Natural Sciences (Biological or Physical)

What makes the Cambridge Natural Sciences course so special?

The Natural Sciences course at Cambridge is unique in its flexibility and its wide choice of subjects. This is perfect if you aren’t yet sure what branch of science you want to specialise in, or you want a broad foundation before specialising. The subjects available in the first two years provide a broad basis for specialisation in the third year, and also the opportunity to try new interests beyond those encountered at school, so some students choose a field they hadn’t considered before they started their degree.

If you are already committed to one subject, such as Physics or Zoology, then the Cambridge courses are recognized as being amongst the best in the country. In their final year, students undertake an experimental research project or extended dissertation, and where relevant field-work courses away from Cambridge are also involved.

What is the difference between a Biological Natural Scientist and a Physical Natural Scientist and what should I put on my application form?

It is convenient to sub-divide Natural Science students into Physical and Biological, even though all students are taking the same course. This is because students tend to fall into one of these two categories, where Chemistry is regarded as a physical science. However, all students are able to select from the full range of IA and IB subjects, assuming they have the required A-levels for the course they want to take, and some may shift from the Biological to the Physical, or vice versa, during their degree. Roughly 10% of students may move from one to the other over the course of their degree and it is not considered a change of Tripos subject.

When applying, your main consideration should be what subject you want your interview questions to be based on. For example, if you have no Biology A-level, we suggest you apply to read Physical Natural Sciences, even if you intend to choose biological courses, so we can fairly assess your science capabilities at interview using physics or chemistry material that is familiar to you.

Why choose Newnham for Natural Sciences?

At Newnham, the Natural Scientists form a strong academic community, as undergraduates, graduates and Senior Members. We actively encourage interactions between students in different year groups, and with Senior Members, with research and careers talks, and social events.

Senior Members and former students are especially helpful in organising work experience with companies or academic research departments in the UK or further afield during the summer vacation. Many of these can lead to and influence future career decisions.

The College has an excellent library, with one of the best collections of science books commonly used by undergraduates in Cambridge.

How many students take Natural Sciences at Newnham and what options do they choose?

We usually admit around 22 students a year, roughly equally divided between biological and physical sciences.

In the first year (Part IA), you choose three experimental subjects from amongst seven on offer. All students also take one of the three maths courses. In the second year (Part IB), you take three subjects, either closely related to each other or in more diverse combinations. Almost all students specialise in one subject in Part II, and all the physical sciences, Biochemistry, Systems Biology, and History and Philosophy of Science have an optional fourth year (Part III).

For more detailed information on the course structure and the subjects available, please see the University webpage.

I’ve heard you can also take Computer Science as a subject in the first year. How does that work?

It is possible to take part of the first year of the Computer Science Tripos in place of one of your other experimental subjects. It runs in the same timetable slot as Biology of Cells, so you can’t combine those two subjects at the moment (although this may change in the future). Be warned: Computer Science is quite abstract and mathematical, and doesn’t suit everyone. But if you have a background in computing, and some experience of programming, then this is a possibility. If you do take the Computer Science option, you are advised also to take the Mathematics A or B option.

How will I be taught at Newnham?

As a Natural Scientist, you will find that your life divides between the University Departments and College.

Most formal teaching, including all your lectures, labs and practical classes, takes place in the University Departments alongside students from all other colleges. Supervisions are arranged by the college to match your subject choices, and take place in college or in your supervisor’s office (either department or college). Senior members at Newnham between them cover a wide range of scientific interests and one or more of them will teach you their speciality at some stage in your undergraduate career. For other subjects, your Director of Studies will make arrangements with members of other Cambridge colleges, University Departments or research institutes in and around Cambridge.

In your first year, you are likely to have most of your supervisions with other Newnham students but as you start to specialise in your second year you are likely to be grouped with students from other colleges. In your third/fourth year, all your teaching, including supervisions, is mixed with all students across the university who are taking the same Part II or III subject.

Can you tell me more about the Natural Sciences Fellows?

Our Directors of Studies for Natural Sciences are:

  • Dr Barbara Blacklaws (Biological Sciences Part IA)
  • Dr Cristina Branco (Biological Sciences Part IB)
  • Dr Cath Lindon (Biological Sciences Parts II and III)
  • Dr Laura Itzhaki (Biological Sciences Part II)
  • Dr Rachael Padman (Physical Sciences Part IA; Physics Parts IA, IB, II & III)

Other senior members involved in teaching include:

  • Dr Jon Barnard (Director of Studies in Materials Science Parts IB, II & III) teaches IA and IB Physics and IA Materials
  • Dr Daniel Beauregard (Director of Studies in Chemistry Parts IB, II & III) teaches IA Chemistry
  • Dr Dawn Eagle teaches Evolution & Behaviour and Animal Biology
  • Dr Suzanna Forwood teaches IB Neurobiology
  • Dr Jess Gwynne teaches Materials Science and IA Mathematics for Natural Sciences
  • Dr Liz Harper (Director of Studies in Earth Sciences Parts IB, II & III) teaches IA and IB Geology
  • Professor Jenny Morton (Director of Studies in Preclinical Medicine and Veterinary Medicine) teaches Pharmacology
  • Professor Lisa Saksida teaches Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Professor Liba Taub (Director of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science)
  • Professor Christine Watson teaches Pathology
  • Dr Cerian Webb teaches IA Mathematical Biology
  • Dr Alan Hendricks teaches IA Biology of Cells
What jobs do Newnham Natural Scientists go on to do?

The Natural Sciences course at Cambridge provides an excellent background for a wide range of careers, both inside and outside Science. Newnham Natural Scientists take up positions immediately after graduation or after post-graduate qualification (for example, PhD, MPhil, PGCE). Our graduates have become scientists in research institutes, industry, academia or the public sector, or have careers in teaching, business management, scientific communication and publishing, finance, law, medicine and the civil service.

Are there any A-level subjects that are particularly useful?

Biological Sciences

Those wishing to specialise in Biological Sciences should have at least two sciences at A-level (or equivalent), taken from Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Maths and Further Maths.  A-level Chemistry and Mathematics are highly desirable, although not essential. While A-level Biology would be useful, it is not a requirement for any of the first-year biological subjects; students without it are advised to consult the College about preparatory reading if they intend to take a biological subject.

Physical Sciences

Those wishing to specialise in physical sciences should have three sciences at A-level (taken from Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Maths and Further Maths).  They will have A-level Mathematics and one, or preferably both, of A-level (or equivalent) in Physics and Chemistry. Part 1A Chemistry presumes an appropriate A-level background, while 1A Physics presumes either A-level Physics or Further Maths. Having both A-level Chemistry and Physics allows maximum choice amongst the first-year Physical Sciences courses, but it is possible to choose combinations which can be studied from a background of only one. In particular, A-level Physics, Maths and Further Maths provide a good foundation for future specialisation in Physics. In general, A-level Further Maths is very helpful to a physical scientist, but it is not a requirement for the course.

For those intending to take Mathematics for NST, we encourage you very strongly to revise your A-level Maths before coming up, and we will provide structured revision material for the long vacation.

Can I take a gap year?

Yes, although we are keen to see clear plans for the year. We provide a reading list to help you prepare for returning to academic study.

How should I prepare for interview at Newnham?

All applicants are required to take the pre-interview written assessment for Natural Sciences at an authorised centre local to them (for a lot of applicants, this will be their school/college). You must be registered in advance – separately to your UCAS application – to take this assessment.

It’s a good idea to prepare for the interview to some extent, although too much preparation is not necessary. You are advised to read generally, following your own scientific interests beyond what has been taught in school, as you should be aware of major developments in the field for which you are applying. It can also be helpful to have some experience of discussing your interests and your work with someone unfamiliar to you. You should be able to explain why you want to study the subject that you are applying for, and why you want to come to Cambridge. More detailed information about the interview process is available in the interviews section of the University website.

Where can I find out more?

More information is available on the University webpage about the Natural Sciences Tripos.

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