Natural Sciences

The Natural Sciences Tripos is a set of courses offered by all the science departments in Cambridge, and is known by everyone as 'NST' or 'Nat Sci'. Scientists are admitted to read NST, rather than a specific subject; most courses are three years long, and there are optional 4th years for some subjects. This guide gives an outline of the scheme; the definitive details are to be found in the University Prospectus and the Cambridge Natural Sciences Tripos website.

Course structure


1.Part IA: three experimental subjects plus a mathematics course.

2.Part IB: three subjects from a total of about 20.  Chemistry, physics and geology each have two options, both of which would be taken by someone intending to specialise in that subject.

3.Part II: either - a specialised course in one particular subject or - a slightly less specialised course in Physical Sciences or Biological and Biomedical Sciences.

4.Part III: astrophysics, biochemistry, chemistry, geology, history and philosophy of science, materials science and physics offer a 4 year course as an alternative to 3 years.

A table of the possible subject choices follows below.

There are exceptions: in particular, transfers to or from other triposes are common, after one or two years.  Chemical Engineering is a three-year course, following one year of either NST or Engineering (making four years in total). Other popular routes include to/from Mathematics, Computer Science (see below), Medicine, Engineering, Electrical & Information Science, Management.

Many students arrive with a long-term goal in mind; the table of subjects can then be used to plan your probable route through the first two years to the Part 2 of your choice. If, as is more usual, you are uncertain as to which branch of science you will hope to specialise in, beyond a general preference for biological or physical sciences, then the NST is just right. You can make a fairly free choice of subjects in the first year. For example, a student with physics, chemistry and mathematics A-levels, who is equally attracted to physics and chemistry might take both these subjects in the first year, and for a third subject choose Materials and Mineral Science, in order to study the solid state in more detail, or Biology of Cells, to open up the options of pursuing Biochemistry or other biological subjects, or Geology, from an interest in the outside world. Another student with the same qualifications, but less enthusiastic about chemistry, might start with Physics, Materials and Mineral Science and Geology, or one attracted by the medical sciences might take Physiology of Organisms, Chemistry and Biology of Cells. Each of these combinations gives rise to a different set of possible subjects for the later years.

You will see from this summary that you need an interest in more than one branch of science. If you want only to pursue your chosen subject and not much more, think seriously about science courses elsewhere before you apply for NST.

Advantages and disadvantages of NST

For the individual student, the overriding advantage of the Natural Sciences Tripos is its flexibility, and the way it enables you to tailor your course to your talents and developing interests.  The personality and intellect of a good synthetic organic chemist is different from that of a theoretical physicist, or an experimental psychologist. A large proportion of our students change direction within the framework of the NST once they are in Cambridge. Usually the change is fairly subtle, often reflecting the availability of new subjects not taught in the sixth form. For example, a student whose favourite school subject is physics may become a theoretical physicist if mathematically orientated, but could also develop into a metallurgist, an electrical engineer or a computer scientist. However, some students become fired with enthusiasm for a new subject, and make quite dramatic changes in direction, for example from the physical to the biological end of the spectrum. 

The flexibility of the course also enables you to acquire a variety of intellectual skills, including problem solving, numeracy and essay writing. The practical work can involve techniques ranging from microscopy to the use of complex electronic equipment, and enable you to develop organisational skills required to complete an experiment successfully. Thus, Natural Sciences provides a good education not only for the specialist but also for those who do not intend to become professional scientists. The initial generality is also an advantage to the practising scientist, as many of the major growth areas, such as biotechnology, cross the traditional boundaries. The price to be paid for flexibility and broadness of the education is hard work.  The first year is spent studying three experimental subjects plus Mathematics, the language of science, and as a result there are almost thirty hours a week when you are timetabled to be at a lecture, practical or supervision. This includes Saturday morning lectures, and evening supervisions. Add the time required to digest the material, read and prepare the essays or tackle the problems required for College supervisions and you realise that studying science is a full-time occupation. Fortunately, most students enjoy their science and find the work challenging and stimulating. It is also very sociable.  Laboratories, unlike libraries, do not have 'silence' signs on the wall, but encourage cooperation. It would be wrong to give the impression that the scientists spend all their time working and do not enjoy all that Cambridge offers. Fitzwilliam scientists play an active role in University and College life, on the sports fields, in the concert hall and in organising the many social activities that make Cambridge life so frenetic. 

But, success in both academic and non-academic pursuits does require motivation, self-discipline, determination and the ability to organise one's day.


Three types of teaching are involved, namely lectures, practicals and supervisions.  Lectures and practicals are organised by the University departments and take place in theatres and laboratories that are scattered around the town; Geologists also have field trips during term and the vacations.  The lectures can be fairly formal, particularly in the first year when there may be a few hundred students present. 

However the course is not impersonal, as your College Director of Studies organises informal individual tuition (supervisions), which provides a focus for your work.  Supervisors, usually Fellows of the College or other experts, meet with two or three students for about an hour a week in each subject to discuss work that has been prepared in advance, to sort out any conceptual problems with the lecture material and generally develop the students understanding and technical skills.

As students specialise, the numbers taking each course reduce dramatically, so that by the third year there are only 20 to 100 undergraduates taking each Part II subject, and since most subjects allow the students to specialise, the number of students taking certain lecture courses is in single figures.  Final year undergraduates are very much part of the department, and are generally supervised by the lecturers teaching their specialist subject.

Natural Sciences at Fitzwilliam

In Cambridge, the colleges are responsible for admitting students, directing their studies (i.e. giving advice on choice of courses and keeping a helpful eye on their academic progress), and arranging supervisions.  Most academics in Cambridge have both a University and a College position, and so are responsible for lecturing, organising laboratory practicals and leading research teams in their departments, and also for supervising the students in their college studying their subjects.

Fitzwilliam has a large number of science Fellows, and arrangements with other members of the University to provide teaching in subjects not represented on the Fellowship, so we can cater for any choice of subjects within Natural Sciences and related disciplines.  Indeed, we are pleased to admit students interested in any area of science, and encourage students to make full use of the flexibility of the Tripos system to find the subject best suited to their talents and interests.


About thirty students are admitted to Fitzwilliam College each year to study science.  Selection is based on performance in public examinations, school reports and interviews.  The interviews are partly technical.  We do not expect you to know all the answers but you should be able to "think on your feet" and apply your knowledge to new situations.  

The typical A Level offer for Natural Sciences is A*A*A in at least two science or maths subjects.  The typical IB offer is 40-41 points with 776 at Higher Level.

STEP papers do not form part of our conditional offers. We do, however, encourage our prospective students to take these papers if the school offers teaching for them, as this is a good preparation for the first year courses. In particular do as much mathematics as possible.

Applicants are required to sit the Natural Sciences admissions written assessment, prior to being invited for interview.  More information can be found on the University website.

On your application form, you are asked to specify 'physical' or  'biological' as well as Natural Sciences, although this does not constrain your final choices of subjects - it ensures that your interviews will be appropriate to your interests.  If you are not taking 3 maths/science subjects at A2 level, or equivalent, you should ask for advice from the Admissions Office at an early stage in planning your application.

Chemistry requires the corresponding A-level
Physics requires Mathematics and normally Physics A-level
Cells requires A-level Chemistry, but not necessarily Biology (though it is highly recommended)
Physiology of Organisms, Evolution & Behaviour - Biology A-level would be helpful
Mathematical Biology requires A-level Maths

Other routes to science in Cambridge should be mentioned:

(a) via the Mathematics Tripos, especially in the Maths with Physics option in the first year.
(b) via Computer Sciences - in the first year, students spend half their time on computer science and also take Mathematics and one other subject from NST part IA; There is also the option of taking part of the CST course as one of the NST subjects.

Our aim is to provide a balanced scientific community in College and to achieve this we try to admit students who enjoy the challenge of science, have the ability to master the course and the motivation to benefit from the scientific opportunities offered by Cambridge University.

If you have any questions or queries which we have not covered in these notes please do not hesitate to email or write to the Admissions Office.

Courses in Natural Sciences

First Year Part IA (choose three plus a Maths course)

Biology of Cells, Evolution & Behaviour, Chemistry, Materials and Mineral Science, Geology, Physics, Physiology of Organisms, Computer Science.

Maths courses: Mathematics [for physical sciences], Mathematical Biology, Elementary Maths for Biologists.

Second Year Part IB (choose three)

Chemistry A (physical); Chemistry B (organic, inorganic, biological)
Cell and Development Biology
Biochemistry & Molecular Biology
Physics A; Physics B 
Geology A; Geology B      
Plant and Microbial Sciences
Crystalline State 
Animal Biology
Materials Science and Metallurgy 
Experimental Psychology
History & Philosophy of Science

Third Year Part II (choose one)

Experimental & Theoretical Physics          
Plant and Microbial Sciences
Geological Sciences 
Materials Science & Metallurgy 
Experimental Psychology
History & Philosophy of Science 
or a broader course, Part II Physical Sciences or Part II Biological and Biomedical Sciences, covering two subjects from a wide range in the Tripos at a slightly less specialised level.  Most Part II biological subjects are restricted in places offered, and entry is determined by your Part IB results. A good 2:1 should ensure you will get the subject of your choice.

Fourth Year Part III (leading to M.Sci as well as BA)

Experimental & Theoretical Physics
Geological Sciences
History & Philosophy of Science
Materials Science & Metallurgy

Directors of Studies, Teaching Officers and Fellows in Natural Sciences and Chemical Engineering

Dr José Alcántara, University Lecturer, Department of Experimental Psychology; Fellow Fitzwilliam College; University Teaching Associate, Staff Development Office. Research interests: Psychoacoustics of normal and hearing impaired individuals, auditory perception in autism, evaluation of signal processing strategies and fitting methods for digital hearing aids, hearing prostheses for the profoundly hearing impaired. Teaching interests: Experimental Psychology; Auditory Neuroscience; Undergraduate supervision training for post/graduates.
Dr Bill Allison, Reader, Department of Physics; Fellow, Fitzwilliam College. Research interests: Surface Physics, particularly the Microscopic (Quantum) Properties of Surfaces and the Chemical Physics of Atomic and Molecular Interactions at Surfaces. Teaching interests:  Physics.

Dr Mark J Arends, University Senior Lecturer, Department of Pathology and Honorary Consultant in Histopathology at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Director of Studies in Pathology, Fitzwilliam College. Research interests: Molecular alterations in colorectal cancer. Teaching interests: Pathology.

Dr Kevin Brindle, University Reader in Biomedical Magnetic Resonance, Department of Biochemistry;  Research interests: N.M.R. Spectroscopy of living systems. Teaching interests: Biochemistry.

Dr Andrew Buckley, Senior Technical Officer, Department of Earth Sciences; Assistant Director of Studies, Fitzwilliam College. Research interests: Low temperature geochemistry and mineralogy and methods of geochemical measurement. Teaching interests: Earth Sciences.

Dr Holly Canuto, Fellow, College Lecturer, Biological Sciences. Director of Studies, Natural Sciences (Biological), Tutor, Tutor for Admissions (Science). Research Interests: Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Cancer, Image Analysis. Teaching: 1A NST Biology of Cells, Fitzwilliam College.

Dr David A Coomes, University Lecturer in Plant Ecology, Department of Plant Sciences; Fellow and Director of Studies in Biological Science, Fitzwilliam College. Research interests: The impact of humans on ecosystem processes. Teaching interests: Plant Sciences, Quantitative Biology and Conservation Biology.

Dr James Elliott, University Reader in Macromolecular Materials, Department of Materials Sciences and Metallurgy, Fellow, Fitzwilliam College. Research interests: Polymers, multiscale computer simulation, X-Ray diffraction and tomography, foams and composites. Teaching interests: Materials Science, Mathematical Methods for Scientists.

Dr Andrew Jardine, Fellow and Director of Studies, Fitzwilliam College. Physics, The Cavendish Laboratory.Research interests: atomic-scale surface dynamics; atomic and molecular beams; high strain-rate and shock physics.

Mr Barry Landy, Life Fellow, Fitzwilliam College. Areas of interest: Operating Systems for large computers, Command Languages. Teaching interests:  Mathematics for Natural Sciences.

Dr N C Pyper, Bye Fellow Fitzwilliam College, and University Chemical Laboratory. Teaching Interests: Physical and Theoretical Chemistry. Research Interests: Polar solids and nanocrystalline materials.

Dr David M Scott, University Senior Lecturer, Department of Chemical Engineering; Director of Studies in Chemical Engineering; Fellow and Senior Tutor, Fitzwilliam College. Research interests: Mathematical modelling of chemical engineering processes. Teaching interests: Chemical Engineering.

Professor Nigel Slater, Professor of Chemical Engineering; Fellow, Fitzwilliam College. Research Interests:  Biological product design. Teaching Interests: Biochemical Engineering.

Dr Andrew Wheatley, University Senior Lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry, Department of Chemistry, Fellow, Fitzwilliam College. Research interests: Synthesis, Main Group Inorganic and Organometallic chemistry, Nanomaterials. Teaching interests: Inorganic and Organometallic chemistry.

Dr Philine zu Ermgassen, Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Philine works on a Nature Conservancy project, in collaboration with a team of regional experts. The team is building a framework for setting ecologically meaningful oyster restoration goals, and working towards a better quantification of the ecosystem services attributed to healthy oyster habitat, such as denitrification, filtration and fisheries production. Teaching: 1B Ecology and Part 2 Conservation Science.