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

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