My Cambridge journey
12 years ago, I sat in the back of my parents’ car, beginning the two-hour car journey to Cambridge. Though excited to begin my university experience, I still didn’t entirely know what to expect. I had of course read the prospectus and been to an Open Day, but the internet wasn’t used as widely as it is today so I assumed I would just work it out as I went along…
I had chosen to read Natural Sciences. I enjoyed science at school, and particularly its role in addressing the “how” and “why” questions about the world around us. Little did I know that many of my ideas of how the way the world works would be turned upside down at Cambridge. First year physics students meet both Einstein’s special relativity and quantum mechanics, the pillars of “modern physics” which in some scenarios force us to abandon the classical laws of physics that we cover so thoroughly at school.
Within natural sciences I specialised in physics and my quest to understand “how things work” went to increasingly small length scales until I eventually reached particle physics, the field which attempts to describe the fundamental building blocks of the universe and the interactions between them. I was lucky enough to earn a place on the CERN summer student programme after my third year, where I first worked on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). This experience encouraged me to apply for a PhD in particle physics, working on the ATLAS experiment to search for new particles during the first few years of LHC data taking. This was a particularly exciting time in the field: I was in the room when the historic announcement of the Higgs Boson discovery was made by the ATLAS and CMS collaborations, and the high energy collisions enabled me to design searches for new elementary particles that could never have been seen by previous experiments.
In September 2016, 10 years after I first arrived as a student, I returned to Cambridge as a fellow of Murray Edwards College. As Director of Studies for physical natural sciences I offer advice on subject choices and guide physics students throughout their degree. I also supervise Murray Edwards students in physics courses. To begin with it was strange being on the other side of things, being a fellow and not a student, however it has been an enjoyable two
Science at Cambridge
At Cambridge, Natural Sciences students study three subjects and mathematics in their first year. In addition to lectures and experimental laboratories there are one-hour “supervisions” in each subject, where small groups of students (usually two or three) discuss numerical problems or essays they have completed with an experienced researcher in that field. It was through these supervisions that I (as first a student and then a supervisor) learned some of my most important lessons about university life. Firstly your fellow students can be your most valuable learning resources. It’s very rare that two individuals will arrive at the solution in exactly the same way, or have identical views or interpretations on a particular topic, and discussing different approaches is a way of gaining a deeper understanding of the subject. Secondly, (and this is maybe the most important message I would give), you are not expected to get everything correct first time (in fact most don’t), and in understanding your mistakes you ultimately become a better scientist.
Science at Murray Edwards
I am continually impressed by the diversity we have amongst the science undergraduates at Murray Edwards College: all join with a passion for science, but with different interests that take them down a variety of routes. This is clear in the range of subjects they choose to study, and also in the variety of activities they choose to do in the summer vacation, both in the UK and abroad: from internships in banking or consultancy, to research projects in string theory. As a female scientist on a large experimental collaboration I am aware of the issues that we can face in science: lack of confidence or “imposter syndrome”, and feeling outnumbered. One of the strengths of the Murray Edwards community is that students support each other. They also have a network of contacts (older students, fellows, alumni) who can offer guidance in terms of their studies and career development. I will close with a few comments provided by some of our current undergraduate students about why Murray Edwards is a great place to study science:
“Everyone (fellows and other students) are incredibly supportive and encouraging.” Fionn Bishop
“The supervisors at Murray Edwards are amazing. They are all very experienced in their subject and eager to help in any way they can.” Francesca Adams
“There is a great sense of community among science students and fellows in Murray Edwards, since we meet regularly and share ideas at college events and Franklin Society gatherings.” Malvina Constantinou
Dr Sarah Williams
Felow, Director of Studies and Alumna
For questions / further information about physics at Murray Edwards contact Sarah Williams