The strength of the Natural Sciences course at Cambridge is the breadth and variety of subject choice across the physical and biological sciences, allowing students to tailor their programme of study according to their individual interests.
All Natural Sciences students take three experimental science subjects in their first year, plus a maths course. The ‘experimental’ subjects are Physics, Material Sciences, Earth Sciences, Chemistry, Cell Biology, Physiology and Evolution & Behaviour. The maths courses have focuses on the physical/chemical sciences (Maths A and B) or biology (Mathematical Biology); none are ‘easy’ options and should be chosen based on your particular scientific interest. See the University website for more details of the Natural Sciences course.
In the second year, students choose three subjects from nineteen possible options. In the third year, they either specialise in one subject from a choice of fifteen, or choose a more broad-based physical or biological sciences course with both "major" and "minor" subjects. Fourth-year courses are also available for eight subjects (Astrophysics, Biochemistry, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, History & Philosophy of Science, Materials Science, Physics and Systems Biology). See the University website for second and third year courses.
Natural Sciences at Peterhouse
Peterhouse has always been a particularly strong college for Natural Sciences. The college has produced five Nobel Laureates in the last 60 years, and is still at the cutting edge of scientific endeavour. The success of the college in Natural Sciences comes from our focus on the very best teaching, our supportive cohorts of students and the opportunities available for our students through our links to research institutions and the wide variety of study and travel grants that the college provides.
Most of our first and second year teaching is carried out by Fellows and other supervisors with close links to the college, all highly experienced. Our Directors of Studies are all active in teaching so academic progress is closely supported for all our students. Travel grants enable many of our students to take advantage of vacation work placements, projects and field-work opportunities, investigating the very latest scientific advances, from physics and developmental genetics to studying Darwin’s beetle collection and the ecology of tropical islands or Arctic lakes. The College’s scientific society, the Kelvin Club, is highly active; organising fortnightly talks from top scientists from within Cambridge and elsewhere. In addition to our academic strengths we aim to maintain a Natural Sciences community that everyone enjoys being part of; we are confident that we provide the best social events (dinners, desserts and BBQs) of any college!
Peterhouse has the strongest links of any college to CERN, and this contributes to our outstanding reputation for Physics. Many Peterhouse students have gone on to work in High Energy or Theoretical Physics, and/or have undertaken project work at CERN. Professor Andy Parker works on the ATLAS experiment at CERN, looking for exotic states of matter. He teaches physics to first year students at Peterhouse and has run a number of summer projects connected to ATLAS, for Peterhouse students. He has been Head of the Physics Department and of the university's Particle Physics group, is an ex glider pilot, and lectures particle-astrophysics courses. Dr Chris Lester works on the ATLAS experiment at CERN, looking for invisible particles that might make up dark matter and supersymmetry. He teaches physics and maths and has been known to lecture from one of his unicycles.
Our Material Scientists are Dr Louise Hirst, who works on the development of high efficiency photovoltaics, leading the University’s Space Photovoltaics Group, and Professor Paul Midgley, who works on bringing electron microscopy to below the nanometre scale thought electron tomography.
For many year Peterhouse’s students have excelled in Chemistry. Dr Dr Tim Dickens supervises first-year Chemistry and supports our chemists throughout their time in the college. He has a background in industrial chemistry and researches NMR Ring Current calculations on congregate aromatic systems. Professor Sophie Jackson has a long standing research interest in protein folding and teaches parts of the second and third-year chemistry courses.
Peterhouse can justly claim to be the most dynamic college for Biology; with regular discussion meetings, termly biodiversity monitoring of the gardens and an annual biological Research Symposium. Activities of Peterhouse biologists (undergraduates, graduates and Fellows) are summarised in the annual Peterhouse Biology Newsletter and external links give further details of biology at Peterhouse. Dr Justin Gerlach specialises in teaching whole-organismal biology and scientific writing, ensuring that Peterhouse students write to the very highest standard. His research interests are in evolution and ecology: discovering new species, investigating their evolution and conservation. Dr Graham Christie heads the Molecular Microbiology research group within the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology. He supervises cell and biochemistry courses, drawing upon his research interests in bacterial molecular genetics, structural biology and advanced cellular imaging techniques. Professor Andrew Tanentzap leads the Ecosystems and Global Change research group in the Department of Plant Sciences. He teaches ecology for Peterhouse and supports students taking Plant Sciences. His research aims to understand how species arise and assemble into communities, and the ways in which disturbances alter biological communities and the benefits that they provide to humans in terms of water, food, and carbon storage.
For a student's perspective on life as a 'NatSci' at Peterhouse, have a look at the JCR's 'day in the life of a science student'.
Biological Natural Sciences FAQ with Dr Justin Gerlach
Physical Natural Sciences FAQ with Professor Sophie Jackson
Physical scientists should be studying Mathematics and at least one of Chemistry or Physics to A level or equivalent, with Further Mathematics and the other of Chemistry or Physics to A level advantageous. Applicants in the Biological Natural Sciences are expected to be studying two of Chemistry, Biology, Physics or Maths to A level or equivalent, and a third such subject is advantageous. Mathematics is not essential but it is very strongly recommended. Applicants to Chemical Engineering via Natural Sciences are expected to be studying Mathematics and Chemistry to A level or equivalent, and Physics and/or Further Mathematics to A level is highly desirable, as is Biology to at least AS level.
The application process
Candidates are asked to indicate whether this wish to apply as a Physical or Biological scientist, however this does not restrict options at all once at Cambridge and is done to determine how your application will be assessed and which interviews you will receive. If an applicant wishes to specialise in primarily biological sciences but wants to have the option of taking a physics course in their first year, they should inform the Admissions Office of this so that a separate physics interview can be arranged. If you are uncertain whether a Biology or Physics application is more appropriate, it is sensible to discuss this with the Admissions Office. The final choice of first year courses is only confirmed once students arrive in October and some students switch ‘sides’ every year on arrival. This is the advantage of such a flexible course.
Natural Sciences applicants across the University are asked to sit a pre-interview written assessment at their school, college or local testing centre on 19th October 2022. Registration is required by 30th September 2022. These will form part of our holistic assessment of candidates' achievements, abilities and potential and are no more, and no less important than any of the other pieces of information considered during the admissions process. Registration for this assessment closes in mid-October. Further information can be found on the University website.
Four of our Science Fellows conduct the two 30 minute interviews. Interview questions will have a scientific focus but the interviewers are not expecting candidates to know a "correct answer", but are interested in how candidates respond to new ideas or approach unfamiliar problems.
Typical conditional offers
Our typical conditional offer for Natural Sciences is A*A*A at A level. IB offers are usually for a minimum of 40-42 points, to include 776 or 777 at Higher level in relevant subjects. We would expect the highest grades to be achieved in science or mathematics subjects. Offers are designed to be realistic, taking into account individual circumstances, and to reflect potential and likely levels of achievement. Most of those who receive offers will attain the grades required.
Further resources and reading
If you are interested in studying Natural Sciences we recommend you read around the sciences widely and see what interests you beyond the confines of the school curriculum. Recommended books are:
‘How Chemical Reactions Happen’ by James Keeler & Peter Wothers – a very useful introduction to what is really going on in chemistry
‘Essential Biology’ by Justin Gerlach - a synthesis of all the biology that is useful background for starting an undergraduate biology course
‘Evolution’ by Mark Ridley – an excellent account of evolutionary biology
‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins – still the best exposition of the most important concept in biology: the role of the gene
‘Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life' by Nick Lane – a thought provoking aspect of cell biology
‘Spillover’ and other books by David Quamen – well written accounts of aspects of biology you’ve probably not thought about. Similarly, any of the collections of essays by Stephen Jay Gould are very stimulating and models of great science writing.