Science at Cambridge: Chemistry

UniversityWhile at sixth form, I attended one of the Cambridge subject masterclasses for Natural Sciences – which gave me the opportunity to learn about the course and take part in lectures and lab classes at the university. At the time, I was only just starting to consider Cambridge as somewhere to study – it was only once I had specialised in science and maths subjects at A level that I began to stand out academically.

After the subject masterclass, I attended a Cambridge Open Day, where I had the opportunity to visit Murray Edwards College for the first time. Having spent most of the day visiting the more traditional colleges in town, the college was very refreshing with its more modern outlook and beautiful surroundings and I realised that I had finally found somewhere I really could fit in.

Natural Sciences is one of the most flexible science degrees – and this is what really attracted me to it. Having the option to delay picking my favourite subject for a couple of years was definitely one advantage, and employers also appreciate the broader understanding you gain of all science subjects. I have now chosen to specialise in Chemistry, and am particularly interested in organic chemistry since you can really understand why reactions happen and predict methods of synthesising new, useful molecules.

3D Kate Prescott rowingChemistry also has many practical applications across so many different industries. The pharmaceutical industry needs chemists to design and synthesise new drugs; the oil and gas industry wants to develop new methods of improving fuels by modifying their chemical composition; the engineering industry needs to understand how materials behave and react under different conditions; and so on. Therefore, Chemistry has the potential to improve so many aspects of our lives – in everything from the food we eat to the cleaning products in our bathrooms, and this is something I really love about my subject.

However, the more I learn the more ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions spring to mind. It’s amazing – you can keep delving deeper and deeper into a subject, trying to understand exactly how the world around us works. For example, if two molecules react, one can ask ‘why did one functional group react in preference to another?’ – which requires balancing several different kinetic and thermodynamic factors such as the relative reactivity of each group, stability of the possible products and the shape of the molecule. But then we could ask, ‘how does this form a new chemical bond?’ – requiring an understanding of electronic interactions, leading into yet more questions. Eventually, one can get down to mathematical descriptions of electrons and their energies – quantum mechanics, and a level at which Chemistry and Physics interact.

I would really encourage GCSE and A level students to continue studying science. Science at university is so much more exciting than at school and exams become less about memorising textbooks and more about applying our understanding to different situations. If you love to question everything and want to study a subject with practical applications, then science could be for you.

Kate Prescott
Undergraduate student

School Winner: The Quantum World

3C Alice Turnock photoWinning Entry George AbbotSchoolSince listening to Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili discuss their book ‘Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology’ at Surrey University last October, I’ve been immensely fascinated by the way that quantum mechanics, despite only affecting the very small, can underpin science and even explain how our bodies work.

In the early twentieth century, scientists were thrown, for they had thought they understood physics. The laws of quantum mechanics don’t obey Newtonian laws, therefore many were sceptical of this new field. Despite still lacking understanding of the mechanisms of quantum mechanics today, it has now been suggested that events on the quantum scale can have wider implications on the observable universe.

Whilst the field of quantum biology may sound unfamiliar, it was first established by Per-Olov Löwdin in 1963, who suggested that mutations in DNA may be explained by quantum tunnelling. DNA’s double helix is held together by hydrogen bonds between base pairs on nucleotides. As a hydrogen atom joins the two strands of DNA, it can determine whether or not a gene mutates. Furthermore, a singular hydrogen atom is vulnerable to quantum weirdness, due to its small size.

Löwdin proposed that, as the hydrogen atom is normally situated closer to one nucleotide than another, mutations may occur when the hydrogen atom moves by quantum tunnelling to be situated closer to the other nucleotide, and therefore be ‘wrongly’ positioned. Mcfadden and Al-Khalili developed this idea using the superposition principle. This would suggest that before being observed, the hydrogen atom would be in both positions at the same point in time (thus mutated and not mutated). In the presence of an observer, the hydrogen atom would take up a localised position, and a mutation would occur if this was closer to the ‘wrong’ nucleotide.

Whilst undoubtedly perplexing, quantum tunnelling is perhaps best described with an analogy. If you were to kick a ball up a steep hill, you would expect it to reach a point below the peak of the hill before rolling back down. Quantum tunnelling suggests that the ball would instead be able to ‘tunnel’ through the hill, ending up on the opposite side.

Understanding genetic mutations would allow us to prevent and control them. Mcfadden and Al-Khalili are in the process of testing their theory, and have deliberated experiments that involve the comparison of regular DNA against modified DNA, where hydrogen atoms are replaced with deuterium atoms. If their theory on genetic mutation is correct, then the modified DNA would mutate significantly less than regular DNA, for the deuterium would be much less likely to move by quantum tunnelling due to its greater size.

Whilst the results of the experiments are far away, the possibility of such a medical advance is hugely exciting. 4 in 10 people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer over their lifetime, and there were around 162,000 deaths from cancer in 2012. Being able to understand quantum tunnelling in relation to genetic mutation has the potential to save millions of lives, and assist greatly in medical progression in helping to treat cancer.

“If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet” (Bohr), as we continue to be shocked by the quantum world, we will continue to develop understanding of more aspects of life.

Alice Turnock
Year 12, George Abbot School

My name is Alice Turnock and I study chemistry, biology, mathematics and English literature at George Abbot school in Guidlford. I am hoping to study medicine next year and writing a blog entry allowed me to research and explore a concept this is extremely relevant. 

In my spare time I enjoy reading and spending time with friends.

Science issue: Green Knowledge

News3B Jenny Bavidge lecturingThis coming September will see Murray Edwards hosting the biennial conference of the UK and Ireland branch of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment. Our theme is ‘Green Knowledge’ and over three days, we’ll hear papers and listen to readings which attempt to bring the approaches and reading practices of literary criticism, which is a pretty indoorsy sort of discipline, to environmental concerns.

We’ll hear from scholars of the early modern period discussing, among other things, cannibalism and ‘ecophobia’ in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus; from the eighteenth century there will be papers on Irish birdlife and confrontations with more exotic fauna in a presentation titled ‘Poet meets Penguin’, as well as panels on contemporary novelists, dramatists and poets such as Barbara Kingsolver and Kathleen Jamie for whom environmental crisis is an immediate and pressing concern.

To climate change scientists some of this activity might seem like the humanities keeping themselves busy with window-dressing the apocalypse. It’s true that when we turn our attention to the environment we’re often doing so as we simultaneously pursue our own very anthropocentric and narrow concerns with the minutiae of particular literary texts or the workings of language but thinking about how we encounter, count, classify, and respond to the natural world has to be an important part of how we address our ethical and pragmatic relationship with the environment.

One of my ASLE UKI colleagues has recently taken a BA in Science with the Open University so that, in his own words, he can ‘know what he’s talking about..’ and although it would be wonderful if we were all so dedicated it’s unlikely that most humanities scholars can so successfully close the gap between what, in 1959, C.P. Snow famously called the ‘two cultures’ of the sciences and the humanities. Within my own subject, English, new areas of study are opening all the time due to these sorts of interdisciplinary conversations: we can now talk about new departures in the ‘environmental humanities’ or the ‘medical humanities’. These new departures encompass work like that of my fellow Fellow in English Raphael Lyne which brings together cognitive science and literary criticism to think about what literature ‘knows about your brain’.

Our closing address will be delivered by the BBC’s environmental correspondent Roger Harrabin (some free places for the public will be available for this lecture, get in touch with us at for further details). His intervention will no doubt help us to think about how telling stories and representing the natural world in daily news and popular debate are also visible in our literary narratives, poetry, film-making and visual art. We’ll be trying in our research, and then in our teaching, to be aware of how our culture understands the natural world which supports it, how we frame and represent the environment in ways which sometimes support its protection and celebrate its glories, or sometimes overwrite it with our own concerns and limitations. And if we work really hard and learn from our colleagues in Natural Sciences and Physics, also to become aware of the ways in which language and our world views reproduce or are influenced by ecology and natural systems. It’s particularly fitting that we can do so in the environment of Murray Edwards where our buildings and gardens form variously smooth and jagged juxtapositions of concrete and clay.

Dr Jenny Bavidge

3B Jenny Bavideg - head

Career Path: Bringing the scientific method to the classroom

“Oh!”, they say and you see their face light up as the penny drops. This is one of the joys of working in teaching. Currently I’m working in teacher professional development, at the UCL Institute of Education, and I see that face on teachers too. One of the courses I run explains the neuroscience of learning and the teenage brain. There are changes in the brain during the teenage years, a sort of puberty of the brain, that helps to explain what can otherwise seem like inexplicable behaviours. In addition we have some fairly good (in terms of well evidenced) theories of learning based in current neuroscience. Armed with this knowledge teachers can plan their lessons better, and at key points in that course I see the ‘penny drops’ face.

Being a science teacher with a strong academic background, including time spent in research, I am able to bring what I know about the scientific method to the classroom. Neuroscience, in which I did my MSc and MPhil, is one of my favourite subjects: it is fascinating, but it is also an incredible tool for improving learning. When students understand how the brain works they understand why revision is important and how to go about it. When teachers understand they are able to make their lessons more productive.

I apply the rigour of evidence and scientific thought to my teaching as whole. When someone says “you should do this, it improves learning”, my first question is ‘what’s the evidence?’ and my second is ‘what’s the mechanism?’; and I owe that to my scientific training. In a profession inundated with initiatives and pressure from all directions, it is helpful to be able to look at each suggestion in this way. It is one of the reasons I am glad to have pursued the sciences, and one of the reasons I am passionate about sharing that understanding of the scientific method with students. I know that whether or not my students become the STEM professionals of the future, they will need to make decisions for themselves and their communities. Armed with scientific skills they will be better placed to make informed decisions.

I love to share my passion not just for the scientific method but also just for science itself. It can be a challenge to teach a subject everyone has to study up to 16, and though it can be heart warming to have a student who from the outset loves science, it is brilliant to be able to turn on a student who is switched off from the subject. “Miss, science isn’t important to my life!”, and variations of that are statements I have heard often. Relishing this, I turn to the student and say “Tell me something that is important to you”, and then proceed to link whatever they say to science. I always get there!

I’m returning to the classroom to teach this September and can’t wait. Although studying at Cambridge wasn’t easy, I loved it because I love learning. I think one of the reasons I love teaching so much is this love of learning. As the end of term approaches, I remember another phrase that students would throw at me, this one generally reserved for one of the last lessons of term: “Miss, can we do something fun today?”. I always take great pleasure in replying: “Yes, we are going to do something fun today [dramatic pause as students start beaming and almost jumping out their seats]. We are going to… [extra pause, as they look at me expectantly]…do some learning!”

Misbah Arif


3A Misbah Arif Using the context of chocolate to teach Year 4 students about particles
Using the context of chocolate to teach Year 4 students about particles

Science at Cambridge: Materials science

University2D Jennifer Robinson (3)

Driving technology forward from the stone age to the modern day

I have just completed my third year at Cambridge, and have specialised in materials science within the Natural Sciences Tripos. I have always been fascinated by the physical world – wondering ‘why does this happen?’ and ‘how can we make use of this phenomenon in daily life?’. That approach lay behind my desire to study materials science – which combines a study of fundamental science through a grounded application-driven perspective. Many scientific and engineering problems faced today (and indeed throughout human history) are due to material limitations, meaning that developments in materials technology play a crucial role in improving lifestyle. All the things that I have learnt about in my degree are in some way relevant to everyday life, which I find particularly rewarding.

At school I enjoyed maths, physics, and chemistry – but wasn’t quite sure which science subject I liked the most. During my first year of Natural Sciences I duly studied those subjects, in addition to materials science – a subject I knew little about, since it is not taught at GCSE or A Level. But it was an excellent ‘third’ choice! After my first year, I realised that materials science combined the aspects of physics and chemistry that I loved, and let me pursue the subjects to a high level. That is one of the great benefits of the Natural Sciences course at Cambridge – the first two years are flexible, allowing you to study subjects that you may not have done at school before making a final specialisation.

Materials science is (as the name suggests!) the study of the structure and properties of different types of materials from the microscopic to macroscopic length scale. It is a relatively new, interdisciplinary field, and combines aspects of physics, chemistry and engineering. As such, materials scientists are uniquely placed to understand the link between the underlying science of a material or phenomena, and how this can be made use of in a particular application (eg. how processing affects final properties).

One aspect of materials science I find particularly exciting is the development of new materials with superior properties. Some examples include: shape memory alloys (eg. for biomedical implants like stents which change shape at body temperature); polymer ‘plastic’ electronics for flexible and thin display screens; the use of gallium-nitride based light-emitting diodes for low cost energy efficient lighting; and advanced composite design (eg carbon nanotubes are stronger than Kevlar).

However, materials science is not just about novel materials. During my degree I have become aware of the importance of the selection and optimisation of existing materials for industrial use – whether that is for structural reasons, product efficiency, or ease and cost of manufacture. As I begin to consider my future beyond Cambridge, it is really this reoccurring issue which interests me, and is also of commercial interest in a variety of science and engineering industries.

I have enjoyed my degree just as much as I thought that I would, and would recommend it to anyone considering studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge. All science subjects are challenging, but that makes them more interesting and rewarding to study. It is very satisfying to look back on my three years at Cambridge and realise how much I have learnt, and I am looking forward to doing the same again when I finish my MSci next summer.

Recent graduate 2015