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: 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: Science publishing – Meet the editor

What area of science are you working in?

I am the chief editor of Nature Reviews Materials – a journal published by Springer Nature. We launched in January 2016 and, as the first journal in the physical sciences within the Nature Reviews family, this was an exciting challenge. As its name suggests, we feature articles covering all topics of materials science — from condensed matter physics to spider silk, and from porous materials to materials for batteries.

I have been an editor for the past 13 years and for most of this time I have worked on the editorial team of a primary research journal.

Studying Natural Sciences at Murray Edwards, specialising in Chemistry in the latter years, gave me an excellent broad base that I find very useful even 20 years on.

I also engage with scientists – mostly in academia – and the fact that I spent time doing my own research, during my PhD years at the University of Durham, enables me to have some empathy with the highs and lows of scientific research.

What appeals to you about the work that you do?

As an editor on a primary research journal, you really feel like you’re at the coal face of research.  On a daily basis, you see a range of articles submitted to the journal and in amongst these could be a real gem. This is very exciting, especially because you never know when it’s going to happen.  Then, overseeing the peer-review process can be challenging and fascinating.

As an editor, it is your responsibility to select manuscripts for publication – using your own knowledge and with the help of the peer-review process.

By selecting what we publish, we become a venue for scientists to go to if they want to read some of the most impactful research in their areas.

I really enjoy being able to improve the written quality of the articles we publish. There is little teaching given to students and young academics on how to write a scientific article and most academics are grateful for the guidance we give them during the editing process. I find this part of the job very satisfying and enjoy helping them communicate their ideas in a clearer way.

How does what you do contribute to what we know or what we do?

As a Reviews journal, we offer a place for world-leading academics to give their opinions on the fields that they are specialists in. This can pose questions to their community that need to be addressed and on occasions act like a ‘call to action’ for the course of a field to be re-thought.

Where do you see the exciting challenges ahead?

In science publishing, the challenge is to move with the digital age and ensure that, as the readership moves to a generation more accustomed to social media outlets, that the content is easily reachable in this form.  Thinking more widely, the challenges for our community are those associated with funding. For researchers at universities in the UK – particularly Cambridge – the competition is probably higher than it’s ever been and this requires them to acknowledge this and raise their standards. The challenge to the researchers is to choose the right problems to work on, collaborate, and work hard to produce results and to communicate their results to the best of their abilities.

Why would you encourage young women today to consider choosing sciences?

For me personally, as an editor, I have found a role that enables me to use my science background and work in an environment with engaging colleagues. The role also has an aspect of it which requires you to work by yourself – for example, during the edit of an article and I can work away from the office while I complete these tasks.  As a result, I can manage my time to work around my family and I have had 3 children during my time with my current employer.

And finally, I have been lucky enough to witness the most prestigious award in science when my father, Fraser Stoddart, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in October 2016.  The trip to Stockholm, meeting Barack Obama at the White House and a subsequent trip to China, have been huge highlights in recent months.  During this time, I met many inspiring men and women, who are truly committed to advancing science and enabling breakthroughs to happen and be acknowledged.

The possibilities are endless, if you wish to become a scientist.

Dr Alison Stoddart

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: 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


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 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 issue: The gloopy world of collagen proteins

9B Ying Chow photo1NewsI always find it a little misleading to tell people that I am a chemist; the molecules that I am studying come from biology, while the technique that I use comes from physics.

The samples I have investigated included bone, tendon, cartilage, and skin; a diverse variety of materials somehow all made from collagen proteins. Together with a range of other proteins, sugar-like molecules, and sometimes minerals, collagen proteins form the extracellular matrix — the glue-like matrix in which cells are embedded and organised. However, it is not just a passive scaffold: the cells make attachments to the matrix at an atomic level, and this attachment can trigger different cell behaviours. So what are these atomic-level “hooks” that the cell is seeing?

Perhaps a little surprisingly, it is not easy to study the atoms in the extracellular matrix. Since it is a gloopy/grainy, cross-linked, heterogeneous mix of proteins, sugars, and more, there is a mind-boggling variety of different kinds of atoms and molecules within a small piece of tissue. Often, a shortened section of pure collagen-like proteins is studied as a simpler model system. However, what if we could have a technique where we can directly compare healthy tissue and diseased tissue atomically? Perhaps we can understand how the differences in bulk property (e.g. stiffness, brittleness) came about, by understanding the molecular and atomic level organisation (e.g. different compositions, different chemical bonds). Changes in the extracellular matrix occur in many diseases, including diabetes and cancer, but also naturally over time as we age. Much of current treatment focuses upon the cells, or surgically removing diseased tissue, but perhaps there are ways to more effective treatment if we can understand, reverse or even prevent these changes at a tissue level.

Much of my research is about developing an approach to study tissues in an intact manner at an atomic level. The technique that I use, solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (ssNMR), can sometimes feel like it is a world apart from biology, full of electronics, pulse programming, and liquid nitrogen. All the machinery is part of an attempt to delicately (well, as delicately as you can with a kilowatt of power) nudge the quantum mechanical states of those atoms within the sample, to find out what bonds those atoms are making, what other atoms are nearby, in order to deduce what molecule that atom is a part of. Interpreting the data is much like solving a logical puzzle, trying to fit all the pieces of information to what we know about the experiment and the sample.

At the moment, I am trying to work out why some parts of collagen proteins appear to be more flexible than others, which may help cells form attachments onto the collagen matrix. Using ssNMR, I could pick out the flexible atom pairs, which exerted a smaller magnetic (dipolar) effect on each other.

As a chemist who is working at the border between disciplines, I am always working with a range of scientists from different backgrounds: cell biologists, biochemists, computational chemists, and even engineers and doctors. It is an enriching experience, full of creative solutions, and even more creative questions.

If you are interested to find out more, feel free to ask by email or Twitter!

Ying Chow

Further reading:

Protein Databank 101 Molecule of the month: Collagen

Molecular Biology of the Cell (Alberts et al, 2002)

The Extracellular Matrix at a Glance (Frantz 2010)

Some introduction to solid-state NMR

A set of lectures that give a fuller introduction to NMR

Part I of our recent attempts to understand collagen flexibility (Part II is being prepared…)

Twitter handle @selkie_upsilon


Career Path: Harnessing talent and work-life balance

iop-Women in A level Physics Jan 2016
iop-Women in A level Physics Jan 2016


I’ve had quite a few enjoyable and fulfilling jobs over a 40-year career, all in science education. I’ve taught physics in schools and trainee physics teachers in Universities. I’ve done some important research on children’s understanding (and many teachers’ misunderstanding) of science. Most recently I’ve been employed by the Institute of Physics to help address the very low number of girls taking Physics A-level.

Did you know that nationally only about 22% of the entrants for Physics A-level are girls. Research in 2011 showed that Physics was the fourth most popular subjects for boys to choose but the 19th most popular for girls.  In 46% of schools no young woman completed a Physics A-level.  This is a shameful waste of talent.

I was drawn to physics because it addresses big questions. How can you look at the sky and not just wonder? How can you not want to study it? And maybe it’s the wonder in a grandson’s face when he looks up at the moon which links my own passion for physics and for looking after (and teaching) children. But the great thing about studying science at University is that it lets you have your cake and eat it. Unlike some other disciplines, graduates with science degrees are rarely short of a job, even if they want to combine their career with childcare or other life passions.

You can glean insights into just a few of the jobs available within other blog entries: Sarah chose a role in creating new drugs, Angela in harvesting fuel resources, Annie in health care for women in prison, Zoe in international consultancy, Rebecca in researching the epidemiological consequences of behaviour and Jelena in developing genetic testing facilities.

Like many contributors to this blog, I went to New Hall (Murray Edwards). I was very unsure whether this was a good idea at the time as I came from a state school in Cleethorpes. The College was welcoming and friendly. I learned that we all brought different strengths and skills. And the people I met as an undergraduate became and remain my closest friends.

I haven’t got a paid job anymore. Now retired, I seem to spend most of my time looking after grandchildren. Some would see a pattern in this – I gave up a PhD to look after my own children. Having a fulfilling life is about more than what you do at work. But I don’t for a moment regret choosing to study science (mostly physics) at University. It was great for my life as well as for my career. And I’ve spent most of that career encouraging young women to do the same – and to make full use of their talent for science.

So why do I want to encourage you, to study science? Firstly, because there is so much that you will find interesting. Secondly, doing science opens up so many possibilities for what you can do with your life. Thirdly, you can be very good at it. Finally, and importantly, young women are needed.

Jenny Mant

Career Path: Studying science opens new doors

Science Careers word cloud

CareerZoe Penfold-Fitch headshotHaving studied Natural Sciences as an undergrad, and then done a PhD in Quantum Physics, it may seem that my current job as a Strategy Consultant, working with businesses around the world, is a step in a completely different direction. In fact, there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t rely on the skills I developed as a scientist, and those skills make me much better at my job.

Companies come to my firm with problems – they want to know what new products to develop, what direction to take their company in, or how they can change the way they do things to work more efficiently. All companies work in very different ways, and the first thing you need to do is to get a really good understanding of what they do, how they do it, and the dynamics of the market they operate in – to do this well, you need to have an inquiring mind, and be able to ask the right questions in order to get all the information you need.

It’s exactly the same as getting to the bottom of a scientific problem – using logic and a set of rules to pinpoint what the important factors are before you go about solving the problem. Then, in forming a solution, you need to be both analytical and creative to get to the right answer that will really help the client. Again, those are both vital elements of how you work as a scientist – and it’s definitely not just about the analysis; science teaches you to be innovative, and look at the world in a different way.

Studying science opens so many doors – when I decided to move outside of academia, the question wasn’t ‘what can I do?’, it was ‘is there anything I can’t do now?’.

The possibilities are endless – last year, I travelled to Milan, Paris, New York, Miami, Mumbai and Dubai to work on fascinating business problems; my sister did a degree in Marine Biology, and is about to start work with the BBC producing wildlife documentaries; my mum studied Chemistry and then became a lawyer, working with fashion designers around the world to help them ensure that their designs don’t get copied; one of my best friends is in Boston where she’s helping to build a new type of particle detector which will be used at CERN at the very cutting edge of science.

Each one of us uses the skills we developed during our degrees every day, in a hundred different ways, and each one of us appreciates the wealth of opportunities we’ve opened up through studying science.

Zoe Penfold-Fitch

wordcloud from Purdue University, College of Science