Natural Sciences

The course

The most characteristic feature of the Natural Science course is the broad first year – Part IA; the choice of which subject to specialise in is normally not taken until the second year. In the first year students take three experimental subjects with, additionally, mathematics. [There are four different mathematics courses available.] Most students therefore have to take a subject that they have not met before, e.g. physiology or geology; a mainly physical scientist might well take a biological subject, e.g. cell biology. Many find that the experience of Part IA broadens their scientific outlook and enables them to make a more informed decision on what to specialise in eventually; indeed, for some students the ‘extra’ subject encountered in Part IA becomes their main study in later years.

The University teaching in Part IA consists of three one-hour lectures per week in each subject, plus laboratory work, which varies from subject to subject. The College provides supervisions, normally once a week in each subject with students taken in pairs or threes. In these weekly sessions, written work is assessed and discussed with the supervisor, in some cases a Fellow of the College, in others a graduate student. The supervisor provides termly reports on progress which are discussed with the student by the Tutor and Director of Studies in end-of-term interviews.

In the second year (Part IB) students move towards their final specialisations, e.g. a physicist would take just physics and mathematics, a chemist might take chemistry and biochemistry, to quote two of the commoner options. But there is a wide range of Part IB courses and within broad limits students can make their own choice, according to their educational intentions and abilities. In the third year, students take the one subject that their degree is regarded as being ‘in’; the teaching is almost wholly University-based, the supervisions being given by Fellows in the subject and other specialist staff members from the relevant University departments. Third year courses include the large number within Part II of the Natural Sciences Tripos, and some separate but related Tripos courses – Electrical and Information Sciences, Chemical Engineering, Management Studies, History and Philosophy of Science etc. As will be evident, there is a good deal of flexibility in choosing what to do. For more details of the course consult the University website.

The College

Pembroke is ideally situated – both geographically and personnel – for those reading Natural Sciences: the back and side gates of the College lead directly into the New Museums and Downing sites where most of the University laboratories are located. The College has teaching Fellows in all the major science subjects, most of whom take a full part in university teaching (lecturing and laboratory work) as well as engaging in research in their own specialist fields (see below). We admit between 25-30 natural scientists each year, roughly equally divided between physical and biological interests. We have about 90 postgraduate students in the sciences in residence at any time. The Pembroke science society, the Stokes Society – named after a famous Pembroke mathematician – is run by a group of undergraduates and organises a series of informal talks from research scientists in many fields and a lot of socialising!

Pembroke Fellows in Natural Sciences

  • Professor Tim Bussey: Experimental Psychology
  • Professor Nigel Cooper: Theoretical physics
  • Dr Sanne Cottar: Earth Sciences
  • Professor Nick Davies: Zoology
  • Dr Warren Galloway: Chemistry
  • Professor Clare Grey Chemistry
  • Dr Dave Huggins: Chemistry
  • Dr Stephen John: History of Medicine/Philosophy
  • Dr Lauren Kassell: History of Medicine
  • Dr Krzysztof Koziol: Materials Science
  • Dr Hannah Mumby: Ecology
  • Professor Mike Payne: Physics
  • Dr Tim Weil: Developmental Biology
  • Dr Mark Wyatt: Astrophysics


Three or four years?

Most of the Natural Science options lead to an Honours BA degree at the end of three years. However, in Physics, Chemistry, Geological Sciences, Materials Sciences, Astrophysics, HPS, Systems Biology and Biochemistry students may choose to take a four year course leading to an M.Sci. degree. (Changing to Electrical and Information Sciences or Chemical Engineering will also require four years.) Those wishing to continue with research in these subjects will need to complete the four year course, but the three year option is sufficient for many other careers. It is not necessary to decide between three or four years until the second year of the course, but those who think it is at all possible that they may wish to remain for the fourth year should apply for four years of funding in the first instance. It may be difficult to obtain an extension once the course has started. You should note that you need College permission for the fourth year, but this is not normally a problem.


The course is tough, and we would expect those applying to have a very strong background in the appropriate sciences and mathematics. Physical scientists taking Further Maths as a fourth A-level will also be asked for a grade in this subject, but otherwise we would not normally include a fourth A-level, if taken, in the offer. We do not require STEP. (For details of offers for Scottish Advanced Highers or the IB please ask for an additional leaflet.)

The most useful combinations of A-levels are:

  • Physical sciences (including Chemistry) – A-level Maths essential. For Physicists, Physics is essential. For Chemistry, Chemistry is essential. Further Maths is highly desirable, especially for potential physicists. For Physics, a Maths A level including some mechanics or applied maths is useful. Chemists and Physicists will find they have more choice of course options when at Cambridge if they have both A-level Physics and Chemistry.
  • Biological sciences – A-level Chemistry essential. We prefer to see Biology too, and one of Physics or Maths.


It is possible to study Natural Sciences with only two science/maths A-levels, but you will find the first year a bit harder and we would encourage another science at AS level in addition, if your school can offer this.

Computer Science

It is possible to take Computer Science as one of your three science choices in the first year. This option is not recommended for those wishing to specialise in Computer Science (who should take the Computer Science Tripos) but it is a useful additional option, particularly for those with good maths and physics.

Interviews and Assessment

We are looking for students who are highly motivated and enthusiastic about science and have the academic ability to learn very fast in a demanding course. Interviews will be allocated based on application for either Physical or Biological and candidates’ subjects of study during Year 12.  You will be interviewed by two or three scientists, who will discuss with you, in an informal way, some scientific problems that you have probably not thought about before.  You will be asked about other interests, and what science you have learnt about outside your A-level (or equivalent) courses.  Applicants for the Natural Sciences will be required to take a pre-interview written assessment.

Gap Year

We are happy to offer to natural scientists who wish to take a gap year, and we encourage those who are very young (i.e. would be coming up to Pembroke under 18) to defer. It is often possible to obtain sponsorship or work in Industry.

Helpful reading

It is important to develop an enthusiasm and curiosity for science outside the confines of the AS and A2 modules. There are lots of interesting science books available, and plenty of websites to explore. There are no set books that you should read, and we encourage you to explore your own interests. Some suggested titles can be found on the Natural Sciences Tripos reading list for prospective students.

One of our current students, Coco, has written about a day in her life as a Natural Scientist on our College blog. Please click here to read the post.