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

Science at Cambridge: Stuff matters – understanding how materials behave

When I came to Cambridge I thought I’d end up in Physics, but I’m currently in my third year doing Materials Science! I’d barely even heard of materials science before I did Natural Sciences – the closest I’d come to it was the book Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik, but it was interesting enough that I would choose materials science as one of my options in first year. Quite literally speaking, it made me notice the things around me, and I wanted to know more.

Essentially, materials science is about how different materials behave, both on a macroscopic level (like how beams bend) and on a microstructural level (like how metals are basically made up of tiny grains), and how these macroscopic properties emerge from different kinds of microstructure (which are also often different for different materials). Add in electrical properties, magnetic properties, manufacturing processes, the effect of temperature, corrosion, mechanical stresses and much more, and the result is an interdisciplinary subject that combines physics, chemistry and engineering to explain matter and use stuff well. There’s enough theory in materials science to keep the physicist in me relatively satisfied, and there’s enough practical applications that the everyday relevance more than makes up for any fulfilment deeper theoretical intricacy would otherwise bring.

One of the best things about studying materials science is being able to see the way scientific concepts fit together and are used in items that we take for granted every day.

In second year, I had the chance to take apart a kettle and use equipment in the lab to identify which materials were used, how they were made, and why they were chosen, and all of this using methods that we’d been taught in our practicals and lectures. It was challenging, fun and gratifying to basically pick something apart and figure out how and why it worked.

More recently, I’ve enjoyed working on a literature review, in which we get to pick a topic and have several weeks to read up on the area and summarise and evaluate it. I was reading many papers on the many ways people are attempting to induce magnetism in graphene, and although this started off as quite intimidating, by the end of it I’d learnt so much that I’d begun to get excited about the possibilities if graphene could be used in this way – including significant applications for spintronics (where a particle’s intrinsic spin is used to store and manipulate data, instead of its charge, as in conventional electronics), which would allow massive improvements in current data manipulation capabilities.

Studying materials science – especially in Cambridge – has been such an enriching experience, partly because it’s so interdisciplinary and partly because it allows a much deeper appreciation of the way the world physically works.

I have definitely enjoyed myself for the past three years, and would recommend it for any curious mind!

Danielle Ho En Huei
Undergraduate Student

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 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

Science at Cambridge: A cellular world of intricacy and beauty

16d-issy-pearce-mason-3Some people see beauty in the works by the great Masters of the Renaissance or in the words of Shakespeare, but I see beauty in the cellular world. It’s only when you sit back, slow down and look that you see what seems so simple is in fact a complex network of interdependent pathways and processes formed with such intricacy that it is frankly unbelievable it – and by extension life – exists at all. Science is much more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking, looking and analysing – so perhaps not so different from the study of art or literature.

What distinguishes the sciences from other disciplines is its universal application and connectivity.

An understanding of  how a virus can evade the host immune system by down-regulating cellular stress responses through the production of unique factors not only facilitates the development of targeted viral therapies but also allows the system to be exploited to treat other diseases. At first it seems counter intuitive to use a highly virulent engineered virus to treat cancer but the reality is that it is possible. The successful development of such treatment requires an understanding of the pathology of the virus and the cancer, the biochemical basis of the virus and how it can be manipulated, pharmacological trials and combination therapies – and of course medical practice. With this it is clear to see the importance of appreciating and utilising the bridges that join one discipline to another.

16d-issy-pearce-mason-2The natural sciences course at Cambridge truly embraces this ethos, providing a broad  grounding in the sciences on which specialisation can be built throughout the undergraduate course. I’m currently starting to specialise in the biochemical fields, with papers in Pathology, Pharmacology and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The first year course provides a solid grounding in the basics – making these papers highly accessible to students without a biological background at A-level: in fact there are relatively few mandatory requirements for most papers.

There really is nowhere better to study sciences, I’ve been to lectures given by Nobel prize winners and people at the cutting edge of their field.

However, it can be challenging, when your lecturer is speaking at 100 miles an hour as you’re flicking through the handout for the right pages – which never seem to be in order – and scribble down something that sounds useful, to appreciate the beauty, intricacy and finesse of what you’re being told and with that, what drew you here in the first place.

Issy Pearce-Mason
Undergraduate student

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

Science at Cambridge: Neuroscience and moody teenagers

14d-megan-hutchings-photo-3UniversityI studied Natural Sciences at Murray Edwards College, specialising in Neuroscience in my final year. I had been interested in Neuroscience ever since completing my Extended Project in high school. In my project I looked into the debate about whether adolescent behaviour was more influenced by genetics or by the environment. Although honestly I was just searching for an excuse to be a moody teenager and not be blamed for it! After my initial interest was sparked I became more and more interested in Neuroscience. I find this subject fascinating as I find studying Neuroscience a way of trying to understand how humans work at the most fundamental level.

I particularly enjoyed studying a modular course at Cambridge as it allowed me to study the aspects of my subject I find most interesting, I particularly enjoyed the fact I was able to take modules on neural networks as well as a psychology module on memory.

My studies never ceased to fascinate me and made me realise just how amazing our brain and by extension we as humans are. There was a continual realisation of how seemingly simple processes are actually much more complex than they appear on the surface. For example, vision seems fairly straightforward, but you can find people who are ‘blind’ but can still tell you where objects are or how they are orientated, even though they cannot ‘see’ them. Or that memories are not fixed and immutable and can be updated or altered. Even that we have different types of memories! All of this I found fascinating and it made me appreciate my brain and my body so much more when I could understand a slightly larger proportion of what it was doing for me on a daily basis.

This in part is why I would encourage young women today to pursue science as a subject; the ability to understand more about the world around you or yourself can only lead to a greater appreciation of how wondrous these things truly are.

Megan Hutchings
Alumna

Science at Cambridge: ‘It’s good to see more women in engineering’

1d-rachel-attwood-photoUniversity‘It’s good to see more women in engineering’, a phrase I hear often, being female and studying engineering, entering my second year.

In Britain there’s an idea that engineering means men, usually wearing muddy boots and hi-vis jackets, maybe working on the side of the road or railway line. It’s a very skewed image of one of the fastest growing global industries! What about the structural engineers who are office based, designing anything from a simple footbridge to a monstrous timber-based skyscraper? What about the electronic and information engineers who design the software for your latest iPhone?

And more importantly, what about the women who make up a modest, but significant, 9% of the current engineering workforce?

I became interested in engineering through my Dad, who was a draughtsman for Dowty Mining. When I was young it was always ‘How does this work?’ and ‘Why?’. Later on, I took part in a bridge design challenge at secondary school, using rolled up paper tubes to make the strongest structure possible. I later attended two design and build Smallpiece Trust engineering courses (railways and structures). Having thoroughly enjoyed both and having been inspired by people working in the industry (both male and female), I set my sights on studying engineering, and where better than at Cambridge.

For the first two years the engineering course at Cambridge covers four areas; Mechanical, Structural, Electronic and Mathematical Methods. I’ve just finished an 8-week work placement (4 weeks’ industrial experience are required by the end of second year), with Graham Construction, working on site at the construction of Kenilworth Railway Station. Yes, I have been wearing hi-vis and muddy boots, but I’ve loved it! I’ve learned the basics of surveying, from using a high-tech total (measuring) station to taking measurements with a tape measure, which will set me up well for when I specialise in Civil Engineering in third year. I’ve also learned about planning, risk assessments and management plans. Imagine if the track wasn’t properly monitored and nearby excavation caused the rails to twist? It could end in a fatal crash!

On the project, I was the only female, surrounded by a team of men. This situation is all too common nationally and is why I want to encourage more girls and women to follow a career in Engineering; it’s not all how the media suggests! Don’t just take my word for it, do some research into the paths engineering can lead you. You could be working on building sites if that appeals to you, but you could also work on autopilot software or innovative new materials for example. You could even help solve the energy crisis.

Don’t let the stereotypes put you off, don’t let comments like ‘but isn’t that for boys’ get in your way. Consider engineering, or any form of STEM, for an exciting, ever-changing career, where every day brings new challenges and innovative ideas to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems.

Rachel Attwood
Undergraduate student

Science at Cambridge: Building robots (and self-belief!)

11D Joanna and radio

UniversityMy name is Joanna and I’m a second year Engineering student at Murray Edwards College. I’ve always been interested in science, and as years progressed I found myself unable to choose just one narrow discipline. I decided studying Engineering will teach me how to apply a wide range of knowledge to everyday concepts. This was also why the engineering course at Cambridge was especially interesting to me, as its open structure with general engineering taught during the first two years allowed me to further explore different areas before deciding which one is the most fulfilling for me.

I remember being a little apprehensive about my own abilities in a technical field before I started my degree. While taking part in a Physics Olympiad in my home country I met boys who made robots with their fathers ever since a young age, and were taking apart computers for fun (I was the only girl in the national finals, as well!). My high school didn’t even have a laboratory and if I took apart one of our home appliances my mother would never forgive me. I wondered, would I ever be able to create something myself? Could I ever compete with them? And then the Cambridge course started and I got my answer – yes! Thankfully, it seems the university believed in me more than I believed in myself.

11D Robot Wall-E
Robot Wall-E

In the very first week we were asked to build robots from Lego Mindstorms. I still remember it as a week of absolute panic and despair – but also utter delight when at the end of it our robot was actually moving and doing what we wanted it to. Not long after that we were asked to build an AM radio using a bunch of wires, capacitors, resistors and our knowledge of circuits. (In the photo at the top you can see me, excited, with the ready “product”.) This year, we were asked to build a robot again. In groups of 6, in the space of a month, we created, almost from scratch, an actual moving thing that could follow lines, pick up multi-coloured sticks and sort them into boxes scattered around a playing area. I was responsible for the electrical systems on the robot, such as light sensors, PCB boards and actuators.

Interestingly, considering my initial apprehension, those hands-on activities became the most enjoyable part of my degree. This is why I applied to the Cambridge-MIT exchange scheme, and from September will be studying at the top Technology Institute in the USA, known for its hands-on approach and dedication to research. The research aspect is especially interesting for me. In the next two years I want to specialize in Electrical and Information Engineering and hope to one day be able to contribute to the development of electronic devices.

Joanna Stadnik
Undergraduate student

Science at Cambridge: Physics

Physics – my everyday worldUniversity 10D Lucy OswaldMonday morning and spring is in the air. On the short trip between my Particle Physics and Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics lecture locations I hand in some work and photograph a sea of daffodils, nodding at me in the breeze. In the following lecture we cover blast waves: gas from supernovae and other massive explosions moving through space faster than the speed of sound. Then it’s back to college for a quick lunch before a Particle Physics supervision, where we talk about how quarks and gluons interact.

The rest of the afternoon is spent doing something that as a physicist I’ve not previously been used to: reading! I’m doing a research review which involves reading papers on the research done into single photon sources – devices that produce one particle of light at a time – and then summarising the recent developments in the area. It’s been exciting to get deep into an area of research that previously I knew nothing about.

I chose Natural Sciences at Cambridge out of a kind of greed for knowledge: why study just one science when you had the opportunity to do more? I’ve never regretted that choice. The only hardship is having to decide what to give up along the way, something that continues to happen as I’ve begun specialising in my third year. I really value the wider insight I’ve been given by being able to study Chemistry and Materials Science alongside the Physics. So much science happens at the boundaries of these different disciplines, so understanding where your studies sit in the wider context of scientific knowledge is very important.

However, Physics has always been the subject that has captivated me the most. In my more wildly romantic moments I’ve declared that I must KNOW about the world and how it works; that to study Physics is to plumb the depths of reality. Unsurprisingly, Physics day-to-day isn’t nearly as glamorous as that makes it sound, but the fact that I’ve maintained that idealised view through nearly 3 years of worksheets and practicals indicates that there must be something special about it.

Physics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It can be difficult to get your head around, involves lots of maths and areas like quantum mechanics can seem so divorced from the real world that it’s easy to condemn it as too complicated, boring and irrelevant. But if you have even the smallest interest in physics I would encourage you to take it a bit further. It started for me by shining laser pointers onto fluorescent paper and wondering why the green one made it glow but the red one didn’t. I soon realised Physics wasn’t so bad and now there’s nothing I’d rather do!

Lucy Oswald
Undergraduate student