Arqum is from Karachi, Pakistan and wrote this account at the end of his third year of Natural Sciences (Biological) with a final focus on Pharmacology. Before studying here at Christ's College, Cambridge, he did International A-levels in Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Maths.
How did you come to choose Natural Sciences at Cambridge?
I developed a strong interest in science during secondary school, which was reflected by my subject choices and extra-curricular activities. Despite having a strong inclination towards Biology, my broader curiosity for scientific inquiry made me look for university courses that offered more varied learning. Natural Sciences at Cambridge interested me because it is a prestigious and rigorous course that provides a balance of breadth and depth. Even within the biological track, I knew I'd have the freedom to choose another subject area like Chemistry. I also valued the provision of a Mathematical course in first year. My decision to apply to Cambridge was also guided by the available scholarships for Pakistani undergraduate students, the equivalent of which are not offered by other institutions.
How did you choose your College?
Like many international applicants, I was unable to attend an open day so my decision was largely based on information available on College websites, prospectuses, and The Student Room. Christ’s stood out because of its exceptionally central location and the good reputation it has for Natural Sciences, as is fitting for a College that attracts a sizeable intake of 'NatScis' each year and boasts Charles Darwin as one of its most famous alumni!
There are lots of advantages really: All my lectures and departments are within walking distance, thus avoiding the need to bike. For anyone inclined to row, the walk from College to the boathouse is possibly the shortest of all Colleges. Academically, the supervisions at Christ’s have been quite engaging and really beneficial. In addition, the College is also strongly invested in providing welfare and support to help you excel. Personally, Christ's has offered me some financial support during my degree. In the summer of second year, I was offered a travel grant to cover some of the expenses of travelling to Stockholm for the Amgen Scholars Programme. Christ’s also covered expenses for taxi rides to West Cambridge to save me the walk to exams when I was fasting during Ramadan.
What advice would you give sixth formers considering Natural Sciences?
Don't worry if you are not completely sure what particular area of science you want to study. The first year is especially useful for finding out what you will enjoy most. Furthermore, while it may seem early, do give some thought to what you want to do after university. If you are passionate about research, the course offers good preparation, especially with the option of a fourth year Master’s in certain areas. Nonetheless, it is not a vocational course so do not feel like research is the only option! If you are clearly invested in another career but want to study science out of interest or to gain some transferable skills, do make sure that you've understood the intensity of the course at Cambridge. The broad scope of the Natural Sciences course, with its due merits, also makes it very demanding, so you do need to be ready to spend a lot of time studying science.
"The broad scope of the Natural Sciences course, with its due merits, also makes it very demanding, so you do need to be ready to spend a lot of time studying science. "
Are there any books / resources that you’d recommend for prospective students?
My main source of knowledge outside the A-level curriculum was Campbell Biology, which I used when preparing for the International Biology Olympiad. It manages to provide a wide and thorough introduction to several aspects of biology. It is a hefty book (!) so is best used economically, for example, to extend or exemplify concepts that you've already learned during A-level work.
If you enjoy online courses, I can recommend an MIT course ‘Introduction to Biology – the secret of life’, offered free via EdX (don't pay for the extra certificate!), which I found particularly inspiring and useful.
What was being in the final year of Natural Sciences like?
The Natural Sciences course becomes increasingly specialised through the three years, allowing you to focus on what interests you most. Apart from this, the nature of teaching and learning also differs between years. In first and second year, the course has more contact hours in form of supervisions and practical classes. The supervisions are arranged by the College and form a core component of your learning. While the contact hours help structure your schedule, it does mean that you need to adjust your extra-curricular commitments accordingly.
The final year (Part II) is generally more independent, with no provision of detailed handouts, personally arranged supervisions held in the department (unlike Colleges), and no formal deadlines for written work. A key expectation of final year is to train students in critical reading of scientific literature. In terms of lab experience, practical classes are replaced by a research project or dissertation.
This year, Michaelmas term had the least amount of contact hours with only a couple of back-to-back lectures five days a week (9-11 am). In Lent, we generally had one lecture a day and were expected to then head to the lab to work on our research project till late afternoon. Unlike previous years, we had no lectures in Easter term. Overall, Part IA/IB aim to build a strong foundation of scientific knowledge, which the students can then use when independently guiding their learning in Part II. Because each stage requires some revision of learning strategy (at least for me) it can be very useful to consult students in the years above for advice!
"A key expectation of final year is to train students in critical reading of scientific literature. "
What papers did you study this year and why did you choose them?
I studied Part II Pharmacology because I enjoyed the subject in Part IB. The Part II course shifts its focus from disease and drugs (like in Part IB) to a more comprehensive understanding of molecular and systems biology with relevant opportunities for pharmacological intervention. This broader scope perfectly complemented my interest in translational science that can lead to transformative therapies from bench to bedside. Indeed, I did find the course intellectually rigorous and exciting with knowledge and skills that are useful not only for post-graduate education but also for future careers.
My research project in Lent term was particularly interesting. It involved using a versatile technique called DNA origami to create nanoscale structures out of precise DNA folds that were conjugated with antibacterial enzymes to target E. Coli. We then visualised the effect of treatment using high-resolution atomic force microscopy. The project offered an opportunity to learn new experimental techniques and it was rewarding to acquire promising results after some intense trouble-shooting.
How do you organise your work and create a reasonable balance of work and social life?
Michaelmas term was less organised than I wanted it to be. I was mainly concerned with understanding the lecture material and covering the reading lists. However, during winter break I realised that I was spending too much time on reading and I revised my strategy to write essays (which also helped to target my reading). In particular, I found creating essay plans to be especially useful.
As a graduating student, final year can be stressful if you are hunting for jobs or post-grad courses. This was an important though time-consuming commitment for me in Michaelmas term. Fortunately, I had a PhD offer by early Lent term, allowing me to redirect my efforts toward exam preparation. In terms of extra-curricular activities, I was president of the Cambridge Pakistan Society and participated in a Development i-Team project. I expected the former to be especially demanding and thus relinquished my prior pursuits like student politics and theatre.
How did you approach exam revision?
My exam revision this year was markedly different to prior years. The increased choice in exams accompanied the expectation that students will have greater, specialised knowledge in the topics they do answer. I thus selected my topics based on my interest, quality of learning materials (notes, essays), and past exam questions. Unlike previous years, I created several extensive essay plans to structure my learning. Unfortunately, I did experience anxiety and stress at times, but discussing my concerns with my tutor, Director of Studies, friends and family helped me brave the term and gain confidence before exams. I am really glad and grateful that all the efforts eventually translated to a First!!
What have you most enjoyed about your time at Christ’s?
I can easily list several things that have made my time at Christ’s enjoyable and memorable. Although several of my extra-curricular and social commitments were outside of College, I still frequently used the Upper Hall canteen throughout my three years at Christ’s. I remember the dinners in first term that often extended to buttery chills, group brunch with other NatScis as we suffered through Saturday lectures, and the many conversations I have had that have helped forge quality friendships. I have also seen Upper Hall transform in terms of layout and quality of food (both of which improved!) and I am sure there is scope to metaphorically relate this to my own personal transformation at university...
If I had to choose a favourite spot in Christ's, it would probably be the TV room because of the massive TV, the comfy sofas and the chilled evenings I have had there (I introduced some of my friends to ‘Black Mirror’ in there).
Where did you live this year?
I lived in Staircase 4 in New Court, which overlooks King's Street. I was in an ensuite room, which was quite spacious and the storage space was in immediate proximity, making life much easier when moving in/out between terms. There were also plenty of notice boards to decorate, for example with pictures, postcards, quotes and memorabilia (or mind maps during revision!). I did find that I preferred to do my work in the library rather than my room though, as the library is quieter (you could hear a bit of noise from the street outside in my room).
What did you do for May Week?
I started May Week by attending the Pakistan Society and Islamic Society garden parties which were a wonderful opportunity to say goodbye to several familiar faces who will be graduating (and plenty of good food). I also attended the Christ’s May Ball and King’s Affair which were as extravagant as expected but a lot more fun and memorable than anticipated.
What do you feel like you have gained from studying at Cambridge?
Cambridge has offered me a very holistic, fulfilling and unexpected undergraduate career. Studying a rigorous course like Natural Sciences has made me more confident about my academic abilities and has prepared me for graduate studies. To be taught by some of the world experts in your field is an academic privilege that is incredibly motivational. Apart from academics, I also had a chance to involve myself in student politics and theatre as well as cultural and religious societies. Moreover, taking up sports like rowing, badminton and squash after a significant hiatus made me realise I am not terribly unathletic! Last but not least, Cambridge gave me a chance to meet incredible and talented people and form friendships that I will cherish for life. Overall, the years at Cambridge have been incredibly formative and have developed me into a person who is more organised, independent, socially aware and proud of my cultural/religious identity.
"To be taught by some of the world experts in your field is an academic privilege that is incredibly motivational."
What are your fondest memories?
I will list a few off the top of my head: walking down to Grantchester at midnight, acting in the first ever BME student theatre production (Macbeth), late night games of 'Mafia' with friends, organising an Oxbridge Boat party and an annual charity Ball while I was president of PakSoc, etc. I will remain a member of Christ’s as a post-graduate so the thing I will miss most are obviously my College friends who are graduating.
Do you know what others in your year in Natural Sciences are planning to do?
From the biological cohort of NatScis at Christ’s, several are planning to start Master’s/PhDs either at Cambridge or elsewhere while some plan to work in science communication. From other Colleges, I am aware of Bio NatScis that will be starting jobs in finance and consultancy. Most of the physical NatScis are staying for fourth year although some are opting for graduate roles in industry and consultancy.
Have your ideas about jobs changed whilst you were at Cambridge?
The Cambridge Careers Service has plenty of resources for many different careers and even post-gradaute studies. However, the process of preparing and applying for jobs needs proactive work and initiative. When I started Cambridge, I had little idea of what I could do post-graduation apart from further education and research. If I had to change one thing about how I tackled life here, I think it would have been useful to start considering careers at an earlier stage. Several firms offer insight days/programmes for first year students that can be really valuable if you wish to explore a career without committing an entire summer or more in form of internships.
During my time at Cambridge, I was exposed to numerous career paths and I invested some time exploring fields like consulting and finance. Although I still decided to pursue a PhD, I am now a lot more comfortable with my choice and have a much better idea of how to utilise the resources and look for jobs after my education. I am now planning to start an MRes+PhD course in Cancer Biology from October in Cambridge. The course is funded by Cancer Research UK and will include two research rotations in first year, one of which will lead to a PhD project.
Please be aware if you're considering an application that our student writers describe their experiences. Although the majority of the information stays the same, some details may change from year to year. Do read the student profiles in combination with our undergraduate admissions pages for full information.