10 Cambridge Medicine Interview Questions

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Here, we present ten example Cambridge Medicine questions. More questions can be found in our Oxbridge Medicine question bank.

Cambridge Medicine Interview Questions: Human Biology

Why do men often go bald, but women rarely do?

This is simply due to an increased presence of dihydrotestosterone in the body. In men, testosterone is converted to DHT by 5-alpha reductase. DHT can cause the hair follicles in certain people to shrink – those who are genetically more prone to balding. This is the cause of male pattern baldness. 

How does blood get back from your feet to your heart?

Your heart is not able to maintain efficient transport of blood back from your lower extremities alone. Instead, the process is aided by the muscles of the leg pumping. There are a series of small valves along the veins through which blood is pushed by a combination of cardiac action and contraction of muscles in the calves. This is especially relevant for the soleus muscle. There is additional assistance from the respiratory system – when the diaphragm expands, pressure in the right atria decreases, which in turn increases the pressure gradient for venous return to the right ventricle – making it easier for blood to return from the feet. 

Tell us about drowning. Why do you drown faster in fresh water rather than saltwater?

Drowning is a process that results in one struggling to breathe, or failing to breathe, due to submersion in liquid – typically water, of course. Whilst submerged, someone eventually will have to take in a ‘breath’ of water, which will in turn lead to aspiration and spasm of the throat. This will lead to hypoxia, acidosis due to buildup of CO2, and eventually in cardiac arrest. The lungs will typically fill with water.

Drowning in fresh water is faster than in saltwater not due to ‘drowning’ itself – i.e. the process above – but rather due to the effect of swallowing water. Freshwater, when swallowed, is rapidly absorbed into the blood due to it having a lower osmotic pressure than blood – this leads to a rapid increase in blood volume and the subsequent lysis of red blood cells. In saltwater, swallowed water is not as readily absorbed, meaning that issues will stem from the respiratory tract and ‘classical’ drowning rather than from the gastrointestinal tract and respiratory tract combined.

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Cambridge Medicine Interview Questions: Biology

How do animals know when to migrate?

There are four types of migration, which allow us to understand how animals migrate. The first type is seasonal – which is typically driven by temperature, with animals moving to seek out warmer temperatures. The second type is circadian, where birds use their circadian rhythm to migrate. This rhythm allows them to understand their location in both time and space as they move from one area to another – meaning that they move closer to the equator during winter and further from it in summer. So they will know when to migrate when the day becomes shorter, and move in such a way that they maintain a day length that is optimal for them. Tidal migration is the use of tides for migration – it permits organisms to move any distance from the minute (cm) to thousands of kilometres. Here, it is more likely that the animal doesn’t ‘know to migrate’ but rather knows that it needs to follow a certain tidal movement or ocean current. Less relevant is diel migration, which is migration on a daily basis. Outside of these types of migration, we might also consider that animals might notice the increase or decrease in prey or predator species at certain times and use this as a trigger to migrate, or might notice persistent changes in the weather beyond temperature, like pressure changes and precipitation changes.

Why do we need ATP, why not just release energy from glucose directly?

I believe that there are two parts to this – we need to both be able to add new energy to our component being used, and this component needs to provide a suitable amount of energy.

The molecule in which biochemical energy is being stored acts as currency which is used for biochemical processes. A ‘loaded’ molecule must be unloaded, and in turn drive a process. For ATP, it can become ADP (or AMP). It can then be restored to ATP, and fuel further processes.

Hydrolysis of ATP is a suitable amount of energy to drive most of the body’s chemical reactions, whereas conversion of glucose to CO2 and water releases around 30x more energy, which is not suitable. 

What are the problems with the current taxonomy system?

The current taxonomy system is very old – it was codified in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus, hence being referred to as Linnaean taxonomy. However, he proposed a five rank hierarchy, which is slightly different to our system today.

The 5 are now 8 – domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. However, knowing what a rank means is difficult. I would argue that any system that requires such learning of the ranks, with no clear way of students knowing what each rank really means, is not clear enough. Even the concept of a ‘species’ is hard to define, and there are multiple different definitions used by biologists, often due to vast differences between groups of organisms. The system needs constant iteration – domains were proposed recently, in 1990, and kingdoms were recently changed from there being five to six.

I would assume that biologists are used to thinking about the ranks as they are, and used to thinking about the way that they in particular use the ranks. Instigating change across an entire discipline would therefore be very difficult. However, given that the general public would have no idea what constitutes one rank or another, they are unfit for purpose when trying to communicate with non-scientists (or indeed, any non-biologist or taxonomist).

Phyla in particular are often highlighted as being particularly confusing, with organisms in a given phylum often being entirely different from anything else in said phylum.

I am aware of one particular naming system, called Phylocode, that seeks to accurately classify organisms into their phyla. It uses a formula that defines an ancestor, and uses phylogenetics rather than the traditional taxonomy system. This system could be seen to be more accurate and less prone to confusion.

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Cambridge Medicine Interview Questions: Left-Field Questions

What evidence is there that humans are still evolving?

I am aware of two particular pieces of evidence that show that humans are still evolving (beyond the obvious factor that with a population of 7 billion people, and a changing planet, we will continue to see certain traits be selected for). One is a dietary gene called FADS2, of which different versions are present in meat-eating versus plant-based societies. As an example, a vegetarian population in a certain area of India displayed a particular mutation of the FADS2 gene that allowed them to better process omega-3 and omega-6 that they obtained from their plant-based diets.

Another interesting example is that we can drink dairy throughout our lives – thousands of years ago, drinking milk as an adult would have resulted in illness. This is due to the enzyme lactase typically only being produced in the young of species, rather than in adults. However, animal husbandry and the subsequent incorporation of milk and cheese into adult diets led to a slow process of genetic change that has seen the human population able to eat and drink dairy – as we produce lactase throughout our lives (unless one is lactose intolerant, of course). 

What leaves you drier if it's raining: running or walking?

One could argue that running might leave one less dry than walking, as one is at a different angle – walking, one is upright, whereas one is at a slight angle when running, perhaps increasing the surface area affected by rain. However, this would depend on the angle of the rain itself. The simplest, and most logical approach, is to realise that running in the rain will allow you to reach your destination faster than walking – and that this in turn is likely to lead to you being hit by fewer raindrops – minor details like the angle of rain or your angle of approach aside.  

Is it morally wrong to attempt to climb Everest?

The debate over whether it is morally acceptable to climb Everest comes down to two factors – money and risk. It is hugely expensive to climb Everest, perhaps costing as much as $50,000 for an entire trip. Yet this vast expenditure is in the context of an incredibly poor country in which the average person makes a tiny fraction of that as their yearly income. However, the tourism industry will also generate a significant amount of money for the area – banning climbing or massively reducing the number of people would therefore reduce this income for local people. Considering risk, we should consider that deaths are common, especially as the mountain becomes increasingly crowded, often with people who are not qualified or not fit enough to be climbing. We should also consider that the Sherpas bear a huge amount of the risk – laying the route in the dark and in difficult conditions so that Westerners can climb. Sherpa Tenzing is nowhere near as well-known as Edmund Hilary, despite the two climbing Everest together, and Tenzing taking just as much (if not more) risk. 

Overall , this should be seen as a debate as to whether taking a huge amount of risk for the purpose of an accomplishment alone – rather than to tangibly benefit others – is worthwhile. This will come down to one’s own point of view. Personally, I feel that challenges of this nature define humankind and our part of our collective instinct, experience and history, and that it is morally acceptable to take on risk to explore or to challenge oneself. That said, this should be done in such a way that local people are not disadvantaged or mistreated, and there must be clearer regulations over who is able to take such a risk – climbing Everest should not be seen as a challenge to buy into, but rather one that one strives for over many years and takes on with the experience and ability gained over those years, to reduce risk for oneself and others. 

How would you describe a human to a person from Mars?

I would need to first make a series of assumptions. Do they speak English or have the facility to translate it? Do they then understand the same concepts and ideas that we do? If they do, I would highlight following factors:
Humans are bipedal, have two biological sexes which allows us to reproduce and in turn allows for variety, we have a limited lifespan of around 80 years which necessitates the passing on of information from generation to generation, we have a great variety of different cultures with differing languages and beliefs that stem from thousands of years of different ideas and concepts (even within very small geographical areas), we differ from other creatures on our planet in that we use tools, were able long-ago to use fire to cook food and provide warmth, and have now achieved a rapidly escalating speed of technological advancement that has seen us recently develop nuclear power and harness computers to make calculations that we never could have before. I would emphasise that we are inherently rather illogical, and that our faults – being inclined to war, hate, and anger – can be seen to be remedied by other aspects that make us human – like love, art, and belief in good and virtue.

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