Studying Biochemistry at St Catherine’s College

Carolyn | 4th year Biochemistry undergraduate

While biochemistry may be one of the smaller programs at Oxford, it provides excellent opportunities to challenge yourself academically, while enabling you to pursue your extra-curricular interests.

In the first three years, you have 10-15 hours of lectures a week, plus different problems classes (in first year) and tutorials (throughout the first three years). The first year lectures aim to provide a strong foundation on all aspects of biochemistry – from quantum mechanics to the metabolism of ethanol. The lectures are supported by a variety of problems classes, which will require extra reading, review of lecture notes, and the completion of problem sets, but ensure that you have a solid understanding of the material and will be well prepared for the Preliminary Examinations (Prelims) at the end of first year. You will also have tutorials, usually with your college biochemistry tutor (in first year) over a range of key topics, which will help acclimatize you to the tutorial-based educational system used at Oxford. In the second and third years the lectures increase in detail and depth, maintaining a strong knowledge base, but also taking you to the cutting edge of many different research fields. At the end of third year, you sit Part I exams – six papers, four from the different lecture modules: Structure and Function of Macromolecules, Energetics and Metabolic Processes, Molecular Biology and Genetics, and Cell Biology and Function. The two additional papers assess your general biochemical knowledge and data handling and interpretation abilities.

Fourth year in the biochemistry course provides a valuable opportunity to experience work in an active research lab, while conducting your research for your Part II project that culminates in your thesis. This research can be carried out in a variety of labs, both in Oxford and elsewhere while on exchange. The research project exposes each student to a real working research environment, to help them decide if a future PhD and/or a career in research is something they would be interested in pursuing. The Part II project also lets you explore a particular topic in depth, and enables each student to contribute to his or her field of interest. The fourth year culminates in two examined options courses, selected from a range of choices by the student.

Throughout the first three years, the lecture courses are supported by practical work, which are assessed by lab write-ups. The practical courses enable students to carry out some of the techniques they are learning about, understand how some of what they are studying was elucidated in the lab, and to be exposed to a range of different practical lab techniques, from isolating DNA to crystalizing proteins to working with various simple model organisms in the lab.

While you will receive tutorials on a wide variety of topics, some of which may not be your area of interest, you can focus on your favourite areas in your Part II project and focus on your stronger areas when preparing for exams, though it is essential to remain balanced and study a wide range of topics. This opportunity for focus, but the necessity of a strong foundation, applies throughout the entire course; ensuring students are prepared and well rounded. This also exposes students to a large range of topics, taught by world leaders and experts in their respective fields.

Tutorials can be a source of stress as a biochemistry student, as they do require extra reading, review of lecture notes and the preparation of a scientific-style essay to be handed in a day or two before the tutorial. During the tutorial, the tutor – an expert in the particular area being studied – will have marked the essays and have provided constructive criticism, invaluable when preparing for Part I exams. During the tutorial, the tutor will prompt discussion and pose questions to challenge your understanding of the material, but this takes place in a small group, and in a relatively relaxed environment so these are not scary experiences. Tutorials are one of the strongest aspects of the biochemistry program at Oxford – you get to learn about a topic from someone who is very active and involved in the field, in a small group setting. The important thing in a tutorial is to be confident and vocal with your knowledge.  Additionally do not be afraid to ask questions, clarify areas you had difficulty with, and ensure you not only know the facts, but also truly understand what they mean, their significance and how they were discovered – and confirmed! It is not the end of the world if you don’t know the answer to a question in a tutorial – it’s much better to find out then, and discuss the topic with your tutor and classmates, than during an exam.

While each day will be busy with lectures, reading, a tutorial or practical work, biochemists are not restricted to spending all their time on academia. At Catz, the biochemists are involved in many different activities, from sports such as field and ice hockey, rowing and tennis, to helping produce a musical or organizing the Catz ball. As long as you have a strong work ethic and can manage your time, you can certainly partake in multiple activities while at Oxford. I have played on the ice hockey team for all of my four years at Oxford, and have been able to balance training, games and tournaments with my college work. Additionally, some of my fellow biochemists are rowers and if they can manage early morning outings followed by lectures, anything is possible.

Biochemistry is a challenging program that is not for everyone, but is something that I have really enjoyed during my time at Oxford and I am pleased I selected it, even though I didn’t know anything about biochemistry when I applied. It is important to be a motivated, independent learner, but all the Catz biochemists have formed strong friendships – you do spend a lot of time with your classmates – so you can rely on them for support, along with your tutors and the older biochemists. Biochemistry at Catz has allowed me to explore my extra-curricular interests while exposing me to a wide range of topics and challenging me intellectually, but always in a supportive environment.