Science at Cambridge: The Beauty of Mathematics

15d-isabella-woo-photo-1UniversityMy name is Isabella Woo and I am currently in my second year studying Mathematics at Murray Edwards College.

When I was in high school, I was fortunate to have participated in a few years of Olympiad Maths trainings in Hong Kong. Having learnt a range of mathematical concepts during these trainings, I found studying abstract systems and mathematical methods and finding ways to integrate them when solving problems truly enjoyable.

I was also fascinated by how ideas in different branches of Maths were closely interconnected, e.g. sometimes we can find a geometric interpretation of a result in algebra. Therefore, I decided to pursue a Maths degree in order to have a deeper understanding of the beauty of Mathematics.

Among all courses I have taken so far, I enjoyed the courses on group theory the most. I knew nothing about groups before I went to Cambridge, and so it seemed to be very hard to understand when it was first introduced to me during the IA Groups (a course in first year Cambridge Maths) lectures. However, once I got used to the basics, I started to appreciate the beautiful structures of groups. For instance, we may have two groups sharing very similar properties. Then by using certain criteria we may actually prove that they are “homomorphic” to each other. Sometimes we can divide a group into smaller classes with nice properties, producing a new funny group, i.e. the “quotient” group. Apart from these examples, mathematicians still have numerous ideas on how we can play with groups, and some other abstract objects like rings, fields and modules. Having completed IA Groups and IB Groups, Rings and Modules, I still wish to know more about the structures of these objects, and so I plan to study group theory at a more advanced level by taking several Part II courses on abstract algebra next year.

Besides lectures and supervisions, recently I enjoy going to the Murray Edwards Maths gathering every Sunday.

This is a new activity which has just started this year. It provides all girls doing Maths at Murray Edwards with an invaluable opportunity to sit down together, have some snacks and drinks, and most importantly, talk about Maths that they have been involved in. A few weeks ago, I shared about how we can make use of Set Theory to solve and visualize a Number Theory problem. I felt very grateful to have received some very thoughtful responses from my peers. Giving this talk did not only boost my confidence in creating and talking about my own ideas in Maths, but also allow me to gain insights from others’ responses.15d-isabella-woo-photo-2

The beauty of Mathematics, in which different theories are blended together to make new discoveries, never fails to amaze me. If it does amaze you as well, you should definitely consider studying Maths, as there are no better ways to satisfy your love for Maths. A Maths degree will also equip students with the ability to understand and analyze the complexities of the world better and therefore benefit them in everyday life.

I would encourage those who are interested in doing a Maths degree to participate in Olympiad Maths events, or read Maths beyond the A-level syllabus. This should give you a good taste of the subject. And always remember that the key in Maths is to SOLVE problems. So happy solving!

Isabella Woo
Undergraduate student

School Winner: How a virus outplayed the military

15c-1-sadiyah-zamen-the-ncsSchoolEuropean colonisation of America began in 1492. But how did the Europeans exactly colonise America? What were their tactics? You may be thinking it was due to the help of the Conquistadors or the advanced weaponry. But, something much smaller, in fact microscopic helped Europe colonise America:  the Variola virus.

When the Europeans travelled to America, they transmitted a virus which was foreign to the Native Americans. Why was this virus so significant? This virus caused a disease called small pox; a lethal disease that killed thousands of Native Americans and ultimately helped the Europeans colonise America.

This image is from this website:
This image is from this website:

What is the Variola virus? The Variola virus is a pathogen which is a member of the genus Orthopoxvirus. The dumbbell shaped core contains the double stranded DNA. Surface tubules are found on the outside of the outer envelope. These surface tubules attach to the host cell’s membrane receptors allowing the virus to bind onto the host cell.

How did this dangerous virus spread to the Native Americans from the Europeans? Small pox is an extremely contagious disease. The Variola virus can be easily transmitted when an infected person sneezes or coughs. Contaminated clothing and contact with smallpox scabs can also spread the Variola virus.

We now know how the Variola virus can be transmitted. But how do these microscopic particles drastically take over the body?

To begin with, the Variola virus attaches to the host cell and the host cell takes in the virus. The DNA of the Variola virus is then released into the cell, and these will start to replicate. Subsequently, the new strands of DNA are taken in by the developing spherical viral particles; as a result these particles will mature. Most of these mature viral particles will remain inside the host cell as intracellular mature viruses. Intracellular mature viruses are released from the host cell when the cell breaks down. The intracellular mature viruses can enter new host cells inside the infected person’s body, by fusing with the cell membrane. This is how the Variola virus infected the Native Americans and caused smallpox.

Small pox has frightening array of symptoms. The initial symptoms of smallpox are headaches, high fevers and muscle aches. Shortly after, the Variola virus activity in the skin cells will cause pustules to develop across the skin.  Haemorrhagic smallpox can cause fatality because this type of smallpox causes excessive bleeding of the skin, mucous membrane and the gastrointestinal track.

To conclude, thousands of Native Americans died because they were exposed to a new virus (the Variola virus), when the Europeans travelled to America. Europe didn’t colonise America because of their clever political tactics or military strategies – it was due to a minute particle and its devastating effects on the Native American population.

Sadiyah Zaman
The NCS (Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre)

My name is Sadiyah Zaman and I wrote this article because I have a passion for health care and I’m fascinated by diseases, the human anatomy and medicine.

School Winner: The healing power of what we believe

nazifa-khanom-the-ncsSchool15c-1-nazifa-khanom-the-ncsIt is said that in the English Language, many of the words and phrases we express come from the imagination of the great literature playwright Shakespeare. My favourite that I have come across so far is: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” This statement made in the play Hamlet, made me wonder about a topic that is prominent in science today: the placebo effect.


“a substance given to someone who is told that it is a particular medicine, either to make that person feel as if they are getting better or to compare the effect of the particular medicine when given to others” Cambridge English dictionary

The placebo effect has caused much debate over the years due to the ethical issues it raises.

However, there have been many cases and examples that appear to support the use of this ‘fake medicine’. One historic example is related to the army doctor Henry Beecher, who had his nurses supply a saline solution injection to injured soldiers as his quantity of morphine was extremely scarce during the Second World War II.

He found that it worked for many soldiers as they did start to feel better and recover from their injuries.

However, the effectiveness of these placebo medicines is dependent on many factors. Pills that are a flat are deemed less effective than capsules but capsules are deemed less effective than injections. Also, the higher the quantity of the ‘medicine’ the greater effect it has on a patient.

Aside from reducing the use of scarce medicine, placebos have also been used as a control for clinical drug testing by giving half of the test subjects the new drug and the other half a placebo. Although this may seem to provide accurate results and comparisons, it has been argued that it would be much more beneficial for drug companies to give half the test subjects an old drug for the same purpose rather than a placebo to make comparisons on how effective the new drug is.

So why do we not encourage the use of placebos in clinical care?

Well, the major problem we have to acknowledge is that it’s pretty much the equivalent of a doctor lying to their patient which violates the trust that a patient has with them and also undermines the credibility of a doctor. Despite this, BBC news reported that in a survey, it was discovered that 97% of GPs have prescribed a placebo at least once.

So, next time you get a prescription think about whether or not it’s really medicine to make you feel better or just a little sugar pill that you believe will make you feel better.

Nazifa Khanom
The NCS (Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre)

“My name is Nazifa and I am a year 12 student currently studying Biology, Chemistry, Maths and English Literature. I would like to pursue a career in pharmacy.”