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: They just keep moving the line

Flow chemistry equipment

One of the things that is challenging about scientific research is that the problems needing to be solved are constantly evolving. Solutions which were previously considered to be adequate may become inadequate due to changing priorities, meaning that they need to be readdressed.

One such issue which I have become interested in is making peptides.

Peptides are long chains made by joining amino acids residues by amide bonds. Peptides, and proteins (which is the name used for long peptides) are vital components of many of the processes of life, and in recent years there has been ever increasing interest in the use of peptides as potential for treatments for a wide range of diseases.

In 1984 R. B. Merrifield was awarded the Nobel Prize for his excellent work developing a technique to make peptides known as “Solid Phase Peptide Synthesis” or SPPS. The discovery of SPPS revolutionized peptide synthesis, enabling scientists to routinely make increasingly complex peptides, and is to this day the most commonly used method for peptide synthesis. However, SPPS requires large excesses of both the amino acids you are joining together and the chemicals used to form the linkage. As the earth’s resources become increasingly depleted this waste becomes less and less acceptable, meaning that new ways to make peptides must be developed. In order to do this, we as scientists need to be as creative and innovative as possible to come up with new solutions for old problems. One potential solution to the challenge of peptide synthesis is the emerging field of flow chemistry. In flow chemistry, machines are assembled which use pumps to pump streams of reagents through thin tubing. By doing things like meeting two streams containing different reagents together, heating or shining light on the tubing, or flowing the reaction stream through a bed of solid reagents we can effect reactions with very fine control, which has been shown to be very beneficial.

My initial work in this area focused on making a type of naturally occurring molecules known as cyclooligomeric depsipeptides.

The cyclooligomeric depsipeptides synthesized with the dipeptidol monomer units highlighted.

These molecules have repeating dipeptidol units derived from amino acids which are cyclized around to form a ring and have been seen to have interesting bioactivity. By using flow chemistry we able to make these molecules with significantly less effort, as one set up of the machines could be used to make all the amide bonds in the molecule with only minor revision to form the final ring closures. Additionally, we were able to significantly improve the yields for these reactions when compared to previous syntheses. As well as making three natural products (beauvericin, bassinolide and enniatin C) we were able to make three related compounds which have never been made before. This family of molecules can now be tested to see if they have any interesting bioactivity.

There is a way to go until we will know if flow chemistry can augment or even replace the current methods for commercial peptide synthesis, but this work definitely supports the idea that readdressing problems from the past can lead to improvements for our future.

Dr Zoe E. Wilson
Academic Fellow in Organic Chemistry

To read more about our synthesis of the cyclooligomeric depsipeptides see: Daniel Lücke, Toryn Dalton, Steven V. Ley and Zoe E. Wilson*, “Synthesis of natural and unnatural cyclooligomeric depsipeptides enabled by flow chemistry”, Chem. Eur. J., 2016, 22 (12), 4206 – 4217. DOI: 10.1002/chem.201504457

“I recently presented my research at the ACS Fall Meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. For this I recorded a 3 minute summary talk with the ASC Scientific video lab where I discuss this research in more detail.”

Take a look:

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