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

Career Path: Putting the pieces together

11A Zoe Wilson photo
CareerI have always felt a bit like rather than choosing to study chemistry, chemistry chose me.

There have been several times in my life so far when my career could have turned out completely different. These include when my inspirational high school chemistry teacher came out of retirement so my school would have a teacher for my final year and a chance conversation with my future PhD supervisor at a university open day which led to me completely changing my major before I started university. Even the decision to apply for a Royal Society Fellowship to move to the United Kingdom from New Zealand after my PhD (despite the fact that I was terrified of moving to the other side of the world, and quite convinced I wouldn’t stand a chance of getting the fellowship) could be considered to be a turning point. For this reason I have always felt incredibly lucky to have ended up in a field that I find so fascinating.

I would describe myself as a synthetic organic chemist – which basically means I find ways to make nature derived molecules from simple chemical building blocks. I work in the lab of Professor Steven Ley at The University of Cambridge as a Post-Doctoral Research Associate. Additionally, I am a Fellow at Murray Edwards College where I enjoy getting to discuss the intricacies of chemistry with such intelligent and friendly students.

One of my main interests is the synthesis of natural products. Natural products are complex molecules which are created by organisms for an array of purposes, whether it is defence from other organisms or to help keep the organism alive. These molecules often turn out to have interesting bioactivity, and many have been the starting point for pharmaceuticals used today.

What fascinates me about these molecules is putting together their complex structures in as elegant way as possible. They present a significant challenge because they often contain multiple reactive parts within the molecule. This means you have to plan the order which you will try to assemble the pieces incredibly carefully in order to build the whole molecule without destroying what you have already made. Often we need to be creative and invent entirely new ways to make the chemical bonds we need.

So why should women consider becoming chemists? Synthetic chemistry teaches you to think in a creative but critical way, as not only do we have to dream up interesting and clever ways to do things, we actually have to physically make the molecule to prove that our ideas were good (which is immensely satisfying when achieved!). Also, in a field where (especially at the higher levels) women are currently sadly underrepresented, bringing together people of different genders, backgrounds and opinions to think on the same problem from different perspectives, offers the potential to come up with solutions for the big problems – and you could be part of that!

Zoe Wilson

Science at Cambridge: The Laboratory of the Night Skies

4D Helen Piatkowski (1)
The 10-inch telescope and me in our garden.

My name is Helen and I’m about to start studying Natural Sciences (Physical) at Murray Edwards College. Never thinking I stood a chance of getting a place, I honestly can’t believe I’m only a few weeks away from going to Cambridge.

Studying natural sciences will give me a broad understanding before specialising in the third year; my current plan is to choose astrophysics and hopefully continue into research. A range of modules in the first year allows me to pick topics that interest me and perhaps focus on those most beneficial for studying astrophysics.

Murray Edwards runs an offer holder overnight stay where I was able to sleep in student accommodation, attend lectures, go to a formal hall and meet other students as well as my Director of Studies. This was a wonderful opportunity to soak in the atmosphere of the college and get to know the other offer holders. It was a comfort to find that I was not the only person who was worried they might struggle with their course!

Discovering that Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who first detected radio pulsars, attended Murray Edwards is a huge motivation for me. It will be incredible to study and live at the same college as such brilliant woman as her.

M81 and M82 photographed with our 10-inch telescope
M81 and M82 photographed with our 10-inch telescope

Nothing is more fascinating than science and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to study it throughout my degree. Science stretches your imagination to the limit. Let’s take an example that is right there in front of all of us to see. Go out on a clear night and you will see stars. One of the stars you might know is the Pole Star, or Polaris, which is a whopping 3,784,211,360,000,000 kilometres away. What a ridiculous distance! Due to the immense scale of space the lightyear is used as a unit of distance measurement and is equivalent to 9,460,528,400,000 kilometres. 

Andromeda galaxy circled in red.
Andromeda galaxy circled in red.

If you’re lucky enough to have little light pollution on a dark night you will be able to see a faint band of glowing misty-like light stretching across the night sky.  This is part of the Milky Way (our own galaxy) which is a crazy 150,000 lightyears in diameter and contains around 100,000,000,000 stars.  Then, if you happen to own some binoculars and look at the right place in the constellation of Andromeda you can see a small faint smudge of light which is the Andromeda Galaxy – labelled in the image.  This galaxy is a staggering 2.5 million lightyears away and is one of our closest neighbours within our “Local Group” of galaxies.

Crab Nebula (M1) photographed with our 10-inch telescope
Crab Nebula (M1) photographed with our 10-inch telescope

One step further, with a small telescope you can even see objects that are a billion lightyears away. You need to have a strong imagination to even have a chance of comprehending these enormous distances. The excitement for me is that this generates so many questions, plus the laboratory is out there in front of us all and easily accessible.

Providing a beautiful backdrop for my studies, Cambridge’s great facilities and support from my college and peers will, I’m sure, bring out my best. Small group tutorials will really help me get to grips with course content. Becoming much more independent and stretching myself further is a part of college life to which I’m really looking forward.

Helen Piatkowski
Undergraduate student

Setting up the 8-inch telescope for a recent outreach event with the Guildford Astronomical Society
Setting up the 8-inch telescope for a recent outreach event with the Guildford Astronomical Society

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