Science at Cambridge: Blurring the boundaries – Psychological and Behavioural Sciences

Inever really classed myself as a scientist; after all, I was arty, a writer, a people person and more into ‘why’ than ‘how’. Art and English literature were ‘my thing’, and quite honestly still are.  At school, Biology interested me – but only the stuff on things like the brain or hormones, so when I found psychology I felt as though I had hit the jackpot. Now, with my time at Cambridge nearly up, I can conclude that studying Psychological and Behavioural Sciences (PBS) has wonderfully blurred the boundaries between the arts and sciences, giving me the freedom to pursue whatever has taken my fancy.

Over the years, I have taken Natsci (Natural Sciences) papers, Sociology papers and Bio-Anth papers, learning about things from the lifecycle of an Angiosperm, to visual phototransduction and families created through assisted reproduction. It has been a learning curve, and at times I have wondered if I was in the right lectures. As this degree is still relatively new, it has been very open to feedback on what works and what doesn’t, and I feel that the students have been actively involved in shaping the content and structure of the course. It feels as though we have a voice beyond our essays, which was a welcome surprise coming to Cambridge.

Autism has always been the area of psychology that has interested me the most, and this year I have chosen to focus on it for my dissertation.

As well as analysing the data and drawing conclusions, I am also involved in the actual collection, conducting tests on language skills and motor ability with low-functioning, non-verbal children with autism. It is a big commitment, and requires a lot of effort and attention, but is  very hands on and I love the applied nature of this final year – I can put what I’ve learned in textbooks into the real world, and the idea that I am actively making a difference, no matter how small, is amazing.

I am graduating in 3 months, and have no firm plans – I may study Clinical Mental Health Sciences at UCL, I may have a year out travelling or get a job on the Isle of Wight. At first this worried me, but I feel as though my degree has not only equipped me with a huge and wide depth of knowledge but given me a new perspective on how I go about my daily life. I often catch glimpses of babies as evolutionarily designed information absorbers, London tube journeys as social experiments or my friends as bizarre machines at the mercy of their brains.

It’s been transformative, and now, I am confident in saying I am a scientist.

What you should expect for PBS:

-You can’t escape statistics no matter how hard you try.

-You will hear about Phineas Gage and attachment at least once a week.

-The degree doesn’t teach you how to read minds.

-Never mention Freud in an essay without saying he’s wrong.

-You’ll learn great chat up lines (Roses are red, Violets are blue. If you were a null Hypothesis, I would fail to reject you).

-…And even better jokes (Who is the most emotional woman in the world? Amy G. Dala).

– Even the best and brightest often can’t spell ‘Pycholology’.

Meg Fairclough
Undergraduate student

Science issue: They just keep moving the line

Flow chemistry equipment

One of the things that is challenging about scientific research is that the problems needing to be solved are constantly evolving. Solutions which were previously considered to be adequate may become inadequate due to changing priorities, meaning that they need to be readdressed.

One such issue which I have become interested in is making peptides.

Peptides are long chains made by joining amino acids residues by amide bonds. Peptides, and proteins (which is the name used for long peptides) are vital components of many of the processes of life, and in recent years there has been ever increasing interest in the use of peptides as potential for treatments for a wide range of diseases.

In 1984 R. B. Merrifield was awarded the Nobel Prize for his excellent work developing a technique to make peptides known as “Solid Phase Peptide Synthesis” or SPPS. The discovery of SPPS revolutionized peptide synthesis, enabling scientists to routinely make increasingly complex peptides, and is to this day the most commonly used method for peptide synthesis. However, SPPS requires large excesses of both the amino acids you are joining together and the chemicals used to form the linkage. As the earth’s resources become increasingly depleted this waste becomes less and less acceptable, meaning that new ways to make peptides must be developed. In order to do this, we as scientists need to be as creative and innovative as possible to come up with new solutions for old problems. One potential solution to the challenge of peptide synthesis is the emerging field of flow chemistry. In flow chemistry, machines are assembled which use pumps to pump streams of reagents through thin tubing. By doing things like meeting two streams containing different reagents together, heating or shining light on the tubing, or flowing the reaction stream through a bed of solid reagents we can effect reactions with very fine control, which has been shown to be very beneficial.

My initial work in this area focused on making a type of naturally occurring molecules known as cyclooligomeric depsipeptides.

The cyclooligomeric depsipeptides synthesized with the dipeptidol monomer units highlighted.

These molecules have repeating dipeptidol units derived from amino acids which are cyclized around to form a ring and have been seen to have interesting bioactivity. By using flow chemistry we able to make these molecules with significantly less effort, as one set up of the machines could be used to make all the amide bonds in the molecule with only minor revision to form the final ring closures. Additionally, we were able to significantly improve the yields for these reactions when compared to previous syntheses. As well as making three natural products (beauvericin, bassinolide and enniatin C) we were able to make three related compounds which have never been made before. This family of molecules can now be tested to see if they have any interesting bioactivity.

There is a way to go until we will know if flow chemistry can augment or even replace the current methods for commercial peptide synthesis, but this work definitely supports the idea that readdressing problems from the past can lead to improvements for our future.

Dr Zoe E. Wilson
Academic Fellow in Organic Chemistry

To read more about our synthesis of the cyclooligomeric depsipeptides see: Daniel Lücke, Toryn Dalton, Steven V. Ley and Zoe E. Wilson*, “Synthesis of natural and unnatural cyclooligomeric depsipeptides enabled by flow chemistry”, Chem. Eur. J., 2016, 22 (12), 4206 – 4217. DOI: 10.1002/chem.201504457

“I recently presented my research at the ACS Fall Meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. For this I recorded a 3 minute summary talk with the ASC Scientific video lab where I discuss this research in more detail.”

Take a look:

[wpvideo cosEMUxD]

 

Career Path: Women in STEM – working together

Women make up nearly half of the UK workforce but only around 13% of those working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) occupations, and less than 20% of senior managers in the City

In 2011, sitting in a university dorm room in Cambridge, I was part of a lengthy conversation amongst science students which stumbled into the topic of women in STEM.  Why do there still seem to be fewer women in most STEM roles compared to men? And what could we do to help change this?

4 years later, after graduating and having all followed differing career paths, we came back to the question of how we could share our experiences and provide some support to young women looking to pursue their interest in traditionally male-dominated fields. We decided to launch a small charity and designed a programme focusing on mentoring female students in year 12 (lower sixth).

Mentoring has been an rewarding and eye-opening experience for us (as well as we hope for our mentees) and we have learnt that there are a lot of opportunities available for budding young scientists and mathematicians even before reaching university or starting an apprenticeship. Through sharing networks and searching online, the students we have worked with have met with young engineers, work-shadowed at leading biochemistry companies and even completed work experience at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. This has on occasion required a little persistence and bravery to step outside of their comfort zones but they have invariably been rewarded by scientists and academics who are more than happy to support others in exploring possible future career options.

We also want to help change community attitudes towards women in STEM and finance. Participants on the programme are encouraged to organise an event so that they can in turn become a positive role model in their local communities. One of our students went back to her junior school to run a science experience day whilst another organised a ‘women in science’ assembly.

These are our own career choices, just a few of the many open to those with degrees in science.

Freya Scoates, Research Scientist

I am a Senior Research Scientist who runs projects developing pesticides and specialising in entomology (the study of insects). Most days I am either planning, running or reporting on the most recent studies. This includes counting insects, designing statistical analyses and giving presentations on the results. I enjoy the challenge of running complex projects but sometimes struggle with many trips in and out of grain silos!

Paddie Ingleton – Science Teacher

I am a science teacher in an inner-city comprehensive school. I nominally spend my days assessing pupil work and planning lessons, but the real challenge of what I do is trying to cultivate a classroom where pupils are engaged with the learning and do well both academically and otherwise. I enjoy the challenge of trying to find the best ways to help pupils learn, and am always surprised by their humour and resilience.

Emily Hardy – Biochemistry Scientist

I work on custom cell-line engineering projects using genome editing tools such as CRISPR-Cas9. I work on the design, production and validation of these cell lines which can then be used by our clients as models for disease or novel drug screening. I spend the majority of my time doing cell culture, designing experiments and analysing results.

Helen Gaffney, Investment Associate

I am an Investment Associate in a Private Equity firm. We assess and buy companies and then work with their management teams to try to improve their profitability. A typical day can include running analysis on sales data or building a financial model to understand better how a particular company could improve. I enjoying applying the mathematical and general analytical skill I learnt whilst studying science to real-life situations. I am also glad to have gained a deeper understanding about how the world around me works even where this is not directly related to my day-to-day work.

Helen & the Equilateral Team
http://www.equilateralfoundation.co.uk/

Science at Cambridge: Working towards renewable energy

17d-daniella-sauven-1Materials Science for me was a good middle ground between engineering and “pure” science, as it lies at the boundaries between chemistry, physics, and engineering. It is a very directly applied science, featuring in all aspects of technology from mobile phones to buildings, weighing scales to kettles… everything is made of a material, and that material has been chosen for specific properties that allow the final product to operate as it does. I particularly love my practical sessions in the lab, where I get to use incredibly powerful microscopes (for example, a Scanning Electron Microscope, which magnifies up to 300,000 times!) to observe microstructures of materials, and see how that affects its properties. I also occasionally get to smash things!

When I was applying to university, I knew that I wanted to eventually end up, somehow, in the renewable energy industry. There were a lot of paths that I could have chosen to take, and I considered a variety of options. Eventually I decided I would apply to Cambridge’s Natural Science course. The breadth of the course in first year allowed me more time to decide what I wanted to focus on- there was even the possibility of changing to Chemical Engineering in second year. Now that I am in second year, I am very happy to be studying Materials Science and Chemistry.

Since studying Material Science, I have become more aware about how processes are energy intensive and how developers don’t necessarily consider the sustainability of the process or product.

This has become an area of science I want to research more into, and has encouraged me to look beyond university to organisations that are undertaking this work. One such example of this is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is working towards the idea of a “Circular Economy”. A different route I am considering is that of independent energy suppliers, who tend to be making a much greater effort than the “Big Six” energy suppliers to invest in renewable energy. The exploration of these paths would not have occurred to me if I hadn’t chosen to study my degree course.

Studying a science degree, and being continually encouraged to question “Why?” to every next discovery or piece of understanding, spills over into my everyday life, and opens up a new way of thinking.

17d-daniella-sauven-2The best part of a science degree is how many doors it opens for you. You are not restricted to a life of research and academia. There are many opportunities in industry but you can go far beyond this too; charities, investment, law, the possibilities are endless. A science degree provides you with the ability to take apart any problem in a logical, objective and analytical way, and find an effective solution.

Daniella Sauven
Undergraduate student

University