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

Career Path: Women in STEM – working together

Women make up nearly half of the UK workforce but only around 13% of those working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) occupations, and less than 20% of senior managers in the City

In 2011, sitting in a university dorm room in Cambridge, I was part of a lengthy conversation amongst science students which stumbled into the topic of women in STEM.  Why do there still seem to be fewer women in most STEM roles compared to men? And what could we do to help change this?

4 years later, after graduating and having all followed differing career paths, we came back to the question of how we could share our experiences and provide some support to young women looking to pursue their interest in traditionally male-dominated fields. We decided to launch a small charity and designed a programme focusing on mentoring female students in year 12 (lower sixth).

Mentoring has been an rewarding and eye-opening experience for us (as well as we hope for our mentees) and we have learnt that there are a lot of opportunities available for budding young scientists and mathematicians even before reaching university or starting an apprenticeship. Through sharing networks and searching online, the students we have worked with have met with young engineers, work-shadowed at leading biochemistry companies and even completed work experience at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. This has on occasion required a little persistence and bravery to step outside of their comfort zones but they have invariably been rewarded by scientists and academics who are more than happy to support others in exploring possible future career options.

We also want to help change community attitudes towards women in STEM and finance. Participants on the programme are encouraged to organise an event so that they can in turn become a positive role model in their local communities. One of our students went back to her junior school to run a science experience day whilst another organised a ‘women in science’ assembly.

These are our own career choices, just a few of the many open to those with degrees in science.

Freya Scoates, Research Scientist

I am a Senior Research Scientist who runs projects developing pesticides and specialising in entomology (the study of insects). Most days I am either planning, running or reporting on the most recent studies. This includes counting insects, designing statistical analyses and giving presentations on the results. I enjoy the challenge of running complex projects but sometimes struggle with many trips in and out of grain silos!

Paddie Ingleton – Science Teacher

I am a science teacher in an inner-city comprehensive school. I nominally spend my days assessing pupil work and planning lessons, but the real challenge of what I do is trying to cultivate a classroom where pupils are engaged with the learning and do well both academically and otherwise. I enjoy the challenge of trying to find the best ways to help pupils learn, and am always surprised by their humour and resilience.

Emily Hardy – Biochemistry Scientist

I work on custom cell-line engineering projects using genome editing tools such as CRISPR-Cas9. I work on the design, production and validation of these cell lines which can then be used by our clients as models for disease or novel drug screening. I spend the majority of my time doing cell culture, designing experiments and analysing results.

Helen Gaffney, Investment Associate

I am an Investment Associate in a Private Equity firm. We assess and buy companies and then work with their management teams to try to improve their profitability. A typical day can include running analysis on sales data or building a financial model to understand better how a particular company could improve. I enjoying applying the mathematical and general analytical skill I learnt whilst studying science to real-life situations. I am also glad to have gained a deeper understanding about how the world around me works even where this is not directly related to my day-to-day work.

Helen & the Equilateral Team

Career Path: Keeping up with the changes

17a-donna-2There are two lectures that stick in my mind about career guidance while at Cambridge studying Computer Science.  One advised that the ONLY career path worth doing was to get a smart suit, join one of three specific consultancies, move onto one of four specific banks, make your money by age thirty and retire to do the ‘programming stuff’.  I remember bristling at how restrictive this felt and how much the lecturer’s attitude echoed of the ‘Old Boy Network’.  [Editor’s comment : we encourage students to consider a very wide range of roles in our advice now!]

The second lecture was not specifically about careers, but the first of learning computer programming skills – using ‘BCP’, which is the forerunner to the more successful, yet still dated, ‘C’ language.  This seemed pointless initially – more historical footnote than of any practical use.  But key to these lectures was that this helped teach the basics of programming.

We learn the techniques, the lecturer explained, and we can adapt to any programming language.

This gave me confidence when applying to graduate schemes with a variety of technology companies.  Whatever I ended up doing, I could adapt if I didn’t enjoy it and try other things.  Initially, I joined a software company who did specialist software for pharmacies and finance companies, starting my future in software engineering.  My current role, now twenty years on, is a technical manager in charge of a team of 11 people who support a key fundraising system of Cancer Research UK, (CRUK).  What I have found over these 20 years is how much the technological businesses have to change to keep up technology itself and how those employed must adapt too.  My software company changed into a consultancy and branched out to provide technical expertise in a variety of business software.  Changing with my employers, I learned to become a technical specialist, often jumping and learning a new software package every few months.  As my own life changed and I had a family, I found returning to work after maternity leave easier, as I could pick up quickly what new direction the company had taken.

CRUK’s ambition is to improve survival rates of those with cancer to be 3 out of 4.  While my role in CRUK is not to do with research, I am excited to be part of this effort.  To achieve this vision, the charity needs to keep its technology up to date and soon our key fundraising system is to be replaced – this is a large change for the charity, involving overhauling of business processes, data transformations and ensuring the right technologies and skilled people are in place to continue to support the great work the charity is doing.

I am looking forward to this opportunity to use my own experience in learning changed technologies and work towards this goal in my role.

Donna Askew

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: 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: Developmental Biology Shapes My World

dsc_0816CareerMy favourite scientific quotation: “From the egg, all” would be an apt motto for a women’s college in the 21st century but was actually immortalised by the famous Cambridge physician William Harvey almost four hundred years ago as the Latin epigraph “Ex ovo omnia”. As a developmental biologist, I share Harvey’s fascination with embryology, the process by which a fertilised egg develops into a precisely patterned organism. Fortunately for me, there have been phenomenal advances in social attitudes and scientific techniques since Harvey’s era: women are now active members of the scientific research community and astounding recent technical developments have provided us with experimental tools to investigate the genesis of life.

I became intrigued by developmental biology as an undergraduate at Cambridge, inspired by some lecturers who used frogs as a model organism to understand developmental processes. Frog eggs are large and externally fertilised, allowing scientists easy access to the vital first stages of embryogenesis, when the fertilised egg cleaves into a ball of cells, which look similar to each other but have already taken on distinct identities and will ultimately go on to form different embryonic structures.  The aim of developmental biologists is to understand the regulatory mechanisms that give rise to the multitude of cell types in an adult organism. Some key developmental genes identified in amphibian studies cause inherited human birth defects and many frog labs receive medical research funding.

Science is an international endeavour so scientists often go to different labs to gain specific research expertise. I joined frog labs in Canada and the U.S. before returning to Cambridge. The opportunity to live in different countries within an international community of scholars and to attend international meetings and field trips is a great benefit of a career in academic science.

I twice went to Puerto Rico to collect coqui frogs; these are nocturnal tree frogs that live in the rainforest and we collected at night, leaving the days free for sightseeing! Coqui are direct developing frogs, hatching as tiny froglets. I discovered that though they don’t have a free-living tadpole, coqui embryos undergo a cryptic metamorphosis in the egg.

Recently, I have applied my knowledge of developmental signalling processes to coax stem cells down a particular developmental route, making the endothelial cells that line blood vessels. Such “directed differentiation” holds great promise for regenerative medicine. However, the practical aspect is hugely laborious as stem cells require daily nurturing, including weekends and holidays!

dsc_0860Currently, I am nurturing another organism, my four-year-old son, though I still participate in the scientific process by writing scientific articles with my colleagues in the Department of Medicine. I co-ordinate the science/technology strand of our Gateway Academic Development Programme at Murray Edwards, helping freshers transition to university learning, and I’ve participated in a variety of science outreach events. As a Director of Studies and a Tutor, I interact with many students and am amazed by the resourcefulness of our STEMM students, who demonstrate that a scientific education provides a versatile skill-set for life.

Dr Liz Callery
Fellow, Director of Studies and Tutor

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

Career Path: BioBeat – inspiring the next wave of bioentrepreneurs

10A Miranda Weston-Smith - ClareCareerStudying Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge and being part of Murray Edwards was transformational. I’ve worked in publishing, seed capital, technology transfer, and now consult with companies, entrepreneurs and universities on growing biotech businesses and getting them ready for funding.


I founded BioBeat in 2012 to bring energy and growth to the bio sector and open a new chapter. As the world found its way out of the recession, and the biobusiness sector underwent massive transformation, I believed fresh strategies would help us to bring better health to people in a sustainable way.  One way to bring this about is for us all to engage with the inspirations of successful women entrepreneurs and leaders.  Looking on the podium or in the media, we often see half the world. I thought we needed to change that.

My experience of working with women bio entrepreneurs, and research too, suggests that they adopt different strategies for success – from building companies, working in teams and communication to raising funds and attitudes to risk. Understanding these success factors offers opportunities to develop business models that more effectively engage talent in broader, more inclusive and more dynamic ways.  The idea is to show fresh pathways to success and the people who are making an impact.

Porosity and elasticity is at BioBeat’s heart to be a platform for biotech innovation. The feedback from people coming to events is that they make useful connections to grow their business.

The Entrepreneurship Centre at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School and the Innovation Forum are wonderful partners. BioBeat’s base is Cambridge, however its reach is UK wide with some international connections.

Growing BioBeat

In 2014, I launched the 50 Movers and Shakers in BioBusiness report. This annual report identifies 50 inspirational women in biobusiness in the UK who are challenging the status quo to bring better health to people around the world. The report includes women in companies, research, hospitals, finance and advisory roles.

The 2015 report, which provides insights into the career paths of progressive scientists, reveals that 23 of the 50 women profiled are founders or co-founders of their own companies. The majority of the remainder run their own research labs or are in service functions such as finance or public affairs.


We are looking for 25 Rising Stars to include in the 2016 report. Rising Stars are women under 40 with at least one tangible biobusiness success who are challenging the status quo to bring better health to people around the world. They are the young leaders, the ones to watch, who are inspiring the next generation and making a global impact.   Please contact me if you would like to make a nomination.

I am working with MedImmune, the biologics arm of AstraZeneca, on the BioBeat16 event in Cambridge in November. If you would like to come along please get in touch.


Miranda Weston-Smith

Related topic: Jelena Aleksic – Out of the Lab: from Science to Business

Science at Cambridge: Biochemistry

9D Alice Flint photo

The biochemistry of metabolism

My name is Alice and I am a 3rd year biochemist. Initially I came to Cambridge thinking I would specialise in chemistry as the less strong teaching of biology at my school had put me off the subject. However taking the Biology of Cells module as part of the Natural Sciences Tripos in first year renewed my interest in biology and persuaded me pursue it in future years. Choosing to study Natural Sciences allowed me to change my mind and develop my interests due to the array of options available.

Biochemistry is concerned with the principles underlying biology at a cellular level such as genetic regulation, cellular signalling and metabolism which are all interlinked. When I tell people I study biochemistry quite often the response is ‘but isn’t it all memorising pathways, why would you want to do that?’ However this is very far from the truth, yes there are some metabolic and signalling pathways but biochemistry is more concerned with understanding the overarching concepts rather than memorising the minute details. I find that when you look at the regulation of cellular processes it is actually very coordinated and logical which I find quite elegant.

My main interest is in metabolism. I am a sporty person so I find the changes that occur during exercise highly relevant however metabolism also has a central role in disease. For example cancer cells display anaerobic metabolism even in the presence of oxygen -the Warburg effect. This allows for detection of tumours by Positron Emission Tomography (PET) where a radioactive tracer, the glucose analogue FDG is taken up in greater amounts by tumours and can be imaged by a scanner.

In 3rd year biochemists undertake a project in their second term. My project again looks at the links between metabolism and disease. Some organisms (plants, fungi, bacteria and protists) can undergo a pathway called the glyoxylate shunt which bypasses the carbon dioxide producing steps of the Krebs cycle allowing these organisms to grow on 2 carbon substrates e.g vinegar. An enzyme essential to this pathway, isocitrate lyase (ICL) has been shown to be necessary for the upregulation of the type III secretion apparatus-this is a needle like structure that allows bacteria to inject toxins into the host cells. My project is looking at the expression of ICL in different nutrient and temperature conditions and its possible regulatory molecules. As the glyoxylate shunt does not occur in humans enzymes involved in this pathway are possible new drug targets, making research into the pathway important in this time of increasing resistance to existing antibiotics.

Carrying out a project allows you to develop key practical skills and introduces you to the lab environment. It has encouraged me to pursue a career in research and I will take further steps towards this next year by staying in Cambridge for a 4th year to do an MSci in biochemistry which will involve completing a bigger project over two terms and hopefully I will continue onto a PhD after.

Alice Flint Undergraduate student

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: