University of Oxford: Guide & Discussion Forum
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What is Biochemistry?
Modern biochemistry grew out of the application of chemical techniques to biological problems. In many ways it combines biology and chemistry, but the subject now covers such a wide range that it is difficult to draw a neat border around biochemistry, which provides the foundations of pathology, pharmacology, physiology, genetics, zoology, botany, and even surgery and anatomy. The essential feature is that biochemistry uses molecular methods to explain biological processes, while other biological scientists study the integrated function of organs, organisms, and the complexes of organisms represented by ecosystems.
Why Biochemistry at Oxford?
Oxford has one of Europe's largest Biochemistry departments, established in 1920, and this includes the sub-departments of Microbiology, Genetics, Molecular Biophysics, Glycobiology and Immunochemistry. Facilities are modern and spacious, with a brand new research centre to replace many of the existing buildings currently being constructed. The buildings are part of the University Science Area, which also includes the Radcliffe Science Library and the Natural History Museum, and are conveniently located for easy access to the town centre and colleges.
Also from the prospectus The Oxford biochemistry course concentrates on molecular aspects of biological functions in the plant, animal and microbial kingdoms. It is very broad in scope, ranging from the structures of biological molecules and how they are determined, through genetics and molecular biology and their applications, to cell differentiation and immunology. This breadth reflects the wide range of research that is carried out within the Department and University.
Oxford University also has one of the three Copyright libraries in the UK meaning it has a copy of every research paper published in the UK. Biochemists do much of their study in the Radcliffe Sciences Library (which merged with the Hooke lending library in 2007). The Radcliffe Science Library (also known as the 'RSL') houses nearly all textbooks referenced in lecture series and tutorial worksheets, often with multiple copies. Students can borrow 12 books from the Radcliffe Science Library at once, which can be complemented with textbooks available in college libraries.
Teaching consists of a number lecture series, complemented by laboratory practical sessions, department-organised classes, and college-organised tutorials. Students can expect 1-2 tutorials each week.
So is Oxford right for me?
This can be a very difficult question to answer, and ultimately it is up to yourself to decide what you think is best for you. Oxford is a great place to study, however, the method of teaching and learning might not be something that you are used to or will excel at. Potential questions, among many, that you could think about are detailed below. Nonetheless, the best advice would be to visit the university on an open day if you can - first impressions are not everything, but they can be a good indicator as to whether you like a place, and help decide whether you would like to live and study there for the next 4 years. If you are considering applying to Oxford and meet the requirements, my advice would always be to do so - Oxford is only one of your five choices in UCAS and you can always reject Oxford if you are offered a place elsewhere which you prefer.
Potential questions to ask yourself:
- Would I be happy in a medium sized city?
- Would I be happy being taught in 1-on-1 or small group tutorials?
- Would I be happy writing a 2000 word essay or completing a problem sheet each week?
- Would I be happy extended periods of time (often 10am-5pm on practical days and 9am-5pm in your final year project) in the lab doing experiments?
If the answer to any of the above is no then it would be advisable to strongly consider whether Oxford or indeed biochemistry is the right choice for you. However, it is worth remembering that writing essays each week will not come naturally to many (if not the majority) of applicants, but it is something you will improve upon during your study.
Some additional things to think about:
- Could I cope with the possibility of being average?
This will likely have already been impressed upon you, but everybody who finally makes it to Oxford was probably at some point the "big fish" in their own sixth form or college. The likelihood of you always remaining the best are slim, however, it is also beneficial to be surrounded by peers with similar academic interests
- Could I cope with the possibility of rejection?
The success rate of applicants for 2015 entry was 19% and, therefore, the majority of those applying will, unfortunately, be rejected, despite having nothing fundamentally wrong with their application.
- Could I cope with doing exams at the beginning of nearly every term?
"Collection" exams are set at the beginning of most terms, a few days before the first lectures. Their importance varies by tutor - some place greater weight on them than others, however, they are in any case a good opportunity to do a mock exam and gauge how well you have taken in and understood material, but also how well you are able to digest and put this information back onto the paper. Whilst stressful, they are a good exercise.
Do I have the requirements for Biochemistry?
The typical Oxford offer for Biochemistry is A*AA at A-level, excluding General Studies, and deviation from this is rare. The average A-level score in 2005 was 29.9 so very very few applicants did not get three As. The IB equivalent is 39 points overall, including Theory of Knowledge, with a 7 in chemistry and either 6 or 7 in Mathematics or Biology. While straight A*s at GCSE are not necessary, particularly poor performance will put candidates at a disadvantage (however, it is important to note that GCSEs are contextualised as is standard across Oxford admissions), as will low A2 predictions or a poor teacher reference.
It is essential to have A-level, or the equivalent, in Chemistry. A-level Biology and/or Maths are not required, although they are recommended. The first year course provides the biological and mathematical background needed for those who have not progressed beyond GCSE, but obviously having previously covered the material will put students at an advantage.
The Biochemistry Course
First Year Course
The 1st year is a foundation year, examined by five "Prelims" during Trinity term. These are pass/fail exams and do not contribute to your final degree result, however students that achieve distinction (roughly equivalent to 70%) are eligible to become scholars, as in other subjects. The first year is used to ensure that all students are at the same level with the basic knowledge and skils required to study the material in years two and three. Students take three longer courses in Molecular Cell Biology, Biological Chemistry and Biophysical Chemistry, and two shorter courses in Organic Chemistry and Maths & Statistics. Courses consist of lectures, problems classes and laboratory and computer practicals, all based in the Department, and College based tutorials.
2nd and 3rd year (Part I)
The second and third years consist of a broad survey of molecular cellular biochemistry. This is organised into four courses:
- Macromolecular Structure and Function
- Bioenergetics and Metabolism
- Genetics and Molecular Biology
- Cell Biology and the integration of function
All four are compulsory although there is some choice about which material to cover. These are taught in the same way as in the first year. There are no second year examinations. At the end of the third year students take six papers: a general paper to assess broad understanding of biochemistry, a data analysis and interpretation paper, and one on each of the topics listed above.
4th year (Part II)
The 4th year is a research focussed year. Students complete a 20 week research project, consisting of an extended (12 week) first term and the majority of the second term, in a research group of their choice. Students may choose to work with a group within the Biochemistry Department or another department (such as Chemistry, Pathology, Physics or Clinical Biochemistry) which is carrying out biochemically related research. Students may also choose to complete their project in one of several universities in Europe under the ERASMUS exchange scheme or in Princeton in the USA. At the end of the project you write a short thesis and give a ten minute presentation, both of which are examined and contribute nearly 25% to your final degree.
In the second term and third terms, students study two options from a list of advanced topics which is updated at frequent intervals. One option is chosen from list A and list B, respectively. In the year 2014-2015, the following topics were on offer:
- Metabolic Engineering of Biofuels and Biopharmaceuticals
- Advanced Structural Biology
- Clinical and Applied Immunology
- From DNA to Chromosomes
- Membrane Transport
Topics in the past have also included:
- Plant Molecular Biology
- Human Disease
- Signalling to the Nucleus.
These are examined by a 'coursework-like' assessment in List A and a written paper in List B. The List A assessment is split into two parts: the first part consists of a data handling exercise, case commentary or practical workshop report; the second part consists of a 'Current Opinions' or 'News and Views' article as seen in journals such as Nature.
Final degree result depends on performance in both Part I and Part II.
Applicants to Biochemistry are typically interviewed by at least two colleges; the college to which they applied (or were allocated to in the case of an open application), and a second randomly allocated college. Interview style may vary between colleges.
The following are popular science books and give a good place to start for anyone who wants to find out something about biochemistry, or just wants some fun background reading.
- “The selfish gene”, “The ancestors' tale” and other books by Richard Dawkins.
- “Y, the descent of man” by Steve Jones.
- “The eighth day of creation: the makers of the revolution in biology” by Horace Judson.
- “Power, sex and suicide - mitochondria and the meaning of life”, "Oxygen: The Molecule that made the world" and other books by Nick Lane.
- “Advice to a young scientist” by Peter Medawar.
- “Genome - autobiography of a species”, “Nature vs Nurture” and other books by Matt Ridley.
- “The seven daughters of Eve” by Bryan Sykes.
- 'New Scientist' magazine is also a good place to look (often in public libraries but also some articles available for free online).
The following (text)books can provide a gentle introduction to biochemistry at a university level:
- “Life, chemistry and molecular biology”, W. Pickering, C. Smith and E.J. Wood, pub. Portland Press.
- “Cell biology”, C. Smith and E.J. Wood, pub. Nelson Thornes.
- “Bringing chemistry to life: from matter to man”, R.J.P. Williams and J.J.R.F. da Silva, pub. Oxford University Press.
Useful books to prepare for the start of the Oxford biochemistry course:
These are very highly recommended for students who are daunted by the maths and organic chemistry components of the course to look at in advance, but would be useful for everyone.
- “Foundation maths” (2006) A. Croft and R. Davison, pub. Pearson.
- “Foundations of organic chemistry” (1993) M. Hornby and J. Peach, pub. Oxford University Press.
First year textbooks for the Oxford biochemistry course:
There are no set course texts (and you will probably want to try books out from libraries (the Radcliffe Science Library and college libraries are well-stocked) before deciding what, if anything, to buy) but the following are some of the more popular recommended texts.
- “Biochemistry” (2006) J.M. Berg, J.L. Tymoczko and L. Stryer, pub. W.H. Freeman.
- “Biochemistry” (2004) D. Voet and J.G. Voet, pub. Wiley.
- “Molecular Cell Biology” (2003) H. Lodish, A. Berk, P. Matsudaira, C.A. Kaiser, M. Krieger, M.P. Scott, L. Zipursky and J. Darnell, pub. W.H. Freeman.
- “Molecular Biology of the Cell” (2002) B. Alberts et al., pub. Garland.
- “Practical Skills in Biomolecular Sciences” (2003) R. Reed, D. Holmes, J. Weyers and A. Jones, pub. Prentice Hall.
- “Principles and problems in physical chemistry for biochemists” (2001) N.C. Price, R.A. Dwek, R.G. Ratcliffe and M.R. Wormald, pub. Oxford University Press.
Many of the above textbooks cover similar material, the choice between them often coming down to personal preference. Alberts and Lodish are popular choices, Voet is quite detail-heavy, whilst Berg/Stryer nicely simplifies more complex material though possibly lacking some of the required details in some topics.
The best advice is to wait until you get to Oxford to buy any textbooks!