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: 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

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

School Winner: Why do we find pandas so cute?

aisha-azad-quintin-kynaston17c-aisha-azad-croppedSchoolSo why do we, the human race, adore these loveable creatures? If you don’t then you’re not human, seriously if you find pandas ugly there is something wrong.

A behavioural neuroscientist called Edgar E. Coons thinks that humans find pandas so cute because of the hedonic mechanisms” their features set off in us.

They remind us of babies especially with their big eyes (the eyes are not that particularly big but the black patches around their eyes make them appear larger) round faces, snub noses and large heads (a large head and tiny body is much cuter than a tiny head and large body (like rats). Also the fact that they are extremely large and fluffy reminds us of a cuddly toy.

The way giant pandas tumble about reminds us of toddlers even though they are slightly larger than most toddlers (well, at least out of the ones I’ve met). Also it is pretty hilarious watching a panda try to walk, they look so funny waddling around. This video alone is enough evidence how funny pandas are when they walk.

Moving on to the real scientific reason as to why we find pandas cute.

It’s all to do with our brain making us feel a certain love towards pandas.

“According to Hamann, increased activity in the middle orbital cortex is usually associated with pleasure and positive emotion. Some evidence suggests the brain activity there is greater when the stimulus is ‘neotenous,’ which is to say it has juvenile characteristics — a button nose, big eyes, a large wobbly head, chubby extremities or pudgy cheeks.” – an article from the Washington Post where they asked Stephan Hamann, a psychology professor at Emory University, to explain why people find certain animals are cute.

“Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian zoologist who shared a Nobel Prize in 1973, was the first of many researchers to conclude that cuteness, or “baby schema,” is an evolutionary adaptation that triggers nurturing responses from adults — allowing survival of the cutest, in Darwinian terms.” – another section from the Washington Post Article in 2005.

Quintin Kynaston

I’m Aisha and I’m in Year 11. I’m currently doing my GCSEs in English, Maths, Triple Science and History. I did my French and Textles GCSE last year. I’m interested in pursuing a career in forensic science.

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


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

Science at Cambridge: A cellular world of intricacy and beauty

16d-issy-pearce-mason-3Some people see beauty in the works by the great Masters of the Renaissance or in the words of Shakespeare, but I see beauty in the cellular world. It’s only when you sit back, slow down and look that you see what seems so simple is in fact a complex network of interdependent pathways and processes formed with such intricacy that it is frankly unbelievable it – and by extension life – exists at all. Science is much more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking, looking and analysing – so perhaps not so different from the study of art or literature.

What distinguishes the sciences from other disciplines is its universal application and connectivity.

An understanding of  how a virus can evade the host immune system by down-regulating cellular stress responses through the production of unique factors not only facilitates the development of targeted viral therapies but also allows the system to be exploited to treat other diseases. At first it seems counter intuitive to use a highly virulent engineered virus to treat cancer but the reality is that it is possible. The successful development of such treatment requires an understanding of the pathology of the virus and the cancer, the biochemical basis of the virus and how it can be manipulated, pharmacological trials and combination therapies – and of course medical practice. With this it is clear to see the importance of appreciating and utilising the bridges that join one discipline to another.

16d-issy-pearce-mason-2The natural sciences course at Cambridge truly embraces this ethos, providing a broad  grounding in the sciences on which specialisation can be built throughout the undergraduate course. I’m currently starting to specialise in the biochemical fields, with papers in Pathology, Pharmacology and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The first year course provides a solid grounding in the basics – making these papers highly accessible to students without a biological background at A-level: in fact there are relatively few mandatory requirements for most papers.

There really is nowhere better to study sciences, I’ve been to lectures given by Nobel prize winners and people at the cutting edge of their field.

However, it can be challenging, when your lecturer is speaking at 100 miles an hour as you’re flicking through the handout for the right pages – which never seem to be in order – and scribble down something that sounds useful, to appreciate the beauty, intricacy and finesse of what you’re being told and with that, what drew you here in the first place.

Issy Pearce-Mason
Undergraduate student

Science at Cambridge: Neuroscience and moody teenagers

14d-megan-hutchings-photo-3UniversityI studied Natural Sciences at Murray Edwards College, specialising in Neuroscience in my final year. I had been interested in Neuroscience ever since completing my Extended Project in high school. In my project I looked into the debate about whether adolescent behaviour was more influenced by genetics or by the environment. Although honestly I was just searching for an excuse to be a moody teenager and not be blamed for it! After my initial interest was sparked I became more and more interested in Neuroscience. I find this subject fascinating as I find studying Neuroscience a way of trying to understand how humans work at the most fundamental level.

I particularly enjoyed studying a modular course at Cambridge as it allowed me to study the aspects of my subject I find most interesting, I particularly enjoyed the fact I was able to take modules on neural networks as well as a psychology module on memory.

My studies never ceased to fascinate me and made me realise just how amazing our brain and by extension we as humans are. There was a continual realisation of how seemingly simple processes are actually much more complex than they appear on the surface. For example, vision seems fairly straightforward, but you can find people who are ‘blind’ but can still tell you where objects are or how they are orientated, even though they cannot ‘see’ them. Or that memories are not fixed and immutable and can be updated or altered. Even that we have different types of memories! All of this I found fascinating and it made me appreciate my brain and my body so much more when I could understand a slightly larger proportion of what it was doing for me on a daily basis.

This in part is why I would encourage young women today to pursue science as a subject; the ability to understand more about the world around you or yourself can only lead to a greater appreciation of how wondrous these things truly are.

Megan Hutchings

School Winner: Science and the EU

caitlin-byrne-wirral-grammar-school-for-girls1c-caitlin-byrne-photoSchool Recently, our country has made the bold decision to become a pioneer and leave the European Union, which has left many people with the same question at the forefront of their minds: what now?

Typically, this is not a question you would consider to be linked to much else other than the fate of our economy, healthcare and obvious policy areas, but I am instead going to consider exactly how this decision has had an impact upon the world of science.

UK universities benefit significantly from EU membership, as they receive 10% of their research funding from the EU, which has been estimated to amount to around £1 billion. This could provide a barrier for scientific advances in the UK as the research carried out in Universities has contributed to the science industry in a large way; the UK’s research institutions and universities have benefited greatly from EU investment and have managed to contribute approximately 14% of the most highly cited academic papers each year.1c-caitlin-byrne-image-1-jpg

If we were to withdraw from the EU, then would the research funding also be withdrawn, and if so how would we then be able to compensate for that? The European Research Council has contributed more than £5 billion toward scientific research in the UK since 2007, which has been vital under the Conservative government as it was decided that there would be cuts to scientific research and it has been estimated that around 1/5th of all European Research Community grants have gone toward the UK. Without all of this funding, what will this then mean for the Scientific community?

An open letter regarding this issue has recently been published in the Times, which was co-signed by Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, Naturejournal editor-in-chief Philip Campbell and Nobel-winning geneticist Paul Nurse. The letter talks about how it is not ‘known to the public that the EU is a boon to UK science and innovation’ and that ‘freedom of movement for talent and ambitious EU science funding programmes, which support vital, complex international collaborations, put the UK in a world-leading position.’

This suggests that without EU support, the lack of freedom of movement and funding could be a vital barrier for science in general and research in the future.

However, Scientists for Britain (a leave campaign group), has pointed out that there are many countries outside of the EU who still receive EU funding; spokesmen say that a points-based visa system would enable UK universities to continue to bring in students from USA, Australia, Canada and various other countries not in the EU.

1c-caitlin-byrne-image-3Although it appears that on the surface that the future may appear bleak for scientific advancements and research without EU funding and freedom of movement, the clear conclusion i have been able to draw is that at this stage, we are still highly uncertain of the future but all we can do now is try our best to keep calm and carry on, in true British fashion.

Caitlin Byrne
Student at Wirral Grammar School for Girls

“I am Caitlin Byrne and I have always had a fascination with science and how it works within the natural world, but more recently how it interacts within the the political framework of our country. As i am applying to study chemistry at university; eventually aiming to pursue a career in formulation chemistry, I feel that the impact politics has on science and research has never been more significant.”

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