Blog posts

Trying and Failing

In the Easter break perhaps, like me, you have a little time for reading. I came across a couple of newspaper articles that I thought might interest some of you.

The first summarises advice from Harry Potter author JK Rowling on failing. She  has a new book out, Very Good Lives: the fringe benefits of failure and the importance of imagination. Rowling’s message is that failure can be a very educational experience. The only trouble is that its lessons are often hard ones, only valued some time later in retrospect. I have often thought that it would be good to find ways to incorporate the experience of failure into our curriculum but it’s not likely to be a popular move, given students’ (quite reasonable) preoccupation with getting good grades and the College’s preoccupation with student satisfaction surveys…

On a related note there are perhaps lessons on failure for the department in this piece, which describes a mis-firing attempt to introduce literacy and numeracy lessons to communities in small villages in Bangladesh.

The second year dip?

The second year dip – it seems to be a well-known phenomenon at Imperial. The excitement of arriving at university has worn off but the end is not yet in sight. Mid-way through their degree program, many students seem to find the 2nd year of study a bit of a slog.

No doubt opinions on the matter will vary. And it is certainly true that the Biochemists and Biologists have rather different curricula in the 2nd year – the biologists, for example, have more choices.

But the dip is by no means confined to Imperial, as this interesting article in the Guardian makes plain.

The tricky business of assessment

The tutorials that I gave last week to first year biochemistry students have prompted me to think about assessment – and fairness.

The task for the tutorial, which is given on the Biological Chemistry course run by Prof Drickamer was pretty straight-forward. The students first had to attempt a four-part question taken from a previous exam that covers some core elements of amino acid chemistry and polypeptides structure. But the second part was more interesting: having tackled the question themselves, the students then had to mark the answers given to the same question by three former students. In the actual exam, staff had graded these three answers with scores of 45%, 65% and 88%.

Welcome to a new academic year

Welcome and welcome back to all our students!

I hope you had a restful/enjoyable/stimulating/remunerative/challenging* summer and are now looking forward to the academic year. For those of you who are having their first taste of university, it can all be rather daunting. So many new people and places and expectations to cope with. I hope the older hands will make themselves available to first years to pass on a few words of wisdom or reassurance about life at university.

It is very important to try to make the most of your time at university — I recommend that you work hard and play hard.

How should we teach the fact that science is messy?

Susan Howitt and Anna Wilson have just published a very interesting opinion piece in the scientific journal EMBO Reports. It’s well worth reading.

Their piece is an update of a famous talk by Nobel laureate Peter Medawar, who asked the question: “Is the scientific paper a fraud?” — which is also well worth reading.

In actual fact the EMBO Reports piece is not much of an update because, as Howitt and Wilson observe, the sanitised version of science presented in scientific papers that Medawar complained of is still what usually gets published. As a result, students rarely get an insight into how science is really done: with much mess and failure along the way.

I published my final year project

Final year students Annette Strege (graduated 2013) and Sorrell Bunting (graduated 2012), who both did  lab projects with Dr Bernadette Byrne, were recently delighted to see their research work published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. Annette tells the story: 

Annette Strege

During my final year project in 2013 I investigated the functional effects of introducing thermostabilising point mutations into a G-Protein Coupled Receptor (GPCR) in Dr. Bernadette Byrne’s lab. GPCRs are important proteins to study, because they are the most popular type of drug target, representing around 50% of all drug targets. However, these membrane receptors are also very challenging to study because they are very flexible and hydrophobic.

Are you professional?

This is an interesting and somewhat provocative post from Dr Steve Caplan, a colleague of mine on the Guardian Science Blogs.

Since many of the final year students are currently in the midst of their major lab projects, Steve’s comments might strike home. Are you using kits or techniques that you don’t fully understand? That may make things easy, but the essential point is to learn and become more independent, more… professional. If you haven’t been asking questions from the people supervising you day to day, you might come to rue that omission on the day of your project viva.

Or is Steve an old fogey who doesn’t really understand the students of today?

Feedback Feedback

As part of our ongoing efforts to improve the courses that we offer and to show you how much we value your input, we are today publishing feedback from course convenors on the scores and comments that you provided through SOLE. The information covers courses that were completed in the Autumn term and are available as PDFs on Blackboard in the Second Yr Biology portal and in the Final Year portal.

Each course convenor has seen all the information gathered about their courses gathered through SOLE and composed a response, highlighting the things that students most appreciated and addressing features of the course that may have been less successful (and setting out changes that will be put in place to improve the course next year).


The first of the year’s SOLE surveys opens tomorrow, December 3rd, and I hope that as many of you as possible will participate. We find the feedback from students very useful.

The survey will be open for final year courses that have run this term and some Biology courses. There will be Spring surveys for courses that are not yet complete.

As DUGS I get to see the SOLE results for the whole department and, with the help of course convenors and lecturers, use this information to identify things that we are doing well and areas where we may need to think about improvements.