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Last April we joined forces with Corpus Christi College and visited Crewe to talk to students there about the impact of maths in materials and cancer research. We met Sarah Stubington and discovered that a shared love of science can create common ground. Sarah shared her perspective of our meeting.

Written by guest blogger: Sarah Stubington

A year ago, I wouldn’t even entertain the idea of applying for Oxford. For starters, I didn’t think they’d want me – I’m from a rural northern state school where Oxbridge is a bit of a myth. But equally, I didn’t want Oxbridge. I didn’t want to be surrounded by arrogant private school students, I didn’t want to live in the south and I didn’t want my siblings to disown me! The many stereotypes I was exposed to by the media and by the people around me completely put me off even considering Oxbridge.

That said, my grades were half decent, so my school automatically added me to an early entry group, and I started getting emails for access events arranged by Corpus Christie College. I wasn’t at all interested in Oxbridge, but I was interested in science! The first North West Science Network event I went to was a lecture by Sarah Gretton on virology, focusing on how sequencing the genome of hepatitis C led to an effective treatment. Even more exciting was the opportunity to ask the speaker questions at the end, and I ended up staying late so that I could grill her a bit more. This was the first public lecture I’d been to, but I really enjoyed it so I started looking for more lectures to go to outside of the NWSN scheme –to Liverpool for a lecture on the NLRP3 inflammasome, to Manchester to learn about proton beam therapy and to Keele for biophysics and magnetic nanoparticles. Although I loved the lectures, I always had questions afterwards that I wanted answered and I started feeling a bit worried that university would leave me with a whole host of questions and no one to ask them to!

The solution to this came from a NWSN Maths in Science Day. Again, it was advertised as an Oxbridge access event, but I was there for the maths! Even better, the morning was focused around oncology, one of my main areas of interest. I’m often disappointed by the lack of maths in biology but in that first session, we were using differential equations to model the rate of decay of radioactive dyes used for imaging tumours. In one single talk, biology, chemistry, physics and maths had been united and this multidisciplinary approach to research excited me because it makes intrinsic sense. You can’t answer questions and solve problems by categorising them as one area of science and then restricting your thoughts to that branch, because the divisions in science are arbitrary. Therefore, I knew that whatever course I ended up doing I wanted it to have an interdisciplinary approach so that I would be best prepared for research.

We then started talking about hypoxic tumours and this was where I got really interested, so much so that I spent the break talking to one of the tutors (Martin) in an attempt to understand why hypoxic tumours are so dangerous when starving a tumour of oxygen intuitively seems to be a good thing! This led to a brilliant discussion of the mechanisms of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, however, afterwards, I realised that Martin hadn’t directly answered a single one of my questions, but I somehow came away knowing the answer to them all! Instead of just giving me an answer, he gave me hints and pushed my brain in the direction of working it out for myself and this was such a satisfying way to learn that I started to think that maybe – although I didn’t like Oxbridge – I did like tutorials! What’s more, the tutors that had come all the way up north to meet us weren’t anything like what I’d expected. Funnily enough, they were just normal people who cared a lot about science.

I eventually looked up the biochemistry course at Oxford and found that it pretty much ticked all my boxes. I’ve wanted to go into medical research ever since the diagnoses of two close family members with autoimmune diseases, and so my consideration of university courses was very much driven by research prospects. In the first year of biochemistry at Oxford, biochemistry is taught within the framework of biology, chemistry, physics and even maths! This was the interdisciplinary approach I wanted so much. And of course, there was the matter of tutorials and being able to ask questions in a way that isn’t possible at universities with less focus on contact time. So when school asked if I’d be interested in a potential trip to the Oxford Open Day (which very nearly didn’t happen due to funding problems and a lack of interest), I surprised my teachers and myself by saying yes! I knew I loved the course, but I still wasn’t sure about Oxford so my aim was to go along, confirm all my prejudices and get Oxford out of my system so that I could apply to Bristol with no regrets… this didn’t quite go to plan!

As expected, I felt very out of place in this big fancy city, but when I went to the biochemistry department, I felt completely comfortable. I was surrounded by research posters on biochemical pathways I’d only ever read about and yet I was able to talk to tutors who were actively researching them! I also visited St Anne’s college which felt a lot more like home with modern buildings, a lack of portraits and a relaxed stance on the dreaded robes. I went to a “meet the tutors” where I was sat at the table as the only state school student and the only student without a parent (no chance my parents were going down south for an open day!) but the tutor I was talking to couldn’t care less about where I was from, how I spoke or how I dressed– they were just interested in whether I loved my subject. I was slowly being converted and months later I even applied… which led to an interview and eventually an offer which – after a lot of deliberation – I accepted as my firm choice.

I’ve come full circle with my view of Oxford in the last year; I originally saw it as an elitist, pretentious and segregated institution restricted to those from private schools or the south. However, when Oxford came to the Northwest, I was forced to confront my bias and realised that part of the problem was that I’d made disliking Oxbridge part of my identity. A lot of people in the north or at state schools feel excluded by the lack of representation they see, and this is combatted by a kind of “snobbery against snobbery”!

I don’t doubt that some people still apply to Oxford to compete to be the best, to gain prestige and to achieve bragging rights, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t apply for different reasons. I just want to live in an academic environment which gives me the best resources for learning and loving my subject, as well as hopefully preparing me for a life in research!  With each day, I get a little more confident that Oxford is the right place for me.