Pembroke People: Kavi Shah


“I was actually debating whether to pick architecture or science as a degree,” says Kavi, a second-year natural scientist at Pembroke. For his A-levels, he studied a mixture of art and science, but he says he finally settled on science because he likes the idea of research and “finding new things out”. He tells me that he can “still carry on doing the art as well.”

I ask whether he thinks science and art are very different disciplines. “I think the creativity, at least once you get past your degree and start doing your own research… the creativity is pretty similar.” He says the way he visualises things in science is related to his approach to art. “So when I think of something in science for example – like a process or a reaction – I’ll have like the images of things happening in my head.” He describes it as being very “visual”, and “I guess similar to when you draw or think of ideas.”

Kavi plays the tabla, a type of Indian drum made of wood, metal and stretched skin. Is it a family tradition? “No, my parents and grandparents aren’t really musical. It’s not really a family thing I guess; it’s a cultural thing… it’s a cultural instrument.”

When discussing his experiences as a BME student at Pembroke, Kavi says “I came from a school where people did apply to Cambridge so I guess it was less of an obstacle in that sense.”

“People on the outside might not apply because they think there are less ethnic minorities, but I don’t think it’s so much that.” Kavi says he thinks the issue is more to do with whether BME students are in a position to apply to start with. “I think if, for example, a BME student goes to a private school, then they’ll actually probably be as likely to apply.” He says he thinks it’s important for Pembroke to encourage BME students from less privileged backgrounds so that “even if they’re not thinking about applying it puts it on their mind.”

Does he know what he wants to do in the future? “I know that I do want to go into research,” he says, but so far he’s not sure exactly which discipline. He says he thinks it’s not too difficult to move around between various areas of biological research. “As long as you have the technical skills you can do quite a few different things.”

Over the summer, Kavi had an internship at Cardiff University looking at neurodegenerative diseases in mice. “It was an animal project, but I probably don’t want to work with animals.” He says experiments involving organisms like mice take a particularly long time (compared to bacteria) because the mice take a while to grow and mature. He describes animal-based research as “necessary”, but he still found it hard to inject the mice. “It’s difficult to be completely objective with anything. You’d see them running around in the cage and then… I guess it’s not the nicest thing.”

I ask him what his favourite place is in Cambridge. “Ooh that’s difficult. I wouldn’t say I have a favourite place as such. I think it’s more certain situations rather than certain places.” One example he gives is the “dark and candlelit” atmosphere of formals. “And there’s a couple of times of the year, for example when it snows and all the archways in Pembroke are lit up. That looks really nice. It’s things like that.”

As well as being a talented artist and musician, Kavi is on the University’s water polo team. “One of the nice things about water polo is when you go on matches you leave Cambridge and go to another university or something”. He says that getting “out of the Cambridge atmosphere for a few hours” is a good way to relax and detach himself from work.

What has he learnt from his first year at Cambridge? “I guess the main thing is not to let the work phase you. You’re always going to be in a rush for something or other, so you just make do. You can never be completely on top of things, so don’t worry about not being in control of everything!”