Portrait of Sara Brio

Sara Brio

Tell us a bit about yourself?

I grew up in southern California; a land full of sun, beaches, and, most importantly, tacos. As a child I had two loves: books and ancient Egypt. I was blessed to have parents who encouraged me to pursue my passions and were content to drive me back and forth to the local library multiple times a week and even help me decorate my bedroom like an ancient-Egyptian tomb. 

When it came time to decide my major for my undergraduate degree, I was torn between those two loves, but decided on studying English Literature at Biola University. After I graduated with my BA and decided to pursue a MA in Victorian Literature. I stumbled upon the University of Leeds in my search of UK universities and suddenly found myself here, quickly realising I had no desire to ever leave despite the city’s decided lack of tacos.

What made you want to study at PhD level, and why did you choose Leeds?

I began pursuing my MA and, subsequently, my PhD at Leeds so that I could further develop my own academic skills and, in so doing, learn how to better educate others. I had never been to Leeds and knew nothing about the city or the University apart from the fact that it had an excellent reputation in English literature and the staff seemed incredible. Thankfully, that has only been proven more and more true the longer I have been here. 

What is your area of research, and what makes you passionate about it?

My thesis is entitled '‘The Sphinx will Speak at Last’: Theology and Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Fiction'. It focuses on the connection between nineteenth-century Egyptianising fiction and theology, which is essentially a very fancy way of saying that I get to read lots of novels about mummies.

It has been so fulfilling to bring my two childhood passions, books and ancient Egypt, full circle in my academic research. In anchoring my research in reception studies, I have been able to understand the sources behind the myths and mysticism which surround ancient Egypt and so enticed me as a child. 

How would you describe your experience of studying at Leeds?

I was petrified of moving to another country but from my very first week, I felt right at home in Leeds. The staff in the English department were incredibly welcoming as were my fellow research students. I also met my husband here in Leeds and we were married last year at St. Mark’s Church just across the street from the University, which made our wedding day extra special.

My supervisor, Dr James Mussell, has been a vital source of support and wisdom in my project. He was willing to take on the supervision of my thesis when my former supervisor, who was equally wonderful and supportive, left to take on a new role at another University. Transitioning to a new supervisor in the middle of my project was incredibly daunting but Jim made the transition seamless and has helped me to hone my writing and find new ways of engaging with research.

I have also been helped by numerous other faculty members, who have willingly taken time out of already taxed schedules to advise on job applications, provide references for my Higher Education Academy application, and generally be extra sources of encouragement in particularly difficult times. What is wonderful about Leeds is that everyone in the department is willing to help and support students where they can.

The research resources at Leeds are fantastic. One of my thesis chapters focuses on the role of Egyptian funerary architecture in the nineteenth-century and the Brotherton Library’s Special Collections team was incredibly supportive when I needed help accessing the Leeds General Cemetery Archive. It is both thrilling and terrifying to handle these historical documents and be able to work backwards in piecing together someone’s life from the records of their death.

What I love about Leeds as a city is that you can go from shopping in the bustling city centre to hiking in the middle of the most stunning countryside in about 20 minutes. As someone who needs both city and country in my life, I love living here.

What has been your biggest challenge and your greatest achievement so far?

My biggest challenge in pursuing a PhD has been simply completing the project. Working on the same piece of research for four years can be gruelling and overwhelming. On top of my research, I worked multiple jobs and, during my third year, got married to the love of my life.

This meant that I bounced back and forth between reading about nineteenth-century cemetery reform and planning seating charts. I’m still not sure which of those tasks was more challenging. Ultimately, I think my greatest achievement has simply been submitting a piece of work that I am proud of and fought extremely hard to produce. 

If you had to describe the postgraduate community at Leeds, what would you say?

I was told by numerous people before starting my PhD that it would be a lonely and isolating process, but I have never found this to be true. Leeds does an incredible job of fostering a genuinely supportive academic community.
We have a communal research student space in the School of English and it is very helpful to be able to work together in a room where other people are doing the same thing as you. We also celebrate one another’s achievements together, which is something I really value as it breaks down any sense of competition and instead builds a supportive and encouraging community.

What activities have you taken part in outside of your studies?

I am very grateful to have been able to develop my teaching skills by leading seminars in the School of English. The staff are all very keen to enable us to start projects or develop workshops, and are often willing to let us join in on projects they’ve started. I was able to lead a reading group for refugees as part of Bibliotherapy Hub Leeds, which was a wonderful way to bring my skills out of the library and into the community.

I also co-organised the third Tea with the Sphinx conference with colleagues down at the University of Birmingham. This was an incredible opportunity to continue the work the previous two conferences had begun and help define the field of ancient Egyptian reception studies by bringing together colleagues from Classics, Egyptology, Anthropology, History, English, and many other disciplines. 

How would you describe the development opportunities for PhD students at Leeds, and what are your plans for after you’ve completed your doctorate?

There are always workshops and seminars running on developing your research, writing, CVs, and presentation skills. Essentially, if you can think of some skills you want to develop, there will probably be someone at the University who can help.
The most helpful workshops I attended were ones designed to help staff through the process of applying for fellowship in the Higher Education Academy, which the University offers to its staff for free. Attaining Associate Fellowship status is a great help in applying for academic jobs, so it was wonderful to have support through every stage of the application process. 
Because of the incredible support and advice of everyone in my School, I was able to find a job just a few weeks after submitting my thesis. Once my viva is over and my corrections are submitted, I will be pursuing publication of my thesis while I work as an English for Academic Purposes Tutor at CU Scarborough. 

What would you say to anyone thinking of applying to study at PhD level at Leeds?

What are you waiting for?!