In their element: St Catharine’s welcomes Cambridge Chemistry Challenge students

Thursday 16 September 2021


St Catharine’s recently welcomed budding scientists to the Cambridge Chemistry Challenge Lower Sixth (C3L6) summer camp, a three-night residential course that offers a flavour of life as an undergraduate chemist.

Open to anyone studying Chemistry in the UK in Year 12 or below, the C3L6 experience starts each year with a paper that aims to stretch students and encourage them to think about science in the way they would at university. Of the over 7,000 participants in 2021, a total of 54 students received the highest so-called ‘Roentgenium Award’ (the last element in the group of the periodic table containing copper, silver and gold) and were invited to attend the summer camp, which was held jointly by the Department of Chemistry and St Catharine’s in August.

Dr Peter Wothers, President of St Catharine’s and one of the organising academics, explains why the C3L6 competition was a priority despite the pandemic:

“It has been heartening to receive messages from schools telling us how important the C3L6 paper is to their students and we have very much enjoyed seeing the high quality of work that many young people have produced under a whole range of difficult conditions. The paper was sat both remotely and face-to-face in schools and we would like to thank all those teachers who supported students who wanted to participate, while ensuring that all work was completed in as fair a way as possible.

“St Catharine’s and the Department of Chemistry have hosted the C3L6 summer camp over 11 years and I’m proud of the inspirational experience that we continue to offer, even with COVID-19 precautions in place. Thank you to our team of academics, staff and student volunteers, who enable our summer camp participants to make the most of our world-class facilities.”

One of this year’s summer camp attendees, shared why the event was such a valuable experience:

“I had never heard about St Catharine’s before the C3L6 competition and it has great to see for myself what studying here might be like: from the welcoming Porters, to the beautiful grounds. My highlights were Dr Wothers’ incredible lectures and experiencing the five-course formal dinner on Friday night in the Ramsden Room. If anyone is lucky enough to be invited to the C3L6 summer camp next year, I would definitely recommend it – I have loved being surrounded by like-minded people and solving complex problems together.”

Summer camp participants during a practical at the Department of Chemistry
Summer camp participants during a practical at the Department of Chemistry (credit: Richard Danlylyuk)

It is not uncommon for the summer camp experience to inspire participants to apply to St Catharine’s, as evidenced by three of the student volunteers supporting this year’s event: Ollie Evans matriculated in 2017 and is about to start a PhD in Chemistry, having attended the summer camp in 2016; Richard Danylyuk is a third-year Natural Sciences undergraduate and participated in 2018; and Agustin Lorusso Notaro Francesco, who attended in 2019, is about the start the second year of his Natural Sciences degree.

Five summer camp participants and three volunteers in Sherlock Court
Student volunteers (top row left-right: Ollie, Richard and Agustin) with five of the 54 participants invited to this year's summer camp

Richard explained why he volunteered: “The C3L6 summer camp provides early teaching experience for student volunteers and I’ve enjoyed encouraging this year’s participants to work through problems. One of the students needed to leave early so I condensed what we were due to cover in the time remaining so they didn’t miss out. The team of volunteers are also on hand to explain what College life has to offer and we were invited to join at the formal. It was great to see the College’s silver tribute to Schaltenbrand's 1920 helical version of the Periodic Table on display in all its glory.”

Agustin added, “Thinking back to my time at the summer camp, it intensified my passion for Chemistry and shone a new light on topics that I’d previously found confusing. I also understood for the first time the value of the small-group teaching that is almost unique to Cambridge. Whether or not you choose to apply to study at Cambridge or elsewhere, the summer camp is incredibly worthwhile and it was a pleasure to get to meet this year’s participants.”

Read a recent interview with an undergraduate engineer who was encouraged to apply to St Catharine’s after participating in the C3L6 competition.