With the first term now underway it seems as good a time as any to give a summary of the masters year on the four-year natural sciences course, and what I’ll be writing about over the next nine months.
Doing a masters in natural sciences consists of four modules running right through all three terms, with the research project playing a central role (worth half the credits of the year!). Like last year, the research project is based around a project report, periodic seminars where you present your progress to your peers, and a viva where you defend your thesis. It’s a pretty daunting feeling starting a new project all over again – especially with the reduced contact hours from other commitments, which you know you should now be filling with novel research…but it’s also pretty exciting! (Not least because you can now study in the postgraduate area of the library.) From what I’ve seen, other students are undertaking projects in everything from designing and assessing the properties of plastic antibodies, to studying hydrogen concentrations as an indirect indicator of greenhouse gas levels, to designing and analysing the toxicity of novel nanoparticles. In my case I’ll be looking for novel molecules.
Along side this is the advanced study topic, where you choose a set of topics in a given field and conduct a literature review, culminating in a report of around 10,000 words and a 40-minute lecture on one particular area. I chose statistical mechanics, specifically looking at the dynamics of polymers, mainly due to statistical mechanics being so fundamental to many areas of science, and wanting to build on studying soft matter systems like polymers from a condensed matter physics elective I studied in second year.
On the computing side of things, after two years of Python the fourth year focuses on microcontrollers, a number of numerical methods, and fractals and chaos. The first of these involves using the Arduino open-source microcontroller to design and automate a monorail system! Finally, the last module is on complex systems, specifically in looking at agent-based modelling through programming languages like Netlogo. This is the same language I used in my internship over the summer, but the module goes beyond neural networks, looking at modelling phenomena as diverse as game theory, chemotaxis signalling pathways, and predicting riots. All of these share complex behaviour born out of simple rules, where slight alterations in initial conditions can lead to drastically different outcomes.
There’s another fairly important aspect of this year which is deciding what to do in about nine months time…I’ve already begun making a vague list of places I’d like to apply for a PhD, but this is something I’ll need to start considering more seriously as the weeks role on. All things considered it should be an interesting year. It was really great seeing everyone again today, and I can’t wait to get started.