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A Tribute to Bran Papineau


Last week, Bran Papineau stepped down as Head of the Board of Reviewers for JoULAB. It marks the end to their almost 5-year involvement with ULAB in an official capacity, though they will remain a part of the JoULAB and ULAB family as a member of the Journal's Board of Reviewers. In a remarkable fashion, they will be able to add this position to their collector's cabinet of ULAB roles, alongside Institutional Representative, National Webmaster, Local Vice-Secretary, National Chair, JoULAB Head of the Board of Reviewers, and Loved By All (of course!). Such involvement from such a kind, clever, and resourceful person is bound to leave a mark, and ULAB is a very different organisation to when they joined.

When Bran first joined ULAB as an undergraduate at Edinburgh in 2017, organisation of the annual conference was the main activity of ULAB. That year, it was hosted in Cambridge, where Dr. Bert Vaux, Professor Aditi Lahiri, and Professor Geoff Pullum were all Plenary Speakers. Since then, their tenure has seen conferences hosted at Edinburgh, Queen Mary's, Oxford (almost), Edinburgh (almoster), and Aberdeen. Their desire to optimise the function of ULAB contributed to the restructuring of the National Committee in 2019, where 'Ordinary Members' were disestablished and 'Institutional Representatives' were brought in - a title they would hold in 2020-2021 when they represented Stanford. That same year, one might say their life peaked when they became ULAB National Chair; the highest honour to bestow upon an equally lofty intellect - not even Palo Alto goes that high, I've heard.

In 2020, whilst a PhD student at Stanford, they helped to found JoULAB with me and Cliodhna Hughes (Bran's successor to the National Chair throne). As this was where I worked with Bran most closely, it's in this endeavour that I can speak to their qualities best. Founding an academic journal by ourselves, with neither precedent (being for solely undergraduate research, and being in linguistics) nor advice, was what politicians might refer to as 'brave'. I have many memories of sitting in many-hour-long Google Meet calls with my two co-conspirators, discussing the minutiae of reviewing policies and submissions procedures. Many more did Bran and I spend going over papers' abstracts, debating disputes in designations between reviewers, and working out the finer details of publishing our first issue. Because that's Bran: determined, committed, and dreadfully sharp.

When discussing something about JoULAB with Bran, I always got the feeling that they could, at any moment, whip something painfully obvious out of their pocket that I, or anyone else, had missed. I was always prepared to be wrong, because I knew they would see things clearer than all of us - clearer than anyone I've met, really. Not only mentally agile, they also brought an incredible aptitude for warmth and tenderness to their contributions. Solving JoULAB problems with Bran was always a joy because I knew, if we wanted to, we could solve them in an hour and then spent a further three chatting (which we literally did, once or twice). They have an enormous heart for caring and ears wide-open to listen, because you matter to Bran. When they say, 'How are you?', it's not a greeting - they want to know you're OK. All of this is the cake topped by the cherry how fun it is being around them. If you watched their and my Facebook Live announcement video for JoULAB, you'll see two people genuinely having fun together, excited for a mad idea, and thrilled to be doing it with the other person (at least, that's how I felt!). They're witty and charming with a hint of cheeky; top banter, as we say this side of the Atlantic.

I met Bran in 2019 at ULAB IX, the conference held in Queen Mary's, University of London. I did a talk on some research I'd done during my second year at Lancaster University, where I made up a set of signs for a made-up language and tested them on people. I look back on it now as pretty elementary, so with Bran's intelligence I'm sure they saw it as that at the time. And yet, they and a number of their friends from Edinburgh stayed behind after the talk and spent at least half an hour asking me questions. They wanted to know how I made up the signs, what my inspirations were, what my results were, whether I'd considered alternate explanations. It was thrilling. But it was more than that: they made me feel like I belonged. Bran especially was so kind and so welcoming, almost so much that I didn't know what to do. And while their encouragement for me to run for National Secretary, Social Media Coordinator, and Archivist at the ULAB AGM all led to me getting elected to nothing, I still owe my involvement in ULAB to them: they assumed that I'd want to be Institutional Representative for Lancaster University (a role I found out I got via seeing its reporting on Twitter) and didn't get a chance to tell me before I left the conference. 

To me, Bran has been more than a colleague; they've been and will remain a close friend, a confidant, and an inspiration. They're strong and sensitive, clever and compassionate, thoughtful and funny. JoULAB will struggle to fill their boots, and ULAB even more so. Someone of their commitment and ability comes around rarely, so we'll miss them greatly. We needn't wish them 'every success', though, because I know they will achieve everything they set their mind to: they're too ambitious not to try and too smart not to succeed. 

Thanks for giving us so many years, Bran, and thanks for being an amazing friend.