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Blog by: Francesca

York, North Yorkshire. Studying Natural Sciences, specialising in Physics. Read more

It’s been HOW long??

Apparently it’s been five weeks since term started. If I hadn’t just counted the weeks in my diary, I would probably have guessed it had been about two. There has been very little time to notice the days pass by in between puzzling over examples sheets, researching PhDs and a fly-by visit to Austria last week (just to demonstrate that it IS possible to take an entire weekend out slap-bang in the middle of term, although I may have taken some lecture notes with me…).

As in the final year for most courses, this year I will be spending a lot of time on an individual research project. I had a stressful couple of weeks at the start of term choosing and applying for various different projects, but it definitely paid off. My project is based around comparing data from the Large Hadron Collider to new theories of how particles interact with each other. I’ve only just started working on it (doing some background reading, learning how to use the software I will need etc), but am already really enjoying it.

Apart from balancing work and a social life, one of the big challenges of this term (for a wimp like me, that is) is that IT IS COLD. It’s not that I wasn’t anticipating that winter would once again be cold, it’s just that as far as I’m concerned I was enjoying summer in Geneva just a month ago (OK, in reality it was two months since I left Geneva and three since the height of summer, but as I mentioned above I’m not great at keeping track of time). Fortunately, Cambridge offers some excellent remedies against the cold:

- I find that hot drinks that come from the kettle improve almost any activity – work, chatting with friends, watching Downton Abbey, recovering from the tragedy of learning that Downton Abbey has finished… In fact, Cambridge even has a tea society, so I’m not alone.

- Formal Hall. This is a peculiar Cambridge tradition in which a group of friends dress up “fancily” (i.e. ties, nice dresses and academic gowns) and goes to eat a (usually) delicious 3 or 4 course meal in their college. Yes, it’s a slightly odd thing to do, but people don’t take it too seriously, and it’s a lot cheaper that eating at a real restaurant. And you get candles on the table.

- Cambridge is at least warmer than Austria.

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Music, science and chocolate

At the start of every academic year, representatives from almost every student society in Cambridge cram themselves into the local sports centre, in the hope of attracting new recruits. This two day event, known as the Freshers’ Fair, is one of the highlights of the first week of the Cambridge year. This year, I participated both as a representative for The University of Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra (not nearly as fancy as it sounds), and as a student seeking new ways to fill my time.

Seeing the vast number and variety of societies represented certainly reminds me just how much there is going on in Cambridge. There are some societies in which I have participated very actively, such as The Triple Helix, a forum for discussion of science in society. These have been of immense value to me, both educationally and socially. Others I started then dropped, such as my college football team – my participation in the first three matches was an unmitigated disaster. There are also many exciting looking societies that I signed up for at the Freshers’ Fair three years ago and have since entirely ignored. This is quite normal, as there is simply not enough time to take advantage of everything on offer. As this is my final year, I have promised myself I will get involved in at least one of the societies whose e-mails I have been ignoring for the past three years. I will let you know how this works out for me!

Every year, new societies are formed. This year, I have signed up for a few new science communication and policy initiatives, and also the very promising sounding Chocolate Society (yes, this one deserves capital letters). Somehow, I will be able to tear myself away from the books to attend meetings which I can only presume will involve sampling different kinds of chocolate (an activity of immeasurable cultural and spiritual value, of course).

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A Week at Home

I have been rushing around so much this summer that this is the first week I’ve spent at home, by which I mean my parents’ home, for a long time. I can’t deny there are advantages – a well-stocked kitchen, a dishwasher, a DVD box set of The West Wing… But having been at Cambridge for three years now, I realise that I value the abstract feeling of independence that comes from moving away from the family home. And washing the dishes can be strangely relaxing, especially after emerging from a few hours of maths.

So now I really am getting quite impatient for term to begin. Fortunately, I don’t have long to wait. As well as all the normal introductory lectures, I will be kicking off this year by attending the “Winton Inaugural Symposium”, which will be a day of talks by experts in a variety of fields, all exploring the theme of energy efficiency. One of the things I love about physics is its potential to solve real world problems, often in innovative and surprising ways. The symposium will be held in the physics department at Cambridge, not 20 minutes cycle ride from my house.

This is a good example of what I think is one of the key features of Cambridge – almost every evening, you will have the opportunity to attend a talk by a world-leading expert in some field, somewhere in Cambridge. For example, I have heard Lord Robert Winston speak about his life, and have attended a talk by Tony Hoare (who invented the quick sort algorithm) which focussed on the philosophy of computer science. Of course, some evenings I just want to lie in bed with a good book after finishing my supervision work. Or, alternatively, forget about the concept of “bed” altogether, and stay out with friends until 3am. All are possible.

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The New Term Approaches

The summer before I came to Cambridge, I remember meeting someone in the same position I am now – about to start his 4th year in physics at Cambridge. At one point he was literally bouncing in his seat with excitement at the prospect of the new term. I now fully understand this excitement.

This is the year when I will learn about on-going research in my chosen specialist areas; complete a substantial research project of my own, and decide on what to do when I graduate. Of course I am excited! I have been filling my time choosing my courses (there are a dazzling number of options), looking at potential research projects and investigating different possibilities for after graduation.

I have also started to overload my timetable with lots of extracurricular projects. For example, this term I will be on the core team organising “Silicon Valley comes to Cambridge”. This is part of a week-long event, “Silicon Valley comes to the UK”, in which Silicon Valley entrepreneurs give their time to speak at debates, workshops and master-classes for students and start-up businesses. The aim is to inspire students to consider entrepreneurship as a career path and to help existing businesses grow and prosper. I expect this commitment will be rather time-consuming, but will be more than worth it by way of the skills I will learn and the people I will meet. It is this kind of fantastic opportunity that reminds me why I applied to Cambridge!

I am also looking forward to seeing my friends from college again – although some have graduated and moved on to employment or further study elsewhere, many are staying on in Cambridge. As ever, the challenge is one of time management. Finding enough time for academic work, a social life, extracurricular projects and job-hunting is certainly difficult, but is something that the past three years here as prepared me well for.

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Summertime

The summer holidays at Cambridge are very, very long – over 3 months. For many courses, there is no work set to complete over the summer and so, unlike the Christmas and Easter vacations, these 3 months are completely and utterly free.
People get up to a whole host of things over the summer, ranging from chilling in front of the TV with family to an intense programme of internships and work experience. I have used the time to get experience with various fields of scientific research. As well as being a lot of fun, I hope this will help me decide what I want to do after I graduate! My college and supervisors have been incredibly helpful in discussing my plans and providing references. After my first year I was able to do a research placement with my physics supervisor, with a living allowance provided by the university. In fact, there is funding available from colleges and the university to help students do all kinds of things during the holidays – travel, voluntary work or unpaid internships, learning a language…
My summers have in general been rather conservative compared to some of my friends who have spent theirs’ teaching English in China or riding elephants in Thailand. This year I am upping the stakes a little with an internship at CERN. This is something I’ve wanted to do since I heard about it a couple of years ago, so it is fantastic to finally be here.
For me, what I do in the holidays is very much a complement to my work during term, and I think Cambridge has prepared me pretty well with skills to make the most of the opportunities available.

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One of the biggest (and best!) differences I’ve found between Cambridge and sixth form is the shear variety of stuff to do in my spare time here. Over the past three years, I have managed to get involved in numerous clubs and societies, and make a lot of good friends along the way. In my first year I joined my college’s girls’ football team. Anyone who has ever seen my attempts to, say, kick a ball in a straight line would tell you that football is not my strong point. But one of the great things about college sports is that people of all abilities are encouraged to compete. I’ve also recently joined a non-audition orchestra, which is a lot of fun without being too much pressure or hard work. I participate more seriously in science journalism and science communication, which I think has taught me almost as much as my degree! And there’s so much going on every evening in Cambridge, I have never been at a loss for what to do with my friends. Our nights have ranged from clubbing, to attending a debate on how to deal with overpopulation, to watching a student play.

Of course, all of this has to be fitted around academic work. This does require good organisation, but people learn this pretty quickly! For me, it helps that I find my subject incredibly interesting, so it doesn’t always feel like work. It’s also great to be able to discuss my work with my supervisors and others on my course. Despite this, I do tend to get quite stressed during exams – there is a lot to learn and the questions are supposed to be very hard. Everyone is in the same boat during the exam period though, and there is a lot of support provided by the university and colleges. My college laid on free tea and biscuits every week day during the run up to exams!

I have one year left of my course (my 4th year) and, although the summer holidays haven’t started yet, I am already excited to start it. Next year will bring a lot of new things – not least deciding what I want to do after I graduate. Another big difference is that next year I will be living in a privately rented house rather than a room in college for the first time. (My college only guarantees accommodation for three years, the length of a standard undergraduate degree.)  So I am looking forward to another year of trying new things!

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