The Department of Biochemistry is a member of the School of the Biological Sciences and one of the largest departments in the University of Cambridge. The Department is especially strong in research with investigators of international standing in a wide range of disciplines including structural biology, molecular enzymology, cell signalling and control of gene expression, molecular microbiology, plant molecular biology and bioenergy, cancer and cardiovascular biology. We also have a strong cohort of independent research fellows with funding from the Wellcome Trust, British Heart Foundation, BBSRC and MRC. The Department houses multiple core facilities funded by Wellcome Trust, BBSRC and MRC to support modern biomolecular research, including 800MHz NMR, state-of-the-art X-ray crystallography, protein chemistry, mass spectrometry, metabolomics and advanced services for protein and nucleic acid sequencing. In collaboration with the Department of Genetics we have also established the Cambridge Systems Biology Centre, which hosts genomics, proteomics and associated bioinformatics. We also participate in the Wellcome Trust-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute , the Cambridge Cancer Centre and other major research initiatives.
The Department is located in two main buildings located on Tennis Court Road. The original Hopkins Building on the Downing Site started life in 1924 as the Sir William Dunn Institute of Biochemistry, under the inspirational leadership of our founder, Frederick Gowland Hopkins. Hopkins was a truly remarkable scientist and human being: he won the 1929 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of vitamins, he was a passionate believer in equal rights for women and men (recruiting many women as research scientists at a time when this was unheard of in Cambridge) and rescued many Jewish and other victimized scientists from mainland Europe during the interwar years. His legacy of fairness, equality, mentorship and academic excellence remains our inspiration. The Hopkins Building is beautiful, elegant and, equally important for a modern teaching and research department, has been extensively refurbished in recent years. Our other main building, located 200 metres south on the Old Addenbrooke’s Hospital Site, is named after the late, great Fred Sanger, an alumnus of the Department and winner of two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry – one for the sequencing of proteins and the second for developing the technology to sequence DNA that precipitated the genomics revolution. The Sanger Building was funded by generous donations from Peter and Paula Beckwith, the Wolfson Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and many others and was opened formally by Fred Sanger himself in November 1997.
The Department of Biochemistry’s undergraduate teaching programme is extensive and growing. We play pivotal roles in teaching the foundations of biochemistry, molecular and cell biology in Part I of both the Medical and Veterinary Sciences Tripos (MVST) and Natural Sciences Tripos (NST). Our third year (Part II) Biochemistry option is very popular and we were the first biological science department in Cambridge to introduce a Part III advanced fourth year option for biochemists and molecular biologists. This has now been joined by Part III Systems Biology, a strongly inter-disciplinary course in which we are also closely involved that explores how biological systems function as integrated systems.
Our PhD training programmes include both three- and four-year options; in addition to her/his direct advisor, each PhD student is also assisted by a graduate thesis panel comprising three members of faculty chosen by the student. Our PhD programmes offer many opportunities for both specialised training and learning transferable skills. Some PhD and Masters courses may also be taken part-time.
Our Department plays an increasing role in national and trans-national activities. Members of the Department participate widely in the funding and governance committees of UK and European research councils and major research charities. We engage in diverse research collaborations with multinational companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Genentech, Roche, Pfizer, Shell and many smaller biotechnology companies. Basic science discoveries find their way, often quite quickly, into many aspects of medical, agricultural and environmental research and Department members have co-founded several new commercial ventures including Biotica and Astex Technology.
But whatever our achievements in scientific discovery and its application may be, we will almost certainly be judged on a rather different criterion. When asked what his most important discovery was, Sir Humphrey Davy said 'Michael Faraday'. And our most important contribution will be our graduates and postgraduates and the discoveries and contributions they make to science, industry, government and teaching.
Professor Gerard Evan is Head of Department