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Biology at Peterhouse


Savery's 1626 dodoPeterhouse claims many links to notable physicists, chemists and biochemists, but other aspects of biology have been more low-key at the college. As well as some recent biologists, college alumni do include a number of early Petrean naturalists of note. Although none are household names, they were part of an important group of 18th and 19th century naturalists. Although no links can be identified between any of the Petrean naturalists and Charles Darwin he undoubtely came across them in his beetle-collecting forays as an undergraduate. The rooms he occupied as an undergraduate are owned by Petehouse, and used as student accommodation to this day. Peterhouse also has an unexpected (admittedly tenuous) connection to the Dodo.

Teaching: Although Peterhouse is a small college in terms of numbers of students and Fellows, in recent years its Natural Sciences teaching has become particularly strong. The college is now regularly one of the highest ranking colleges for Natural Sciences (highest ranking of all colleges in 2017). At Peterhouse supervising of first year courses is carried out by Fellows or College Lecturers, or by very experienced external supervisors. This gives students more support than is possible in larger colleges. In addition, Peterhouse makes a speciality of scientific writing, developing its biologists into the best science writers through their essays in the first year. It should be noted that with a small college application statistics are largely meaningless; the average acceptance rate for Natural Sciences at Peterhouse is in line with the University average (26% compared to 22% for all colleges for 2013-2017) but fluctuates with variation in numbers of applicants (from 16-40%), thus prospective students should disregard these statistics as being of very limited use.

Financial Support: In addition to teaching quality and support, Peterhouse is one of the richer colleges, meaning that it has good facilities, an excellent library and has generous travel grants. Biology students have used these to help fund travel for everything from general interest to scientific exploration.

Research opportunities: Many students use the summer vacations to gain research experience and Peterhouse has good links to laboratory researchers in Cambridge and elsewhere. A programme of international research opportunities in field biology for Peterhouse students is currently in development.

hedgehog from PetWild surveysBiology events: Peterhouse has an active scientific society, the Kelvin Club with talks from notable speakers three-times a term. There are also subject related social events throughout the year, with the annual NatSci Dinner being a highlight. Biologists may be interested in the termly survey of the wildlife of the college's gardens (PetWild). While the Deer Park no long has any deer, it is an impressively diverse place considering it is so close to the centre of Cambridge.

Course choices: Natural Sciences at Cambridge is exceptionally flexible in that first year students can study almost any aspect of the sciences in any combination. The idea behind this is that students should take this opportunity to explore what interests them before specialising. Second-year courses do not require specific 1A courses to have been taken, but some are clearly strong recommendations. In particular Evolution & Behaviour should be considered essential for anyone studying biological sciences as it provides the underpinning for all biology. It is also the only first year course to cover evolutionary genetics and to explicitly encourage critical scientific thought. Particularly good 1A combinations for students with strong interests are:

  • biological interests: Cells + Evolution & Behaviour + Physiology
  • molecular biology/biochemical interests: Cells + Chemistry + Evolution & Behaviour
  • ecological/evolutionary interests: Evolution & Behaviour + Earth Sciences + Cells or Physiology
  • chemical: Chemistry + Cells + Physiology

    For those with less specific interest at this stage Cells + Chemistry + Evolution & Behaviour provides as broad an overview of the biological-chemical sciences as possible.

    Biology of Cells - an obviously useful foundation course for biology. This develops from the basic concepts of cell structure and biochemistry to genetics, molecular biology, development and communication. This is a good background for 1B courses in Cell & Development Biology, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Physiology, and Plant & Microbial Sciences.

    Chemistry - the basis for chemistry and molecular aspects of biology. This builds on knowledge from A-level and similar courses to develop a greater understanding of chemical structure, reactions, thermodynamics and kinetics. This provides the basis for further study of Chemistry at 1B and supports Cell & Development Biology, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology.

    Earth Sciences - for many this is an interesting course because it is largely unfamiliar. It provides an introduction to the history of the Earth and other planets, covering plate tectonics, magmatism, metamorphism, atmosphere and ocean process, climate change, erosion, sedimentation and palaeontology. This course builds on some aspects of A-level Geology but does not require a geological background.

    Evolution & Behaviour - this course is strongly recommended for any biologist in that it covers fundamental concepts and prioritises original thought; it is the only 1A course to explicitly require students to question the evidence. This course starts with evolutionary theory and population genetics before covering the main steps in evolution of all living things, from the origins of life, plants and the main animal groups, ending with human origins. Animal behaviour is also included, with evolutionary aspects covering sexual selection, evolution of social behaviour, classical studies of the mechanics of learning and the flexibility of memory. Of all 1A courses, this is the most distinctive and students taking E&B find it the most stimulating of all their courses. This course is particularly useful for second year courses of Animal Biology, Ecology, Physiology, Plant & Microbial Sciences and is the only 1A course to cover evolutionary genetics. Any student intending to pursue biological options beyond the first year should expect to take this course.

    Materials Science - this is mainly a physics course and is very rarely taken by biologists. It is sometimes considered by those with interests in chemistry but although the course does contain a section on atomic structure many students find it less relevant to chemistry than expected.

    Physiology of Organisms - this gives a detailed introduction to the main physiological processes underlying all living organisms, including membrane structure and ion flow, nerve activity, senses, movement, water transport, nutrition and photosynthesis, and homeostasis. A large proportion of this material is covered in A-level Biology, with the addition of a comparative aspect, covering bacteria, protists and fungi, as well as plants and animals. It is a highly competitive course covering a phenomenal amount of descriptive detail, and the comparative aspect is particularly useful, although it has no evolutionary content. This course complements 1A Evolution & Behaviour and supports 1B Physiology and some aspects of Animal Biology, Biology of Disease, Neurobiology and Plant & Microbial Sciences.

    Examples of biological topics covered in first year biology supervisions at Peterhouse:

    Natural selection: what is special about the Galapagos islands; why squid see better than we do; and why, although Darwin was right, Lamarck was not entirely wrong.

    Transport: how we use electric potential to move substances across membranes; how this enables some fish to move between rivers and the sea.

    Kin selection and sexual selection: evolution of helping; why sex evolved and why there are two sexes; although the maximum number of children recorded for men and women are startling, they are not all they seem; why sexual selection is not really about female choice and male display.

    Nerve function: squid giant nerves; did comb jellies evolve nerves or sponges lose them?

    Population genetics and speciation: why there are just 10,000 people (genetically speaking); why the Y-chromosome is deteriorating; whether species really exist and how ligers and tigons are possible.

    Homeostasis: even microbes want to be comfortable.

    Natural selection vs drift: random changes in the genome and neutral theory; the meaning of mutations and why they are not really random at all.

    Movement: from rotating proteins to sliding chains; the ballistic tongue of lungless salamanders.

    Origins of life and mitochondria: the RNA world and creating life in the laboratory; origins of mitochondria and chloroplasts, and how mitochondrial relatives, the midichlorians, were invented for Star Wars but turn out to be real and to have a very dark side.

    Evolution of the heart; the tinman gene, balloons and chambers.

    Plant evolution: the origins of plants and the colonisation of land; how this process was driven by fungi.

    Osmoregulation: why so many ways to balance water?

    Rise of the angiosperms: why weird sexual practices enable flowering plants to colonise the deserts, and how this relates to all the great poisoners of history being flowering plants.

    Oxygen uptake: how to cope with the greatest toxin and what to do with it.

    Gene duplication: how this leads to complexity, and to flowering plants having both beautiful flowers and vile poisons.

    Nutrition: how to make a living out of other organisms.

    Animal origins: evolution of multicellularity, what exactly are comb jellies?

    Energy: the Goldilocks dilemma - why you don't want to be too small or too large.

    Arthropods & Chordates: how genetics and development are revolutionising our understanding of the most complex animals.

    Plant physiology: how they sense what is around them.

    Plasticity: changing your appearance to fit in a changing world.

    Plants: miracle chemistry - how to make energy out of light and water.

    Adaptive radiations: great species swarms and how this relates to plasticity.

    Underground physiology: what happens when plants invade the fungal world.

    Phenotypic gambit: size isn't everything - why beetles have to choose between horns or large testes.

    Plant hormones: how plants talk to one another, and what they say.

    Conditioning: Pavlov's dogs and Skinner's rats.

    Microbes: bacterial growth.

    Imprinting & song learning: learning in birds and how cuckoos subvert the system.

    Microbes: what happens when fungi invade the light, and how plants retaliate.

    Memory: how remembering the past is the key to predicting the future.

    Microbes: balancing between health and disease.

    Primates: tree shrews, flying lemurs and rafting monkeys.

    Comparative physiology: how size and shape affect fluid transport

    Primate intelligence: what chimps think and what they think you think.

    Support: how giraffes and redwoods stand tall; and how did those enormous dinosaurs work?

    Human origins: from bipedal apes to why most of us are at least a bit Neanderthal, and are we still evolving?

    Sensing: coping with light and electricity, seeing in colour and hearing.


    Page written by Justin Gerlach