School Winner: Why do we find pandas so cute?

aisha-azad-quintin-kynaston17c-aisha-azad-croppedSchoolSo why do we, the human race, adore these loveable creatures? If you don’t then you’re not human, seriously if you find pandas ugly there is something wrong.

A behavioural neuroscientist called Edgar E. Coons thinks that humans find pandas so cute because of the hedonic mechanisms” their features set off in us.

They remind us of babies especially with their big eyes (the eyes are not that particularly big but the black patches around their eyes make them appear larger) round faces, snub noses and large heads (a large head and tiny body is much cuter than a tiny head and large body (like rats). Also the fact that they are extremely large and fluffy reminds us of a cuddly toy.

The way giant pandas tumble about reminds us of toddlers even though they are slightly larger than most toddlers (well, at least out of the ones I’ve met). Also it is pretty hilarious watching a panda try to walk, they look so funny waddling around. This video alone is enough evidence how funny pandas are when they walk.

Moving on to the real scientific reason as to why we find pandas cute.

It’s all to do with our brain making us feel a certain love towards pandas.

“According to Hamann, increased activity in the middle orbital cortex is usually associated with pleasure and positive emotion. Some evidence suggests the brain activity there is greater when the stimulus is ‘neotenous,’ which is to say it has juvenile characteristics — a button nose, big eyes, a large wobbly head, chubby extremities or pudgy cheeks.” – an article from the Washington Post where they asked Stephan Hamann, a psychology professor at Emory University, to explain why people find certain animals are cute.

“Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian zoologist who shared a Nobel Prize in 1973, was the first of many researchers to conclude that cuteness, or “baby schema,” is an evolutionary adaptation that triggers nurturing responses from adults — allowing survival of the cutest, in Darwinian terms.” – another section from the Washington Post Article in 2005.

Quintin Kynaston

I’m Aisha and I’m in Year 11. I’m currently doing my GCSEs in English, Maths, Triple Science and History. I did my French and Textles GCSE last year. I’m interested in pursuing a career in forensic science.

Science issue: The Science of Women in Science

17b-ellen-robertson-photoNewsThere are women in science. And then there is the science of women in science. Exploring and applying this science is important to me as a social psychologist, from the USA.

Why do we need a science of women in science? Even though women now participate in the workforce almost equally to men, 46.8% in the USA in 2015 (United States Department of Labor, 2016), they are still missing from many STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. In the USA in 2015, women made up only 15.4% of architecture and engineering professionals, 25.6% of computer and mathematical professionals, 29.8% of chemists and materials scientists, 24.5% of environmental scientists and geoscientists, and 37.6% of all other physical scientists (United States Bureau of Statistics, 2015).

One way of interpreting these statistics is that women are inherently worse at science than men, and unfortunately this is a common interpretation. However, research suggests that this is not the case. Melissa Hines’ (2004) in-depth work on gender development has shown that only very few and very specific cognitive abilities seem to be inherently different, such as three-dimensional, but not two-dimensional, mental rotation (better in men) and verbal fluency (better in women). In short, cognitive differences which do seem to be inherent are too specific and the gender difference too small to account for the much more dramatic difference in engagement in STEM fields.

So why are there more men in STEM than women?

Levine, et al (2015) summarise the primary barriers to women’s achievement in STEM fields as follows:

  1. Lack of female role models: if girls and women don’t see other women in science, they struggle to imagine themselves in science, and are discouraged from pursuing it;
  2. Women’s self-perceptions: gender stereotypes often make women see themselves as less capable than men in the sciences, which can undermine their success and further discourage them from pursuing science;
  3. Interactions with teachers, parents, and colleagues: if people believe the stereotypes and treat women as if they are less capable at science, women may be accepted less frequently into science positions, and taken less seriously even when they are accepted. Besides having professional consequences for these women, this may furthermore reinforce their own feelings of inability.

Why is this research necessary?

First of all, it’s important for the women among us to be aware that our barriers aren’t biological, but social. This brings our attention to things in our environment that try to limit us, and allows us to overcome them. Secondly, this research makes us all, men and women, realise that every word and every action play a role in determining other women’s opportunities in life.

Each of us might be treating men and women differently when it comes to science, and we might even be underestimating women’s abilities.

Therefore, it becomes the responsibility of all of us to contribute actively to a more equal society.

Ellen Robertson
PhD Student


Hines, M. Brain gender (2004). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Levine, M., Serio, N., Radaram, B., Chaudhuri, S., and Talbert, W. Addressing the STEM Gender Gap by Designing and Implementing an Educational Outreach Chemistry Camp for Middle School Girls. Journal of Chemical Education. 2015, 92, 1639−1644.

United States Bureau of Statistics. (2015). Women in the labor force: a databook. Washington D.C.: BLS Reports.

United States Department of Labor. (2016). Women in the Labor Force. Retrieved from

Career Path: Keeping up with the changes

17a-donna-2There are two lectures that stick in my mind about career guidance while at Cambridge studying Computer Science.  One advised that the ONLY career path worth doing was to get a smart suit, join one of three specific consultancies, move onto one of four specific banks, make your money by age thirty and retire to do the ‘programming stuff’.  I remember bristling at how restrictive this felt and how much the lecturer’s attitude echoed of the ‘Old Boy Network’.  [Editor’s comment : we encourage students to consider a very wide range of roles in our advice now!]

The second lecture was not specifically about careers, but the first of learning computer programming skills – using ‘BCP’, which is the forerunner to the more successful, yet still dated, ‘C’ language.  This seemed pointless initially – more historical footnote than of any practical use.  But key to these lectures was that this helped teach the basics of programming.

We learn the techniques, the lecturer explained, and we can adapt to any programming language.

This gave me confidence when applying to graduate schemes with a variety of technology companies.  Whatever I ended up doing, I could adapt if I didn’t enjoy it and try other things.  Initially, I joined a software company who did specialist software for pharmacies and finance companies, starting my future in software engineering.  My current role, now twenty years on, is a technical manager in charge of a team of 11 people who support a key fundraising system of Cancer Research UK, (CRUK).  What I have found over these 20 years is how much the technological businesses have to change to keep up technology itself and how those employed must adapt too.  My software company changed into a consultancy and branched out to provide technical expertise in a variety of business software.  Changing with my employers, I learned to become a technical specialist, often jumping and learning a new software package every few months.  As my own life changed and I had a family, I found returning to work after maternity leave easier, as I could pick up quickly what new direction the company had taken.

CRUK’s ambition is to improve survival rates of those with cancer to be 3 out of 4.  While my role in CRUK is not to do with research, I am excited to be part of this effort.  To achieve this vision, the charity needs to keep its technology up to date and soon our key fundraising system is to be replaced – this is a large change for the charity, involving overhauling of business processes, data transformations and ensuring the right technologies and skilled people are in place to continue to support the great work the charity is doing.

I am looking forward to this opportunity to use my own experience in learning changed technologies and work towards this goal in my role.

Donna Askew

Science at Cambridge: A cellular world of intricacy and beauty

16d-issy-pearce-mason-3Some people see beauty in the works by the great Masters of the Renaissance or in the words of Shakespeare, but I see beauty in the cellular world. It’s only when you sit back, slow down and look that you see what seems so simple is in fact a complex network of interdependent pathways and processes formed with such intricacy that it is frankly unbelievable it – and by extension life – exists at all. Science is much more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking, looking and analysing – so perhaps not so different from the study of art or literature.

What distinguishes the sciences from other disciplines is its universal application and connectivity.

An understanding of  how a virus can evade the host immune system by down-regulating cellular stress responses through the production of unique factors not only facilitates the development of targeted viral therapies but also allows the system to be exploited to treat other diseases. At first it seems counter intuitive to use a highly virulent engineered virus to treat cancer but the reality is that it is possible. The successful development of such treatment requires an understanding of the pathology of the virus and the cancer, the biochemical basis of the virus and how it can be manipulated, pharmacological trials and combination therapies – and of course medical practice. With this it is clear to see the importance of appreciating and utilising the bridges that join one discipline to another.

16d-issy-pearce-mason-2The natural sciences course at Cambridge truly embraces this ethos, providing a broad  grounding in the sciences on which specialisation can be built throughout the undergraduate course. I’m currently starting to specialise in the biochemical fields, with papers in Pathology, Pharmacology and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The first year course provides a solid grounding in the basics – making these papers highly accessible to students without a biological background at A-level: in fact there are relatively few mandatory requirements for most papers.

There really is nowhere better to study sciences, I’ve been to lectures given by Nobel prize winners and people at the cutting edge of their field.

However, it can be challenging, when your lecturer is speaking at 100 miles an hour as you’re flicking through the handout for the right pages – which never seem to be in order – and scribble down something that sounds useful, to appreciate the beauty, intricacy and finesse of what you’re being told and with that, what drew you here in the first place.

Issy Pearce-Mason
Undergraduate student