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Study Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge

Natural Sciences

Fact File

Magdalene Campus code: M
UCAS code: BCF0
Course duration: Three or four years - BA (Hons) or MSci
Typical offer: A-level: A*A*A, IB: 42 points
Essential subjects: Mathematics
Useful subjects: Further Mathematics

Natural Sciences is the framework within which most science subjects are taught at Cambridge.

Natural Sciences can be broadly divided into Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences, with Chemistry sitting at the interface between both areas. Many students study a combination of both Physical and Biological subjects.

 

At Cambridge
At Magdalene
What we are looking for
Subject Requirements
Teaching Staff

The Natural Science course is ideally suited for those with a keen and wide-ranging interest in the Sciences or those who have not yet discovered their preferred discipline. It is broad-based, providing the opportunity for students to study three practical sciences in their first year (Part IA), plus an appropriate Maths course. There is considerable flexibility in the choices available through the Natural Science Tripos, and this is one of its many attractions.

The necessity to pursue three practical sciences means that students often find that their interest becomes focused on a new subject which they have not met previously, e.g. Earth Sciences (such as Geology), Materials and Minerals Sciences, or Cellular Biology. Some subjects such as Physics and Chemistry assume prior knowledge of the subject at A-level, but most of the Biological subjects require only a firm grounding in Science.

In the second year (Part IB), students have the opportunity to read other science disciplines or continue to study a subject in more detail. In the third year (Part II), most students choose to study a single subject, although it is possible to continue to study a broad range of subjects (Part II General). Alternatively, it is possible for students in their second, third, or fourth year to study the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS).

Physics, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, Astrophysics, Materials, Biochemistry and HPS offer a fourth year (Part III) leading to a Masters degree. This fourth year is usually in a research-orientated environment, providing students with the opportunity to undertake an original research project at the cutting-edge of their chosen subject. Full details are available on the web.

Further details of the Natural Sciences course are available here.

In terms of future careers, many of our science graduates stay in science. Some begin a research career, continuing their studies for a higher degree qualification (usually a Ph.D.) either in Cambridge or another University in the UK or abroad. Others may be offered employment with one of the many companies in the Life Sciences, Pharmaceuticals giants, Energy sector, or other Science-Related industries. A few take the PGCE course and enter the teaching profession. In all cases good time-management coupled with a strong scientific background, make a Natural Scientist from Cambridge a highly valuable commodity.

We normally make between 16 and 20 offers for Natural Sciences each year at Magdalene, and typically receive between 50 and 70 applications in any given admissions round. These are normally split fairly evenly between the Physical and Biological Natural Sciences. We typically have had a large cohort of undergraduate Natural Scientists, often around 60 or 70, and there is a large graduate community, often around 30 or 40, who are reading for higher science degrees (usually a PhD).

In addition to the core teaching staff (listed under the 'Teaching Staff' tab, above), there are many other active Fellows at Magdalene in the Natural Sciences. They include the Nobel Prize winner and former Master, Professor Sir John Gurdon FRS (Cell Biology); Professor Peter Grubb (Plant Sciences); and Professor Tim Clutton-Brock FRS (Zoology), as well as Research Fellow: Dr Claire Spottiswoode (Behavioural Ecology), and science broadcaster and Outreach Fellow, Dr Hannah Critchlow (Neuroscience).

The Natural Sciences are not for the faint-hearted! We expect a great deal out of our Natural Scientists. In the first year, there are three 1 hour lectures per week, in each of the Sciences plus Maths. In addition each student can expect to have one 1 hour supervision in each subject. All science subjects include a practical class, usually one afternoon per week, and so students should expect a minimum of 28 hours of timetabled activities per week, including Saturday mornings. Students should also put aside time (typically 3-5 hours per subject per week) for understanding and learning lecture material, problem solving and the preparation of work for supervisions, giving a total of around 40-50 hours per week. This still leaves some room for extra-curricular activities and to study beyond the confines of the syllabus, but good time-management is essential! In subsequent years, students can expect slightly fewer lectures, but more practical work, and a similar number of minimum hours will need to be devoted to study.

For most subjects, practical classes are all held within term time, but for Geology, expect a field trip in the vacation for 'hands-on' experience of analysing rock types, examining rock-formations etc. For those continuing with the Geological Sciences in the second and third year, there are additional field trips. Similarly, Evolution and Behaviour, Ecology and Zoology field trips are organised for those taking the relevant options.

Biological Natural Sciences

Are you enthralled by the natural world? Do you crave to know how the many millions of molecules within a living cell are coordinated? Do you seek to understand how best to protect fragile ecosystems? Are you fascinated by the complex machinery of the human body?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is ‘yes’, you may well be a good fit for Biological Natural Sciences at Magdalene.

A strong background in Science and Maths is necessary to take the Biological Natural Sciences course. Chemistry and Maths A-levels (or equivalent) are particularly advantageous, while prior achievement in Biology, Physics and/or Further Maths is very welcome. Strong candidates typically have three or four Science/Maths subjects at A-level (or equivalent), although we do not exclude applications from occasional candidates with more unusual combinations of subjects, providing at least two Science/Maths subjects have been studied.

Strong candidates typically also pursue their biological interests in some way outside of their formal studies. For example, you may read books or periodicals about aspects of science that particularly interest you, or you may have had the opportunity to undertake scientific work experience or an internship. Quantity of additional prior experience is not the most important factor, here, but the depth with which you have considered the science to which you have been exposed. We are looking for people who are always inclined to ask, ‘why’ – and who have the intellectual capacity to grasp and explore the answers with logic, pace and depth.

Physical Natural Sciences

The Physical Natural Sciences stem from an understanding of the fundamental laws of Physics and how they manifest themselves in the everyday world. This encompasses Earth Sciences, Chemistry, and Materials Science as well as just Physics!

There is a rich set of Mathematics which underpin the Physical Natural Sciences, and a strong background in this is necessary, with at least A-Level (or equivalent) required, and either AS or A-level Further Mathematics (or equivalent) greatly welcomed.

Strong candidates will typically have a total of three or four Science/Maths subjects at A-level (or equivalent), although we do not exclude applications from occasional candidates with more unusual combinations of subjects, providing at least two Science/Maths subjects have been studied, though this may limit the choices of options available in the first year.

The first year of Physical Natural Sciences allows you to continue with any of the Physics and Chemistry you have studied (alongside Mathematics), but also gives the option of new subjects such as Earth Sciences, and Materials Science, and even the option to study some Biology. In the second year you will take a reduced set of three subjects, and by the third year will generally specialize in a single subject. A fourth year (Part III) is available involving both lectures and an in-depth research project at the frontiers of scientific research.

 

The Natural Science Tripos is wide-ranging and most students accepted to read the Natural Sciences will normally have three Sciences including Maths at A-level or AS-level. For students reading the Physical Sciences (including Chemistry), A-level Maths and at least one of Chemistry/Physics/Further Maths is essential. For students wishing to pursue the Biological Sciences, Chemistry at A-level is strongly preferred and Biology and Maths are desirable. 

Our typical conditional offer is A*A*A in three maths and science A-levels, or 42 in the IB with 7,7,6 in maths and science subjects at Higher Level, however offers vary according to candidates' circumstances and choice of subjects.

Offers will not normally include STEP or AEA grades, but students are not discouraged from sitting these examinations.

IB applicants starting the new IB Mathematics syllabus are expected to take IB Higher Level 'Analysis and Approaches' for any course where Mathematics is a requirement. If this option is not available at your school, please contact the College for further advice and guidance.

Interviews and Written Assessments

Applicants for Natural Sciences can normally expect to have two interviews, each interview usually lasting approximately 20-25 minutes. One interview will typically be with a pair of Chemistry Fellows and the other interview will typically be with a pair of Physics or Biology Fellows depending on your chosen specialisation.

Applicants attending for interview are asked to sit a short (1 hour) written College test at the same time as their interviews. This is a test that we have run for a number of years, and we have found that a strong performance in this test is a good indicator of the likelihood of a strong performance in the degree course. Consequently, a good performance in our College test can help applicants who are perhaps less confident in their interviews to get an offer: which is to say that this additional short test is designed to help you show us what you can do.

The College test consists of a section of maths skills questions (Section A), which all applicants answer, and a second section: those applying for Physical Natural Sciences answer some additional maths/physics problems (Section B), and those applying for Biological Natural Sciences answer a short essay question (Section C). Some examples of the sort of questions you might be asked.

Applicants will also need to take a written assessment. The assessment for Natural Sciences, the NSAA, is a pre-registration required assessment. This means that you will have to register to sit the assessment at an assessment centre near to you (for most applicants this will be your school or college). Registration for the pre-registration required assessment is separate from your UCAS application and it is essential that you are registered by your centre before the deadline, which is 30 September. See the University Undergraduate Admissions website for further information about registering for the assessment as well as for more details about the format of the assessment, including some sample questions. Please note that your performance in the written assessment will not be considered in isolation, but will be taken into account alongside all the other elements of your application.

Professor Claire Brasted-Pike

College positions: Fellow Commoner, Director of Studies in Natural Sciences (Biological), Deputy Praelector

Dr Claire Brasted-Pike works in the fields of Biochemistry and Genetics. She is a Fellow-Commoner and Director of Studies in Part IA Biological Natural Sciences at Magdalene.

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Professor Michael Carpenter

College positions: Emeritus Fellow

Professor Michael Carpenter is Professor of Mineralogy and Mineral Physics at the Department of Earth Sciences and is a former President of Magdalene College.

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Professor Paul Dupree

College positions: Professorial Fellow, Director of Studies in Natural Sciences (Biological), Postgraduate Tutor

Professor Paul Dupree is Professor in Plant Cell Biology in the Department of Biochemistry. At Magdalene, he is Director of Studies for students studying Parts II and III Biochemistry, and Part III Systems Biology.

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Dr Tijmen Euser

College positions: Official Fellow, Joint Director of Studies in Natural Sciences (Physical)

Dr Tijmen Euser is University Lecturer in the Department of Physics in the University of Cambridge. At Magdalene, he is Joint Director of Studies in Natural Sciences (Physical).

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Dr Walid Khaled

College positions: Official Fellow, Director of Studies in Natural Sciences (Biological), College Lecturer in Natural Sciences and University Lecturer in Pharmacology

Dr Walid Khaled is a University Lecturer in the Department of Pharmacology. He is Director of Studies for Part IB and Part II Biological Natural Sciences at Magdalene.

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Professor Luke Skinner

College positions: Official Fellow, Director of Studies in Earth Sciences, Admissions Tutor (Postgraduates)

Professor Luke Skinner is a University Lecturer in the Department of Earth Sciences and Director of Studies for Earth Sciences at Magdalene he is also an Admissions Tutor (Graduates).

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Dr Richard McKay

College positions: Director of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, College Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science

Dr Richard McKay is a College Lecturer and Director of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science and an Affiliate Member of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

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Dr Liria Masuda-Nakagawa

College positions: Fellow Commoner, Director of Studies in Natural Sciences (Biological), College Lecturer in Natural Sciences (Biological)

Dr Liria M Masuda-Nakagawa is a Fellow Commoner, Director of Studies and College Lecturer in Part IB Biological Sciences, specialising in Neurobiology.

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Professor Christopher Tout

College positions: Director of Studies in Astrophysics, College Lecturer in Astrophysics

Professor Christopher Tout is Director of Studies in Astrophysics at Magdalene.

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Dr John Morgan

College positions: Director of Studies in Chemistry, College Lecturer in Chemistry

Dr John Morgan is a College Lecturer and Director of Studies in Chemistry at Magdalene.

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Dr Alexander Gentleman

College positions: College Lecturer in Natural Sciences (Physical)

Dr Alexander Gentleman is a College Lecturer in Natural Sciences at Magdalene.

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Mr Richard Neill

College positions: College Lecturer in Natural Sciences (Physical)

Mr Richard Neill is a College Lecturer in Physical Natural Sciences at Magdalene. He teaches physics, electronics, and computing within the Natural Sciences tripos.

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