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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Science at Cambridge: Chemistry

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    30 Jul

    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. 

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    While at sixth form, I attended one of the Cambridge subject masterclasses for Natural Sciences – which gave me the opportunity to learn about the course and take part in lectures and lab classes at the university. At the time, I was only just starting to consider Cambridge as somewhere to study – it was only once I had specialised in science and maths subjects at A level that I began to stand out academically. After the subject masterclass, I attended a Cambridge Open Day, where I had the opportunity to visit Murray Edwards College for the first time. Having spent most of the day visiting the more traditional colleges in town, the college was very refreshing with its more modern outlook and beautiful surroundings and I realised that I had finally found somewhere I really could fit in.

    Natural Sciences is one of the most flexible science degrees – and this is what really attracted me to it. Having the option to delay picking my favourite subject for a couple of years was definitely one advantage, and employers also appreciate the broader understanding you gain of all science subjects. I have now chosen to specialise in Chemistry, and am particularly interested in organic chemistry since you can really understand why reactions happen and predict methods of synthesising new, useful molecules.

    3D Kate Prescott rowingChemistry also has many practical applications across so many different industries. The pharmaceutical industry needs chemists to design and synthesise new drugs; the oil and gas industry wants to develop new methods of improving fuels by modifying their chemical composition; the engineering industry needs to understand how materials behave and react under different conditions; and so on. Therefore, Chemistry has the potential to improve so many aspects of our lives – in everything from the food we eat to the cleaning products in our bathrooms, and this is something I really love about my subject. However, the more I learn the more ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions spring to mind. It's amazing – you can keep delving deeper and deeper into a subject, trying to understand exactly how the world around us works. For example, if two molecules react, one can ask ‘why did one functional group react in preference to another?’ – which requires balancing several different kinetic and thermodynamic factors such as the relative reactivity of each group, stability of the possible products and the shape of the molecule. But then we could ask, ‘how does this form a new chemical bond?’ – requiring an understanding of electronic interactions, leading into yet more questions. Eventually, one can get down to mathematical descriptions of electrons and their energies – quantum mechanics, and a level at which Chemistry and Physics interact. I would really encourage GCSE and A level students to continue studying science. Science at university is so much more exciting than at school and exams become less about memorising textbooks and more about applying our understanding to different situations. If you love to question everything and want to study a subject with practical applications, then science could be for you.

    Kate Prescott
    Undergraduate student