what I learned here.”

Asha’s visit back to St Andrews as her prize for winning the award has been a real trip down memory lane for her:

“This is my first visit here since I graduated. This morning I went for a run along the beach (listening to Chariots of Fire of course!). There was the most spectacular sunrise, and when I turned around and looked back at the town, all sorts of powerful memories came flooding back.”

“I’m so lucky. I wake up every morning thinking ‘what can I do today to change the world?’ It’s a pretty exciting life!”

Asha’s story is inspiring for alumni and students alike, demonstrating a real-world application of a top-quality education and hard work, an element she is keen to emphasise: 

“Today I met my old professors not as a student, but as a peer and an asset to the University.  I’ve already discussed two collaborations for future research, which I would never have thought possible while I was a student!

“However, I wasn’t born with a scuba tank on my back: I’ve done all sorts of things from being a deck hand to cleaning toilets to follow the dream I have. I want people to know that they can do what I’ve done. I’m not special – just persistent, hardworking and passionate about what I do.

“I’m so lucky. I wake up every morning thinking ‘what can I do today to change the world?’ It’s a pretty exciting life!”

The University congratulates Asha on her immensely significant achievements, and we are proud to call her one of our own, a sentiment summed up neatly by Professor Clare Peddie, who remembers teaching Asha during her undergraduate degree.

“Asha demonstrates how the quality of her education and her wider student experience has enabled her clear talent and enthusiasm for marine conservation to flourish. We look forward to working with Asha to strengthen both our research and our teaching links and further support Asha’s very valuable work.”

Professor Clare Peddie, Head of the School of Biology

Since winning her British Council Study UK Alumni Award, Asha has continued to rack up the recognition as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Ted Senior Fellow, most recently being named on the BBC’s ‘100 Women 2018‘ list of inspiring and influential women from around the world and Lanka Monthly Digest’s (LMD) Sri Lankan of the Year.  But what does she say to any fellow alumni thinking of entering the British Council Study UK Alumni Awards in the future? 

“If you’re wondering if you should apply for the Alumni Awards, my biggest piece of advice would be GO FOR IT!

Find out more:
Asha de Vos
Follow Asha on Twitter
British Council Study UK Alumni Awards
Asha’s ‘Winners video‘ for the British Council

You can also read our Incomparabubble blog with Veda Tiramulareddy (MLitt 2010), another St Andrews alumna who was recognised by the Alumni Awards in 2016



Keeping it in the family: three generations of St Andrews

The University of St Andrews fosters an ethos built around the ideals of family and community. The academic family, occupying a sacred place in the lives of students, becomes a second set of parents and siblings, helping freshers happily settle into university life. To have your biological family so heavily linked to the university, though, is a rarer fortune which is enjoyed by Jacqui Kelly, a First Year Social Anthropology student from Canada, whose father and grandmother are both alumni of the University. 

We interviewed the three family members to find out a bit more about why they all chose St Andrews, how their experiences compare and what this legacy has brought to their family.

3 generations.jpg
With two generations before her having studied here, when asked if she had ever felt a familial pressure to come to St Andrews for her university education, Jacqui said that, although never forced, she knew that she had to apply:

“Having my father and grandmother as alumni, I knew that I definitely had to apply! I wanted to get the grades to be able to get in here, and whether or not I came here I wanted to say that I could have gone there, to keep up the family tradition”.

Of course, Jacqui did get the grades and decided to leave her home in Vancouver and come to the north east coast of Fife.

A decision that, undoubtedly, would have overjoyed grandmother, Isobel, and father, Neil.  Isobel graduated in 1961 in Physics and Astronomy and her son, Neil, graduated with a degree in Management in 1990.
3 generations 2.jpg

St Andrews is a special place for the family. Isobel tells us of how she brought Jacqui to the town for the first time when she was just six years old: “I walked her around St Andrews and we stood on the doorstep of McIntosh and John Burnett Halls and I told her how much I had enjoyed my time at the University.”

Little did she know that years later she would be dropping her off in the town to start her university career, just as she had done with her son. Both Neil and Isobel came with Jacqui to St Andrews in September and the two generations reflected upon what has changed and what has remained the same. For Neil, much has remained the same: “I see many of the same things – the Old Course, the R&A Clubhouse, the Dunvegan, the Vic, Fisher & Donaldson…There are new stores and buildings but, in many ways, it looks very similar to when I was there.”

Isobel, however, naturally notices a few more differences: “The old part of the town is just as I remember, and I still avoid stepping on the PH!  However, the Student Union is unrecognizable.  My biggest disappointment is the loss of students in gowns walking the streets on a daily basis.  My gown was very important to me and I was proud that Jacqui was able to wear it on her first pier walk – despite the fact that it was a bit worn after travelling around the world with me as I followed my husband in his occupation.  In listening to the voices and accents around town I hear many more American accents.  In addition, there are certainly many more restaurants.”
3 generations 3.jpg

After her first semester in St Andrews, Jacqui feels she has settled in well, having made friends with her flatmates and found an academic family with parents who, on Raisin, dressed her and her siblings as superheroes, carrying a pumpkin as her receipt.

Raisin as a celebration has certainly evolved over the years, as Isobel tells us about her rather more anxious experience of the tradition:

“In my day the senior man [academic father] was obliged to write a receipt in Latin upon my receipt of a pound of raisins or a bottle of wine.  On Raisin Monday I was obliged to carry this receipt and could be accosted by any senior student who would either examine the receipt for mistakes or produce a flawless rendition of Gaudeamus igitur…This was quite a different experience from Jacqui’s, which was all about fun.”

Isobel also talks of how academic life has changed in St Andrews, whilst also highlighting some important benefits of coming to such a university, in a small town in Fife:

“No attendance records were kept at lectures or tutorials.  I remember a lecturer telling us that one in three of the entering class would not be graduating.  That is so different now.  It looks like this difference is due to closer attention to the students by the faculty.  I feel a major part of a university education is obtained from rubbing shoulders with your talented peers, and St Andrews offers great opportunities for this interaction due to the residential lifestyle, the concept of academic families, and the fact that everyone lives in close proximity.”

Neil has also noticed this impressive increase in support.  His strongest memories consist of the friendships made from meeting people in accommodation, studies and other areas. “The fact that St Andrews is small means that you can bump into people on a regular basis.  There was a real sense of community,” he says.  A keen golfer, Neil was on the University’s team.  Other societal commitments included membership of the renowned Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer Appreciation Society.

It is exciting, even from an outsider’s perspective, to think that the traditions which Neil partook in 32 years ago and the balls and dinners of 60 years ago which Isobel frequented, are now going to live on through Jacqui’s time in St Andrews.  Literally walking in her family’s footsteps, wearing her grandmother’s gown along the pier was a fitting nod to the past at the beginning of Jacqui’s own St Andrews experience.  This story reveals just some reasons why the University of St Andrews frequently appears at the top of student satisfaction surveys, and it seems this is result that has traversed the generations.

CAPOD’s Employability Boost for Alumni

The working world for a graduate is a competitive and potentially intimidating prospect. To ensure that our alumni have every chance at success, CAPOD (The Centre for Academic, Professional and Organisational Development) have released a programme for recent graduates, to boost employability and furnish them with the desired skills and competencies to help them land their perfect position.  Rebecca Wilson, Student Developer at CAPOD, told us a bit more about the Professional Skills Curriculum and just how it is helping our alumni.

 ALUMNI LOGO 1[1610]

What is the Professional Skills Curriculum?
The original Professional Skills Curriculum (PSC) is a programme open to all University of St Andrews students, which focuses on the top 11 skills graduate employers value. These skills include: communication, organisation and leadership. A certificate can be achieved through attending 8 of the online workshops, lectures and practical skills sessions. The certificate is recognised on a student’s transcript.

What is the PSC Alumni programme?
For the graduating class of 2018, the ‘PSC Alumni’ is a new strand of CAPOD’s Professional Skills Curriculum aimed at recent graduates of St Andrews who did not complete the PSC while at university. This programme will suit those looking to boost their professional skills in the workplace or someone who is still looking to get their ideal graduate job. Applying the same principles as the ‘PSC’, the ‘PSC Alumni’ gives you the chance to improve your graduate skills. You may have graduated from St Andrews but CAPOD is still here to support you.

PSC plus 1[1608]

How does it work?
PSC Alumni offers you the chance to engage in professional skills at your own pace through online workshops. A unique aspect of the PSC Alumni programme is that you will first complete a DiSC workplace preference profile (Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness). This will allow you to understand your personality and behaviour which will help you to choose the graduate skills you would like to develop. You will be paired with a coach and have up to 6 virtual meetings with them to help steer you towards your employability goals. To gain the PSC Alumni award you will have to complete 8 online workshops and write a short reflective essay about how the programme has developed you.

What do you gain?
By taking part in the PSC Alumni programme you will gain knowledge in the skills you choose to work on. Which will lead you to feeling more confident about how to apply these skills in the workplace or talk about them in applications and interviews. Your coach will help you set achievable goals for you development.

The PSC Alumni programme is a watertight solution to greatly increase your employability and your confidence in job applications. Even better news is that it is completely free of charge.  Above all, it is reassuring to know that CAPOD,  alongside the rest of the University of St Andrews, is there for you after graduation.

If you graduated in 2018 or will be graduating this winter and would like to apply, please write a short application outlining why you think you would benefit from the programme, and what your career aspirations are, and send to capodstudev@st-andrews.ac.uk

More information can be found at https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/students/careermatters/professionalskills/alumni/#d.en.2151863

A Raisin to Remember

Raisin Weekend is an annual event at the University with the 2018 edition taking place in mid-October. Development intern, Daisy Sewell, blogs about her take on an ancient tradition. 

Unique, beloved and a little bit mad, Raisin is a St Andrews tradition like no other.  Today it is regarded as a means of forming a supportive and caring circle of friends who become your academic family, and an excuse for a weekend’s worth of town-wide celebration.  After scavenger hunts and family games on Raisin Sunday, first-years awoke on the Monday and prepared to take part in one of our most famous traditions.

To celebrate Raisin 2018, we thought it would be suitably nostalgic and entertaining to take a look into our archives at the Raisins of years gone by, the changing rituals, the infinite creativity in costume design and the continuous hilarity of this cherished tradition.

The weekend was given its name as academic children traditionally gave their ‘parents’ (or Senior Man/Woman) a pound of raisins, as a token of thanks for welcoming them into St Andrews. Originally, the Raisin Receipt was a letter written, usually in Latin, by the academic parent, testifying that their ‘child’ (bejant or bejantine) had paid them the required pound of raisins.  Today, the receipt can be anything that you and your siblings can carry to the Quad before the foam fight, another marker of the evolving nature of events.

My Raisin receipt was a can of diet coke.  This year, I watched a parent be carried to the Quad on a sofa.

Here we see the traditional raisin receipt, dating back to 1946.

Raisin receipt .jpgCourtesy of the University of St Andrews Library: ms38585-1-C-11-11 

Raisin Monday in 1954, the bejants with their parents.

Bejants 1954 in the quad.jpgCourtesy of the University of St Andrews Library:GMC-20-11-5 

Over the years, Raisin Monday has become an incredible display of fancy-dress, with the creativity of attire never ceasing to amaze. This photo from 1971 shows the beginnings of this element of Raisin.

Raisin Monday, 1971Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library: AGC-51-60

Two Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers, ready for the Quad in 1999

Imacon Color ScannerCourtesy of the University of St Andrews Library: PGA-7-51 

Over the years, the foam fight has become a quintessential component of Raisin Monday, as this photo from 2012 shows.

raisin 2012 (2)Credit: University of St Andrews

2017 saw the Loch Ness Monster take a trip to the foam fight

2017 nessieCredit: University of St Andrews

This year, costumes and Raisin Receipts were bigger and more impressive than ever.

raisin 2018 (2).jpgCredit: University of St Andrews

The University of St Andrews is well known for upholding century-old traditions, no matter how bizarre they may appear to the outside world.  Raisin weekend is no exception.  The University’s alumni will surely remember their Raisin weekend and the chaotic hilarity they shared with their academic family, one bizarre weekend in an autumnal St Andrews.


Join in the conversation and share your photos and memories of Raisin Weekend on our Facebook page

Want to know more about the history of Raisin?  Click here for more information. 




Sharing memories; shaping futures

Every year, a number of students take up a role with the Development Office to call alumni, parents and supporters of the University as part of our Telephone Campaign. Here, Izzy Turnbull (MA 2017) blogs about her experience on the campaign and why she has come back to supervise the Autumn 2018 campaign.



My name is Izzy and this year, I’m the callroom supervisor for the telephone campaigns. My role is to support our student callers as they phone alumni and parents and tell them about the amazing things that are happening here at the University of St Andrews.

As an alumna I have many fond memories of my time at St Andrews, so it’s fantastic to give back to the University in this way! My degree is in Art History, and I really enjoyed my course. I studied everything from classical art to surrealism, and I found it extremely interesting to explore all the different concepts and ideas involved.

My dissertation was about Alphonse Mucha and Czech history and I thoroughly enjoyed a more in-depth analysis of this topic. I also studied modules in Medieval History and Classics during my first two years, which has broadened my general education.

IzzyBlog2I stayed in Albany Park during my four years here, and it absolutely made my St Andrews experience: the community was so friendly and welcoming and the beach was on my doorstep and was the perfect place to unwind and have an occasional bonfire night! I was on the committee for two years and organising the end-of-year hall ball is one of my standout memories. Another memory I will treasure is helping out with the On The Rocks Festival.

Working at The Museum of the University of St Andrews (MUSA) during my third and fourth year was something I will never forget: I loved being in a museum environment and gaining such fantastic work experience, as well as learning a lot about the history of the University!


St Andrews is so unique and I loved my time here, so it’s fantastic to be able to come back and work with the University on the telephone campaigns this year! I hope you feel just as enthusiastic as me about supporting St Andrews and that you will give a little of your time to speak to current St Andrews students, and offer your support.



The Autumn 2018 Telephone Campaign takes place from 3-18 November. Our students are looking forward to hearing about the experiences our alumni have had while studying at St Andrews, and the path they have taken since leaving. They will also talk about some of the ways in which alumni and parents can get involved with the University through attending events, volunteering and donating. 

Find out more about some of the callers and read about our priority projects.


Searching for Sisu in St Andrews

Geordie Stewart conquered Everest while he was studying at St Andrews.  Having graduated, and become the youngest person to reach the highest summits on all seven continents, here he tells us more about how life at St Andrews and the friendships he forged whilst at University helped him achieve his goals.

Aged 17, despite no climbing experience, I read a book about Everest and decided I wanted to climb the Seven Summits ­­– the highest mountain on every continent.

Everest Summit

Geordie and the University of St Andrews on the Summit of Everest

Prior to starting at St Andrews, I had reached the highest point in Europe, Africa and South America. My naïve optimism and ambition had thankfully aligned successfully.

Old Course

With friends in St Andrews

In my first year I booked to climb Denali in Alaska, a famously demanding and unpredictable mountain. To prepare for the sled-pulling requirements of Denali, I rigged up my harness to the front of a small wooden sled and got friends to sit on the back while I dragged them up and down West Sands. For them this entailed the relatively simple task of staying still, putting on a set of headphones and enjoying the view of the Auld Toon as I toiled away up front. Unsurprisingly I got some very odd looks from locals who, however accustomed they were to erratic student behaviour, had probably not witnessed this sort of thing before.

Sisu is a concept at the core of Finnish culture and roughly translates as grit, perseverance and resilience. It is the strength within all of us to push beyond our comfort zones and endure when the situation dictates. We all have sisu but do not always require it.

Sisu was turning around 150m from the summit of Everest aged 21 when I realised, as a relatively inexperienced and young climber, it wasn’t safe for me to make the top and descend alone.

Post-Everest 2010

After 2010 summit attempt

Sisu was the psychological battle I had in my own mind when I returned to the UK having not summited but got so close. It was trying to battle with the decisions I had made and trying to use that failure as motivation to continue with this ambition.

Vinson Summit

Vinson summit, Antarctica

After successfully reaching the summit of Vinson (Antarctica) and Carstensz Pyramid (Australasia), I returned to Everest in 2011 sponsored by St Andrews. I reached the summit and became the Youngest Brit to climb the Seven Summits and the Youngest Scot to climb Everest.

It was one of those very special moments that I never thought would materialise after years of fluctuating emotions and whimsical ambition. I unfurled a University of St Andrews 600th Anniversary banner, a proud moment as a third generation student at our wonderful university.

I spent over an hour on top of the world with my wonderful Sherpa and had a surreal satellite phone conversation with my parents before heading back down again.

Everest Northeast Ridge

Everest North East Ridge

The years of looking for sponsors, of ignoring the doubters and making sacrifices thankfully came to a successful conclusion. Those four years were about searching for sisu at different times for different reasons. It was as much the mental struggle away from the mountains as it was the physical hardship in the thin air of high altitude. Through amazing friendship and support by the University, my dream became a reality.

In Search of Sisu Front Cover

You can read more about Geordie’s journey in ‘In Search of Sisu: A Path to Contentment via the Highest Point on Every Continent’, available via his website, www.geordiestewart.co.uk

It records Geordie’s record-breaking journey and has been endorsed by Bear Grylls, Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Professor Louise Richardson.

“I will always remember the moment I learned that Geordie Stewart had successfully reached the summit of Everest. It was an extraordinary achievement from an exceptional young man, and St Andrews rejoiced in his success.

 “In Search of Sisu is a blisteringly honest account of what it took to make it to the top. Inspiring and surprising by turn, each page bears testimony to Geordie’s courage, determination and resilience.”

Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford
(Previously Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St Andrews)

Two Boys on a Bike for Sight

Two students at the University of St Andrews, Merlin Heatherington and Alex McMaster are soon to embark on a unique challenge: cycling from Cairo to Cape Town on a tandem bike, distributing life-saving medical devices along the way. They are looking to alumni to support their journey by providing places to where they can ship maintenance packages, a friendly face along the way, and through donating  to the project.


The ambitious and admirable project, entitled ‘Arclight Tandem Africa: Two Boys on a Bike for Sight’ will take them on an eight month, 10,000km journey along the River Nile, through the Ethiopian Highlands, across the plains of the Serengeti and through the Namib desert, traversing 11 countries, including Ethiopia, Malawi and Namibia.


The inspiration for their adventure came when medical student, Merlin, heard Dr Andrew Blaikie’s lecture on eye-care and diseases of the eye, in which he spoke about the Arclight, a device carefully designed by the Global Health Team here at the University of St Andrews. Merlin was particularly interested in the topic, and used his medical dissertation to investigate low-cost tools to help people use the Arclight.

The Arclight itself costs just 1% of traditional tools used for the same purpose, and is lightweight and durable, as well as being solar powered, making it perfect for low-resource environments. Furthermore, it takes only one hour to train a group of 20 people in diagnosing the main causes of blindness and deafness in such settings.

Merlin and Alex have therefore dreamt up a project in which they will distribute these Arclight ophthalmoscopes along the length of the African continent. They plan to carry a number of devices with them to distribute. They also have extensive plans to educate and train health workers and medical students who will receive an Arclight.


According to the World Health Organisation, 80% of blindness is preventable, and the boys are therefore determined to reach some of the most medically deprived regions in the world with this life-saving tool. Alex and Merlin are seeking to make an impact on the provision of eye-care in the areas that they visit, contributing to the Vision2020 goal to end preventable blindness worldwide.

The boys have planned visits and distributions in advance and also aim to obtain feedback and follow-up after they deliver training to the medical students and health workers.

Tandem-Africa Route

The route Alex and Merlin will take

Both Alex and Merlin admit that there will be challenges along the way, and that spending eight months camping and sleeping under the stars, or in difficult conditions in densely populated cities will not be easy. However, the pair are driven, excited and optimistic about the trip: because they have already shared a flat and completed tandem adventures across Spain and Scotland, they know that they can work together to successfully overcome any challenges.


Alex and Merlin have a huge support network that includes the University of St Andrews, Saints Sport, the University’s R&A International Scholarship, the Scientific Exploration Society and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness. Merlin was awarded the Scientific Exploration Society Gough Explorer prize for 2018.

In addition, the boys have been receiving mentoring support and advice from Scottish endurance cyclist, Mark Beaumont, who holds the world record for solo cycling the route from Cairo to Cape Town in just 42 days, and cycling around the world in just 79 days.


You can follow Alex and Merlin on the lead up to setting off on their adventure in October at: www.arclight-tandemafrica.com, and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

How you can help?

If you are St Andrews alumni and live along their route, Alex and Merlin would be delighted to hear from you. They would love to be able to meet along the way – should their schedule allow it. They are also interested to hear if any alumni who live along the route may be willing to take in packages of equipment and supplies for them.

If you would like to support the project, Alex and Merlin are raising funds on SaintsFunder, the University’s new crowdfunding platform. You can support them at https://spsr.me/tkDU

Good luck Alex and Merlin!