Science at Cambridge: The Compelling and Creative World of Physics

Halfway through my degree, I can confidently say that there’s nothing I would rather be doing. Physics is a stimulating subject in so many ways, allowing a really deep understanding of how the physical world works, which can be excitingly counterintuitive.

Studying physics was a natural choice for me – I’ve always loved playing with maths, and physics extends that into making you consider what the maths is telling you about the real world. I enjoyed reading about physics at school, and studying it at university makes everything you’ve read in popular science books so much more compelling, by giving you tools to truly understand the concepts, and then use them to answer questions about how the universe operates.

It is not just the subject matter, but also the act of doing physics; I get a real rush as I suddenly figure out how to finish a question after over an hour’s thinking.

There’s so much stuff happening in the course: with labs, supervisions and extremely fast-paced lectures, it’s not possible to get bored. Many people wouldn’t consider physics to be a creative subject, but I would argue differently: devising solutions to problems you’ve never seen before requires a lot of creativity, and I think studying physics really demands and develops both this creativity and an analytic mind.

I have really enjoyed quantum mechanics this year, because the course hasn’t just introduced new concepts, but also new ways of thinking, in terms of symmetries, inner products and probabilities. This is one of the things I like most about studying physics: thinking in new ways is challenging, but also very exciting. It’s also satisfying just to be able to make predictions about the way microscopic systems behave, when it is so distant from my previous knowledge of the world. I’m really looking forward to third year as it will give me the chance to study subjects like particle physics which I have only previously read about in popular science books and news articles. I’m also excited to be able to do some of my own research, particularly in fourth year.

Murray Edwards is the best place I can imagine to study. There’s a real sense of community, where everyone wants to see everyone else succeed, and it’s inspiring to be surrounded by other women who are equally passionate about science. I’ve just started a year as co-chair of Cambridge University Physics Society, something which I could never have envisaged doing when I was at school. I think studying in Cambridge really gives you the courage to do crazy things!

Physics is a fantastic subject to study in all ways – stimulating, challenging, and ultimately rewarding.

The last two years have been thoroughly enjoyable and inspiring, and I feel confident knowing that whatever I choose to do after I graduate, my degree will have prepared me for it.

Fionn Bishop
Undergraduate student

School Winner: Secret Life of the Naked Mole Rat

Naked mole rats are undoubtedly ugly. With a hairless wrinkled body, small sharp claws and two large protruding teeth capable of moving independently, they appear more like a mutant from a horror film than a relation of the far cuter guinea pig. Yet this bizarre appearance masks a multitude of remarkable adaptations that allow them to survive in the small underground tunnels that form their challenging habitat.

These creatures seem to be largely insensitive to pain, even contact with acid barely affects them. They have evolved a unique ability to metabolise fructose, a mechanism only seen before in plants, in order to survive in incredibly low oxygen environments that would be fatal to humans. The naked mole rat also has a remarkably long life span for a rodent of its size: 32 years, whereas the common brown rat lives only two. Yet, it shows remarkable resistance to many of the adverse effects of ageing, including a disease which is the plague of the modern age – cancer.

Despite decades of study, involving bombarding the mole rats with gamma rays and implanting tumours, only two were ever discovered to have cancer.

So, it would appear we have a lot to learn from these peculiar subterranean rodents, and research at the University of Rochester has unearthed a possible mechanism for the naked mole rats’ cancer resistance. They produce a special type of hyaluronic acid, a sugar polymer that is present between cells in all mammals. In naked mole rats, however, the hyaluronic acid produced, called HMM-HA, has a much higher molecular mass – over five times larger than that of humans or mice – and is broken down much less rapidly. This leads to an abundance of the hyaluronic acid between cells. Researchers found that when they suppressed the gene that produces HMM-HA, or increased the concentration of enzymes that break it down, the cells could then become cancerous.

HMM-HA appears to work by increasing the contact inhibition of cells;  an anti-cancer mechanism that prevents cells from growing too close to each other, so preventing overcrowding, and the formation of tumours. This extraordinary ability seems to be a happy by-product of the naked mole rat’s unique appearance; it is believed that the larger hyaluronic acid molecules give the rodent’s skin the elasticity that is necessary for its life in small burrows underground. For this reason, hyaluronic acid is already in use in anti-wrinkle creams, and due to its properties as a cell lubricant, injections of it are a common treatment for arthritis.

This gives hope for its future as a cancer treatment, as unlike many possible cancer cures, it appears to be well tolerated by the body.

Not bad for a peculiar subterranean rodent.

Katerina Hutton
Dame Alice Owen’s School

“I’m in year 12, studying biology, chemistry, physics and maths. I’m particularly interested in the mechanisms of the human body and degenerative diseases, and plan on studying medicine at university.”