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: Blending research and patient care as a GP

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Career
The World Health Organisation defines general practice as providing ‘continuous, comprehensive, co-ordinated and personalised whole-patient care to individuals, families and their communities’. As soon as I completed my clinical training I joined a GP training scheme in Oxfordshire, and have loved being a GP for more than 30 years since then. At its core it’s about being comfortable with being a ‘generalist’ and have some expertise across all clinical conditions, rather than a being a ‘specialist’ with in-depth expertise in one (often very focused) area. When patients first seek help in primary care their problems may be vague or ill-defined- a GP’s expertise lies in working out whether this needs further investigation or referral, or whether the patient can be reassured. One of the most fulfilling parts of being a GP is that we often care for a number of family members over many years. Interestingly, analyses of data from the US, UK and Europe have shown that having more GPs is associated not only with better health outcomes, but also with better patient experience.

After working as a GP partner for more than 12 years, I moved to Cambridge and soon met the newly appointed Foundation Chair of General Practice (Ann Louise Kinmonth, also a New Hall alumna) – she encouraged me to consider a clinical academic career. While continuing to work as a part-time GP, I completed a Masters course and then a doctorate. I was fascinated to find that most of the evidence that we used to care for our primary care patients had arisen from less relevant research from specialist care, and that there was a real need for evidence from the primary care setting.

I now lead the Primary Care Cancer Research group at the University of Cambridge- so, it’s never too late for a mid-career change!

While the career of an academic GP can be demanding, it is also very rewarding. I still work as a GP, but only for one day a week. The rest of the week is spent mainly on research, with some under- and post-graduate teaching. My research focuses on developing patient and GP interventions to help diagnose cancer earlier, as there is plenty of evidence that, for most cancers, a timely diagnosis allows curative treatment and better outcomes. Current projects are researching cancers of the skin, oesophagus, stomach, brain, breast and pancreas. I feel very privileged to work alongside world leaders in cancer screening, early detection and treatment on the Cambridge Biomedical campus, and some of my research findings have already led to changes in NHS guidance for patient care.

What’s next? My research will continue to focus on new and cost-effective approaches for preventing and diagnosing cancer.

One example is the impact of technological advances on patient access to health information, and on the monitoring of symptoms and treatments by both patients and GPs. We need more clinical academics in general practice to take this important work forward.

Dr Fiona Walter MA MD FRCGP
Alumna

Fiona Walter (New Hall 1976) is Principal Researcher (Reader) in Primary Care Cancer Research at the University of Cambridge. She leads studies investigating cancer prevention, diagnosis and follow-up care, was Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, and is Honorary Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

Career Path: Valuing scientific approaches

Career

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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
President
Murray Edwards College
May 2015