A WIDOW who tragically lost her partner at the age of just 35 has paid an emotional tribute to her late husband after picking up a PhD a mile from where they first met.
Frances Ryan said she was “determined” to stay in the Capital as she joined thousands of other graduates at the Usher Hall to receive her postgraduate degree from Edinburgh Napier’s School of Computing - ten years after suddenly losing husband Paul.
Frances, originally from Washington in the United States, fell in love with the city during a year studying abroad in 2001 and met her future husband in a tourist shop on the Royal Mile.
The couple married in the US in 2005 and were just weeks from adopting two children in foster care when he suffered a fatal heart attack four years later.
However, cheered on by Paul’s friends and family at the historic venue and wearing a copy of her thesis on her feet, the 45-year-old insisted it was time to “celebrate” as she collected her postgraduate degree.
Frances said: “Paul was the biggest supporter I have ever had and he encouraged my dreams from the moment we met – he was always there to celebrate or commiserate with me along the way.”
“However, my support network – Paul’s old university friends, my in-laws, my family in America, and my supervisors at the university – have done their best to be there when he couldn’t be and have made this entire process possible.
“It is all the more poignant because Paul himself did a postgraduate diploma in computing at Edinburgh Napier before we met.”
She added: “I would love to stay in the city for the foreseeable future. This is where my soul found a place of belonging that I never felt before. If you’ve heard The Proclaimers’ song Streets of Edinburgh, that sums up my feelings for this place.”
The couple were together for four years after meeting in the Capital before Paul, originally from Billingham in the North East of England, popped the question during a holiday to Venice.
They married in Frances’ tiny hometown of Cle Elum and settled in the US when Paul, 47, who was weeks from his first marathon, had a heart attack in the middle of the night and passed away despite Frances’ efforts to save him with CPR.
It was two years before Frances felt ready to study again, returning to Scotland to study a Masters of Letters in Media and Culture at the University of Stirling before turning down a number of PhD opportunities to take up a place at Edinburgh Napier’s Centre for Social Informatics.
She said: “I knew the moment I accepted that I was doing the right thing for me on a professional and personal level.
“Both of us considered Edinburgh home, even though neither of us are originally from here.”
Frances added: “We both came from large working-class families, and were the first from those families to graduate from university, so my dreams for a PhD became Paul’s dream, too.”
Frances was able to add her own quirky touch to graduation day by revamping a pair of high heels which had seen better days, demonstrating a deft touch by taking cut-outs from the printed draft of her PhD thesis and used them to decorate the shoes she wore for the ceremony.
She said: “I got the idea from a framed photo I made for Paul before we got married, and I will hopefully be wearing them for presentations for many years to come.”
Professor Ben Paechter, Head of Research for the School of Computing, said: “I was lucky enough to chair the oral exam at the end of Frances’s studies.
“It was an emotional time as we all knew that this was the culmination of something very important for Frances personally. I felt a special connection because Paul and I were involved in student politics together at university.”
“Thankfully, it became clear very early in the exam that Frances was an absolute expert in her field, and that her dream, and Paul’s, was going to be achieved.”