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Welcoming prospective undergraduates

Image courtesy of the Department of Chemistry

It was standing-room only in the lecture theatre last week when we invited prospective undergraduates to a sample Chemistry Lecture. They were attending the University Open Days to find out what it is like to study here.

Like other departments and college taking part in the annual Open Days, the Department of Chemistry opened its doors to prospective applicants to help them find out how this subject is offered and taught at Cambridge.

Hundreds turned up. When teaching fellow Dr Bill Nolan gave a sample lecture about organic synthesis, to give attendees the flavour of a first-year lecture, the Wolfson Theatre was so full that some were sitting on the stairs and standing at the back of the room.

And members of the department who ran the chemistry information stand on the University Sidgwick Site were swamped with questions from potential applicants during the day. They included:

  • "What's better - doing four 'A' Levels quite well, or three 'A' levels very well?" (Answer: the latter.)
  • "Do I need to study two sciences at higher level in the IB Diploma to apply?" (Answer: yes.)
  • "Which is the best college to apply to if I want to study chemistry?" (Answer: they are all equally good.)

Natural Sciences
Unlike other UK universities, Cambridge doesn't offer a single-discipline chemistry degree. Instead we offer a broader course called the Natural Sciences Tripos. Undergraduates can study Natural Sciences on either a three-year (BA) or four-year (MSci) degree course. 

Many students apply for the Natural Sciences Tripos because they like the idea of being able to study a broader range of options to begin with before refining their choice of science later on. As Dr Nolan explained - before he went on to discuss drug synthesis - there is a range of subject options within Natural Sciences. Students can make chemistry one of their subjects in the first and second years and then choose to specialise in chemistry in the third (and optional fourth) year if they wish.

Twenty per cent of Natural Sciences undergraduates do the three-year BA course; eighty per cent of them stay on for the fourth year to do a research project and finish with an MSci degree.

Drug Synthesis
The Open Days got the thumbs-up from many attendees. The lecture, which focused on the molecular structure of drugs from painkillers and statins to antibiotics and antihistamines, was interactive. Attendees were encouraged to answer questions about functional groups in compounds and the types of chemical reactions needed to convert one to another.

One prospective student said afterwards: "I went to a lecture in another department, but that was more of an overview of the course. It was really interesting to come to Chemistry and see the kind of lecture we would get as first-year undergraduates."