The Culmination of a Love Story

A fellowship may be the beginning of a research career, a funding opportunity for scientific research and professional development in all disciplines and at all career levels. For Luseadra McKerracher, who received an AIAS fellowship in 2021, it was much more than that. For her, it was the culmination of a 10-year love affair that finally found a base in Aarhus.

Luseadra McKerracher researches biological anthropology at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies and lives in Gellerup with her two children and husband. Had it not been for a fateful meeting in Paris 10 years ago, she would probably never have come to Denmark. Photo: Ole Toldbod.

Carsac-Aillac, France, summer 2011

In a small ramshackle house with crackled and lacklustre yellow stone walls and a red tile roof and surrounded by ivy and vines, Luseadra sat with her laptop in front of her, cursing the place's miserable Wi-Fi connection, trying in vain to dig out an email from a remote corner of the internet.

All around her, the lush landscape of southwestern France was fluttering, and you could get a glimpse of dusty rooftops between green treetops and flowering bushes.

She smiled.

A few hours earlier, she had been sitting surrounded by stones and dust, buried in the archaeological site of La Farrassie with a small brush in her hand, painstakingly – and perhaps first and foremost slowly – trying to dig out seventy-thousand-year-old teeth and stone objects. Now she was sitting – exhausted after spending the entire day in a hole – on a wooden chair that seemed almost as old, surrounded by a dozen young colleagues who were preparing dinner, with a glass of very young, mixed red wine in front of her, which she had just tapped from a 40-litre canister.

It was not the thought of La Ferrassie waiting for her again the next day that made her smile, nor the fleeting hope of finding ancient artifacts from the ghosts of a long-extinct human race. Not even the wine, which – despite abundant quantities – could probably at most be qualified as drinkable.

She was thinking of Bjarke.

Aarhus, 2022

Luseadra McKerracher is 39 years old and lives on the outskirts of Gellerup in Brabrand with her two children and her husband. Together with her family, she moved to Denmark in February 2021 to start the three-year fellowship she had been awarded at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, AIAS.

Luseadra researches biological anthropology, and at AIAS she heads the social science research project Supporting Pregnancy fOOd and Nutrition Security (SPOONS), which aims to measure food insecurity in Denmark with special focus on the most vulnerable and marginalised neighbourhoods – those on the ghetto list – right now mainly in Gellerup and Bispehaven.

Within the topic of food insecurity, the core question is whether people, due to, e.g., financial constraints can afford to feed their family the right, nutritious foods that ensure a healthy future for the entire family, at the same time meeting any cultural and social needs which might exist. It may be both the actual experience of running out of money or the persistent worry of not having enough money for the right food for the family.

‘I was very interested in finding out if people experience this kind of food insecurity in an otherwise very prosperous and well-functioning society like the Danish one. And they do. In the project, I have found evidence that people are food insecure in Gellerup, and then the next step is to support these people through knowledge tools, because it can be very problematic with food insecurity during pregnancies’, she says.

McKerracher was born and raised in the city of Victoria on the west coast of Canada. She earned her bachelor's degree at the University of Victoria and continued at the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, where she got her master’s degree in biological anthropology as well as a PhD within the same field.

Biological anthropology is the study of human evolution and adaptation in a comparative, biological perspective and among different human and primate races to understand the evolutionary history of the hominins, to study variations in human development and health as well as the mechanisms that influence population differences in the modern world.

The subject has taken her to many different locations around the world, from Canada to the United States, to Europe and to Guatemala.

But, initially, it took her to Paris. That was at the beginning of her PhD. Back then, she was primarily interested in our fossil relatives. The Neanderthals.

Paris, summer 2011. Five days before Carsac-Aillac

At least seven Neanderthals have been found at the archaeological site of La Farrassie, near the town of Savignac-de-Miremont in the province of Dordogne. The site, which consists of a large, deep cave in a limestone cliff carved out by a talus slope, was discovered as early as 1896 and has been excavated by several well-known French archaeologists throughout the 20th century.

In her quest to learn more about man's historical ancestors, Luseadra flew from Vancouver to France. The goal was to spend two months at the excavation site as part of her PhD and, hopefully, contribute to the new scrutiny of the place that had just begun.

On her way to the historic excavation site, Luseadra had ended up in a small, humble hostel in the heart of Paris. She had booked the cheapest flight, and therefore she had almost one week in the City of Love before the trip continued further southwest towards Savignac-de-Miremont.

She was one of the oldest in the hostel, where people slept together in large dormitories and shared bathrooms. Maybe she was a little too old for that kind of thing really, she had thought, but luckily, she got into conversation with a couple of Danish guys who, like her, were in their late 20s.

One of them, Bjarke, had just completed his master's degree in London and had taken a trip to Paris to celebrate the milestone with his friend Jakob. After a few days, Jakob went back to Denmark, and Bjarke and Luseadra were left behind – alone together in the City of Love, with only a few days to explore it.

‘Just try’, he said

In January 2020, Luseadra McKerracher lived in Canada, the Corona pandemic was brewing, and she was working in a temporary research position on an – in-her-own-words – dream project at the McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, which went by the name Mothers to Babies.

‘It was a wonderful community-based research project, and I spent a lot of time researching and interviewing pregnant women and the people who support them, synthesising all that information. It was the plan that based on my insight into evolutionary biology and anthropology, I could help with a deeper understanding of some of the environmental and evolutionary factors that affect what people eat when they are pregnant and how this may be used to support a healthy next generation’, she says.

But the research project was coming to an end. It would be completed at the end of the year, and she would like to go to a place where she could gather the family. Therefore, she applied for a three-year fellowship at AIAS.

(The article continues below the photo)