Alum of the Month: Melissa Ayling

Melissa Ayling head and shoulders leaning against a wall

May 22, 2024 - 8:30am

One assignment changed the trajectory of Anthropology alum Melissa Ayling’s life. The paper she wrote for an upper-level Anthropology class about baklava and its significance to Middle Eastern identity sparked a passion for studying ancient food systems.

“I hadn’t realized that the relationship between food, culture and identity was something you could even study, but I knew then that it was the kind of research I wanted to pursue,” she remembers.

Ayling recently co-authored an article on authenticity and ancient beer in the Archaeology of Food and Foodways journal alongside her former mentor, VIU Anthropology Professor Dr. Marie Hopwood. The article discusses the Raise Your Glass to the Past experimental archaeology of beer project that Hopwood involved Ayling in when she was a student at VIU.

Now, Ayling is working on a master’s degree from Simon Fraser University and putting some of the brewing knowledge she gained to work as a commercial kombucha brewer.

“I am so proud of the work that Melissa is doing towards her Master of Arts degree at SFU and cannot wait to see what she does next,” says Hopwood. “Melissa is doing fabulous work to both highlight modern cultural identity through brewing, as well as using that information through experimental archaeology to put faces onto the past. She is a rock star!”

Why did you choose VIU for your education?

I was initially drawn to VIU for the small class sizes and potential to build connections. I attended a small high school, so I understood the importance of working closely with others in the classroom and interacting in a meaningful way with professors. VIU was also an ideal location for me. I was raised on a hobby farm outside of Courtenay so I was happy to be close to my family. 

Tell us a bit about your experience at VIU and in your program.

VIU was the ideal learning environment for me. From my first class, I knew the professors in my program were passionate and genuinely wanted to help us learn and become better people. I felt welcomed into the Anthropology department before I had even officially declared my major. As I progressed in the program, I was granted several opportunities to learn and grow outside of the classroom: a work-op with the Worldbridger film series run by Dr. Colleen McVeigh, and an international archaeology field school at Scladina Cave in Belgium with Dr. David Hopwood.

How did your program prepare you for further studies? 

Support and encouragement from my professors quite literally got me where I am today. I was allowed to explore topics and concepts that interested me, and this led not only to helping found an incredible research project at VIU but also the path to begin research for my graduate degree. All it took was one assignment that changed the trajectory of my life. I wrote a paper on baklava and its significance to Middle Eastern identity. I hadn’t realized that the relationship between food, culture and identity was something you could even study, but I knew then that it was the kind of research I wanted to pursue. I was recently published as a co-author on a paper I wrote alongside the professor who gave me that assignment.

I have been studious and have placed incredible value on education for as long as I can remember. I wanted a PhD since learning that having one meant getting to add letters to the end of your name. When I realized I wanted to be an anthropologist, my only option was academic training and experience. 

Can you share an experience where one of your professors made an impact on your learning experience?

My most impactful experience was co-founding the "Raise Your Glass To The Past" experimental archaeology project with Dr. Marie Hopwood. The general goal of this project is to make beers that are steeped in history, using evidence from archaeological sites around the world to create unique beverages that create a bridge between our sensory experiences and those of ancient peoples. Besides all the meetings where Marie and I imbibed (for science of course), watching this project grow from Marie’s initial ideas into the project it is today was exponentially inspirational for me as a young student looking for a path forward in academia. She let me in on all aspects of the creation of the research project, something that helped me greatly not only during my BA but also laid the foundations of research that I would eventually turn into my Master’s thesis. Marie gave me the forum to explore cultures and concepts that I was deeply passionate about, and she has continued to be an inspiration, one of my biggest cheerleaders and a dear friend. She continues to gently yet firmly encourage me to be a better academic, to push myself and to achieve my goals. 

What’s next for you? 

I am currently working on a Master’s in Archaeology at Simon Fraser University. By the end of next year, I hope to have successfully defended my thesis, “Drinking the Diaspora: An Archaeological Investigation into the Maintenance of Traditional Tigrayan Brewing Practices by Emigrant Ethiopian Women in British Columbia, Canada.” 

I am also a commercial kombucha brewer for Oddity Kombucha in Vancouver. I look forward to growing our brand and continuing to work at a job that I love.

What advice would you give VIU students following a similar trajectory as yourself? 

Take all the opportunities you can! Field schools and internships can be life-changing learning opportunities, and gaining experience in a variety of fields and disciplines can help you understand where you want to be and what you want to do. Remember that university isn’t easy for anyone and this is a time of growth that you will look back on fondly one day. Don’t take yourself too seriously, listen to your gut and try to find joy and friendship wherever you can.

Tags: Anthropology | Our Alumni

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