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 Issue: The Mathematics in Our Lives

It has been more than 20 years since I set foot in Murray Edwards, excited to have made it to Cambridge. I had chosen to study Maths, the subject that I most loved at school. Soon after I found out that university Maths was quite different to school Maths – more abstract and going at a faster pace – but it was still the right degree for me. Mathematics is a world of symmetry and structure I can immerse myself in, a language allowing me to understand the world in ways I would not have imagined.

After my BA in Cambridge, and driven by my desire to apply Maths to real life situations, I pursued an MSc in Mathematical Modelling and Scientific Computing at the University of Oxford and subsequently a DPhil there. My DPhil research was about the mathematical modelling of sonic booms, the loud bangs created when the aeroplane breaks the sound barrier and flies faster than sound. Understanding them leads to strategies for minimizing annoyance from them in inhabited areas and it requires advanced knowledge of Maths, Physics and Engineering.

I am still fascinated by sonic booms and I have recently created this TED Ed animation to share my fascination with the world – it has been watched more than one million times by now.

I have also given several popularized talks on sonic booms and other applications of maths in the last decade and two years ago, with a team of many young scientists, we co-founded the Mediterranean Science Festival to share science and maths with the world in interactive and entertaining ways.

After my PhD, I worked at the Centre for Mathematical Medicine in Nottingham, on the mathematical modelling of cancer therapies, such as magnetic hyperthermia where a tumour can be burnt by using an external magnet to raise its temperature. Cancer modelling is an important area of mathematical biology which in the last decade has led to many clinical breakthroughs in the fight of cancer.

Leaving the UK, and curious about the corporate world, I worked for some time at the Boston Consulting Group (management consulting firm) in Greece. BCG advises client companies at the CEO-level and hires a diverse range of people. However, all consultants have in common an inquisitive, curious mind, and strong analytical thinking, just like scientific training provides.

Returning to Cyprus in 2010 I joined the university world again. I teach, which I really enjoy, and have also resumed my research on applied Maths. In my main current research project, in collaboration with the Cambridge Engineering Department, we employ stochastic (probabilistic) mathematical methodologies to quantify the important role that uncertainty plays in the way our cells operate and sustain life.

Moreover, in December 2016 I led the organization of the 1st Study Group with Industry in Cyprus. In this weeklong workshop, the 125th in the European series, 50 expert mathematical modellers from 17 different countries worked intensively in teams on tackling four Cypriot industry challenges. From identifying the appropriate algorithm that automatically generates instructions for constructing a lego-like toy, to predicting the spreading of pollutants in an aquifer supplying drinking water, to optimising urban bus routes, these diverse challenges called for a multitude of mathematical methodologies which the teams of modellers enthusiastically pursued, producing very useful results.

Maths has enabled me to work on exciting, diverse real-life problems and has taken me to a path I would not have imagined. I wholeheartedly recommend studying Maths to anyone thinking of it – the possibilities are endless!

Katerina Kaouri
Alumna

Career Path: Benefiting Society Through Chemical Manufacturing

My educational background gave me a passion for applied science and engineering, and a summer vacation job in the chemical industry gave me an appreciation for the wide variety of opportunities available in manufacturing. I studied Chemical Engineering (at the University of Cambridge) and later in my career I undertook an MBA at Leeds University Management School.

Today, I work for a UK-based medium sized chemical manufacturing organisation which employs just over 200 people. I am responsible for the company’s Commercial activities – my job has many elements including strategic planning, marketing, stakeholder engagement and PR , business development, client management, project management and of course management of people as individuals and as teams.  A significant part of my role, together with my senior management team colleagues, is to provide leadership and direction to enable us to grow our business.

At Briar we work in partnership with our customers to manufacture products that benefit society.

For example, we synthesise molecules that help farmers to maintain a healthy crop, often in highly challenging climates, and veterinary products that prevent disease in cattle and sheep.

From our factory in Norwich we export products to every continent across the globe, and with most of our customers being large multi-national organisations, it means that inevitably I need to travel quite extensively. Business travel is not glamorous and is certainly not for everyone; it does involve a lot of long hours, being away from home, getting stuck in airports and you need to possess a large reserve of stamina and resourcefulness! However, it does suit me and I have been privileged to meet many fascinating people over the years and have learned a great deal about cultural awareness and trust in building long-standing relationships. The role is facilitated by my high energy levels, and satisfies my natural propensity for curiosity, plus my instincts for making connections between people to develop business opportunities, and therefore I find it highly stimulating.

It combines Science and Engineering with creativity.

At the time of writing this piece I am on day 3 of a 4 day shoot to produce a corporate video! I also enjoy the variety and the challenges presented by constant changes (such as BREXIT) in the global business environment – a business’ ability to adapt and evolve is critical, and the people with it. It’s a demanding  business world but none the less, it’s highly rewarding.

Susan Brench
Alumna

Head of Commercial, Briar Chemicals Ltd.

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
http://www.equilateralfoundation.co.uk/

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 issue: The Science of Women in Science

17b-ellen-robertson-photoNewsThere are women in science. And then there is the science of women in science. Exploring and applying this science is important to me as a social psychologist, from the USA.

Why do we need a science of women in science? Even though women now participate in the workforce almost equally to men, 46.8% in the USA in 2015 (United States Department of Labor, 2016), they are still missing from many STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. In the USA in 2015, women made up only 15.4% of architecture and engineering professionals, 25.6% of computer and mathematical professionals, 29.8% of chemists and materials scientists, 24.5% of environmental scientists and geoscientists, and 37.6% of all other physical scientists (United States Bureau of Statistics, 2015).

One way of interpreting these statistics is that women are inherently worse at science than men, and unfortunately this is a common interpretation. However, research suggests that this is not the case. Melissa Hines’ (2004) in-depth work on gender development has shown that only very few and very specific cognitive abilities seem to be inherently different, such as three-dimensional, but not two-dimensional, mental rotation (better in men) and verbal fluency (better in women). In short, cognitive differences which do seem to be inherent are too specific and the gender difference too small to account for the much more dramatic difference in engagement in STEM fields.

So why are there more men in STEM than women?

Levine, et al (2015) summarise the primary barriers to women’s achievement in STEM fields as follows:

  1. Lack of female role models: if girls and women don’t see other women in science, they struggle to imagine themselves in science, and are discouraged from pursuing it;
  2. Women’s self-perceptions: gender stereotypes often make women see themselves as less capable than men in the sciences, which can undermine their success and further discourage them from pursuing science;
  3. Interactions with teachers, parents, and colleagues: if people believe the stereotypes and treat women as if they are less capable at science, women may be accepted less frequently into science positions, and taken less seriously even when they are accepted. Besides having professional consequences for these women, this may furthermore reinforce their own feelings of inability.

Why is this research necessary?

First of all, it’s important for the women among us to be aware that our barriers aren’t biological, but social. This brings our attention to things in our environment that try to limit us, and allows us to overcome them. Secondly, this research makes us all, men and women, realise that every word and every action play a role in determining other women’s opportunities in life.

Each of us might be treating men and women differently when it comes to science, and we might even be underestimating women’s abilities.

Therefore, it becomes the responsibility of all of us to contribute actively to a more equal society.

Ellen Robertson
PhD Student

References:

Hines, M. Brain gender (2004). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Levine, M., Serio, N., Radaram, B., Chaudhuri, S., and Talbert, W. Addressing the STEM Gender Gap by Designing and Implementing an Educational Outreach Chemistry Camp for Middle School Girls. Journal of Chemical Education. 2015, 92, 1639−1644.

United States Bureau of Statistics. (2015). Women in the labor force: a databook. Washington D.C.: BLS Reports.

United States Department of Labor. (2016). Women in the Labor Force. Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/wb/stats/facts_over_time.htm#labor

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 issue: A machine that can learn to speak to you

1b-malica-gasic-photo
News
Have you ever talked to Siri and asked yourself how one builds such a system? Some time ago, when I was pursuing my MPhil degree in Cambridge, Prof. Steve Young demonstrated a spoken dialogue system during a talk. I was fascinated by the idea that one could make a computer speak and understand human speech. I thought I must get into this research and so I applied for a PhD at the Department of Engineering’s Dialogue Systems Group.

A spoken dialogue system normally has three parts: speech understanding, which decodes the meaning from the user’s speech; dialogue management, which tries to come up with a good response; and speech generation, which turns the answer into natural speech. All of these modules can be data-driven: machine learning methods allow us to build systems that become better at their tasks the more data they have.

This is very exciting because in today’s world we are generating data at the biggest pace ever.

There are two distinct kinds of machine learning methods that we use for this research. One is called supervised learning.  This is how we learn ourselves when we have a teacher to provide examples. The system simply tries to imitate the teacher.  Another is called reinforcement learning, and one can think of it as learning from interaction. In this approach, the system can explore different possibilities.  Whenever it makes a good decision, it gets a reward from the user.  Over time, it tries to maximise that reward.  Just like a child learns from trial and error.

This kind of learning through interaction in the context of dialogue systems really intrigues me. The problem is that such learning methods normally need a huge number of interactions before the system starts to behave reasonably well. So I’ve been working on ways to speed up this process, so that the system can learn directly from talking to a human. And indeed I was the first researcher to show that this is possible.

Applications for this technology include every area where we currently see human-computer interaction, and it will make such interaction possible in the future in areas where we can’t imagine it today.  Currently, I am particularly interested in applications in the health sector.  To support such systems, we need to develop algorithms capable of supporting much more complex interactions than what is possible today.  But if successfully built, such systems would have a huge benefit for society.

Dr Milica Gašić
Lecturer in Dialogue Systems, Department of Engineering
Fellow, Murray Edwards College

See my interview for The Naked Scientists: http://www.thenakedscientists.com/HTML/interviews/interview/1001757/

Or check out my website:

http://mi.eng.cam.ac.uk/~mg436/

References

Gašić and S. Young “Gaussian Processes for POMDP-based dialogue manager opimisation”, IEEE Transactions on Audio, Speech and Language Processing, 2014

Gašić, F. Jurcicek, B. Thomson, K. Yu and S. Young. “On-line policy optimisation of spoken dialogue systems via live interaction with human subjects”, ASRU, Hawaii, 2011

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 issue: Fluids – Volcanoes, Infection Control and Instabilities

Fluids: Volcanoes, Infection Control and Instabilities
UniversityFluid Mechanics is a subject that deals with the study of many astounding phenomena in fluids (gases or liquids), and it has applications in a vast number of fields such as Environment, Climate, Geology, Engineering, and Biological Fluids, its versatility is surprising.

The apparently unrelated studies of volcanoes and infection control can be studied using the same plume theory of fluid mechanics, and in recent years, researchers have used the study of plumes (a plume is one fluid going into another fluid because of the density difference between them) to understand the behavior of volcanoes.

They have run experiments using a salt water plume going down into fresh water (since salt water is more dense than fresh water) and into water which has been stratified (i.e., it has been set up such that it has an increasing or decreasing density with height) so as to resemble the atmosphere. These experiments have given them deep insights into conditions at the source of the volcano – which cannot be found using direct measurement.10B Neerja (2)

Researchers in the area of Environmental Fluid Dynamics are now using laboratory experiments to understand how to prevent air-borne infection spread in hospitals. It is estimated that about 2 million people in the United States are affected each year by air-borne infections – and this number is expected to be worse in countries with a lack of good health care facilities. Therefore, the study of the prevention of air-borne infection by understanding how the pathogens propagate in air, using fundamental Fluid Mechanics, is an important ongoing research problem.

Fluid Mechanics also helps researchers study the climate by observations of winds, among other things, and using theoretical models derived using mathematical equations. Scientists also use Fluid Mechanics to study the mechanics of blood circulation and flows in blood vessels. Thus, the study of Fluid Mechanics enables one to engage themselves in a vast number of fields, each of which has a direct application to real-world situations.

Another rather seemingly fundamental problem encountered in Fluid Mechanics is the Rayleigh-Taylor instability. The atmospheric pressure (i.e., the pressure exerted by air on anything surrounding it), as we know, is approximately about 105 Pascal (1 Pa = 1 N/m2). This pressure is also equivalent to the pressure exerted by a column of water that is about 10 meters in length. Now, one might ask: what does this mean physically? Well, it means that if you had a very long glass filled with water that is about 10 meters in length, and you suspended it upside down, the water would not fall out of the glass since the pressure in the atmosphere is sufficient to keep it in. However, as we notice in our everyday life, the atmospheric pressure can’t keep the water in even a very short glass – say one that is about 10 centimeters in length. The moment we reverse the glass, the water falls straight out and onto the floor. This, and many other such phenomena, can be explained by what is known as the Rayleigh-Taylor instability, which is one of the many astonishing instabilities encountered in fluid mechanics.

Neeraja Bhamidipati
Postgraduate Student