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Churchill College student Angela Harper on a rowing adventure at Cambridge University Women's Boat Club that STEMs from a musical passion

CUWBC media day, Angela Harper. Picture: Keith Heppell. (26872455)
CUWBC media day, Angela Harper. Picture: Keith Heppell. (26872455)

You would quite rightly think that music, STEM and coxing have very few common themes.

Angela Harper would suggest otherwise as she brings the three worlds together.

“I was thinking back a while ago on parts of my life that have come together to make me better at coxing,” says the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club cox.

“Being rhythmic with music and being able to take a large amount of information and condensing it down, which is a lot of what you do in STEM, it’s problem solving.

“It’s taking problem-solving and doing it on the spot when you’re in a boat; it was a transferable skill almost for coxing, which was interesting.”

Harper’s history in rowing only goes back a year and a half, but her association with music is much longer.

The New York native is a classical singer, who first started in choirs from the age of five, and has had solos in Vivaldi’s Gloria in D and Rutter’s Requiem, and been in smaller a capella groups in a competitive environment.

Sport, though, was a different prospect.

After doing an MPhil in physics on the Churchill Scholarship, it was in the summer of 2018 that she decided to try rowing for Churchill College, which led to coxing the women’s first crew in the Lent Bumps in 2019 and the men’s second boat in the May Bumps.

Having enjoyed the experience, a fellow cox at Churchill persuaded her to try the CUWBC development squad in the spring to get a taste of trialling and that developed into coxing the lightweight men’s quad at Henley Royal Regatta which was enough to persuade Harper to trial this season.

“It’s been good and really exciting,” she says. “I feel like the learning curve is exponential but it’s been really great to learn not only about coxing, because I started to learn how to cox, but also coxing on the Tideway and managing different squads at the same time.

“It’s been super beneficial for coxing in the future.

“The environment here – and I remember thinking this when I was trialling with the lightweight men – is just so inviting.

“As soon as you get here, all of the men and women who were trialling for Henley as well said we’re all doing this together, it’s great that you’re here.

“It was right off the bat, trying to help me not only be part of the squad but also improve, because me improving is helping them improve and get faster.”

The balance, of course, comes with fitting it around her other passion, STEM.

Harper is in the second year of her PhD, in theoretical physics at the Cavendish Laboratory, funded by the Gates Cambridge and Winton Scholarships.

“A lot of what I do is based in renewable energy and so I wanted to have a bigger impact on the community rather than just doing theoretical physics for the sake of doing theoretical physics,” she explains.

“I think I have always enjoyed maths and science, and with technology, STEM has a bigger way to impact the world and making new technology and having an impact in that regards was big for me.”

She is doing theoretical condensed matter physics, studying lithium ion batteries, looking at improving their capacity and lifetime through simulations.

“I model the battery on the computer and different chemical reactions that happen in it, and try to understand how we can change those to make the battery work better and faster,” says Harper.

The devotion to STEM was evident when Harper was studying at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

She helped set up a Women in STEM programme with a local school, called Girls in STEM.

“We didn’t even have a women in STEM programme at our university so my friend and I started that at the university and then we created this after-school club in the afternoons for local middle schools,” she explains.

“It was so girls aged 12 to 15 could come after school and do some science experiments, learn about science and also be introduced to the college experience.

“The school where they were at, they may not have necessarily been considering furthering their education after high school so it was to introduce them to that idea and get them going.”

Bringing the three aspects of music, STEM and rowing together may be an uphill battle for most of us, but you can understand why Harper is able to do so with such relative ease.

And this city has helped make it all possible.

She added: “I think the Cambridge environment has been inviting and definitely very academic.

“There is always a chance to meet someone new, and the people you meet, especially in the physics department with such a rich history, is really incredible for me.”

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