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Royal Institution fellowship for University of Bradford student


Ri Freer fellowship

Studying preserved body parts has earned University of Bradford student Aoife Sutton-Butler a prestigious fellowship from the world-famous Royal Institution, one of only two handed out to history of science students this year.   

Applicants from all over the world applied for this year’s Freer Prize Fellowships, awarded by the Royal Institution with funding from the Philip Freer Studentship Trust.  

Aoife, who is researching preserved 18th and 19th century remains for her PhD, said: "It was a huge shock to be chosen. I’m absolutely delighted, it’s a great honour. Potted specimens, as they are known, are human remains kept in jars of fluid. Some were preserved because of their extreme pathologies, conditions you wouldn’t tend to see today because medicine has intervened to prevent them.  

"They were often regarded as curiosities and it’s a dying art, but they can still tell us a lot about past diseases and how people died." 

'Fascinating and thought-provoking'

Aoife, from Wexford, Ireland, has studied the collection of specimens at the University of Bradford as well as collections in museums around the country.  

She said: "There is some interest in sampling the DNA from these remains to compare it to today’s viruses. They can also be useful for students on clinical science subjects in terms of their knowledge of anatomy as well as thinking about the ethics of displaying human organs.  

"I assumed a lot of people would be quite horrified by them or outraged that they are on display, but from interviewing the public, it’s clear people generally find them fascinating and thought-provoking."

The Ri Freer Prize Fellowships are intended as writing-up and engagement awards for doctoral candidates researching the history of science, history of the Royal Institution; or heritage conservation science. Miguel Ohnesorge from the University of Cambridge was also awarded a one-year fellowship, starting in October. Miguel is investigating the basic but surprisingly puzzling problem of why the Earth has the shape that it has. He and Aoife will now have access to Ri resources, archives and support while completing the final year of their PhD.  

Fellows must demonstrate high academic merit combined with insights into present day challenges and a clear contribution to shaping equitable and sustainable futures. Applications were assessed by a panel of highly-respected scholars in the field of history of science. 

Director of the Royal Institution, Katherine Mathieson, said: "We are delighted to be announcing Miguel Ohnesorge and Aoife Sutton-Butler as this year’s Freer Fellows. Miguel and Aoife will be continuing the Ri tradition of scientific scholarship, discovery and engagement.  We’re extremely proud of our rich heritage, and yet still acutely aware that there is still so much we can all learn from the past."

Dr Sophie Forgan, a Trustee of the Philip Freer Studentship Trust, said: "The Philip Freer Studentship Trust was established to support postgraduate students in making a difference in the world and that begins by engaging the public with compelling, research-based conclusions. 

"Following the success over the past two years of the open competition for these prestigious Ri Freer Prize Fellowships, I am delighted to see more applications from research students from more diverse locations. Two outstanding Fellows have been appointed, whose work is intriguing and has the potential to make a significant contribution to public engagement with science at the Ri."

'Important conversations'

The prize includes maintenance funding as well as mentoring, training and public engagement opportunities with the Royal Institution.  

Aoife earned a BA in Archaeology at University College Dublin and an MSc in Bioarchaeology at the University of York.  She hopes to remain in academia following her PhD, to expand her research into human remains.  

Aoife’s PhD supervisor, Professor Karina Croucher, said: "I’m delighted that Aoife’s research and been recognised in the award. Aoife’s research topic is unique, transforming the study of potted anatomical remains to consider themes of marginalization and socio-economic inequalities, giving representation to those whose lives and deaths have been misused through time.

"While Aoife’s research is routed in the history of science and heritage conservation, it has clear tangible outcomes for public value today. Her research encompasses the use of the past to address the important issue of conversations around death and dying today, using the past to open dialogue, educate, and importantly, bring conversations into the mainstream – valuable for advance care planning, wellbeing, and challenging the often-taboo nature of death today. It is a breath of fresh air to see research excellence translated into tangible outputs for social value in this way."