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: 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: 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: Mathematics

University

My name is Naomi Arnold and a few weeks ago I finished my second term at Murray Edwards College studying Mathematics. Amazingly I now have just the ‘exam term’ to go to complete my first year of study.

I first developed an enthusiasm for maths when I was studying it at GCSE level. Our class frequently went to the ‘Maths Inspiration’ events where mathematicians would give fun, engaging talks about aspects of maths that interested them or about the maths involved in their field of work. Until then I had always been very good at maths but I’d always just seen it as necessary and functional – I hadn’t realised the breadth of its applications, and it had certainly never occurred to me how fun and rewarding maths could be.

Going from studying Maths at A level to degree level has been quite a big transition but one that was made a lot smoother with the help of the supervisions system and having a really supportive community at Murray Edwards. It took a while adjusting to how much time I had to spend just thinking about how best to tackle questions – often, especially in Pure Mathematics topics, there can be multiple ways of looking at a question, all of which are valid, but not all of which lead you in the right direction. Sometimes just choosing the right method; figuring out what you actually need to prove, breaking a hefty problem into more palatable steps and choosing the order in which to carry them out can be the most difficult part of the problem. Whilst adjusting has been very challenging, it’s also been incredibly rewarding – the feeling you get when you crack a problem you’ve been working on for ages is truly refreshing.

One of the topics I’ve enjoyed this year is ‘Analysis’. It could be described as a course that proves and makes more rigorous the maths that you cover at A level, as well as some other interesting theorems of course! For example, we define differentiation properly and starting from that basic definition we go on to prove the common results covered at A level like the Chain Rule, Product Rule and that integration is, under certain conditions, the reverse of differentiation etc. On the surface it can sometimes seem tedious – why do we need to bother proving things we already know to be true? Why is it necessary to understand the proofs when we can just use the results? I think firstly some of the techniques that mathematicians have used in the past are quite universal and are useful to add to your problem-solving toolkit. Secondly it can offer insight into why certain mathematical processes work in the way that they do and can help when it comes to actually applying relevant results.

What I would say to anyone who’s interested in studying maths is simply to be really inquisitive about the maths that you’re currently doing. In this respect, I found the Nrich website a great resource, with plenty of problems to try.  And if the harder the problems get the more you find yourself engrossed, you are well on the road to enjoying maths at degree level.

Naomi Arnold
Undergraduate student