Featured Day in the Life of: Sam, PhD candidate in Archaeology at University of Cambridge

Hi! I’m Sam Leggett, a third year (soon to be fourth) PhD candidate in Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. I’m a 28-year-old Aussie from Sydney, and I moved to the UK for my PhD. I did a double undergrad degree – BSc in Immunobiology, BA in Archaeology and Medieval Studies and a research MPhil in archaeology at the University of Sydney, and a MA in History at the University of New England. I use chemical analyses of human and animal bones and teeth from Early Medieval England (c. 500-1100 AD) to tell me about diet and migration in the past and what that can add to our understanding of agriculture, economy, cross-cultural contact and identity.


Stable isotopes get incorporated into your bodily tissues from the food you eat and the beverages you drink, and can tell archaeologists about the types of food you ate (e.g. are you a vegan or closer to a carnivore? Or do you eat a lot of seafood?), and we can get snapshots of diet at different points in your life when you pick different bones and teeth because they are formed and remodel at different times and rates. Tooth enamel preserves a signature of the geographical region you grew up in – temperature, altitude, distance to coast etc. coupled with the type of geology.


BUT essentially, I put dead people and animals in acid. When I’m not doing that, I like to cook up a storm and bake gluten free food (I have coeliac disease), watch a lot of Netflix and obsess over hedgehogs.  You can find me on Instagram and twitter with the handle @samleggs22. I’m in the writing up phase at the moment, with some side projects in the lab, but I tried to vary the pics so they’re not all of my messy desk!


My alarm tends to go off around 7:30-8am, but when my boyfriend stays over (he’s not in academia and needs to be in by 9) it tends to be earlier. I’m NOT a morning person so it tends to take me a while to struggle out of bed and get ready. He woke me up around 7… ugh.


Due to my terrible coeliac and IBS gut I start the day with a smoothie that I try to make the night before, I tend not to be able to deal with solid food first thing. I’m also an avid to-do list person, gives me a sense of progress and satisfaction ticking of tasks and strategy for the day ahead – even if things roll over.


FINALLY made it out of the house! At the moment I’m living in college accommodation so it’s a 15-20 minute walk into my office which is great. With the time difference I also tend to chat to family and friends on my walk in.


Cambridge is gorgeous, and I love my college – Newnham. There are 31 colleges, each with their own personality, when you apply here for graduate school you can put down two preferences for where you want to go or throw caution to the wind and get assigned by the university. I chose Newnham, Cambridge’s oldest continuous women’s college, home to “nasty forward minxes” such as Rosalind Franklin, Dorothy Garrod, Sylvia Plath, Emma Thompson, Jane Goodall and Mary Beard to name a few. It’s a feminist haven and supremely awesome.

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After dodging the bus loads of tourists ambling through the small medieval streets, I make it to the office almost at 9am. My desk space has a cool old entry but the building we’re actually in is your standard 20th century block. The lab is in another building across the street which we’ll see later.


After some emails, admin and reading its Coffee Time! Caffeine really does deserve a big thanks in my thesis acknowledgements! I try and reward myself for getting through emails and smaller tasks with a cup of coffee or tea and something sweet.


Lunch at my desk with some emails and R code. I’m prepping some graphs for a workshop next week.


I popped over to the lab to weigh tooth enamel powder I’d drilled last week for strontium and oxygen (mobility isotopes). These samples are from individuals in an early chapel cemetery in England and they died sometime between 910-1020 AD. We have reason to think some of them are first generation Scandinavian settlers (Vikings!).


Next to the Archaeology and Anthropology library to hunt down some books


Battling with data entry in the afternoon. At the moment one of my big priorities is to finish up entering in the contextual data for by isotope database – age, sex, height and pathologies for the skeletons, if they had any grave goods amongst other things. This will help me see if there’s cultural and biological patterns in the isotope values.


My officemate Kimberley finished printing and binding her PhD thesis today, so its champagne in the office, then off to watch her hand-in and TO THE PUB!


Left the pub to head home and cook something coeliac-friendly. Treated to this view of King’s College on the way back – it never fails to lift the spirits! When I’ve got writer’s block or need to clear my head I go exploring around the other colleges and countryside around Cambridge, its super easy on foot.


Palak paneer in progress! Food and cooking are a huge part of my downtime and taking time out of my PhD. When I was diagnosed I found it hard to eat out safely and find things I liked, and even though things are easier now I’ve found I really enjoy cooking and make sure I find time to make more complex meals when I can and spend that time chatting to people in the kitchen.


Fun rest of the night with TV in the background while I pack up my room. My funding was for 3 years (and I’m in the process of applying for overrun funding) so my college accommodation is now too pricey for me, and I’m moving to a town just outside Cambridge with my boyfriend. Once I packed up a couple of boxes it’s time for bed, and that’s a day in my PhD life!

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