On Cambridge, cats, and college life: Interview with Emma Lightfoot



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

It’s not so much a word as a barrage of faces from over a decade of living here! They range from people who I did my PhD with to people I’ve only just met. Cambridge may be a world-class institution and a beautiful place, but it’s the people you work with every day that really matter. I’m lucky in that being an archaeological scientist also means being part of the lab community, and I have got to know a lot of people through our regular Friday meetings. At the moment, I am also part of a large project, TwoRains led by Cameron Petrie, so I actually have two big groups of people that I work closely with, which is great.

Finishing excavation at Lohari Ragho, India

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your academic interests? You have an incredibly international research programme that has taken you from Kazakhstan to Croatia to England to India and beyond. What are the broader questions that tie together your research?

I specialise in stable isotope analysis – or, as I like to tell people, I dissolve human bones in acid for a living! My CV says that I am interested in ‘the social, cultural and environmental aspects of human diets’ but basically I’m interested in why people eat what they eat, and how they get their food. There are many ways you look at this, and of course it’s best to try to tie all of the evidence together, but what I like about isotopes is that you get to think about the individual and why one person might be different to the person buried next to them. One of the things I really like about my research is that I get to learn about new times and places, so I’ve worked on samples from Mesolithic Croatia through to nineteenth century Mauritius, with some plant growth experiments in the mix too! I often get to visit these places, although sadly never Mauritius, so it also indulges my love of travel. Isotopes is very collaborative, so while I may never have a sole author paper, everything I do involves working with other (living!) people, which is always fun, interesting and challenging.

Test tubes

What was your path to your postdoc at Cambridge?

I did my undergraduate degree in Oxford, where my dissertation was supervised by Robert Hedges and Tamsin O’Connell. I stayed there to do a Masters degree, which made me realise that I really did like isotopes (and not microtephrachronology!), so after a year off teaching English in South Korea, I followed Tamsin here to do a PhD. I was then lucky enough to get a JRF at Darwin, followed by several instances of being in the right place at the right time resulting in post-docs on two ERC grants, FOGLIP and TwoRains. I guess I’m pretty unusual in that I’ve been here since 2006!

TwoRains team at Masudpur, India

As a veteran of both Oxford and Cambridge, can you give us the ‘Cliff Notes’ version of how the college system works?  Do you have any advice for incoming postdocs who would like to be part of college life?

Oxford and Cambridge (and Durham) are split into the university proper (academic departments, research institutions and so on) and colleges. The departments are responsible for research and most teaching (setting course content, lectures, practicals, dissertations and sometimes supervisions), while the colleges actually admit the students, provide accommodation and (most of the) pastoral care, and often organise supervisions (or tutorials, if you’re in Oxford). Most lecturers hold a position in both a department and a college, so while students are interviewed by a college, their interviewer will also normally be a lecturer in the relevant department.

Most post-docs are well integrated into their department but less so for colleges – though there’s been a big push recently to get post-docs more integrated into college life. There are various ways that this can happen. Firstly, colleges offer stipendiary Junior Research Fellowships (JRFs – advertised in the University Reporter) which are college funded post-docs (highly prestigious, often poorly paid). They come with various benefits such as free food and accommodation, a small amount of research funding, and maybe the chance to sit on Governing Body (!). The relationship between JRFs and the departments is a bit blurry, and often depends on the post-doc letting the department know of their existence (so if you are reading this having just been offered a JRF – email James Barrett and Emma Jarman to introduce yourself!).

Most post-docs, however, come to Cambridge having already got a grant or position with a department and have to make more of an effort to get involved with the college side of things. The other way that post-docs can get involved with colleges is with some sort of non-stipendiary affiliation. There are various different types depending on the college and the level of affiliation, ranging from non-stipendiary JRFs (which come with the benefits of a stipendiary JRF minus salary) to Research Associates (which basically give you the right to eat in the dining hall, and use other facilities). How you get these affiliations varies from a formal competition (CV, cover letter, presentation, interview etc.) to just being nominated and supported by a fellow of the college (with limited paperwork). In fact, Trinity has a post-doctoral society that you can pay a fee to join. If you want to get involved with a college, a good place to start is by talking to people in the department and looking in the University Reporter for adverts – you can do this before you arrive in Cambridge.

As a post-doc you can be completely immersed in college life or pretty much ignore it, it’s up to you – although it would be a shame to ignore the colleges completely. On one level, a college may just be somewhere to go and have lunch away from the department, but even if that’s all you do, having somewhere else to go where you can talk to different people can be very valuable. And it’s always nice to take visitors to college to give them the real ‘Cambridge experience’!


What do you do in your spare time?

At the moment, decorate my house! My partner and I bought a house just outside Cambridge when I got my latest post-doc and we have just had to start decorating (following a moth infestation – eugh). I also like to travel – we went to visit a friend in Hawaii just before Christmas, which was amazing and I discovered a love of sea turtles! Other than that, read, watch movies, play board games, walk around National Trust properties, go camping, and play with my beautiful cat, Koshka! (I had to mention her, just so that I have an excuse to share a photo…)

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