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: 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


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: 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: Exploring fingerprints from the Big Bang

Reader in Astronomy at UCL
Picture by Max Alexander

I am a cosmologist. In my research, I am contributing to an international effort to understand the origin and the evolution of the Universe. It is amazing that this is even possible, because it involves extreme physics that we cannot replicate in the laboratory. However, at the Big Bang, the Universe itself performed the ultimate physics experiment. The clues to this physics are imprinted upon the oldest light we can see in the Universe, the so-called cosmic microwave background, and the large scale distribution of galaxies. Because the ultimate experiment was done once, and we can’t repeat it, cosmologists have to become detectives. Different theories of the universe produce different fingerprints in these data, and we sift through the fingerprints looking for which one matches what we observe. We are trying to piece together the clues to figure out the narrative about how our Universe began, and how it is evolving. In the past decade we have been able to precisely answer age-old questions such as how old is the Universe, what does it contain, and what is its destiny. Along with these answers have also come many exciting new questions.

Reader in Astronomy at UCL
Picture by Max Alexander

Modern cosmological research is a very collaborative and international enterprise. My work involves a lot of mathematics and high performance computing, the development of advanced algorithms and highly specialized databases to store and sift through the massive amounts data returned by cosmological sky surveys. Some of this work requires me to work in small groups with two or three other researchers, but I also contribute to large global projects with several hundred people in many countries. Since cosmology is very international, I travel extensively, discussing research findings, giving talks, and running workshops and seminars. I also enjoy sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm with my undergraduate and postgraduate students at the university.

Young women today should consider choosing to study the sciences because scientific research is intellectually stimulating, fun, and enables a huge range of careers within and outside academia.

“Blue skies” research is extremely important for our society, and for humanity as a whole, because one can never predict where the next breakthrough is coming from. In addition, science students are trained to think independently and out of the box, and they are adept at using incomplete data to reach useful and robust conclusions. They are often excellent computer programmers. They have great communication and time management skills. For these reasons they are highly sought-after in industry, engineering and finance.

Professor Hiranya Peiris
Alumna (New Hall/Murray Edwards College)

Prof. Peiris is Professor of Astrophysics at University College London.


School Winner: What is Chemistry?

Winning Entry William Hulme's Grammar SchoolTwo Winning Entries - WGS & WHGS5C Larissa portrait croppedSchoolAt school they give you an overview. But of course, it doesn’t end there. At college you get more info, at University you get the whole lot. But in life and throughout history, everything to know about chemistry is still endless.

I mean, it took scientists until 1897 to realise that atoms weren’t the smallest things in existence. With this in mind, imagine how many more theories are waiting to be realised and acknowledged. Asking questions about chemistry is truly the best way to find out what ‘chemistry’ actually is.

At one point I said to my mum “Are we made up of cells or of atoms?”. As it turns out we’re made of both! At least I managed to get a clearer vision of chemistry. In fact it made me realise that it seems almost impossible to imagine the size of an atom. Honestly, how can something be THAT small? And even then, how could you possibly imagine the size of sub-atomic particles!

My Mum is a great inspiration to me when it comes to science. You see, she did the whole University life. She got her Masters Degree in Physics at the University of Manchester. Let me also add that she often spoke to the Nobel prize winners for the discovery of graphene! Yep, my Mum is amazing. And even after 4 years of studying science, she says she’s not all that good at it. A couple of years ago I joined my Mum in her workplace in order to gain work experience. I was surrounded by mass spectrometers and large machines that I had absolutely no idea how to use, or even what they did for that matter! Over the week I learnt the different parts of the mass spectrometer and even more about the company. What fascinated me was the function of each part and each object in a mass spectrometer. I even took part in the construction of one section called a ‘quad’. To me, what I built just looked like a weirdly shaped perfume bottle… but apparently it was an essential part to the mass spectrometer. Having actually built the quad, I understood more about how it works. For example, the rods are used to move the ions through the mass spectrometer using forces of attraction. (Or at least I think so, I can’t remember everything from 2 years ago!)

Another interesting thing I learnt was how mass spectrometers are adapted for more practical uses. One example is that of the I-knife (a.k.a. intelligent knife). This piece of technology can be used in medicinal ways: surgeons for cancer patients will use the I-knife as it will be able to identify cancer cells against healthy cells. Thus allowing the surgeon to only remove cancer cells during the procedure.

Isn’t that soo amazing?? As a matter of fact there was actually  a documentary covering the use of mass spectrometers in this way, I felt smart watching it as I already learnt about it during my work experience J.

To return to the point, “What is Chemistry?” I guess all we can answer to that is the different knowledge surrounding Chemistry and even science altogether! Chemistry can be considered the study of different topics such as mass spectrometers. Although, to be more imaginative, one could say that chemistry is the exploration into the unknown to discover and push the boundaries of knowledge. And that is why I love it.

Larissa Aravantinou
William Hulme’s Grammar School

My name is Larissa Aravantinou and there’s not a lot to know about me. Ever since I was younger, I have admired my Mum’s passion for science and particularly physics, although I was pretty bad at physics myself. Instead my mother inspired me to find something I love to study, and I found chemistry. Undoubtedly this is one of my favourite subjects just because I simply enjoy learning everything there is to know about it. I am studying Chemistry as an A level in the school that I have been in for the past 7 years and I absolutely love it. I hope to carry on studying chemistry later in life and eventually follow my mother’s footsteps in finding a scientific career path. 😀 😀