From internal school experiences such as the Oxbridge Pathway to presenting research on an international stage in front of professional academics and researchers, Alfie Baker sure has an impressive string of extra curricular projects under his belt.
We spoke to him about his incredible academic experiences and the reasons why he believes CSMS “was the best sixth form I could have gone to.”
Hi Alfie! Why did you choose to study at CSMS?
I was considering all the higher end sixth forms in the area because I was getting the higher grades, and I knew that to give me the best chance of going to a top-end university I needed to go to a top-end sixth form. Out of Exeter Maths School and CSMS, I chose CSMS because it seemed like a better place to go, to be honest. They have the Oxbridge Pathway for instance which is specifically designed to help you get into university, they had all the international trips and it was smaller so they could help me a bit better – so choosing to study at CSMS was a combination of a few different things really. At CSMS I studied Maths, Further Maths, Physics and I did an EPQ.
I joined CSMS from Pool Academy whereas most students came from CSIA, but I really engaged and socialised with everyone quite quickly because it’s such a small, tight knit group. There were 12 of us in our year and we were all aiming for A*s so we could all work together and push each other to go further which was unique. We used to have maths races on whiteboards! The inter-peer work was one of the key CSMS experiences for me – you’re pushed by your peers and you could push your peers as well. It’s very similar to how university works. I’m currently at Durham studying Maths and it’s going really well. I’ve finished all my exams so I’m just waiting for the results!
You were on the Oxbridge Pathway at CSMS. What did you learn through the experience?
I had lots of help getting through the MAT, which is the entrance test for Maths for Oxford, and we had two lessons every week where we went through Cambridge STEP papers and Oxford MAT papers. We also went through interview processes and took trips up to Cambridge to have a look around which all really helps.
I didn’t get into Oxford unfortunately but I did complete a foundation year there before starting at Durham University. Halfway through sixth form, Mr Chapman told me that Oxford offer a foundation year at their Lady Margaret Hall College, so I did the interviews and achieved the high grade requirements – and I got in! The foundation year is about getting students from lower income areas and disadvantaged backgrounds into Oxford, of which Camborne classifies. I didn’t really know what to expect but I turned up in September and found out it was one-on-one teaching for an entire year at Oxford!
There were two halves to the course; maths, and introduction to academia and university life. The maths course was quite intense because it was the same standard as first year Oxbridge content so it was like an intermediate step, but it set me up really well for my first year here at Durham because I didn’t struggle so much with the jump from A-Level to university learning. However, the most interesting part for me was the introduction to academia and undergraduate life studies, because it taught me how to write academic reports and homework properly. When I arrived at Durham, lots of my fellow students were getting comments such as you should write this like university standard, not A-Level standard but my homework didn’t have that because I had the experience from Oxford! It was a really interesting year; I was the only Maths student and there were only one or two students assigned to each foundation course, so we all mixed together as a tight knit group, which again was like my experience at CSMS.
Mr Chapman made me aware that the Oxford Foundation course existed, told me to apply and offered support to help me write my personal statement for it. I would never have known about it otherwise, and I probably wouldn’t be where I am today without it – it really did help me do really well this year especially. Without that foundation year I don’t think I would have been as good at my subjects as I am now, I wouldn’t have been able to have made friends so easily, and I wouldn’t have had the same university life experience without that foundation year – which is all thanks to Mr Chapman and CSMS introducing me to the programme originally.
Tell us about the trips you went on as part of the international programme at CSMS.
I went to the Asia Pacific Conference for Young Scientists in Thailand – we were the first ever UK school to be invited at the time! Myself and fellow student Sarah Pengelly (read about her experience here) were asked to present some research using European Space Agency Satellite data to monitor glaciers; Sarah did a southern hemisphere glacier and I did a northern hemisphere glacier. We spent five days at the international conference where we won an award for both our poster and speaking presentations. It was an amazing experience; we got to speak and receive our awards in front of the entire conference – and I’ve referenced the experience in every single CV I’ve had to write so far!
We also spent five days doing a cultural exchange whilst we were there. We learnt about Buddhism and visited some temples, we did traditional Thai activities, we visited a tropical island and we had a tour guide show us the sights. It was a 10 day trip that was pretty much fully funded by CSMS because I received one of the school grants, which really supported me to be able to go on the trip in the first place. It was an amazing experience.
You were also the first ever CSMS student to be invited to speak at the European Space Agency Conference! How did that come about and how did you find the experience?
Not only were we the first CSMS students but we were, in fact, the first ever sixth formers to be invited to that event! As part of the Thailand research, we used European Space Agency satellite data and submitted a joint paper to the Space Agency Conference – and they invited us to come and present it at at the event! We were the first people to present at the conference that year and we got a commendation. It was amazing; we initially thought we might have been the token sixth formers but we presented proper research, we were grilled on questions, the paper we wrote was published in the event proceedings and we got the commendation. It was amazing and one of the best experiences of my life.
We were there for two days so after we did our presentation we got to mingle with undergraduates, graduates and researchers in the field when we were able to discuss our research, and because my personal EPQ research was based on astrophysics I got to discuss that with them which was really helpful to be able to further my own research. Having a paper published before going to university was incredible too!
Amazing! So what are your personal ambitions for the future?
My course at Durham is a four-year integrated Masters. After that, I want to do my PhD and then I want to go into academia and research based in maths – because that’s what I’m good at and what I enjoy. I was thinking I could go a bit rogue and possibly go to Finland to do my PhD because it would be a completely different experience!
Do you have a favourite memory from CSMS?
Yes, the different variations of chess we came up with! We got into playing chess quite early on at CSMS because there were a lot of chess boards around and the game goes hand-in-hand with mathematics. However, because we played it so much we got bored of playing ‘normal’ chess, so we invented new forms of chess where we’d put boards together and introduce new, different rules like the pieces could go off the sides of the boards and things! It was completely crazy and really fun because it was totally different but it still made you use your brain.
What would you say to someone who was considering studying at CSMS?
Do it. Genuinely, if you’re even thinking about it, then apply – because the sort of person who is thinking about applying is the sort of person who wants to be at CSMS. That’s what makes the collective, peer-led learning experience so unique. Even if you think you may not get the grades my advice is to still apply and work really hard to get there. It really was the best sixth form I could have gone to.