Summer of science: Widening participation at Catz

Monday 25 September 2023


St Catharine’s has a track record of hosting widening participation programmes over the summer vacation, which give young people the opportunity to experience undergraduate life for themselves. This forms an important part of the College’s varied programme of outreach activities and enable us to attract the most talented students from all backgrounds. All these activities are free for participants, which is crucial to allow capable students the opportunity to experience Cambridge regardless of their personal circumstances, thanks to the generosity of our partners and donors.

The College was delighted to host three programmes this summer, all of which were free-of-charge to participants and organised to support students pursuing scientific subjects. Read on to find out more about these important programmes.

Aspiring Scientists Training Programme (ASTP) | 9–14 July 2023

Created in 2019 by the Gurdon Institute as part of their public engagement programme, the ASTP aims to support students from under-represented backgrounds apply to scientific courses at the University of Cambridge and other leading institutions. A successful collaboration with the University of Cambridge’s Gurdon Institute last summer saw a group of 11 aspiring scientists stay at St Catharine’s – their base while they spent their days at the Gurdon Institute to attend workshops with experts in the sector, network with scientists, and experience what a career as a biologist entails.

This year was the first time that St Catharine’s took the lead in coordinating the ASTP. In fact, the 2023 programme was the largest to date with 29 participants selected from 716 applicants, all hosted by St Catharine’s, Pembroke College and five scientific institutions in Cambridge. Activity on this scale was only possible thanks to funding provided by the Isaac Newton Trust Widening Participation and Induction Fund.

Thomas Williams, External Partnerships & Outreach Officer at St Catharine’s, commented:

“It was a pleasure to welcome the 15 students who stayed at St Catharine’s as well as organising the overall programme for all 29 participants – but we couldn’t have done it without the generosity of the Isaac Newton Trust, and support from the Gurdon Institute, the Sainsbury Laboratory, the MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit, the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, the Wellcome-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science and our counterparts at Pembroke College.”

Group of ASTP residential participants in the Main Court of St Catharine's College
ASTP participants in Main Court

Riyaad Ali, who is about to start the fourth year of his medical degree, was a student ambassador who was on hand during the programme to support the participants and offer advice from a current St Catharine’s student.

He said, "I particularly enjoyed talking to the students about their lab projects and hearing how they were developing their practical lab skills. I was impressed with how quickly students became acquainted with complex practical techniques, which they used to generate novel results. We also were able to spend time exploring Cambridge, and it was heart-warming to see the students enjoy their experiences of punting and watching a production of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing."

ASTP participant being supervised with a pipette
ASTP participants experiencing laboratory techniques

Alongside their lab work, students benefited from advice on applying to the University of Cambridge from outreach staff, and a talk on presentation skills by Professor Giles Yeo MBE, Professor of Molecular Neuroendocrinology at the University of Cambridge. There were also a range of extra-curricular activities, including a punting tour, an open-air Shakespeare performance, a ghost tour and a quiz night, allowing the aspiring scientists to get a taste of university life and socialise together. Food and accommodation were provided by St Catharine’s and Pembroke.

Among the feedback from this year’s aspiring scientists were the following comments:

  • “Overall, my week on the ASTP program has been transformative, leaving me with newfound knowledge, a sense of belonging to the scientific community, and a strong determination to overcome obstacles on the path to achieving my goals. I am grateful for this enriching experience and excited about the possibilities that lie ahead.”
  • “I loved and enjoyed every single day, and I thought the variety of things we got to do and the different scientists that we got to meet was amazing. I thought our days were extremely well planned and well thought out and I can truly only think of positives when it comes to feedback. But all in all, this was the best work experience I could have hoped for, and I cannot say how grateful I am to you and all the scientists that took time out of their work to spend time with us.”

STEM SMART Residential | 21–24 August 2023

STEM SMART (Subject Mastery and Attainment Raising Tuition) is a widening participation initiative from the University of Cambridge in association with Isaac Physics, which provides free, complementary teaching and support to UK (non-fee paying) students who:

  • have either experienced educational disadvantage or belong to a group that is statistically less likely to progress to higher education and
  • are considering applying to Engineering, Computer Science, Physical Sciences or Biological Sciences courses at university and are studying A Levels (or equivalent) in maths and science.

St Catharine’s has been a supporter of the programme since 2022, when we hosted 15 participants with an interest in Physical Sciences, Engineering and/or Maths. The College was particularly pleased that one of these participants confirmed his place to start as an undergraduate in October.

Aman Akram, who is about to begin is first year of Economics at St Catharine’s, said:

"The STEM SMART programme developed my problem solving skills and was vital in my decision of applying to Cambridge. The STEM SMART residential at St Catharine's College was an exceptional experience and I would recommend this programme to anyone and everyone!"

This year’s residential programme was expanded to include Biological Sciences for the first time and involved over 400 students across the University of Cambridge, with a group of 14 staying at St Catharine’s.

Liza Zhabina, Schools Liaison Officer at St Catharine’s, explained:

“Residential visits such as the STEM SMART Residential are the most rewarding and impactful events that we host. You really get to know the students well over the course of their stay – and it was a pleasure to welcome such a driven, hard-working and ambitious group to Catz. The College is proud to be involve in each stage of the STEM SMART programme – from academics helping with tutoring and experiments during the residential, the student mentors who helped online and on the residential, and our alumni to support the funding of the programme, this was a team effort so thank you to everyone who made this happen.”

STEM SMART participants in a lecture hall
Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

Day 2 at #StemSmart: Year 12 students dived into university level experiments - diffraction patterns, lasers, and more! In addition to Physics there were other exciting sessions that took place across departments of Biology, Chemistry and Engineering. Momentum continues to grow!

— Cavendish Laboratory (@DeptofPhysics) August 23, 2023

During the day, STEM SMART participants enjoyed sessions in University lecture halls and laboratories, designed to help prepare for applications to competitive universities. St Catharine’s student ambassadors and staff ensured that the participants got a taste of student life away from the lab bench. For example, Kieran Zheng and Johnny Hopkin (both due to start the final year of their Engineering degrees) supported social activities like a science-themed escape room and even wrote their own science quiz, with a round dedicated to women inventors and the inventions they weren’t appropriately credited for.

Kieran said, “The most useful part of being a STEM SMART ambassador was talking to the students about their goals for the future. One of the students I spoke to was unsure about which subject they wanted to study and, having had similar thoughts in the application process, it was really rewarding to be able to discuss my personal experiences to hopefully guide or reassure them.

“During social activities it was great to be involved in the group to keep engagement up – we played a lot of the game werewolf which the students loved! Some of the most valuable moments during residential programmes tend to be the conversations with other students, so the role of ambassadors in cultivating a good social atmosphere is crucial.”

Applications for next year’s programme are now open at

Melanin Medics | 1 September 2023

Melanin Medics is a charity that supports students of Black African and Caribbean heritage, including students of mixed-race heritage, who have aspirations to study Medicine in the UK. Their Summer Research Programme welcomed 25 students from Years 12 and 13 for a week-long programme of activities, which culminated in a day at St Catharine’s.

The morning included a tour of St Catharine’s and presentations from Thomas, Riyaad and Praharsh Babu, a student ambassador who is starting the sixth year of his medical degree. Their sessions gave students insight into applying to Cambridge and what it is like to live and study medicine here.

The focus for the afternoon was hearing from the 25 participants themselves, who took turns presenting the research they had completed earlier in the week looking at COVID-19 and vaccine scepticism among groups of different ethnicities. Professor Stefan Marciniak (2011), Director of Studies in Clinical Medicine at St Catharine’s also gave a closing talk about the importance of widening participation for the good of medicine and society.

Professor Marciniak reflected, “It was wonderful that Catz could once again partner with Melanin Medics and it was a pleasure to host another group of talented Black students, who showed huge potential as tomorrow’s doctors.”

Dr Khadija Owusu, Director of Programmes at Melanin Medics, commented:

“The finale of The Envision Med Research Programme was truly both a wonderful and inspirational day. The Year 12/13 students fully immersed themselves in the experience and I am so proud of their growth during that week. They will make excellent doctors in the future and we look forward to further working with St Catharine's on this programme for the years to come.”

Melanin Medics Summer Research Programme participants at St Catharine's College
Credit: Melanin Medics