The second year dip?

March 7, 2015
by Stephen Curry

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. Do you have any suggestions on how we might better prepare students entering the 2nd year? I have at least warned students in the past to expect the 2nd year to be tougher – but what else could we do? Please feel free to comment below, or talk to your reps.





The tricky business of assessment

January 18, 2015
by Stephen Curry

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%.

This idea of course is to get students to think about the process of assessment.

In the groups that I had for my tutorials, most of the students marked their predecessors answers more severely than the staff had done, by 10% or more, although staff and students always agreed on the relative ranking of the three students’ answers. It was also clear that there was some variation between the marks awarded by the different tutorial students, despite the fact that they were all using the same marking criteria*.

One thing that cropped up in our discussions was that the staff markers seemed to have been a little over-generous in awarding 45% for the first student’s answer. In contrast, we agreed that the high marks awarded to the student who had scored 88% were justified, even though none of the tutorial students had dared to give such a high mark on their first assessment.

What all of this shows is that assessment is a difficult business. Even with defined criteria, it is tricky to weigh up precisely the worth of a single piece of work. There is inevitably some variation between markers. Within the department we mitigate this by ensuring that exams are first and second-marked by two different people but the subjective element is never eliminated completely.

That subjective variation might be a cause for concern among students but some reassurance can be found in thinking through the scale of the problem.

The question considered in the tutorial was worth about 14% of the Biological Chemistry exam, which counted for 75% of the marks of the course, which comprises 25% of the first year, which in turn accounts for 11% of the degree. So the question was worth 0.14 * 0.75 * 0.25 * 0.11 = 0.0029 = 0.29% of the total credit available for the degree. A large variation in marking the question of plus or minus 10% would therefore alter the final degree mark by 0.029%. That should provide some consolation against any perceived unfairness due to marker variation.

But we can provide additional consolation since over the course of the degree, each student is assessed on the basis of many pieces of coursework. On each occasion, they may benefit or lose out as a result of variation. The  probabilities for the direction of variation are unknown but even if they are not 50:50 the overall effect will be to reduce the uncertainty in a given student’s marks.

The college formally recognises that it cannot assess students with ultimate precision because there are mechanisms in place to determine whether those students who end up just below degree class boundaries (by achieving 2.5% less than the mark required for a particular class of degree) should be awarded the higher degree.

Of course, none of the above considerations are intended to excuse clear errors in marking which students should feel free to flag up.

Finally, it may amuse you to know that universities and university departments are themselves increasingly subjected to the tyranny quantitative assessment, in the form of the Research Excellence Framework and various world rankings. If anyone would like to try to show me that the marking criteria used in these exercises are fit for purpose, please get in touch. I have my doubts.


*As I hope you all know the marking criteria we use for exams and all varieties of coursework are available on Blackboard – see Life Sciences (General Information).





Welcome to a new academic year

October 10, 2014
by Stephen Curry

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. But please don’t burn yourself out. I tried to say as much in my introductory remarks to the 1st year biochemists earlier this week and to issue a gentle warning about the dangers of aiming for perfection. Of course we want you to do brilliantly but sometimes there is only enough time to complete a task to an acceptable standard and that’s OK. To reinforce that point I thought I might share with you an article that appeared in the Observer newspaper last Sunday by a Cambridge undergraduate, Morwenna Jones.

Many of her experiences are likely also to be relevant to students at Imperial, which can also seem like a high-pressure environment at times. It is important to try to keep a sense of proportion as you approach your studies. Please make sure to look after yourselves and to ask for help — through the Education Office, the UG Liaison Officer, your personal tutor or the Senior Tutor — should the need arise.

Very best wishes for the year ahead.

Prof. Stephen Curry


*delete as appropriate




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.

To address this, Howitt and Wilson call for inclusion of more opportunities for students at school and university to get involved in research exercises where the outcome is uncertain and failure is possible. I heartily approve of this — it’s something I’ve thought for some time.

But the problem is implementation within the curriculum because no student likes to fail. And with UK university fees having risen so much in recent years, students are more concerned than ever to get the good grades needed to get good jobs (which in itself is something of a tragedy, but that will have to be dealt with on another day).

I am not sure what the solution is but I would be interested to explore possibilities and to hear suggestions from you. Howitt and Wilson argue that there are likely to be significant benefits:

Introducing undergraduate and high school students to a more realistic view of science and how it is done is just as important for recruiting future scientists as for producing scientifically literate citizens. 

… it (also) has implications for recruiting scientists. Much science education at both secondary and tertiary level gives students the impression that science is about learning facts. Many students are put off by this approach and the perception that there is no scope within science for discussion, creativity, and imagination. Girls and ethnic minority groups in particular might be deterred from science because of the factual and authoritarian focus of much science education. A more balanced approach to teaching science might improve recruitment and increase the diversity and talent within the scientific community.

Many thanks to Bernadette Byrne for bringing this paper to my attention.





I published my final year project

April 25, 2014
by Stephen Curry

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: 

Photo of Annette Strege

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. In recent years, significant progress has been made in crystallising and obtaining high-resolution structural data for GPCRs. This is predominantly due to approaches that have been developed to stabilize the GPCR molecules prior to crystallisation. One very successful method for doing this is by introducing a small number of thermostabilising point mutations.

Although such approaches have been extremely successful for obtaining GPCR structures, the effects of the mutations on receptor function are not fully understood. While ligand binding is generally assessed quite widely, the activity of the pathways downstream of the receptor is rarely quantified. For my final year project, my task was therefore to use a functional assay to characterize the activity downstream of 30 mutants of the Adenosine A2A receptor (A2AR). These 30 mutants were based on a single thermostabilised variant of the A2AR, called Rag23. Together the 30 mutants we tested contained all combinations of the five thermostabilising point mutations found in Rag23.

The results of this project clearly showed that each of the five point mutations had a detectable effect on the activity profile of the A2AR. In addition, these effects were additive when individual mutations were combined. Furthermore, the existing crystal structures of the A2AR and other GPCRs provide a good foundation for explaining why we observe certain changes in function upon mutating certain structural regions.

Figure showing mutations in the GPCR receptor protein

Mutations in the GPCR receptor protein

I really enjoyed this project, because although 10 weeks is not a lot of time to get a good amount of work done, everything was so well organised when I started my work that producing good results was very quick. The mutants had been generated, the assay had been tested, and my task was simply to follow the protocol, run just over 60 assays, analyse the data, find the pattern, and explain why this pattern is observed based on structural data available in the literature.

I knew that the project had gone well and was expecting a first, but I never expected to get the highest mark out of everyone in my course. I was even more surprised and excited when I was told that the work would get published. Although writing, submission, corrections, re-submission, and so on was a rather long process that took more than 6 months, eventually going to the Library to print out my own paper felt amazing!





Are you professional?

April 4, 2014
by Stephen Curry

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

March 4, 2014
by Stephen Curry

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).

This process has been going on for some time now but has usually been largely invisible to students. We wanted to change that — to enrich the conversation we have with you about your education here in the department.

I very much hope you will read the responses that are relevant to you — since it shows how seriously the staff take their teaching responsibilities. Many have reported changes that will be put in place to address comments this year (as, of course, has happened in the past).

We are currently preparing responses to those courses that terminated in Jan/Feb and will endeavour to continue collating and publishing these responses for as long as people find it valuable.

If you have any comments on the process, please feel free.

Stephen Curry
March 2014





December 2, 2013
by Stephen Curry

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. We particularly value specific comments from students that explain either what was good about a course or method of instruction or what was not so good.

From conversations I’ve had in the past year I have the impression that not all students realise that comments for each lecturer are also sent directly to the lecturer concerned (by the College Registry, which runs the SOLE surveys for all departments). So although the survey is completely anonymous, please bear this in mind when completing the survey. Lecturers are human too. We like to hear praise if it’s due. We can also take criticism on the chin but it’s most likely to be absorbed if it’s constructive and well-reasoned.

In the past I have asked convenors to formulate an action plan of changes that they will implement as a result of the feedback and to tell students at the start of the course the next time they run it what improvements have been made. The weakness in this scheme is that the students who completed the survey don’t get to hear about the impact of their comments. So this year I aim, with the help of course convenors, to compile summaries of their responses to SOLE comments that we can publish on the departmental web-site for you to see. I hope that will give you added assurance that we take SOLE comments very seriously.

As an added incentive, anyone who completes the survey will be automatically entered into a raffle for £20 Amazon vouchers; we offer 3 vouchers for each year group in each degree stream (Biology or Biochemistry).

Hurry now — survey will close on Thu 2nd January (i.e. well before the start of the Spring term)!

And finally, here is some music to play while you are filling out the survey:





Guest Post: A Year in Industry, by Lee Sewell

October 11, 2013
by Stephen Curry

Rather than spending three straight years slogging away at my BSc, I decided to trade in the pen for the pipette and take the opportunity to spend a year in industry. This was a 12-month placement at British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Hopefully this blog-post will make you consider a research-based placement year.

I get the feeling that many undergraduates question the idea of taking a year out altogether; after all you still only get a BSc for what is an extra year of your life. Well, simply put, I think you’d be making a mistake if you didn’t jump on the opportunity to explore research in the life sciences. I know it’s a bit trite to say this, but you should consider a placement if only to satisfy yourself that it is/isn’t for you. Plus, the year is a welcome relief to the study regimes and exams that, by the end of second year, I found increasingly difficult to motivate myself for.

After the ups and down of the application process I obtained a placement in the early stages of the drug discovery process. My work involved the creation and development of biochemical ‘assays’ for specific biological targets, usually a disease-related enzyme or protein. These assays are a means of probing a particular function of the protein, related to what you would want your drug to target. As a result, biochemical assays are generally measures of enzyme kinetics or protein-protein interactions. After development, an assay is transferred for use in High Throughput Screening. Whilst these assays may sound systematic to make, they were far from simple and require detailed calibrations of every aspect of the biochemical environment. Disregard any concerns you might have that “industry” might be a duller prospect than an academic placement – the sheer wealth of the pharmaceutical industry allows them to bring in the latest technologies, meaning cutting-edge research/techniques are the norm.

Right, now to the crux of my argument for why you SHOULD take a year in research: you get an early opportunity to develop the most important technique in experiment-driven research – the application of the scientific method. By this I mean the ability to compose experiments and successfully execute them. Then, of course, be able to concisely explain the nature of the results. Honing of these skills requires months of practice and involved constant feedback and discussion with my supervisor. I would argue that pharma is the best place to start learning this skill. Their data-integrity policies are vast, and they use electronic lab-books, meaning that almost anyone can freely access your work and analyse it! All this equates to an emphasis on high quality research, meaning development of all individuals to a high-standard.

Work aside, there are also social benefits to having a year in industry. Working for a large company on a large site means a large number of placement students, from various fields of study. Lots of students having no responsibilities outside of working hours = copious amounts of socializing. Also, there are no exams. NO EXAMS. I would go as far as saying that my year at GSK was the most enjoyable of all my years as a student, and also the year in which I learned the most. Yes, it was even better than first year!

Going into my final year, I return with not only a substantial amount of discount Lucozade (a GSK product that I enjoyed perhaps too often), but also a wealth of experience and skills that will undoubtedly help my studies. I now have a substantial body of work to my name in the form of my YII Report that I can attach to post-graduate applications. Add that to a boosted CV, I can forward with a confidence and direction that I would not have without my placement year!

If anyone has any questions about stuff I haven’t covered, for example, the application and interview process, you’re welcome to contact me at





A new year

September 30, 2013
by Stephen Curry

Welcome to all our freshers and to all students returning for their 2nd, 3rd and 4th years. A new term and a new year starts today.

In different ways, this is an important year for all of you. Freshers will be getting their first taste of university life and are no doubt wondering whether it will be to their liking — whether they will fit in or be able to cope with university life. Hopefully the staff and older students can help to allay those concerns. I’m sure you are all fit for the challenge.

The smiling faces of last years’ graduating classes in Biochemistry and Biology (and allied degrees), the vast majority of whom graduated with first class or upper second class degrees, will I hope reassure you — who are just like them — that the future is bright, however uncertain it might seem at the moment.

Biology - Class of 2013

Biology - Class of 2013

Biochemistry - Class of 2013

Biochemistry - Class of 2013

The end to the last term may seem like a long time ago. With luck you had a relaxing and enjoyable break from your studies. Most members of staff will have enjoyed a couple of week’s holiday during the summer months but will otherwise have been working hard, both on their research programs and on revising and preparing new material for the coming year. The feedback from student evaluations (primarily through SOLE) has been weighed, sifted and put to good use — so thanks to all those who participated so constructively.

And so it begins. As ever, if you have questions, please don’t be shy about asking. For day-to-day matters relating to the degree, please inquire at the UG Office on Level 2 of the Sir Ernst Chain Building (SECB).

In addition, starting this year, you will also be able to talk to myself (DUGS) or Dr Mike Tristem (Dir. of the Biology Stream) about anything at regular Friday-lunchtime slots which are open to all. My ‘Ask the DUGS’ sessions will be at 12:30 in room 213A in SECB; Dr Tristem’s will start at 12 noon in G67 in the SAF building. Even if you haven’t got a specific question, feel free to drop in for a chat.

Good luck all!