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PROFESSOR EMILY RAYFIELD

‘I attended Northallerton School from 1989 to 1993. After taking A-Levels in Art, Biology and Chemistry, I studied for a degree in Biological Sciences at the University of Oxford. After graduating from Oxford after a fun three years, I wasn’t sure what to do. I got a job as a lab technician at University College London (mainly so I could live in London with some of my university friends) where some of my duties involved growing cells from human skin samples.

During my year in London I decided I wanted to return to university to study for a PhD. During my degree, I particularly enjoyed courses on whole animal biology – studying the anatomy, physiology and evolution of animals. After applying to a few universities, I was accepted as a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. At Cambridge I started researching how we can apply physical principles to understand how past animals functioned and that is how I embarked on my career as a palaeontologist. I use a mixture of maths and anatomy to test long-standing often arm-waving theories about fossils and past life. At Cambridge I developed how to use computer software typically used in engineering to test the strength of bridges, cars or hip implants to test the strength of skeletons, living and extinct.

After graduating from Cambridge I hopped back and forth between Oxford and Cambridge on short-term research positions before breaking out of Oxbridge taking a job at the Natural History Museum in London. As much as I enjoyed working in such a famous institution, the job wasn’t permanent, so I was delighted to take up a permanent job at Bristol University in 2005 where I’ve been ever since. Since 2014 I’ve been a Professor of Palaeobiology. My day job involves a mixture of teaching lectures, practical classes and field courses in geology and palaeontology and running my own research group of masters and PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. My group now lead the way in using tools like X-ray scanning of fossils and biomechanical analysis to study fossil animals. Many people ask me if I go on digs, and I have to disappoint them by saying that most of my research is done on a computer. I have been able to travel all over the world looking at fossils in museums and attending conferences – the USA, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and China among other places.

Most recently I’ve served as President of the international Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and I’ve received medals from the Geological Society of London and the Palaeontological Association for my research. One of the highlights of my career was being interviewed by Sir David Attenborough for a TV documentary in 2017. I had met the great man briefly a couple of times before but this time I had lunch with him for an hour and half before the interview - me, Sir David and another researcher - it was quite an experience!

Looking back to my school years, I never imagined I’d be a Professor, even less so a Professor of Palaeobiology. I’ve always followed my interests to see where they take me, and in doing so I’ve had the chance to visit some amazing places, and to discover new things and contribute to our understanding of the past.'

Follow the link to view the 'Ask the Alumni' interview with Professor Emily Rayfield..’

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