UCAS Day in Leeds

A laboratory, with polished wooden furnishings a scattering of computers and machinery.As my secondary education undergoes its final phase, the planning for the tertiary is well underway. Some weeks ago I submitted my application with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). As I had applied to study Chemistry at the University of Leeds, I received a letter on 18th October inviting me to their School of Chemistry to be interviewed by one of their staff.

I had visited the same university eleven months prior as part of the Inspire programme, but on this occasion I attended in a personal capacity using private transport. Despite leaving home at 7 am, it was not until past 10 that we finally managed to find the arranged parking space, having lapped Leeds city centre at least once.

A large stone spire against a blue sky.

The funeral venue of Professor Charles Read.

My father drove me as he had his own business in the city: Last year he had become acquainted with Charles Read, with whom he shared an interest in sailing, and who had spent several hours of the early summer going through my Decision Mathematics papers – the mutual benefit being that I needed to pass my AS-Level examinations and he needed to practise the topics his future students would be using. Fifteen months ago Charles suddenly dropped dead while on a research visit in Winnipeg. Today my father needed to go to Leeds in order to collect some boat components from the late professor’s cousin. His most recent prior experience with the city had been to attend Charles’s funeral at the Emmanuel Centre across the road.

Arriving at last at the School of Chemistry, I and the other candidates were assembled in the uncharacteristically glamorous Chaston Chapman Lounge where Dr Warriner formally greeted us and then took us to a student-led presentation on the content of the degree and the opportunities it afforded. Particular attention was given to the industrial advantages of such a qualification, as well as to the potential for trips abroad (all for research purposes, of course).

A large white room with wooden chairs and green leather tubes across one wall.

The Chaston Chapman Lounge did not much resemble the rest of the School of Chemistry.

The next stage of proceedings was to take the applicants on a tour around the campus and the undergraduate accommodation. Much of the scenery felt oddly familiar from my visit last December – right down to the Christmas decorations. We were provided with a free lunch with the students before a second tour, this time of the School of Chemistry in particular. This section of the excursion was perhaps the most important, as though I have been sent on many university visits before it is relatively rare that I have actually seen inside the working areas. Here I was greeted with vast halls of laboratories, with pairs of undergraduates hunched over wooden desks in each alcove. Fume cupboards lined practically every wall. We also saw inside a more generic space – the lecture theatre.

The penultimate experience was that of a practical demonstration by Dr Bruce Turnbull. He explained how machines are used to arrange vast arrays of small chemical samples, allowing hundreds of experiments to be carried out simultaneously. To prove his point he had the device produce a map of the British Isles in the form of coloured solutions.

Dr Turnbull's automated laboratory assistant.

Doctor Turnbull’s automated laboratory assistant.

The final part of the event was the one on one interview with a member of the faculty. In my case that was Dmitry Shalashilin, Professor of Computational Chemistry. He had, in his own words, been destined for academia his whole life, having emigrated from the Soviet Union where his father had been active in the space race. After the boilerplate questions of what made me choose the course or study the sciences generally, he gave me some mathematical puzzles and then we hurried back to the lounge for the wrap-up.

I was assured by the current undergraduates that anyone who turned up to the interview was more-or-less guaranteed an offer. Three down, two to go.

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