Natural Sciences

Do you love science but are not sure what areas you want to specialise in? Do you want a course that gives you the flexibility to incorporate multiple subjects of interest? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you should consider reading Natural Sciences! In your first year, apart from Maths being compulsory, you get to choose 3 modules from a choice of 8.

The teaching of Natural Sciences is broken down into lectures (3 per module per week), practicals and supervisions (1 per module per week).

First year subjects (Part 1A):

Maths A/B

The Maths courses are essential for understanding many of the other 1A courses, and choosing one is mandatory. The Maths A and B courses are intended for those who are going to special in Physical options – in fact if you intend on doing any Physical options in second year or later (or even Physics in first year) then you’d be mad not to do Maths A or B. The difference between the two courses is basically just the speed and amount of content. Maths A teaches the vital topics at a reasonable pace, while Maths B rushes through these so it can cover some extra, more interesting topics. However, the same exam is set for both courses (though in the main section, in which students must pick five questions to do out of ten, two of the questions cover material only Maths B students will have learnt), and by doing Maths A you aren’t really disadvantaged. There is also a Computing module that you complete in 1st term that uses MatLab.

Further Maths is a requirement for Maths B, although it is also very beneficial for Maths A too. It is possible to do this course with only A level Maths or equivalent albeit with a lot of hard work and late nights!

The supervisor at Peterhouse is great; both highly educational and entertaining.

Mathematical Biology

Mathematical Biology requires a knowledge of Maths up to A level standard, but does not need any Further Maths. It also contains quite a bit of statistics, so I found doing S1 and S2 very helpful (although not necessary as they teach you it all again). MB covers three main topics; in Michaelmas term you will cover population modelling, which is quite calculus heavy so it may be a good idea to brush up on some integration first. Lent term is probability and statistics, you will learn how to do statistical tests on sets of data and then how to interpret the results. Finally, Easter term covers matrices and how to use them to model biological systems. Each module will come with a question pack and your supervisor will ask you to work through a certain number of them a week (usually 2-3 hours’ worth). MB also requires a 1.5-hour practical a week, working firstly on the coding software MatLab, and then later or the statistical software R. You are taught how to use these through a series of question sheets, and there is an assessed practical for each, one right after Christmas and one right after Easter. They contribute to about 10% of your final grade, so you do not need to worry too much. There is one exam at the end of the year, with a choice of questions. I found that the supervisor for MB I had was brilliant. He was amazing at explaining difficult concepts, and told lots of extra techniques and tricks that were not mentioned in the lecture. Overall, I found the course really interesting. It lets you apply Maths you already know to different situations.


Certainly among the most popular of subjects and one for which Cambridge is famous. In addition to lectures you’ll have one 4-hour practical a fortnight. These are all marked out of 20 but are each is such a small percentage of your overall mark that they’re really not worth worrying about (the majority of your mark is decided by a single exam at the end of the year). The course covers dynamics, oscillations, waves (including an introduction to quantum mechanics), fields, and mechanics (including special relativity). You won’t be an expert in dark matter or string theory just yet, but the course is worth persevering with as it provides a solid grounding in the fundamentals of Physics and introduces you to a more mathematically rigorous approach than you’ll probably be familiar with. All in all, this is certainly an option worth considering (not that many of you will require much encouragement!) as the stuff you’ll learn will prove useful no matter what you go on to study in later years.


Apparently not everyone takes Chemistry, but you’d hardly guess by looking around the Bristol-Meyers-Squibb lecture theatre (it’s no coincidence that the Chemistry department’s lecture theatre is also the home of Maths and Physics lectures – ideally located 3 minutes away from SPT!). Knowledge of Chemistry will be useful no matter what you choose to specialise in, but it proves so popular that many people take it in later years having originally had no intention of doing so. The course teaches you to think about the underlying reasons why chemical reactions happen, so is arguably less memory-based than A level. You will cover the Shape & Structure of Molecules, Organic Chemistry, Thermodynamics, Kinetics, the Chemistry of the Elements, and the odd explosion! 6-hour practicals every fortnight make up a small amount of your mark (and there’s no real pressure to get much more than a simple ‘pass’), with the rest decided by a single exam in Summer.

Earth Sciences

From volcanoes to minerals to fossil hunting, the Earth Sciences course is broad in itself. Most people taking this module will have little to no prior knowledge, so it is a great course if you love learning new things. Each lecture is accompanied by a 1-hour practical that allows you to examine both hand specimens and look through a petrographic microscope where the minerals are turned into a kaleidoscope display. By far though, the highlight of Earth Sciences is the Easter trip to Arran. Yes, it’s in Scotland and yes, it is cold, but it is a great way to meet people from other colleges and relax after a hard day in the field at the local pub. If you’re lucky, your supervisor might even buy you a pint!

Biology of Cells

Probably the second most popular module after Chemistry, this course ranges from photosynthesis, genetics and animal development. You can take this module without A Level Biology, as only Chemistry is essential but as a few of the areas studied have been met before at A level, albeit in not so great depth, it helps with the terminology load to learn! Alongside lectures you have a 5 hour practical once a week which allows you to use some of the cool equipment such as PCR machine and the ever so fun Vortex machine! Some of the practicals have involved sexing Drosophila and trying to make yourself cry by cutting an onion.

There are plenty of books in the Peterhouse library that are recommended for this course and there are enough copies so that you will have no problem getting access to them.

Evolution & Behaviour

How did we evolve? Why has natural selection allowed us to age? The complex answers to these questions and several others from plant evolution through to animal behaviour are explored in this very interesting course. Essays form the basis of how E&B is both taught and examined. You will therefore find yourself researching and writing roughly an essay per fortnight for your supervisions. Despite the essay based approach to the exam there are still fortnightly practicals accompanying E&B, some of which are assessed instead of there being a practical exam at the end of the year. These range from watching David Attenborough documentaries to taking skull measurements of ancient hominids. In addition, there is an optional field course in Easter where you get to see the various plants and organisms that you learnt about in the field!

Physiology of Organisms

If you get over get over the hilarity of studying a course universally known by the acronym PoO, you will soon realise that Physiology of Organisms is a difficult but ultimately satisfying course. With the first term dedicated to animals and the second to plants, the course emphasises comparing and contrasting various aspects of how they function. You will therefore need to memorise a large number of facts, understand the underlying concepts and so draw interesting conclusions as you reconsider what you’ve learnt from different perspectives. Topics covered in the first two terms include osmoregulation, nutrient acquisition and environmental responses of both types of organism, with lectures in the third and final term broadening to cover more general topics such as scaling, movement and cell co-ordination. You’d be wise to read all the notes given before you arrive at PoO lectures and practicals, since a single lecture often covers a huge amount of material varying from intricate mechanisms to universal principles. The practicals are a law unto themselves, ranging from straightforward and with occasional musical accompaniment (courtesy of the Plants department) to a complicated series of carefully laid out traps for students to fall into (courtesy of a certain Dr Matt Mason…you have been warned!).

Peterhouse is particularly lucky to have a brilliant medic, Ben Fisher, who will supervise you for the animal and general topics in first and third term. The supervision work he sets alternates between essays and practical problems, accompanied by sets of past multiple choice questions. Overall, physiology is a great choice if you’re interested in how plants and animals work and furthermore provides a strong foundation for a range of second-year topics including animal biology, plant sciences, physiology and neurobiology. PoO can be difficult, but when it all (eventually) falls into place the insights that it provides into the living world around us are unmatched.

Computer Science

The CompSci module makes a fun alternative to the other bench type subjects. The topics covered are quite 'mathsy' including some basic logic and set theory as well as functional programming. More traditional programming is taught using java as the model language.

Practical work consisted of approximately one programming exercise per week for the first two terms. These were quite entertaining and you should have little difficulty finding the motivation to do them and the optional extras, which provide useful exam practice. If you have previous programming experience, you'll find them trivial. That said, if you've not programmed before all the necessary tuition is provided in lectures.

Material Science

Materials focusses on the way different materials interact with the environment, starting with the basic packing of atoms and building up to how this affects whole structures, or causes them to fail. Peterhouse is close to the lectures and supervisions, although the labs are held in the West Cambridge site, which is a little more out of the way.

After 1st year

In Part IB, you choose three modules, and in Part II (your third year) you choose a particular field, such as Experimental & Theoretical Physics, Materials Science or Biochemistry. Some of these also have an optional fourth year, known as Part III, after which you are awarded a Master’s degree.

Application process

When you apply you have to specify on the Cambridge SAQ whether you are more physical or biological Natural Sciences as the interviews will be slightly different. The only other requirement for Peterhouse is the Pre-admissions test. This is new (starting from 2016) so the best way to prepare for that is to check out the website for more information and a specimen paper;

Here you can also find typical offers for Natural Sciences and subjects required.

Got your offer?

If you have an offer to study Natural Sciences at Peterhouse, congratulations! In terms of preparation the best thing you can do is to look at the recommended reading lists for the subjects you are interested in.

[Updated 2016]