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Lucy student and Gates Scholar Ellen Purdy’s interdisciplinary PhD combines chemistry and conservation science

I'm doing a PhD in chemistry, and I'm currently studying pigment samples collected from early modern wall paintings found in homes and businesses around the East of England. My role is to identify them using chemical analysis and investigate whether they were produced naturally or artificially, with a particular interest in the identity of blue pigments. Blue pigment was notoriously rare (and therefore expensive) during the medieval and early modern periods, and since these paintings were found in middling status houses, it would be interesting to see if production methods or sources changed to make this material more accessible to people outside the very wealthy.  

I'm interested in conservation science, which uses scientific analysis to study the material composition of art and heritage objects, because it's a way to integrate my interests in art history and chemistry. The field also poses challenging research questions such as how to study complex mixtures of materials and how to analyze materials without damaging the objects of interest. There is also a great deal of interdisciplinary research and knowledge required to contextualize the results from analysis - is this new information interesting, and what can it tell us about historical practices or current preservation and restoration needs? I think it's really exciting.

I chose to do a PhD because it's the qualification that I need to have to work in conservation science research, and I found an opportunity to work on a cool project and in a supportive laboratory here. I was previously doing an MPhil at Cambridge/Lucy, and before that, I studied chemistry and art history at the University of Chicago. After my PhD, I hope to find a postdoc position connected with a museum laboratory somewhere in Europe or the United States to stay on track to eventually work full time in conservation science at a museum or private organization. 

The Gates community is wonderful and I feel really lucky to be part of it. In particular, I'm thankful that they support students pursuing very different areas of research, since it can be hard as a postgraduate to meet lots of people outside your own college/lab. I love hearing about the work that other scholars are doing and I'm thankful that the Trust has supported my research - it makes me more confident that what I'm working on matters to other people too.

I chose Lucy because I liked the idea of a smaller, all-women college, which was very different from my undergraduate experience. I also thought that the college grounds and library looked lovely! I've appreciated how friendly everyone is at Lucy, from my tutor to our porters who've helped me with some of the confusion that comes with moving to a new country, to everyone I met.