What do you get if you combine plants, politics, and travel? An interview with Cemre Üstünkaya!


What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think of Cambridge and why?

Experience. I think Cambridge for academics, especially if you are coming from outside of the Oxbridge education system, is full of weird and wonderful experiences. I think the Cambridge experience changes the way you view academia and yourself within academia. It is an intimidating place to come into but once you are here you enjoy it. I personally loved being here and I am glad that I become part of McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and Newnham College during my time here.

I know that you work both in archaeobotany and in isotopes. Can you tell us a little about how your research interests merge multiple subfields of archaeology and archaeological science? How did you come to be interested in plants in the first place?

I had a microscope as a kid and collected plant materials into my small vials so it was apparent that I will be doing science. Later in my life, during my undergrad studies I volunteered in a plant biology lab working on modern plant material which I quite liked. So when I had a chance to connect science and archaeology using plants it was a perfect fit for me. I am interested in understanding human-environment interactions which makes combination of archaeobotany and isotopes perfect couple for my research area. I also love the fact that in archaeobotany I get to use different techniques to have more detailed insights into the past and about our species as a whole.


What was your path to your postdoc at Cambridge?

My undergrad degree was in Biology at METU in Turkey, where I specialised in biotechnology. I went on to complete my Master’s degree in Archaeometry (also at METU) looking at preventing biodeterioration through use of a specifically grown calcareous bacteria on stone surfaces (hence biotechnology). During my master’s degree I attended a short field course on archaeobotany where I met my future PhD advisor Dr. Andrew Fairbairn (a Geordie* living in Australia). The day I got my MSc confirmed, my friend from Australia sent me an email saying that there is a PhD opportunity in archaeobotany at the University of Queensland and I applied for it thinking I may not have much chance. Yet… I ended up flying to Australia following year to start my PhD adventure which led me to Cambridge I believe. I also had to get several people to double check that the job I got at Cambridge wasn’t a hoax… I just couldn’t believe it.

* [Editor’s Note: For clueless Americans like me, a “Geordie” is someone from Newcastle, in northeastern England]

You live in a small town outside of Cambridge. Why did you decide to live outside of the city center, and what are your favorite things about life in a small English village?

I believe it is a good thing to have boundaries. Academia can be overwhelming and I feel like I pass a threshold when I walk back home and leave the academia behind me. I believe if I was living in the city centre I would be in the labs every weekend (I say this while working in the labs on a weekend…). Whereas now I can organise my time as much as possible and avoid getting caught in non-stop working. I also have a horse paddock at the back of my house so it relaxes me a lot to wake up to seeing nature and animals. I think living in a small village you realise there is life apart from academia which sometimes gets lost when you are surrounded by your colleagues at work as all you talk about becomes research. When I am home and I talk to my landlady or my neighbours we talk about weather (as all English people do) or music or anything but research. I think that’s the part I enjoy the most about life in a small English village. Plus it’s prettier.

What do you do in your spare time?

I try to do outdoor activities and travel as much as possible as I would like to see as much of the UK as possible. Drink and eat with friends and play board games or visit English Heritage sites together. I am also a political junkie so I read a lot of news of politics around the world because it is not enough to be sad about your own country’s politics, right? That’s why I end up drinking I guess!

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