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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Science at Cambridge: Blurring the boundaries – Psychological and Behavioural Sciences

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    23 Mar

    Science fact

    Elephants rarely get cancer: less than 5% of captive elephants die of cancer, compared to 20% of humans. Elephant genomes have at least 20 copies of the tumour suppressor, p53, which may explain their low cancer rates relative to humans, who have only one copy. 

    Find out more


    I never really classed myself as a scientist; after all, I was arty, a writer, a people person and more into ‘why’ than ‘how’. Art and English literature were ‘my thing’, and quite honestly still are.  At school, Biology interested me – but only the stuff on things like the brain or hormones, so when I found psychology I felt as though I had hit the jackpot. Now, with my time at Cambridge nearly up, I can conclude that studying Psychological and Behavioural Sciences (PBS) has wonderfully blurred the boundaries between the arts and sciences, giving me the freedom to pursue whatever has taken my fancy. Over the years, I have taken Natsci (Natural Sciences) papers, Sociology papers and Bio-Anth papers, learning about things from the lifecycle of an Angiosperm, to visual phototransduction and families created through assisted reproduction. It has been a learning curve, and at times I have wondered if I was in the right lectures. As this degree is still relatively new, it has been very open to feedback on what works and what doesn’t, and I feel that the students have been actively involved in shaping the content and structure of the course. It feels as though we have a voice beyond our essays, which was a welcome surprise coming to Cambridge.

    Autism has always been the area of psychology that has interested me the most, and this year I have chosen to focus on it for my dissertation.

    As well as analysing the data and drawing conclusions, I am also involved in the actual collection, conducting tests on language skills and motor ability with low-functioning, non-verbal children with autism. It is a big commitment, and requires a lot of effort and attention, but is  very hands on and I love the applied nature of this final year – I can put what I’ve learned in textbooks into the real world, and the idea that I am actively making a difference, no matter how small, is amazing. I am graduating in 3 months, and have no firm plans – I may study Clinical Mental Health Sciences at UCL, I may have a year out travelling or get a job on the Isle of Wight. At first this worried me, but I feel as though my degree has not only equipped me with a huge and wide depth of knowledge but given me a new perspective on how I go about my daily life. I often catch glimpses of babies as evolutionarily designed information absorbers, London tube journeys as social experiments or my friends as bizarre machines at the mercy of their brains.

    It’s been transformative, and now, I am confident in saying I am a scientist.

    What you should expect for PBS: -You can’t escape statistics no matter how hard you try. -You will hear about Phineas Gage and attachment at least once a week. -The degree doesn’t teach you how to read minds. -Never mention Freud in an essay without saying he’s wrong. -You’ll learn great chat up lines (Roses are red, Violets are blue. If you were a null Hypothesis, I would fail to reject you). -…And even better jokes (Who is the most emotional woman in the world? Amy G. Dala). - Even the best and brightest often can’t spell ‘Pycholology’.

    Meg Fairclough
    Undergraduate student