Spotlight on the Penryn Campus, Cornwall

The University of Exeter has three campus. In Exeter we have the Streatham and St Luke’s Campuses, and in Cornwall we have our Penryn Campus. Throughout this week current students from each campus will talk about their experiences of studying at their campus, what makes it so unique and why they made the decision to study at the University of Exeter.

Today Zac Lazarou (BSc Zoology) tells us about his experience of studying on the Penryn Campus, Cornwall.

The main reason I chose the Penryn campus is its unique location, Cornwall. Being a bioscience student, I did not want a city environment, and instead easy access to outdoor settings, especially the coastline. Secondary to this, was the look and feel of the campus itself, everything is modern and state-of-the art, with laboratories, seminar rooms and lecture theatres, library, bar, and café all in close-proximity. I also loved the emphasis on green spaces around campus with plenty of areas to relax in between studying or simply as an outdoor social space among peers. Finally, the community feel, as a mature student I felt accepted on campus regardless of my age or background and the synergy of sharing a campus with Falmouth University brought about a unique relationship between the science and humanities with the arts.

Drawing on my previous comment about sharing a campus with Falmouth University, it creates a distinct community of creatives and academics, in turn providing a plethora of opportunities in both societies, events and the diversity of students drawn to the campus. The environmental ethos on campus is also something I found unique. Facilities such as the cafeteria source their produce locally with a push to reduce single use plastic and use recyclable or reusable products. Recycling points are scattered all over campus so that you are never too far in disposing of rubbish appropriately. The campus itself hosts a variety of green spaces from grassland, scrub, hedgerows, and treelines, this attracts numerous native species and being a zoologist, it is a great place to explore nature. With the campus being in Cornwall, I have some of the most incredible coastline in the country on my doorstep, which in turn brings the Cornish outdoor lifestyle that I have fully-embraced with rock-climbing, hiking and sea swimming. The campus is very well integrated to the local community, which is something I did not feel at other universities. The university and the student union alike, organise engaging events or activities in the local area, on campus or between local community groups. These experiences really enrich my university journey, as I not only joined the University of Exeter, but I have also moved to Cornwall and want to integrate in living here as much as possible rather than just being a student.

Zoology was the perfect fit for me, as it is a wide-scoping degree in terms bioscience that covers whole organism biology, evolutionary theory, and broad-scale ecology. I was not exactly sure what I wanted to specify my interests in, Zoology offered a lot of modularity so I could choose topics in marine biology, animal behaviour and ecology and conservation. I knew that this would allow me to experiment with my interests and discover what worked for me. What also jumped out at me, are the practical aspects in both the field and the lab. My knowledge of the natural world was limited before joining the course, so being able to learn theory in lectures or seminars then apply that practically solidifies knowledge while gaining real-world experience.

Field courses are arguably the most distinctive aspect of my course. The emphasis on gaining relative experience in real-world scenarios provides skills that would not normally be available through taught lectures or seminars. The University is research led, thus the field sites we venture too are there to build upon what we have already learnt and also give new and challenging experiences in understanding biological aspects, especially species and environments not found in the British Isles. For example, my second-year field course, although having to go virtual due to Coronavirus, explored the montane ecology of the Pyrenees. Key topics were how altitudinal gradients effect biodiversity and ecological assemblages, transhumance farming in mountainous regions, migratory patterns of species, human-wildlife conflict and conservation strategies that incorporate socio-economic benefits while promoting biodiversity. All these aspects were explored broadly and in-depth, and which I would not have learned typically in lectures or perhaps not have fully understood without this applied outlook.

One of the defining factors for me, was the sense of community and welcoming. The moment I received an email from the University it felt personal and non-generic. Then fast-forward to my offer-holder visit day, the staff, student ambassadors and academics were so friendly and approachable. Students I interacted with at other Universities often seemed bored, uninterested and were only doing it for the experience which left me quite cold. In contrast the students at the University of Exeter were incredibly upbeat, passionate about their courses, student-life and most importantly ready to answer any questions I had. The academics went above and beyond in detailing the structure of my course, teaching methods and the utility of gaining experience through university opportunities. I felt like I was going to be taught by leaders in their field and learning topics that were informed by the latest research.

As a mature student, one of my biggest worries was fitting in while being older than most students and how the university accommodated for those circumstances. It was a relief to know that the university had a dedicated mature student group, allowing to meet other students in the same situation, but regardless of my age I also felt well integrated with the university community. Unlike other universities I had visited, staff were very supportive of mature students in terms of accommodation, financing, and part-time job opportunities. All these aspects influenced my decision, knowing that I would be well supported, be able to utilise opportunities that enhanced my experience, be part of a dynamic and welcoming community and finally being taught by leading academics.  

A large part of final year is to conduct a research project alongside an academic supervisor. For instance, my project looks at Gall wasp communities, primarily focusing on the evolutionary and ecological mechanisms that sustain the rich biodiversity in an enclosed ecosystem, especially due to the parasitic interactions that should cause species exclusion. As a bioscience student, this project encompasses everything we have been taught throughout our degree, from theory, essay-writing, field and lab work, objective critical thinking to comprehension of current literature. I believe it is the best way to embody our knowledge and experience and applying that to something that can contribute to the latest findings in research. What I find most rewarding, is the autonomy of the project, as we need to come up with our own methodologies, spend time background reading the topic and conduct all the data collection and analysis ourselves. At this point I truly feel like a scientist and perhaps imposter syndrome is kicking too.

Penryn offers a plethora of societies and sports, I believe 150 or so, for a campus inhabiting 7000 students that’s quite a lot. From quidditch and lacrosse, to gaming and dungeons & dragons. There is something for everyone, and I also think the creative arts from the Falmouth students certainly enhances society opportunities which provides unique hobbies or interests to explore during university. With the campus having an environmental ethos, student led societies build upon this to further contribute to the student experience. My interests are mostly associated with nature and outdoor activities, these societies are very much front and centre during my time on campus. For example, EcoSoc (Ecological Society) host events to teach students about natural-history, particularly local native species, as well as partnering with local conservation groups to conduct volunteer days or surveys. WildDocSoc (Wildlife Documentary Society) host film nights for students to watch natural-history documentaries and bring in guest wildlife filmmakers to talk to students about their journey into the industry while sharing their incredible stories. MarineWatch partner with a local wildlife-watching business that take students on boating trips to watch marine-life off the Falmouth estuary where we can spot peregrine falcons, common dolphins and minke whale.

I am personally part of a committee called Life Magazine as the photo-editor, it is a student-led publication focusing on science-communication and journalism with an emphasis on natural history. I like to think of it as the universities version of National Geographic. The quality of each issues is always mind-blowing to me and each committee member dedicates a great deal of work to produce a polished and professional magazine which we are all very proud of. We also host workshops on photography, writing, illustration, and graphic design, it’s a great way to engage with the student body and also provide skills that perhaps some may pursue in their career.

In terms of volunteering, the university and the students union are partnered with many community groups, such as the Flicka Donkey Sanctuary, Cornwall Wildlife Trust, Cornwall Seal Sanctuary, and many others. It’s great that as students, we are spoilt for choice in extracurricular activities to get involved with, the variety accommodates for peoples wide-ranging interests and alongside studies can ensure we gain a fulfilling experience during our journey at the campus.

The Cornish lifestyle is perhaps my favourite aspect of living in Penryn. Cornwall offers so much in terms of outdoor activities, unique locations to explore and as I keep repeating, the sense of community. The traditional university setting is often within the hustle and bustle of a city environment, whereas Penryn is very much integrated to a rural landscape. This in turn provides an incredible backdrop of the British countryside and the stunning Cornish coastline. In my free time, I am either exploring coastal walks, searching for local wildlife, relaxing on beaches, swimming, or rock climbing which I could not imagine doing at most other universities. It is this integration that makes my university experience so enriching and embracing a totally different lifestyle to the London one I had before moving here. Obviously this may not be for everyone, some prefer a city environment with a cosmopolitan feel and vibrant nightlife but if you have a sense of outdoor adventure, like me, then Penryn is ideal given the swath opportunities both at the University and the wider-community in Cornwall.