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

School Winner: Teaching the Blind to See with Sound

rayna-koshy-boston-grammar-school16c-rayna-koshy-bostonThe amount of times I’ve tripped over or hit something while walking around in the dark is unfathomable; it’s got to the point where I’ve somewhat accepted my incapability to manoeuvre around in the dark. However, I am fortunate enough to be able to eliminate this problem by simply turning on a light switch.

Yet what about the people who live in constant darkness? Would they ever truly be independent if they cannot see any of their obstacles? Perhaps if you had asked me this before, I would have agreed that blind people wouldn’t able to achieve true independence without some sort of technological advancement allowing them to see. Of course, that’s where my thought process was flawed. I had reduced the idea of spatial awareness to simply using the eyes.

Many animals e.g. bats and dolphins use echolocation or Biosonar as a way to locate and identify different objects.  They do this by emitting a call and then listening out for the echoes produced that return from the various objects around them. Dolphins use this technique to see better underwater.

Blind humans have also been known to use echolocation. By making a sound of some sort e.g. making clicking noises with their mouth etc., they are able to accurately locate where and how big an object is by interpreting the sound waves that have been reflected off of these objects.

If one side reflects much louder sound waves than the other, the sound has bounced back faster, therefore taking a shorter route. This indicates the presence of an object or obstacle on that side.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) studies on the brain were conducted on blind echolocation experts with sighted humans as control. The study demonstrated that the primary visual cortex is activated during echolocation in these blind people while there was no activation in the control subjects. This is unusual because the primary visual cortex is normally used to process visual information in sighted people.

Moreover, the parts of the brain that are associated with processing auditory information didn’t show much of a difference in activity during echolocation, in either group. This implies that the parts which process auditory information in the brain are not necessarily vital when blind people carry out echolocation.

Since the original function of the primary visual cortex is not very useful in blind people, it seems to have rearranged itself so that it can process spatial information from echolocation.

 This ability to rearrange and adapt the functions of different parts of the brain is known as neuroplasticity.

Daniel Kish is a blind echo locator who teaches other blind people to use echolocation so that they can be ‘active participants in society’; here is a link to his Ted Talk where he explains how he uses echolocation to achieve independence and how even sighted people can be trained to use it too.

Rayna Koshy
Year 12 at Boston Grammar School

My name is Rayna Koshy and I am in Year 12 studying Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Maths at A level. I enjoy the science subjects and an affiliate of the Royal Society of Biology. I’m very passionate about healthcare and volunteer at a local care home. In the future, I’m hoping to study medicine.

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

Career Path: Blending research and patient care as a GP

The World Health Organisation defines general practice as providing ‘continuous, comprehensive, co-ordinated and personalised whole-patient care to individuals, families and their communities’. As soon as I completed my clinical training I joined a GP training scheme in Oxfordshire, and have loved being a GP for more than 30 years since then. At its core it’s about being comfortable with being a ‘generalist’ and have some expertise across all clinical conditions, rather than a being a ‘specialist’ with in-depth expertise in one (often very focused) area. When patients first seek help in primary care their problems may be vague or ill-defined- a GP’s expertise lies in working out whether this needs further investigation or referral, or whether the patient can be reassured. One of the most fulfilling parts of being a GP is that we often care for a number of family members over many years. Interestingly, analyses of data from the US, UK and Europe have shown that having more GPs is associated not only with better health outcomes, but also with better patient experience.

After working as a GP partner for more than 12 years, I moved to Cambridge and soon met the newly appointed Foundation Chair of General Practice (Ann Louise Kinmonth, also a New Hall alumna) – she encouraged me to consider a clinical academic career. While continuing to work as a part-time GP, I completed a Masters course and then a doctorate. I was fascinated to find that most of the evidence that we used to care for our primary care patients had arisen from less relevant research from specialist care, and that there was a real need for evidence from the primary care setting.

I now lead the Primary Care Cancer Research group at the University of Cambridge- so, it’s never too late for a mid-career change!

While the career of an academic GP can be demanding, it is also very rewarding. I still work as a GP, but only for one day a week. The rest of the week is spent mainly on research, with some under- and post-graduate teaching. My research focuses on developing patient and GP interventions to help diagnose cancer earlier, as there is plenty of evidence that, for most cancers, a timely diagnosis allows curative treatment and better outcomes. Current projects are researching cancers of the skin, oesophagus, stomach, brain, breast and pancreas. I feel very privileged to work alongside world leaders in cancer screening, early detection and treatment on the Cambridge Biomedical campus, and some of my research findings have already led to changes in NHS guidance for patient care.

What’s next? My research will continue to focus on new and cost-effective approaches for preventing and diagnosing cancer.

One example is the impact of technological advances on patient access to health information, and on the monitoring of symptoms and treatments by both patients and GPs. We need more clinical academics in general practice to take this important work forward.

Dr Fiona Walter MA MD FRCGP

Fiona Walter (New Hall 1976) is Principal Researcher (Reader) in Primary Care Cancer Research at the University of Cambridge. She leads studies investigating cancer prevention, diagnosis and follow-up care, was Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, and is Honorary Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

School Winner: Is oxytocin the ‘moral molecule’?

Winning Entry Bournemouth School for Girls

7C Ana Valentina Florea

SchoolOxytocin is known to make the uterus contract before childbirth and trigger the release of breast milk, but it is also very important in social interactions. Some have gone as far as calling it ‘the love hormone’ or even ‘the moral molecule’. But what exactly does it do? And does it promote ethical behaviour in all situations, as some claim it does?

Paul Zak supports the view that oxytocin ‘connects us to other people’ and it is ultimately the ingredient for happiness. He, Michael Kosfeld and Markus Heinrichs conducted an experiment which is frequently used by economists to measure trust. In the experiment, person A can keep a sum of money (for example £10) or share it with person B. If shared, the investment is tripled (so £30) and B now can decide to send back part of the sum (for example, £15 so the sum is split equally) or to keep all the money. Person A therefore has to make a decision as whether or not to trust person B. They found that the more money the second person received, the more oxytocin was produced by their brain, and the more money they returned. So it’s fair to assume that this molecule facilitates social interactions and can even prove essential to our survival, as in one animal study during which the hormone was blocked in ewes, they neglected their new-born lambs.

However, the effect of oxytocin isn’t as straightforward as Zak suggests and it often depends on the situation. Shaul Shalvia and Carsten De Dreub have tested the effects of oxytocin, using an experimental game which allowed participants to lie in order to benefit the group. What they’ve found? Compared with participants who received placebo, participants receiving oxytocin lied more (and more quickly) to benefit their groups. ‘These findings highlight the role of bonding and cooperation in shaping dishonesty, providing insight into when and why collaboration turns into corruption.’ they concluded.

Jennifer Bartz has found other responses that depend on a person’s mind-set, rather than circumstances, which further discolours the rose-tinted view. She showed that socially secure people remember their mothers in a more positive light following oxytocin inhalation, while anxious ones remember them as less caring and more distant.

These studies show that oxytocin is not the saintly molecule we would love to believe it is and its effect depends greatly on individual differences and situation, so it is a rather complex chemical which allows us to look deeper into social interactions.

The problem with research into oxytocin is that often it aims to categorise its effects and see what it does, rather than how it does it. As we have seen, denominating it ‘the moral molecule’ couldn’t be further away from the truth. Understanding the underlying mechanism which this molecule uses to produce the effects we observed in these studies might lead to less enthusiastic but more accurate conclusions and maybe even development of drugs to treat social illnesses such as anxiety or autism.

Ana Valentina Florea
Student, Bournemouth School for Girls

I am 16 years old and studying Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology and Psychology at Bournemouth School for Girls. I enjoy these subjects because they give me the chance to study different but complementary branches of science. I am especially fond of biological sciences and I plan on studying a course related to this at university to broaden my understanding of how the human body works. I have always admired my dad’s enthusiasm for science even though as a younger child I didn’t find it as captivating as he did. However, my adoration for science has grown over the past few years, and I now find myself reading scientific books and magazines and watching Netflix documentaries as a means of procrastinating. When I can find some free time for myself, I take pleasure in shopping for clothes and books, reading, watching films and learning about different people from various cultures.


Trust the “trust hormone”?  Oxytocin can increase deceit

One Molecule for Love, Morality, and Prosperity?

To Trust or Not to Trust: Ask Oxytocin Trust or Not to Trust: Ask Oxytocin

Fact or Fiction?: Oxytocin Is the “Love Hormone”

Trust, morality – and oxytocin?

Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty

Science issue: Behavioral flexibility and brain size in birds

Corina Logan (Sonia Fernandez)
Dr Corina Logan and grackle (photographed by Sonia Fernandez)


It’s so early it’s still dark and I’m driving to a cold, windy beach in Santa Barbara, California to catch grackles next to a roosting site I found the week before. Great-tailed grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) are one of the most invasive native species in North America and they are presumed to be so successful because of their flexible behavior that allows them to adapt to new situations. However, their intelligence has not yet been tested so we don’t know for sure. Until now. Armed with a grant from the National Geographic Society / Waitt Grants Program and a fellowship from the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California Santa Barbara, I set out to determine how these grackles compare to New Caledonian crows when tested on the same experiments.

I caught four grackles at a time and brought them into aviaries to give them choice tests, and I found that on some of the tests, they are as good as the crows. As well, both species show flexible behaviors (Logan et al. 2014, Logan 2015). According to common assumptions, this is surprising because crows have much bigger brains than grackles. However, new research is showing that a larger brain doesn’t necessarily mean there are more neurons, and since neurons are the substrate on which cognition occurs, neuron number is more likely to be the crucial measure for predicting which species should possess complex cognition (Herculano-Houzel et al. 2009, Kazu et al. 2014).

The grackles are amazing to work with: they habituate to the aviary almost instantly and readily choose to participate in the choice tests.

Each one seems to have their own personality: Michelada appeared curious about human behavior because she would sit as close as she could to us and watch whatever we were doing. I wonder what she was thinking.

I put unique combinations of colored rings on their legs so I can identify individuals and study their behavior in the wild to answer questions about whether individual differences in cognitive abilities provide fitness benefits (e.g., increased numbers of offspring). One of my favorite parts of this research is when I get to take the aviary grackles back to the beach where I caught them, open the door to their transport cages, and watch them fly free in the wild again.

Corina Logan
Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge

Do you want to see what life in the field is like in New Caledonia? Check out my National Geographic Explorers Journal video blog

See the latest grackle news on twitter


Herculano-Houzel, S. (2009). The human brain in numbers: a linearly scaled-up primate brain. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 3.

Kazu, R. S., Maldonado, J., Mota, B., Manger, P. R., & Herculano-Houzel, S. (2014). Cellular scaling rules for the brain of Artiodactyla include a highly folded cortex with few neurons. Frontiers in neuroanatomy, 8.

Logan CJ, Jelbert SA, Breen AJ, Gray RD, Taylor AH (2014) Modifications to the Aesop’s Fable paradigm change performances in New Caledonian crows. PLOS ONE 9:e103049. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103049

Logan CJ. 2015. Innovation does not indicate behavioral flexibility in great-tailed grackles. bioRxiv. doi:

Career Path: The fascination of neuroscience and the teenage brain

7A Stephanie Burnett Heyes (2 - portrait)

CareerMy life as a scientist is varied, hectic and rewarding. I feel tremendously privileged to be doing what I do.

I’m a cognitive neuroscientist, which means that I study the brain and the mind. To do this, I use a mixture of psychology and brain imaging.

The teenage brain and mind is my main research topic. I’m interested in finding out how basic mental abilities, such as short term memory, as well as more complex abilities, such as understanding emotions and social situations, alter during the teenage years. Sometimes, I use brain scanning to look at their neural basis.

Studying teenagers is hard. A teenager is so similar to an adult that it’s hard to spot the difference. Many changes take place during adolescence, so collecting good data and interpreting it correctly can be a challenge.

But… it’s both interesting, and important. Many mental health problems begin to take root during the teenage years, and we have very little real understanding of why this is and what we can do about it.

So that’s the big picture. But what do I do all day?

Short answer: A lot of different things. Here are some of the things I’ve been working on just this week:

  • Designing experiments.  This uses a unique mix of scientific reasoning and creative insight.  In science, there is a rule book but no manual.  You have to follow scientific principles to come up with something new.  At the moment, I am experimenting with combining psychology, game theory and social network analysis.
  • Learning a new coding language.  Coding is using maths to make computers do stuff for you.  I use it to analyse data and build experiments.  When I started doing science, I thought I was rubbish at coding so I should leave it to the experts.  Then I learned that everyone has to start somewhere.
  • Writing. When I’ve done an experiment and it worked, I write it up and send it to a journal. I find this hard. Luckily, scientists tend to work in teams, so when I get stuck I ask my colleagues for help. I work with some amazing people and I really respect their opinions. Sometimes, when I’ve sent a paper off, the journal sends it back with critical comments. Then I have to construct a watertight argument that will win them over. This is fun – like intellectual sparring.
  • Teaching university students. I write lectures, mark essays, and meet with students to give guidance on assignments and check they’re ok. Sometimes students are having a hard time for various reasons. If I can do my bit to help them achieve their goals, I find that deeply rewarding.
  • Public speaking. I never thought I’d say this, but I really enjoy giving a talk in front of a couple of hundred people. If I feel nervous, I interpret it as excitement. I prepare properly and I practice what I’m going to say. I get a real buzz if it goes well.

I don’t know any other job that has such a variety of activities in a single week. I honestly think I’d get bored doing anything else.

Dr. Stephanie Burnett Heyes
School of Psychology, University of Birmingham

School Winner: Busy Buzzing Bees

Two Winning Entries - HS & HS LondonWinning Entry Haverstock School

6C Haverstock School - Amy KitkannaWhat are your thoughts on bees? Don’t you just hate them? For some people bees are just an annoyance, I used to think this too (but bees are not as bad as we think, and as you carry on reading you’ll understand why). So, why do we hate bees so much? Is it because all they do is sting you and cause you pain? They’d buzz around loudly, come near you if you had anything sweet or chase you down the streets trying to sting you, but you shouldn’t be afraid of bees. Bees will only sting you if they feel threatened! So try avoid getting close to them, scaring them or stepping on them because a bee sting can hurt an awful lot.

On the other hand a sting from a bee isn’t all bad, a toxin in the bee venom called melittin could actually help prevent getting HIV, and apitherapy, (substances produced by an honey bee, e.g. venom) has also helped many patients who suffer from serious conditions such as multiple sclerosis, arthritis and lupus.

Bees are actually very significant to us and our lives! They’re not just for honey, they’re not just there to sting you either…. Even if you hate them, you need them.

Bees are hardworking insects, they may work harder than you do! During the colder seasons bees can live for up to nine months however in the summer they rarely last 6 weeks. They literally work to death. As bees age, they usually do jobs reserved for the younger members. Their brain stops ageing and instead their brain ages in reverse.

Believe it or not, bees are actually responsible for the food on our plate. One third of our global food supply is pollinated by bees. Without them, humans wouldn’t have much of a variety to eat. Bees keep the plants and crops alive.

The pollen from the crops attaches to the bees fuzzy bodies and rubs off on flowers as they collect nectar. The pollen transfer helps plants to reproduce and produce fruits and seeds.  Many crops are pollinated by bees, this is a list of a few; Almonds, apples, apricots, avocados, blueberries, cashews, coffee, cranberries, cucumbers, grapes, kiwis, mangoes, peaches, pears, peppers, strawberries, tangerines, walnuts and watermelons. These are only some of the few things bees pollinate. Without bees do you think we would still have these crops? Because we wouldn’t, without bees these crops wouldn’t even exist!

Bees are now slowly disappearing due to an extremely popular pesticide called Neonicotinoids, this is chemically similar to nicotine. Pesticides are harming the environment, and they are killing the organisms that help the world, and humans, survive. This is why we must protect the bees. But we can’t just blame it on the pesticides because us, as humans are partly to blame. Humans are also destroying wild habitats where bees traditionally get their food.

So think of it like this, by killing bees we are hurting ourselves.


Amy Kitkanna
Haverstock School

My name is Amy Kitkanna and I am half Thai and half Laotian. I was born in London on the 15th December 2000, making me 14 soon to be 15. As well as being academic and always trying to understand everything that is being taught to me, I also enjoy being creative and like to use different materials to design and create something unusual. I also enjoy going on adventures to new places where I can enjoy and experience new things. I enjoy doing Biology, though it took me a while to feel like I was good at Science. Now I am studying Triple Science and am hoping to continue studying Biology at A level.