Coming up to uni application time in S5 at Monifieth High School I was mulling over the options of Physics at Edinburgh, St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen when the senior school Assistant Head, Gavin Smith, stopped me in the corridor and asked me if I was considering applying to Oxbridge. I hadn’t been, but was hustled off to his office and handed a pile of prospectuses. I decided to give it a go and ended up applying to do Natural Sciences at Churchill College, Cambridge.
Churchill appealed because of its technocratic ethos – by stature, 70% of its students must be from what we now call the STEM subjects – and because its social mix was pretty much the same as any other UK university. It retains those virtues, and I am pleased to report that it has also now achieved a 50:50 gender balance – it wasn’t that way in the late 80s! Of course, one of the attractions of Cambridge is that with so many colleges to choose from, there is bound to be at least one to suit almost any taste.
Natural Sciences at Cambridge is fairly unique in that students are not allowed to specialise right away – they are required to do three experimental sciences in first year, plus maths. (It is Isaac Newton’s university after all, so it probably has higher requirements for maths than anywhere else.) For me this was hard work at the time but came in handy later.
Natural Sciences is also broad enough to accommodate significant changes of direction. On realising that life as a research physicist I gradually shifted my major over to History & Philosophy of Science, reasoning that the ability to write about and explain stuff would be as valuable in the outside world as being able to solve equations.
This proved correct, and led to an interesting, rewarding and international career in the electricity industry and energy consulting. I was then lucky to be able to cash out of that just as times became both difficult and boring, switching to the more family-friendly life of a physics teacher. And a few years later became dual-qualified to teach chemistry as well, something made a lot easier by having done a year of university-level chemistry!
One of the best things about my current life is being able to give something back and enable the kids I teach to have the same kind of opportunities I had. I do not think I would have had the breadth and depth of education I had anywhere but Cambridge, and would recommend anyone else with the necessary ability to give it a try.