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 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

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

Career Path: From biology to consultancy, music, technology and…..

12A Claire Pettitt photoCareerI remember being jealous of those people at school who were certain what they wanted to do with their lives: the ones who wanted to be a vet, or a lawyer, and so had a pretty clear path mapped out towards that goal. In contrast, I had absolutely no idea where I wanted to end up; I was strong in several areas, from English and Music to Biology and Maths…and the prospect of narrowing things down horrified me, as I enjoyed working across several subjects!

Many years later, I’m pleased to have been able to maintain this desire for variety in my career to date, which has spanned a number of industries – none being remotely scientific. But I can say with confidence that I’m glad I chose to study science at university, as the skills I learned during my Natural Sciences degree at Cambridge have proved to be endlessly transferable.

I began my career in strategy consultancy, working on projects across industries from energy to healthcare equipment and private equity. After a couple of years, I felt frustrated with strategy work and wanted to ‘get my hands dirty’ by actually managing things myself. I couldn’t believe my luck when a client I was working with found out I was a keen classical musician and invited me to work at London Music Masters – the music charity he had founded. I became their Chief Operating Officer and stayed there for 3 years, learning everything there was to know about running, and funding, a startup organisation. This was the perfect grounding for my next role as Head of Operations & Finance at the social enterprise Spice, which runs the largest community currency scheme in the world. Most recently, I’ve moved into the tech industry with a similar role in an exciting and fast-growing software company,, which provides online scheduling solutions for entrepreneurs, small businesses and big companies all over the world.

My science background has undoubtedly assisted me in my career in many ways. Here are some of them…

  • Critical thinking. Science demands that you take a close look at the evidence presented and consider how best to interpret it. I’ve certainly found this helpful when trying to make tough decisions at work; often it’s important to look at the data rather than simply trusting your instincts. An example would be, at London Music Masters, deciding the best way to focus fundraising efforts to maximise the returns.
  • Unravelling complexity. Studying science involves being confronted with highly complex information, developing a detailed understanding of it, and ultimately taking it one step further. Throughout my career so far, I’ve regularly thrown myself into the deep end by taking on senior roles with no prior experience in that area and then proving that I can succeed. Knowing that I’m capable of quickly understanding and processing complex information has given me the confidence to progress more quickly and to push myself to discover what I’m truly capable of.
  • Continuous learning. Scientific knowledge is constantly progressing, so it’s essential to keep up to date with the latest developments. Being able to demonstrate a desire to continue learning throughout your career is a huge asset in any industry. For me, this hunger for new knowledge has persisted; I now follow numerous blogs and news articles relating to the tech industry, as well as continuously picking up new skills and technologies as they emerge.

Hopefully my diverse career path demonstrates that studying science doesn’t only lead you into science-related roles – it also prepares you for almost anything your working future may hold!

Claire Pettitt

Science at Cambridge: Physics

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

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

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

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

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

Lucy Oswald
Undergraduate student

Science at Cambridge: Computer Science

7D Catalina Cangea
Catalina Cangea

UniversityThe reason I chose to study CS was maintaining the strongest connection possible to the real world while pursuing a Science subject. Powerful and complex software engineering lies at the heart of most web services today: information retrieval (Google Search), entertainment (YouTube, Spotify), social apps (Facebook, Instagram), shopping (Amazon) — you name it! There are massive developments powered by Computer Science, spanning areas such as speech processing, design of faster graphics cards, new programming languages to help better and less error-prone development of apps we use every day, infrastructure for large-scale computations (think about the search query ‘Cambridge’ returning 347,000,000 results in 0.74 seconds!) So I guess you can’t get bored…

One of my main interests is machine learning — I am currently working on my third-year project which involves classifying musical genres by using a convolutional neural network (ConvNet). This is a particular kind of artificial neural network which takes biological inspiration from the animal visual cortex. ConvNets are widely used for identifying objects of interest in images (Google and Facebook use them for some of their most ambitious current projects).

At a high-level, this is what happens: if you give the network enough pictures of cats, enough pictures of other things and tell it which are cats and which are not, it will learn to identify a cat by itself. I’m using this classification method to learn features from spectrograms (visual representations of sound files) and classify music genres.

7D cat collage 2
photo from: treasure on the wall

While reading about ConvNets for the first time, I was intrigued by their ability to learn about almost anything in image format — powerful (even real-time) recognition systems can be designed. There are still some questions to be answered; for example, why do some functions used in network layers work better than others on particular classification tasks? The explanation and maths behind this is not obvious yet. ConvNets also have failings — if an image is perturbed by a very small amount of noise, humans sense almost no difference, but ConvNets get fooled; more can be understood in the future about these learning models.

This is only a single, very specific application in Computer Science — there are countless others probably being used by most people exposed to modern technology, not only within the space of web services, but also in areas such as medicine, security or banking. If you’re keen on Science subjects, I’d definitely advise you to consider Computer Science as a university degree. You can have immediate and valuable impact on people’s lives, as well as the best and most exciting career prospects, even from your undergraduate years.

Catalina Cangea

I am currently in my third and final year of the Computer Science Tripos [Cambridge undergraduate course or examinations] and wish to continue with a Masters’ degree at Cambridge.

The main image is of me at the Computer Laboratory (CS department) wearing the Google Glass one of my colleagues was using while developing an application for the Group Project in second year.

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

Career Path: Valuing scientific approaches


1A Barbara photo

Young women are under-represented in science at University level in the UK, especially in Physical Sciences, Maths and Engineering (STEM). Biological Sciences and Medicine, though, have become more equal. For the STEM subjects the figures aren’t too surprising because students are often dropping these subjects at an earlier stage. For example, more than 40% of state schools have no girls in Physics in years 12 and 13 (Institute of Physics).

Compared to many other countries (in Eastern Europe and China, for example) in the UK there can be lots of assumptions made about girls from a very early age. Girls can pick up messages that girls “don’t do science” or as they start to choose subjects, the way these subjects are portrayed can make them feel “engineering isn’t for me” and yet what is being portrayed in only one part of a whole range of types of activities in the subject.

It is not just that we think studying science is for a career in science only. We need many more people to understand science, maths and the scientific approach whatever their job. I studied Natural Sciences myself at Cambridge. I started on a research track but decided early on that my skills were with people and organisations. I had a fascinating career in health sciences, for example as Regional Director of the NHS for the South East of England. I then moved and became Chief Executive of Oxfam, travelling the world to support poor people to get themselves out of poverty or to provide humanitarian aid. Never for one moment did I regret doing science at University. The way it makes me look at evidence was so important in all my roles and the knowledge I had of science allowed me to understand so much more of what was happening in clinical care when I worked on health issues.

In this blog, we want to help by giving young women interested in science a voice and also getting their slightly older peers to describe what work in science is like and to share the excitement and intriguing questions their work raises. We want to encourage young women mainly ages 14-20 to see the opportunities and excitement of being in science.

This is the first post of a year-long discussion, with an entry each week. Each 4 weeks will include a post from a woman scientist about her work and her passion for it; one describing some current news and research; a student in a STEM subject from Murray Edwards College describing what it is like to study science in Cambridge; and a school student who wants to contribute to the debate herself. So “go for it” young women, let’s hear what you have to say about science.

Best wishes
Barbara Stocking
Murray Edwards College
May 2015