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!




Exams coming up? Get Ready

May 18, 2013
by Stephen Curry

Claire Shaw wrote a useful article recently highlighting “10 things that academics say students get wrong in exams“.

Exam hall

Photo by Anto475

It has been pulled together from advice given by academics in a range of disciplines so not everything will be relevant to students of biochemistry and biology. But most of it is.

Definitely worth a read – especially for 1st and 2nd years preparing for exams. Good luck folks!





What I did on my Year in Industry/Research Placement

April 27, 2013
by Stephen Curry

A guest post from Rui Gao sharing her impressions from a year out working at the Institute for Cancer Research

As part of my degree, I undertook a placement year between my second and final years. I thoroughly enjoyed my placement experience and highly recommend other students who are thinking seriously about pursuing postgraduate studies to do the same. My year at the Institute of Cancer Research allowed me to gain countless experiences and insights not necessarily attainable by just attending lectures and practicals.

Research Laboratory

As someone who had always been considering postgraduate studies, the year in industry/research programme was an excellent fit for me because in many ways, the placement was a “test run” which allowed me to determine if a postgraduate degree was the right choice for me. During my placement, I gained deep and meaningful insights into the world of research and what it was like to work in a lab day in and day out. Short-term summer placements can also offer students a glimpse into research and expose them to new techniques, but with a year-long placement, I could really delve deeply into my project, and develop and optimise it, which is not always the case with a short-term placement because simply learning the techniques used and doing the necessary background reading can take up to weeks or months.

I also found it highly inspiring to spend a year working alongside talented scientists who were already established in their fields. My social interactions with them were just as rewarding as the practical work I carried out and I received invaluable advice and suggestions from them simply through lunchtime discussions or even over a few drinks after work. I attended seminars by leading figures in cancer research on a regular basis and on a few occasions had the chance to sit down and discuss their research with them, which were exciting and eye-opening opportunities.

One of the greatest rewards from my placement was the sense of accomplishment I felt. As with anything, what you get from it is proportionate to the amount of effort you put in, but it was immensely satisfying to observe in myself a marked improvement in my technical and analytical skills. Over the course of the year I matured and developed as a scientist. There were of course some setbacks and frustrations along the way, but that is part and parcel of research, and I think learning how to deal with failures efficiently is an essential skill to succeed in science.

Now, as a result of my year in research, I am more motivated than ever to return to Imperial and do well in my final year, then continue on to postgraduate studies. It has allowed me to ascertain that a career in research is the right path for me; I can now apply for a postgraduate degree knowing what it entails and what is expected of me. Finally, having substantial research experience and good references from my placement supervisor will undoubtedly enhance my application for a variety of positions, whether Masters/PhD courses or other careers.





10 things I wish I knew before I started university

April 24, 2013
by Stephen Curry

Here is an interesting post by Harry Slater that has just popped up at The Guardian — advice from a student on how to make the most of your time at university, both socially and academically.

Ring any bells?





How to read the scientific literature

January 25, 2013
by Stephen Curry

What do you make of scientific papers?

First year students may yet to have read one in depth but second and third years should be getting to grips with what is the primary mode of communication of scientific research.

A scientific paperThey can seem daunting, especially at first. For a start there are thousands of journals out there and it can be difficult to get a measure of the differences between them. Which is better — Nature or Science? The EMBO Journal or the Journal of Biological Chemistry? How do you find out?

As an undergraduate student, you may feel that you are in no position to criticise the contents of a paper that has obviously been written by an ‘expert’. But you should never be afraid to ask questions.

This week I gave the 2nd year Biochemists on my Macromolecular Structure and Function course a short lecture on how and why the scientific literature has the form it does (and what changes might be around the corner). You can have a look at the slides from my talk (PDF – quality reduced a tad to keep the file size small).

If the slides pique an interest please let me know — either by email or by leaving a comment below. The information in the slides is only sketchy so I would be more than happy to arrange a repeat the lecture if there is sufficient interest (this time making sure there is enough time for Q&A at the end).


Update (13 Feb 2013): I did a re-run of this lecture on 12th Feb 2013 for the whole department. For this latter occasion I expanded my comments. You can access the slides via SlideShare. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments below or by email.





What is a university degree for?

January 14, 2013
by Stephen Curry

The education journalist Peter Wilby had a comment piece in the Guardian last week, in which he raised some interesting questions about the value of educational qualifications. The article resonated with me because it touched on an issue that I have become more and more aware of since assuming the role of Director of Undergraduate Studies: the meaning of a university degree.

Wilby starts from what is probably a widely accepted position:

“Education is regarded as an unmitigated good, of benefit to society, the economy and the individual. More means better, we think. In many respects, that is true: if we are a more tolerant, more inclusive society than we were 50 years ago, that is largely because most of us are better educated.”

But despite improvements in education he notes that many professions have been affected by a sort of qualification inflation, by which the minimum entry requirements have risen inexorably and, in some cases, without proper justification. He argues that this creates problems for employers and students:

“Take, first the demand for higher general qualifications: the batch of GCSEs and A-levels or a degree without which most employers won’t look at a job application. These credentials carry little or no information about knowledge and skills that may be of relevance to a particular career. They are sifting devices, allowing employers to exclude those they perceive as unintelligent or lazy. They create, in students, an instrumental attitude to education. Subjects are studied and examinations taken, not because of enthusiasm for history, chemistry or German literature, but because they are required if the student is to progress.”

I wonder what you — our students — feel about this? There is on occasion a perception among staff that some students are only prepared to engage with their courses if the activity contributes to the degree. Hence the oft-heard refrain, “Do we need to know this for the exam?” or the sometimes patchy attendance at lectures or tutorials that are not perceived as necessary.

To some extent, I think we should be relaxed about this. It is part and parcel of treating students as responsible adults — free make their own decisions and take the consequences. Given recent increases in fees, it is understandable that students should be more concerned about the grade on their degree certificate, since that may well impact their future income.

But I would not like to go too far down this road. Being at university is about so much more than the acquisition of a qualification. It should be a time of excitement and personal growth, in all sorts of areas, not just academic. A university should be an environment where curiosity is encouraged to thrive and where all participants, staff and students, can enjoy an intellectual challenge together. It may be hard to realise, given the day-to-day pressures on everyone’s time, but I think it is a goal worth aiming for.

In part this has motivated us to introduce more research-based material into the revised Biochemistry second year and this sort of thinking is behind the development of the College’s new Horizons program (introduced this year for 1st year students). This will be an ongoing project as we seek to refine the experiences on offer to our students. You can help with this by talking to us about how we might — within reason please! — provide opportunities to complement and enrich your educational experience, to make it less passive.

The preoccupation with qualifications can sometimes make university seem like an end in itself. But, as Wilby argues, it would be more valuable to see education as a life-long process. Your time at university is just the beginning.