Archive for the ‘Departmental Information’ Category


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!




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.





How to email your Professor

January 8, 2013
by Stephen Curry

I came across this blogpost yesterday with useful advice on how to communicate with professors and lecturers by email. Although it comes from Wellesley College which, being a US liberal arts college for women only, is a rather different institution to Imperial College, much of the advice is relevant and helpful.

It is clear from my email inbox that many students already have a clear idea of how to write a polite and effective email message, but I’ve also seen examples from students who are not so sure how to go about the task.

To the points of technique and etiquette mentioned in the blogpost, I would like to add the suggestion that students try to keep to a minimum the number of times that they email staff at weekends or during holidays, out of consideration for the fact that staff are entitled to a break from their teaching duties from time to time.




NSS Enterprise Needed from Final Year Students

March 2, 2012
by Stephen Curry

Through the National Student Survey, our final year students have the opportunity now to give their views on their entire experience of being a student at Imperial College and we would very much like to encourage them to do so.

The organisation of the NSS means that unless at least 50% our our students complete the survey, the results from our department will not be included in the published report and so will be disregarded. So it’s crucial that we at least cross that threshold. But even more importantly, we would very much like to have the views of every single student in the final year. The Students Union has a very good blogpost explaining the importance of the NSS.

You have now been here for three or four or five years and I’m sure you will have plenty of opinions on your experiences at the College. I hope many of those experiences were positive. But in the real world not everything always goes to plan so there will have been downsides as well.

For the survey to be really meaningful, we need honest returns on the positive and negative aspects of your time here. We need to know what worked well for you and also about those areas where improvement is required.

Please help us to help future students by filling in the survey as candidly as you can.




Numbers are up

November 16, 2011
by Stephen Curry

First of all – following on from the last post, many congratulations to the Imperial College team for their successes in the Grand Final of the iGEM competition in Boston, in which they were runners-up. What a fantastic achievement!

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to see the team’s talk before they left of the US and was mightily impressed. Not just by the quality of the work in the project and the presentation, but also by the inclusion of some maths in their analyses, which was used to model the rate of production of plant growth hormones by their engineered bacteria.

First order differential equations may cause some biology and biochemistry students to blanche but it’s all a matter of having an appropriate introduction. Maths is an inescapable part of the modern life sciences and so is being given more attention. For more background on this, have a look at this article by me in the Times Higher Education magazine.

Although we do not ask for A level maths as an entry requirement, we feel it is still important that our students learn to see the value of the discipline in biology and biochemistry. The question is: what is the best way to go about that?

I popped into one of the maths tutorials that we run for first year biochemists the other week to see how they were getting on with practice in calculus. Pretty well, it seemed to me. But what do you think? I would be interested to know your views the subject.

In the meantime, have a look at a recent article on Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian. It shows very nicely how even a modest understanding of maths can prevent you from drawing the wrong conclusion from your data. If you’d like to read more of Dr Goldacre’s output, I can recommend his Bad Science book, which is currently going cheap in its Kindle incarnation. It’s not very mathsy but is very good on the question of evidence.

Update (17th Nov, 16:16): A piece in today’s Guardian about plans for changing maths education in schools.




Do Some Research

October 17, 2011
by Stephen Curry

However good the lecturer, there’s only so much science you can learn through the process of being talked at in a lecture theatre. If you really want to get a sense of what research involves, you need to get into a laboratory. Some of our students have been doing just that recently, with considerable enjoyment and success.

First, as you may have heard, a team of Life Science and Bioengineering undergraduates has just won the European final of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition and will be heading to MIT next month to compete on the world stage. Their winning project aimed to re-engineer E.coli bacteria to tackle the problems of desertification and poor crop growth in dry climates.

Screenshot of the Imperial College iGEM Wiki

You can check out the details of the project on their Wiki (which also won a separate award) and find out more about the students involved (I like the cartoon versions of the team members). The Biochemistry and Biology students on the team are Atipat Patharagulpong, Chris Schoene, Frank Machin, Nicolas Krai, Nikki Kapp and Rebekka Bauer. Congratulations and good luck!

Congratulations are also due to Katarzyna Roguska (a 3rd year Biochemistt) and Sevanna Shahbazian (a recent graduate) who were involved as undergrads in a research project on the pathogenic microbe Chlamydia trachomatis in Dr Rey Carabeo’s lab. They helped to establish a system for examining protein-protein interactions involved in infection and so earned a place as co-authors on a scientific paper that has just been published. That’s quite an achievement.

Thinking about getting involved in research? Have a look a the College’s UROP scheme, or try to get a place on next year’s iGEM team (contact Profs Paul Freemont or Dick Kitney). Alternatively, applications are now open for the summer studentship programme at the John Innes Research Centre. It’s your call.





September 29, 2011
by Stephen Curry

Welcome, Welcome, Welcome!

Welcome to our freshers — those of you who are brand new to the College, brand new to London and brand new to Britain.

Welcome back to our second, third and fourth years, who having already drunk deep from the well of Imperial, are returning for another swig. Cheers!

And welcome to this new Life Sciences Blog for undergraduates. In the very best scientific spirit, this is most definitely an experiment. And not a very well designed experiment at that, since I am not certain what the outcome will be.

SAF Building

The aim is to open up a new and more informal line of communication between students and the department. There are plenty of lines of communication available to you already which I hope will address most of the technical, administrative and intellectual questions you have about your course. You can visit the Undergraduate office on level 2 of the Biochemistry Building (near to where your pigeonholes are located), talk to your personal tutor, talk to the Senior Tutor — Dr Maureen Taylor for biochemists and Dr Steve Cook for biologists — or to myself, Prof Stephen Curry (Director of Undergraduate Studies) or Dr Mike Tristem (Director of the Biology stream). For queries about lectures, make sure to approach your lecturer before or after a lecture or during practicals or send them a friendly, inquisitive email. There are discussion boards on Blackboard for chat about the course between students, which may also involve staff. Your reps can also take student concerns and requests to the teaching committees and the staff-student committee.

That should cover most of the bases so why should we need any more? I hope this blog will provide a way for me — and other members of staff — to alert you to departmental news and to raise more general issues about the experience of studying for a degree in the life sciences. The particular point of doing this in a blog format, which allows two-way communication, is so that they can be discussed. So please don’t be shy.

These are interesting times for the university sector in the UK, a euphemism for the fact that academia is under pressure as never before. The government is placing increasing demands on universities to ensure that they do a better job of serving their student communities — no bad thing especially when the cost to the student is going up rather alarmingly. But at the same time research funds are shrinking because of budget cuts, which means that the business of keeping a research group going is harder than ever. Luckily, the staff in our department are a hard-working bunch of men and women who, with a steely eye, are ready to face these challenges.

We will do our best to make your learning experience a rich and fulfilling one.  Which means that we will try to stretch your brain till it hurts. In a good way. For best results you will also need participate fully in the treatment — you are not to be a passive patient. Your job at university is to make the most of every opportunity for learning.

Good luck! Oh, and one more thing: welcome!


Mon 3rd Oct – update: The commenting appears to be working now. Please feel free to make use of the facility!