Biology at Peterhouse

Peterhouse is an excellent college for biology. It claims many links to notable physicists, chemists and biochemists, but other aspects of biology have been more low-key at the college until recently. 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 undoubtedly came across them in his beetle-collecting forays as an undergraduate. The rooms he occupied as an undergraduate are owned by Peterhouse, 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. At Peterhouse supervising of first year courses is carried out by Fellows, 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 20% for all colleges for 2013-2020) but fluctuates with variation in numbers of applicants (from 16-40%), thus prospective students should disregard these statistics as being of very limited use and should consider a range of information on the colleges.

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. Some of these activities are mentioned in the Peterhouse Biology Newsletter.

Research opportunities: Many students use the summer vacations to gain research experience and Peterhouse has good links to laboratory researchers in Cambridge and elsewhere. Peterhouse students have good access to field research programmes. In addition, links with international research enable interested students to join field projects and laboratories in many counties.

Biology 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. An annual Peterhouse Biology Symposium was started in 2020.

Applications: Information for potential applicants.

Courses: Information on choosing 1A courses.

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

Natural selection: what is special about the Galapagos; why squid see better than we do; 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; 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. Human origins: from bipedal apes to why most of us are at least a bit Neanderthal, and are we still evolving?

Comparative physiology: how size and shape affect fluid transport. How giraffes and redwoods stand tall; and how did those enormous dinosaurs work?

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

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


Justin Gerlach by e-mail