Physics, but not as you'd know it

Student profile: Catherine Lewis, studying Geophysical Science at the University of Lancaster
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The Independent Online
"I think the perception is that physics is very difficult, and that puts people off," says nineteen-year-old Catherine Lewis, who's just completed her first year, studying Geophysical Science at the University of Lancaster.

Her main first-year option has been physics, which she says has been very much a continuation of her A-Level course. "People seem to think you have to be brilliant to study physics, but in fact I think it's no harder than any other academic course. We don't seem to have to put in many more hours than students on arts-based courses, for example," she says.

Catherine studied Physics, Maths and Geography for her A-Levels, achieving two Bs and a C. The entry requirements for her courses stipulated three Cs.

"At Lancaster we take three degree courses in the first year, which helps to make you sure you're happy with the option you then go on to take in your second year.

"This last year I've been studying physics, physical systems and environmental science. I have to achieve a certain level in all three subjects to continue on my degree course.

"In physics we've been studying mechanics, waves, optics, electro-magnetism and quantum physics.

"Some of the options have been harder than others, but what I've enjoyed most are the practical workshop sessions, where we're given a task and basically told to get on with it!

"There are post-graduates and lecturers there to help, but I think it really helps to have to try things out yourself."

The course is divided up into three one-hour lectures each week, in each of the three subjects, as well as three one-hour practical sessions.

Catherine says: "You have to be determined to keep on top of things, and quite strict about the way you allocate your time.

"There are 10 of us on the geophysical degree course, and we've formed into a really close unit. It means that if any of us are having problems, then the others are there to help.

"Each week we have to complete a series of six questions, which also involves quite a lot of background reading. We do tend to get together to work the answers out, so sometimes the work is more of a team effort!"

This year's course work has been overseen by the head of their degree course, who has got them together every week to work through any difficulties or questions they might have.

"It's a good chance to air any grievances or problems with work we have experienced," says Catherine. "It's also nice to think that he's been keeping an eye on us to make sure we do all go forward onto the straight geophysical degree course."

Catherine's degree explores the link between the world of physics and meteorology. "Basically, we'll look at the weather and climate, seismic surveys, things like that. It looks at the physical and mathematical background to the climate and the effects on the Earth.

"It's been described as physical geography with equations, which is about the best way you can explain the course!

"When you tell people you're studying physics, they tend to look at you as if you must be very clever. There seems to be a kind of mystique about it, as if we're real boffins who go around wearing lab coats all the time. But it isn't like that at all, it's simply looking at the scientific reasons behind why the Earth behaves as it does. It's a really fascinating course."

When the students first arrived at the university, the department carried out a quick survey to find out where they all came from, and their academic backgrounds.

"It was really interesting to see that all the girls on the course came from single-sex schools. The university says this nearly always happens," Catherine said, adding that she had been very much encouraged to study science by her own school, an all-girls grammar in Birmingham.

"But I do think girls are put off subjects like physics at mixed schools, because it is still seen as very much a boys' subject.

"It's also interesting to see just how dominant the girls are on the science course- we are very bossy! I think as a girl you have to be, just to get your voice heard." she says.

Catherine is confident there are good career prospects after the course, and hopes to work in seismic surveying, or perhaps carry out research for an oil or petrochemicals company.

"I really want a job which takes me out of doors - I couldn't bear a nine-to-five office job," she says. "My hobbies are hill-walking and climbing, and Lancaster is perfect for this.

"We're only a stone's throw from the Lake District, and the university has a very active hiking and climbing club, sowe're out on the hills most weekends."