What’s the best way to take notes?

May 28, 2015
by Stephen Curry

There is probably not one right answer to this question but this article at The Conversation struck me as interesting. The method seems quite prescriptive but the idea that you remember more if your repeat your exposure to your lecture notes three or four times within about a month seems like a useful one to spread around.




Trying and Failing

April 9, 2015
by Stephen Curry

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 key point is in the final paragraph: “The point isn’t to fail, but to catch points of failure – and there will be many – within a complex system.”

And finally, are we succeeding or failing in our experiments with lecture recording? We are certainly trying and I know it has generally gone down well with students. Views among staff on the pedagogic value of lecture recording are more mixed. Here is an article from a professor of education at Nottingham University arguing that lecture capture shouldn’t be seen as a unqualified good.  Worth a read. This is obviously something that we will be keeping under review.

One more thing (added 13 April): This isn’t really related apart from being another interesting and relevant piece: Ten things you probably don’t know about your University lecturers written by Dr Vikki Burns who works at Birmingham university. Her argument is that lecturers (like students!) are human too…




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: