- What does Cambridge represent to you, Sarah?
Diversity. There are a number of reasons for this. At the university there are so many people from so many different backgrounds, places, studying all manner of subjects. I love that no matter what you might be interested in, you can generally find someone here to either help you or to work with. This is one of the reasons I applied and became part of St John’s College, so I could meet with more people outside of my discipline.
- You are working as part of the After the Plague Project- can you tell us a little about your part in it?
The ‘After the Plague’ project is a multidisciplinary project that aims to explore the lives of the inhabitants of Medieval Cambridge. Specifically, it will assess whether there were any long lasting social and biological repercussions of the 14th century outbreaks of the plague, possibly the worst known epidemic in history. To do this our team is undertaking extensive osteological, biomechanical and biomolecular testing on multiple sites from across the city with a view to getting a more complete picture of health, lifestyle and identities of the people of Cambridge.
Just like today, where there are many different people and groups living in the city, the situation was the same in the Medieval period, so we will be looking at individuals buried at St John’s Hospital, All Saints by the Castle (a city parish), the Augustinian Friary, and rural folk from Cherry Hinton and Clopton. Given my multidisciplinary background, it is my role in the project to connect all the different types of data together to enable us to create narratives about the lives of the individuals and various social groups that inhabited the city. We will be doing this using an osteobiographical approach, an approach that explores the relationship between different data to reveal more about the lifecourse. For me this is a very exciting role as you get great insight into all the sub disciplines working on the project, but more importantly, by having a highly integrated group we hope to produce research that will set high standards for later work in the field.
- Following from that, I know some of your research has made news headlines recently. The newspapers captions ranged from: ‘Viking squirrels may have brought leprosy epidemic to Britain, says Cambridge University’ (The Telegraph), to ‘Red squirrels ‘likely culprit for spread of leprosy‘ in England’ (Express.co.uk). Why do you think media picked up on it as it did?
It is quite an interesting story. I received an email from a gentleman about a female skull that had been found in someone’s garden in Hoxne, Suffolk, somewhere between 1960-1990! Now in Diss museum, the skull had been identified as having signs of leprosy, but the diagnosis was uncertain, and the date was unclear. We decided to undertake biomolecular testing to see if we could identify the bacteria responsible for leprosy (Hansen’s disease), and to undertake radiocarbon dating. This was successful and the skull was 9th to 10th century. As part of a collaboration with the University of Surrey and Diss Museum, we recently published an article that gave detail about the strain of leprosy that the woman had.
The results were interesting in a number of ways. First, the leprosy strain identified (3I) we have previously reported in a man from Great Chesterford in East Anglia dating approximately 400 years earlier, and one of the co-authors has identified the same strain in the region 400 years later. This shows that the strain remains in the region for a long time.
Second, this is also the same strain that emerges later in the Americas, and now has been found in modern squirrels inhabiting Brownsea Island in the south of England. Finally, when placing this individual in context with other cases for this period we see that there many cases of leprosy reported for the South East of England. In the paper we offered a number of possible explanations for this including preservation, excavation bias, population density and trading networks. For the trading explanation, brief mention was given to the importance of the region in the fur trade, which possibly included squirrel fur, in the medieval period. However, we also stated that much more research is required before any links or serious conclusions could be made.
Any research that involves human remains now draws media attention no matter what it is. I have noticed that simply the discovery of archaeological human remains now regularly makes into the press without any real context or information (a recent example). Human remains are evocative and people can relate to bones, especially skulls, in a way that they cannot with other material culture. This curiosity, coupled with various popular TV shows, means that there is a strong appetite for human bone research by the public, which makes it a draw for the media. I think this general trend was definitely partly responsible for the interest in our story, but as we also mentioned a cute fluffy animal and Vikings, another area of significant public interest, it could be made into an attractive story for the public. For me it was quite surprising how far and wide it spread because within the article we only briefly mention squirrels as one of a number of factors that needs far more research. I understand that this kind of attention is now inevitable, but the one thing that did frustrate me was how people from the academic sphere criticised the research basing their arguments on information from the press coverage rather than actually reading the article.
- What tips/guidelines to follow would you give to an ECR of how to engage with media outlets, especially when it comes to human remains research? Do you feel there should be a different way in which we engage media if we are human remains specialists?
Working with the media can be highly rewarding as it can get your research widespread exposure, however, it can be very difficult if not impossible to control once it is in the public domain, especially osteological research because it is so popular and relatable.
As a human remains specialist I do think we have an ethical responsibility to make sure that our research is portrayed correctly, especially given the nature of the discipline’s history and how information can easily be used or presented in the wrong way. In this vein, I try to think very carefully about how things are phrased, and work with the relevant people in the department to help me with media engagement (e.g. public outreach officers) so that the right message can get across. That being said, I know of many academics, myself included, that have been frustrated with the way that their research has been portrayed by the press or used by groups to make a point.
I think it is important to realise that sometimes, it doesn’t matter how hard you try, people can always take your research and make it into something it is not, or to make a certain point. I think it is a very difficult situation!
- In the context of a very competitive academic environment, how do you manage finding a balance between family life and academia?
The most important thing for me was learning when to say no. As a young academic it is very easy to become involved in a lot of different research projects and to swamp yourself with other activities within a department. This can result in working long hours and weekends. I quickly found out that this routine actually made me less productive. For me resting mentally is very important as it allows me to clear my head and to stay enthusiastic about my work. As soon as it starts to feel like a chore, it becomes stressful, and then I want to avoid it!
Now, I actively make sure that I have at least one day a week entirely free from work or work-related reading. I also think it is important to be active. I cycle into Cambridge and I row a few times a week. I find that this keeps my energy levels up and allows me to zone out from thinking too much.