Science at Cambridge: Veterinary Science

8D Clare Wood

Clinical and clean, dirty and disgusting: you choose.

Veterinary medicine is my subject of choice. Most vet students will tell you they have known what they wanted to be since they were six. This was not the case for me. At school I had no idea what I wanted to do, other than that I enjoyed biology and wanted to work with animals. So, after I did some work-shadowing with vets and pulled some lambs out of sheep, I decided that this is the pathway for me.

It’s not all test tubes and lab coats in veterinary science (though we do use those). We have classes on ethics and welfare, animal behaviour, how to lift rabbits safely, why not picking up rabbits safely can cause lawsuits, and even on professionalism. We learn anatomy by dissection, and later getting to test our knowledge by poking and prodding (and then cuddling) live dogs.

For those who do want to take part in lab work, in third year vets and medics get the chance to be a ‘NatSci’ for a year and complete a lab-based research project. My interests lie in embryology and development, but there are many more subjects available in the Natural Sciences tripos (and outside too). I have gained a unique perspective on animal research which I believe is important as a future vet.

Another part of our course is extra-mural studies: weeks spent covered in various bodily fluids on farms, and in vet practices in later years. This summer I travelled to France to explore animal behaviour and training with an expert and her camels, llamas, pigs, goats and more. I got hands-on experience, learned how to apply clicker training to almost any behaviour problem, and even how knowledge of behaviour can allow us to better understand our human clients, as well as their animals.

Most fields of science are male-dominated, but not for veterinary medicine. My year group is approximately 75% female. Murray Edwards has a relatively large number of veterinary students, and so there is an established network in which we can share advice and guidance. The women’s campaign has recently launched a STEM group for women and non-binary people to share experiences and discuss gender-related issues in their departments. It was at one of these meetings that I discovered how privileged I am to attend lectures and supervisions where I am not the only woman in the room.

Veterinary science can be testing milk for antibiotic residues, or it can be modifying a horse’s diet to cure lameness. It can protect the population from epidemics like avian flu, and it ensures animal welfare on the farm and at the abattoir. We can use our knowledge of reproductive cycles and genetics to increase the number of healthy lambs born to an entire herd of sheep, or to increase the world’s panda population, one by one. Science can be clinical and clean or dirty and disgusting; I don’t yet know which of the many faces of veterinary medicine is for me but I do know that I’m on the right path.

Clare Wood



School Winner: Equine Therapy

Winning Entry Christ the King, IOW

8C Jasmin Brooks (Christ the King)
Jasmin Brooks

Autism is a developmental disorder that can cause problems with social interaction, language skills, repetitive behaviour and physical movement (1). Although many interventions are being studied, at present there is no cure. But since reading ‘The Horse Boy’ by Rupert Isaacson I understand that sometimes a cure is not particularly wanted, but rather simply the ability that one day your child will be able to live happily and independently.

What strikes me most in ‘The Horse Boy’ is not the seeking of a miraculous cure but the relationship that is created between Rowan (Isaacson’s son) and Betsy (his neighbour’s horse). Betsy was the alpha mare in her herd, she was known to have a fiery temper. However when Rowan ran into her field one day rolling and screaming beneath her hooves, she simply stood and dropped her head (a sign of equine submission). This bond was so great that Isaacson was able to start having a conversation with his son, whilst out riding, which he had previously struggled to do (2,3).

The biology behind ‘equine therapy’ is undetermined, but it may reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The gentle movement of the horse’s gait may also release the hormone oxytocin (also known as the ‘love hormone’). The hormone has been said to help the brain to focus attention on another individual (4,5). This could prove extremely beneficial in the future treatment of autism because this engagement with the child can help break down social interaction barriers. With this the child could be taught useful skills needed for everyday life.

Unhappy with the schooling system for children on the spectrum Isaacson set about creating his own therapy centre; whereby both children and adults are able to learn important skills without being confined to a classroom. In my opinion I think this is an awe-inspiring idea. Many people with autism have difficulty starting conversations or taking part in them properly, but at this centre they are able to familiarise with their surroundings and often talk about the things around them that interest them, without feeling pressurised or stressed (6). A small pilot study has shown promising improvements for a child’s movement sensitivity, sensory and cognitive awareness (7). Further research is needed to confirm these findings, but the initial results seem promising. Enlightened by Isaacson’s methods, many people over the UK and USA have set up animal associated therapy centres; not just for the autistic but also for people suffering from depression and anxiety.

Jasmin Brooks
Christ the King College, Isle of Wight

My name is Jasmin Brooks and an interest in the health and welfare of animals has led me wanting to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. I am studying A-level biology, chemistry and mathematics and have an interest in the study of gene therapy and its long term effects on the development of medicine. I am also a keen horse rider and I enjoy competing with my pony in dressage; I am always interested in developments in the area of utilising animals to improve human health.


  1. Accessed 08/02/16.
  2. Rupert Isaacson: The Horse Boy: A Father’s Miraculous Journey to Heal His Son. ISBN-13: 978-0141033631
  3. Rupert Isaacson: The Long Ride Home: The Extraordinary Journey of Healing that Changed a Child’s Life. ISBN-13: 978-0670922284
  4. VanFleet R and Faa-Thompson T: THE CASE FOR USING ANIMAL ASSISTED PLAY THERAPY Bri. J. Play Therapy, Vol. 6 (2010), pp 4–18. Accessed through
  5. Accessed 06/02/16
  6. Accessed 08/02/16.
  7. Accessed 08/02/16.

Science issue: Kyoto, Copenhagen, Paris – where next for the planet’s climate?

8B Yvonne Deng (at the Eden Project)
Yvonne Deng (at the Eden Project)

NewsYou may have heard about a big climate event in Paris at the end of last year; maybe you recall the hype around Copenhagen in 2009 and the term ‘Kyoto Protocol’ probably rings a bell. These were three important UN gathering of nations or ‘COP’ (Conference of Parties) meetings, which have been held once a year since 1995. The COP meetings are the annual highlights of the intense negotiation calendar of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Here, world leaders meet to discuss how humanity should deal with the threat of climate change. The UNFCCC process started in the early 1990s—yup, that’s over 20 years ago now (!)

The Kyoto Protocol, adopted during the 3rd COP meeting back in 1997 after several years of negotiation, was the first international treaty in which countries committed themselves to action on climate change. It was another 10 years, 2008, when the first commitment period actually started, but it was a good and ambitious treaty which the public at large took little notice of.

The latest treaty, the Paris Agreement, is almost the opposite: Small in substance, yet attracting lots of attention. This reflects the fact that as climate change has become more ‘mainstream’ the debate has heated up and consensus has become more elusive. The Paris Agreement does, for the first time, recognise that we should be aiming for less than a 1.5˚C global temperature rise, that this means phasing out fossil fuels in the medium term and that there is a responsibility for industrialised nations to help others by providing ‘climate finance’ so that all countries can ‘do their bit’. The actual action on emission reduction, however, is being left to individual countries themselves, an admission that legally binding agreements don’t work: Canada, for example, simply annulled their commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.

8B Climate Action Tracker (single)
The Climate Action Tracker.

I am fortunate to be part of the team behind the Climate Action Tracker, one of the few tools available to the public at large in gauging progress.

It is an independent assessment of the actions of individual countries showing not only the temperature increase to be expected if they meet their own stated emissions targets (‘what they say’), but also the temperature increase we can expect from existing policy (‘what they do’). This gap is still too big (see picture), but, more alarmingly, the pledges wouldn’t even achieve the Paris objective of 1.5C if they were backed up by policy.

Ultimately, our climate’s future will be decided in the interplay between national governments, business, local government and grassroots action. We will need all levels of society to check their activities against the Paris benchmarks and change trajectory where necessary. From businesses deciding on investments in carbon intensive industries to governments planning local and national infrastructure projects to purchases we make in our own lives, the question in the back of our minds should always be: Is this compatible with the internationally agreed goal of a fossil fuel phase out?

Yvonne Deng

Image credit/caption: The Climate Action Tracker assesses the gap between countries’ emission reduction ‘targets’ and the actual policies governments have put in place to achieve these targets. The gap is expressed in terms of the expected long-term mean global temperature rise compared to pre-industrial levels.

Career Path: Studying science opens new doors

Science Careers word cloud

CareerZoe Penfold-Fitch headshotHaving studied Natural Sciences as an undergrad, and then done a PhD in Quantum Physics, it may seem that my current job as a Strategy Consultant, working with businesses around the world, is a step in a completely different direction. In fact, there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t rely on the skills I developed as a scientist, and those skills make me much better at my job.

Companies come to my firm with problems – they want to know what new products to develop, what direction to take their company in, or how they can change the way they do things to work more efficiently. All companies work in very different ways, and the first thing you need to do is to get a really good understanding of what they do, how they do it, and the dynamics of the market they operate in – to do this well, you need to have an inquiring mind, and be able to ask the right questions in order to get all the information you need.

It’s exactly the same as getting to the bottom of a scientific problem – using logic and a set of rules to pinpoint what the important factors are before you go about solving the problem. Then, in forming a solution, you need to be both analytical and creative to get to the right answer that will really help the client. Again, those are both vital elements of how you work as a scientist – and it’s definitely not just about the analysis; science teaches you to be innovative, and look at the world in a different way.

Studying science opens so many doors – when I decided to move outside of academia, the question wasn’t ‘what can I do?’, it was ‘is there anything I can’t do now?’.

The possibilities are endless – last year, I travelled to Milan, Paris, New York, Miami, Mumbai and Dubai to work on fascinating business problems; my sister did a degree in Marine Biology, and is about to start work with the BBC producing wildlife documentaries; my mum studied Chemistry and then became a lawyer, working with fashion designers around the world to help them ensure that their designs don’t get copied; one of my best friends is in Boston where she’s helping to build a new type of particle detector which will be used at CERN at the very cutting edge of science.

Each one of us uses the skills we developed during our degrees every day, in a hundred different ways, and each one of us appreciates the wealth of opportunities we’ve opened up through studying science.

Zoe Penfold-Fitch

wordcloud from Purdue University, College of Science