The structure of the BMB course
BMB is taught by means of lectures, laboratory-based exercises with linked discussions, Journal Clubs organised by the Biochemistry Department and also supervisions organised by your college.
Progress in science is achieved through observation and experiment. Biochemistry (and its close cousin, molecular biology) is an experimental science that advances from well-thought out investigations in the laboratory. No serious student should neglect the opportunities which this course provides to appreciate this fact. Your course includes experiments for you to gain some insight into how laboratory investigations are carried out and how data are processed and interpreted. To obtain useful results an experiment should be designed to answer a definite question and the detailed planning should be sufficiently rigorous to exclude adventitious errors. The course gives you the opportunity to plan some experiments for yourselves. You should benefit from the practicals in three ways:
(i) You will learn a variety of experimental techniques, all of which are currently used in biochemical research. The practicals have been designed to complement the lectures and fit in with their sequence as far as possible. The hands-on experience should link to the mental framework provided by the lectures, and give you a deeper understanding and more realistic perspective of the topics discussed.
(ii) You will learn to handle experimental data effectively, and to extract the maximum information content without falling into the trap of over-interpretation.
(iii) You will be helped when it comes to the data handling questions in the Tripos examination. Question papers from the last three years are included on Moodle.
All course materials are available on the course Moodle site. You will be given a course handbook when you register for the course.
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Each lecturer will distribute a handout. Our general policy for the handouts is that they should reflect the structure of the lectures, and make compact statements about key features: tricky points may get additional explanation. The handouts should contain copies of all significant items displayed during lectures: they are not a literal script of the lectures, and don't include extended commentary or background reference information.
Lecturers will also provide some questions related to the material that they have presented, which you and your supervisors may wish to discuss.
To get most out of the lectures and make your learning an active process, we recommend that you take your own notes irrespective of the nature of any particular handout. This will also help with later consolidation and as you prepare for the examinations.
The practicals and discussions
You are given comprehensive notes for each practical. They are colour-coded according to purpose.
The green sheets set the context and state the learning objectives for each practical. If appropriate, they will indicate the lecture handout material that you might want to review before reading the practical notes. The practical notes must be read before you come to the practical.
The White sheets contain the experimental plan and instructions. These are not a recipe to be read for the first time when you are faced with the experiment. Make a practice of scanning them in advance, a day or two before the practical. Always try to think out the principles of what you are doing as you go along, and to understand what is going on in the procedures you carry out.
The blue sheets are for processing the data and also contain questions about the practical to help you understand what you have done, and why. They are a form of self-assessment - you will find them helpful when preparing for the end of year exam, so it is important to get them filled out properly. Going from raw numbers that come straight off an instrument to a meaningful calculated result is found quite difficult by most students, and may be tested in the examination. So take advantage of the help available.
The yellow sheets contain specimen results and, where relevant, examples of how to analyse them. They will generally be handed out either at the end of the practical or at the appropriate discussion period.
Background materials related to several practicals and practical aspects of biochemistry are also provided. They include
- Introduction to units
- Introduction to pH and buffers
- Principles of spectrophotometry
Discussions are a vital part of the course and are your best bet for fully understanding the practicals. As the class size is relatively small, discussion of the practical work will be informal and will normally take place in the laboratory at the end of the experimental work. Demonstrators will be on hand at these occasions and you are urged to make the most of these discussions and take an active part in them.
These structured exercises to help introduce you to reading primary scientific literature. There are two Journal Clubs, one on a molecular topic and the other more cell biological. You will be given a published paper, with some guidance notes and questions, to analyse during the week before the interactive session, in which you critically evaluate its merits in a small group directed by one of the Biochemistry staff. Most students find this a challenging but worthwhile exercise, since it gives exposure to the raw material of the scientific literature.
Experimental design will be discussed throughout the course and to consolidate this aspect of teaching in biochemistry there will be a teaching session on this in Lent Term. You will be briefed in advance of the session. You will be allocated to groups and given an outline of a problem to address. You will be required to design an experimental strategy to investigate the problem and will report back as a group to a discussion session, led by a member of staff.
Student feedback and representation
We shall seek your views about the course by means of questionnaires and liaison meetings with your representatives each term. We take student comment very seriously in course development. Questionnaire analyses and minutes of the liaison meetings are publicised on the course Moodle site.