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Undergraduate Study


Year 2 (Part IB)

Follow up previous studies, explore new areas and begin to specialise, but flexibility is still key

In the second year (Part IB), you choose three of 19 subjects (see below). Some build directly on Part IA subjects and some introduce what are essentially new areas.

In deciding on a combination of options to study in Part IB, most students choose subjects that complement and reinforce one another, and which lead on to at least a couple of possible options in their third year.

For most subjects you can typically expect to have three lectures, some practical work and a supervision each week.

Further information about the options, and the various teaching and assessment methods can be found on the Natural Sciences website.

Please note that for timetabling reasons not all combinations are possible.

Animal Biology

This option is about animals – their evolution and diversity, and the methods we use to study them. It gives an overview of how the form, function and behaviour of animals are adapted to their lifestyle and their environment.

The subject comprises sections on Behaviour and Ecology, Brains and Behaviour, Insect Biology, Vertebrate Evolutionary Biology, and Evolutionary Principles: taught by lecturers who are actively researching in these fields. The breadth of topics and approaches allow a wide range of choice for further study.

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

This option studies biological processes at the molecular and cellular level, and builds on the basic concepts discussed in Part IA Biology of Cells.

The aims of the option are to describe how information is stored as DNA and expressed as specific proteins, how enzymes and other proteins exert their functions, how cells function as integrated and co-ordinated metabolic systems, and how the growth and differentiation of cells is controlled.

Practical work is designed to complement the lectures, teaching important skills that are developed in subsequent years.

Biology of Disease

This option is concerned with the scientific study of disease and is one of the foundations of medical science and practice. It encompasses all aspects of disease, including causes and effects, and the organism's response to disease.

Biology of Disease explores the underlying general principles and illustrates them using specific examples. It involves a broad range of biological disciplines, including cellular and genetic pathology, immunology, microbiology, parasitology and virology.

The lectures are closely integrated with practical sessions.

Cell and Developmental Biology

This option introduces some of the major ideas and current experimental approaches in the rapidly advancing field of cell and developmental biology, and illustrates how molecular approaches complement classical cell biology in determining the details of how cells carry out their basic processes.

The subject consolidates and extends your basic knowledge from part IA Biology of Cells of how cells work and interact, and how they differentiate. It covers sub-cellular structure and function, signalling both within and between cells, and the development of multicellular tissues and organisms.

It provides a framework for further study of molecular, cellular and developmental biology in the third year.

Chemistry A

Chemistry A focuses mainly on the theories used to understand and probe chemical bonding, structures and reactivity.

The option starts by introducing quantum mechanics, which is the fundamental theory used by chemists to understand the behaviour of atoms and molecules at the microscopic level. You also look at how symmetry is a powerful aid in describing the behaviour of molecules.

The subject goes on to discuss the way in which the microscopic properties of atoms and molecules influence the properties of bulk matter, and concludes with a discussion of the properties and chemistry of solid materials.

Chemistry B

Chemistry B focuses on three main topics – organic, inorganic and biological chemistry. The emphasis is on how an understanding of the structures of molecules and the mechanisms of reactions can help to rationalise a very diverse range of chemistry.

The option covers the carbon-based (organic) chemistry which is so important in the development of pharmaceutical and other products (such as synthetic polymers) which have revolutionised modern life.

You also study the huge diversity of compounds and structures formed by other elements that are the domain of inorganic chemistry.

The subject closes with an exploration of biological chemistry – the chemical processes which are the basis of life.

Earth Sciences A

This option covers the surface environments of the Earth – the atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere – together with their geological products. It encompasses sedimentology, palaeobiology and oceanography, and covers tectonics on scales from lithospheric plates to hand specimens, emphasising the processes that form and deform sedimentary basins.

You have laboratory work and compulsory field courses in Cumbria and Southwest England.

Part IB Earth Sciences A is sufficient preparation for Part II Earth Sciences, although taking both Earth Sciences A and B at Part IB is preferable.

Earth Sciences B

Earth Sciences B deals with our planet’s formation and examines its interior processes, including the physics and chemistry of volcanic eruptions (how plate tectonics influence surface volcanism), magma chambers and melt generation. You study the evolution of the solar system, and the geochemistry of the deep Earth, mineral growth and crystallisation under different conditions, and how igneous and metamorphic rocks respond to changes in pressures and temperatures in different tectonic settings.

Teaching includes laboratory work and compulsory field courses in Cumbria and Southwest England.

It's possible to do Part II Earth Sciences after taking Part IB Earth Sciences B only, but it's preferable to also take Part IB Earth Sciences A.


Ecology explores the relationships between plants, animals and their environment.

It begins with a critical exposition of the characteristics of selected marine, freshwater and terrestrial systems; and the impacts of humans are considered particularly in the context of global climate change and aerial pollution.

Lectures on ecological genetics and ecological dynamics are followed by an overview of the world's biodiversity, its origin and conservation. The option ends with an investigation of the importance of humans in ecology.

Practical work includes a field course in Surrey.

Experimental Psychology

Experimental Psychology provides a comprehensive coverage of the study of the mind, brain and behaviour through experimental and observational methods of investigation.

Topics covered in the first term include sensory processes and perception, with special emphasis on vision and hearing attention and the control of action and learning and memory.

The remainder of the option covers language and cognitive processes, cognitive and social development, intelligence (and its measurement), reasoning and problem-solving, cognitive neuropsychology, psychopathology, and social psychology.

Lectures are supported by practical classes.

History and Philosophy of Science

This option explores the historical, philosophical and social dimensions of the sciences. Examples are drawn from many different disciplines, over a period extending from the Renaissance to the present day – from early astronomy, alchemy and natural philosophy; to the atomic bomb, the discovery of DNA and climate change.

We examine questions about how theories are tested and change; about the nature of causation, laws and scientific explanation, and the problems in scientific and biomedical ethics; and ask what is so special about science, what is the role of social and historical context in the production of knowledge, and whether science provides an increasingly accurate account of a largely unobservable world.

Materials Science

Materials Science looks at advances in materials and their chemical, electrical and mechanical properties, ranging from metals to polymers and other 'soft materials'.

You study how materials function in service, whether a material is likely to degrade through chemical processes, and when a structure may be susceptible to failure under the imposed mechanical forces.

There's also a focus on how materials function in service, and the scientific principles of functional materials, such as semiconductors, that have revolutionized society in recent decades.

The option is suitable for those wishing to specialise in Part II Materials Science, Physics or Chemistry.


Mathematics incorporates topics including:

  • group theory
  • more advanced matrix theory
  • Cartesian tensors
  • more advanced theory of differential equations (including solution in power series and expansions in characteristic functions)
  • Fourier transforms
  • calculus of variations
  • complex analysis
  • calculus of residues

Some topics involve continually-assessed practical work, using computers to illustrate and exploit numerical techniques.

The option is especially useful for students intending to study Physics or Chemistry at Part II.


Lectures and practicals begin at the cellular and molecular level, covering the development, function, and plasticity of the nervous system, and then examine in turn the different sensory systems.

You explore the motor system, including a systems approach to sensorimotor integration, followed by the development and higher functions of the nervous system (including motivation, emotion, the handling of language by the brain, and modulation of synaptic activity). The option ends with lectures on learning and memory.


Pharmacology deals with the effects of chemical substances on biological materials.

The option begins with understanding how receptors work at the molecular level. Following a detailed consideration of intracellular messengers and synaptic pharmacology, you focus on drugs that influence inflammation, immune responses and the function of the central nervous system.

Subsequent lectures introduce the use of drugs that produce selective inhibition of bacteria, protozoa and viruses; and discuss drug discovery, cell growth, cancer and anti-cancer drugs, and steroid receptors.

Finally, the molecular characteristics of ion channels are combined with essential physiology to explain drug actions on the cardiovascular system.

Physics A

Physics A provides a rigorous grounding in the principal themes of modern physics. The option deals with waves and optical systems, and provides substantial teaching in quantum physics and an introduction to condensed matter.

A module on experimental methods gives the necessary formal background to support your work in the practical classes where experiments are more advanced than those encountered in Part IA.

Those students not taking Part IB Mathematics take an additional module in Mathematical Methods.

Physics B

Physics B lays the foundation for a professional understanding of physics and is built on the three key areas of classical mechanics, electromagnetism and thermodynamics.

All students also take an introductory course in C++ programming, with associated practical exercises. Practical experiments are more advanced and longer than those encountered in Part IA.

Those students not taking Part IB Mathematics take an additional module in Mathematical Methods.


In this option, you study systems physiology in detail and concentrate on mammals, in particular man.

The option builds on knowledge of function at the cellular level to the complex operation of major body systems at the level of the whole organism. Over half of the option is devoted to the study of the major body systems, and the remainder takes an integrated approach to examine how these systems respond to various challenges from the everyday to the extreme.

Practical work allows students to study their own physiology.

Plant and Microbial Sciences

Plant productivity is the basis for life on Earth and the study of plants, plant productivity and microbes is essential to achieving sustainable exploitation of the biosphere, and to deal with issues such as food and fuel security.

Plants in their physical environment are considered first, followed by the study of plants and microbes in their biotic environment, addressing the topics from both molecular and ecological perspectives; and finally, we look at plant ecosystems.

Studying plants and microbes is essential to deliver sustainable solutions to global issues including biotechnology, agriculture, renewable energy and nutrition, and pollution.


Return to the Natural Sciences course overview