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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Natural Sciences - Physical

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Natural Sciences at Cambridge 

The Cambridge Natural Sciences course is an extraordinary collaboration between some twenty departments to allow you more choice than anywhere else in the UK while still providing as deep a training in your own preferred area.   As so many important developments fall across the boundaries of traditional disciplines, you study three sciences (as well as Maths) in your first year, and don’t commit yourself to any particular one until you have solid experience of it at University level.  You can study biological subjects as well as physical in the first year without having studied Biology at school (and might even decide to specialise in one).  All four main physical sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Geology and materials Science) offer four-year forms including a Master’s as well as three-year Bachelor’s courses; you don’t decide between these until late in your third year.

The price of the flexibility is a particularly intensive course: it remains viable partly because we have very able students (that is, you!), and partly because of the support of the College – especially through the supervision system. 

Full details about the structure and content of the course can be found on the Department website.

Physical Natural Sciences in Murray Edwards College 

We welcome around 12 undergraduate students in Physical Natural Sciences each year.  Within the College as a whole we have around 40 undergraduate students (a large proportion from state schools), 25  postgraduate students, and 8 Fellows and Bye-Fellows in the subject and closely related areas. 

Women are still in a clear minority in most physical sciences at Cambridge (15% of Physics and Maths students, 30% of Chemists).  At Murray Edwards, they reinforce each other’s enthusiasm for the subjects, and, and a higher proportion pursue them to a successful final year.  We are very serious about teaching and supporting you – for example, supplementing lecturers’ problem sets with advice or summaries of our own, being regularly available to offer help, setting realistic ‘mock’ exams to help you prepare for the Tripos, and providing in our Library – for you only –commentary and our own solutions to past physics Tripos questions.  The student Franklin (Natural Sciences) Society arranges external speaker meetings, and we gather for an Annual Dinner and a summer Garden Lunch.

Our students have achieved very good results: over the past decade, 36% of the 4th years have got Firsts, and over 96% achieve a 2.1  or a First.  In one year, all four Chemists graduated with firsts, and three university prizes; in another, our Physicists had better results than any other College, and we’ve twice recently had better than all but a handful. 

Several students find summer placements in Cambridge or elsewhere – sometimes submitting reports towards the following year’s exam requirement; the College often provides some financial support towards these opportunities.

Students speak highly of their experiences:

"Everyone at Murray Edwards wants you to succeed. I couldn't have had better academic support than I received during my four years studying at Murray Edwards.... If you are eager to learn and improve, Murray Edwards offers many opportunities and a supportive environment for you to flourish."  Leonie

We have a large number of Fellows and Bye-Fellows, actively engaged in research as in teaching.  Those most involved with physical Natural Sciences are:

  • Dr Owen Saxton - a physicist working on electron microscopy at near-atomic resolution; winner of the 1996 Ruska Prize
  • Dr Sarah Williams - a physicist working on the search for electroweak supersymmetry via the LHC at CERN 
  • Dr Alex Piotrowski - a geologist working on long-term trends in oceanography
  • Dr Zoe Wilson - an organic chemist working on the synthesis of complex natural molecules
  • Dr Alex Eggeman - a materials scientist working on structure determination by electron diffraction
  • Dr David Chisnall - a computer scientist working on architectures for new programming languages
  • Dr Anthony Reilly -  a chemist working at the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre
  • Dr Julia Steinberg -  a mathematician now working on genetics and genomics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

You may also be aware of some of are distinguished alumnae who studied Natural Sciences here, for example:

  • Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1965): Astrophysicist, discoverer of pulsars
  • Barbara Stocking (1969): formerly CEO Oxfam, now President of Murray Edwards
  • Lizzie Hawker (1995): World Champion Ultra-Marathon runner
  • Lisa Burke (1995): former Weather Presenter, Sky News
  • Julia King (1972): formerly CEO Institute of Physics, now Vice Chancellor, Aston University and a life peer as Baroness Brown
  • Katherine Blundell (1987): Prof of Astrophysics at Oxford, winner of the 2010 Rosalind Franklin Prize

Applying to study here 

We look for students who are enthusiastic about science and maths, keen to learn more and who have achieved highly to date.  At interview we will be looking for evidence of your interest in your subjects, a readiness to consider the unfamiliar, and well-practised maths. You will have two interviews, each with two Fellows.  Most of the time will be devoted to working through specific problems with you, providing information and ideas as necessary to help you make progress, and we hope you’ll leave having enjoyed the challenge.

It is essential to have studied Maths to final year level at school (and double Maths is preferable where this is possible); most students have also studied both Physics and Chemistry, but we are able to admit a few without one of these; and we welcome many other subjects as further evidence of your ability. Those applying for Physical Natural Sciences do not need to have studied Biology.

We usually set conditional offers consistent with typical/standard offers across the University ie usually A*A*A at A level in concurrently studied subjects (or their equivalent). Full details of entry requirements and selection processes in Physical Natural Sciences across all colleges can be found on the central University webpages.

Moving into your career 

Our students follow a wide range of careers when they leave, many taking higher degrees first.  Some remain active scientists, in industrial, academic or national research labs; others  will take the skills and background knowledge they have developed here to new areas.  Those who have studied Physical Natural Science have recently taken up roles in: Rolls Royce, Gravitation, Cosmology, Pharmaceuticals, Oil and Water companies and consultancies, NHS management, management consultancy, school teaching and university lecturing, BioInformatics research, solicitor, patent lawyer, software engineers, financial analyst, environmental consultant.   We can often help by putting students in touch with recent alumnae who have followed similar career paths to those in which they are interested.

"Physical Natural Sciences at Murray Edwards was the launching pad for what has so far been an exciting academic career.  It opened up a world of opportunities, and permitted me to build up the intellectual rigour to take them on. The college provided a challenging and supportive environment consisting of other bright young women determined to help one another succeed...." Arianne

We support students in developing academic and professional skills while they are here, and in exploring career options, through the Murray Edwards Gateway Programme.

Find out more

Many students find it helpful to contact us by email or to visit us to find out more. You are welcome to do so.

Fellows in this subject