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STEM Women Summer School at Corpus Christi, Cambridge by Cliona Maley, Year 13

Science Sixth

At the end of August, together with another 100 women enthused by science, I had the honour to attend a STEM Summer School at Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University. We spent 2 days discovering the University, the STEM courses it has to offer (Natural Sciences, Engineering, Maths and Physics), and sitting in lectures by the leading scientists associated with the University and the numerous research centres in Cambridge, including Microsoft.

We started as soon as we got there. On the first evening we had 3 lectures, the first one being a welcome to the course, an explanation of the STEM courses offered by Cambridge and the application process for them. This was given by an admissions tutor for Physics and it seemed to convince most of us of the benefits of reading a science subject, especially at a university like Cambridge. To support this, we then had a talk by the Stemette organisation showing us how desperate the world is for engineers and scientists and how women could bridge this gap in the job market. The opportunities that there are for research, careers and travel are vast, with companies all over the world needing more scientists within their workforce. This was given by an incredibly engaging lady who graduated from Oxford University with a degree in Mathematics at the age of 17!

On our first full day in the summer camp there were 4 lectures planned and a formal dinner at the end of it all. The first lecture covered bio-inspired robotics where robotic legs were being designed without motors powering them. In fact they just use pendulum dynamics, knee lock mechanisms, ground friction and a slightly sloping surface to get them going. It was a lecture by a Japanese senior lecturer in Engineering and explored the trial and error that comes with developing new ideas and the evolution of obtaining the best design.

The second talk was by a physicist who also works with Cancer Research UK. She is developing non-invasive imaging techniques for early cancer detection. Currently, cancers are only detected if they are visible to a doctor or if they form a lump, but with these new techniques, it would be possible to find them much earlier through screening programmes. This would increase the chances of survival, as the tumour is unlikely to have metastasized or have gained a blood supply. This is thanks to the contrast between normal and diseased tissue at different wavelengths of light.

Following this, we had a lecture by a PhD student in Mathematics. She showed us the range of topics that Maths encompasses and the variety of areas in which we could do research. Maths was depicted as a modern, up to date subject that is part of every bit of our lives.

The final lecture was given by Dame Athene Donald, Master of Churchill College. Most of her life was dedicated to Environmental Scanning Electron Microscopy which scans wet samples to high degrees of magnification, without having to prepare the samples quite as much as for normal Electron Microscopes. For her work she received the L’OrealUNESCO Award for Women in Science in 2009. She was a very vibrant lady and a perfect speaker to end the day. To truly finish the day in style, we were treated to a formal dinner, which was a great opportunity to relax and chat to some of lecturers from the day and to the other girls in the summer camp.

The last day involved a lecture and a tour of Corpus Christi. The lecture was given by a researcher at Microsoft Systems who is developing a tangible programming system for blind children by using palm sized, bead-like machines that can connect to one another in a bead threading manner. This is to give blind children a chance to start programming because they wouldn’t get the opportunity with programmes that are currently available. For me the most exciting part was getting the chance to go on a tour of one of the Chemistry, Physics or Engineering departments. First we had a tour of the college, which is the only college in Cambridge funded by the townspeople and one of the oldest. It is a beautiful, cosy college in which I could really see myself spending 6 years (as I wish to study Medicine at university). Finally, for my department tour, I chose to look at the Engineering department and I had the pleasure of winning our activity of building the strongest crane in paper. My trophy was a bag of HARIBO!

This was a splendid opportunity to meet other girls with similar drive and passion to do something, discover or invent an unknown concept, have a break-though, change the way something is understood or practised in the world. Because of my interest in Medicine, it was also interesting to see how a lot of research in the pure sciences links back to prevention of illness and the wellbeing of humans. I had a lovely time there and have made a lot of new friends who I hope to see there next September!

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