Biochemistry at Oxford
Mark Yu Xiang
What is Biochemistry?
Biochemistry is the study of life at a molecular and cellular level. This involves using chemical, biological, and some physical techniques to understand the different processes occurring in a biological system. You will be looking at how individual atoms interact with each other all the way to the dynamics between populations of complex cellular organisms.
The first year of the course is designed to provide students with the fundamental theory and techniques required to understand the underpinnings of a biological system. There are five courses that are taught throughout the entire year.
Molecular Cell Biology (MCB)
Maths & Statistics
1. MCB for short, is simply the study of cells on a molecular level – this course forms the foundation for the rest of the degree. The three main topics of this course are genetics, cell biology, and metabolism. These are essentially extensions of the what was taught in A level / IB biology. For example, genetics comprises of how genetic information is conserved through its structure (DNA & RNA), and the processes involved in expressing this information to produce proteins (through transcription/translation). Similarly, metabolism involves looking at the metabolic processes taught at A level (glycolysis, citric acid cycle, electron transport chain, etc) but in a lot more detail.
2. Biophysical Chemistry, whilst sounding very daunting at first, is essentially the theory of the physical techniques you will need for the course. The three main branches are quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and kinetics. Quantum mechanics is infamous for being the most complicated topic – it doesn’t help that it’s the first lecture series of the year too. It forms the basis of understanding the structure of atomic orbitals and how they interact with each other. Contrastingly, the questions asked in problem sheets / exams are usually quite straightforward and the maths is often the simplest of all the topics (no calculus required!). Thermodynamics (Gibbs free energy) and kinetics (rate constants) are really extensions of A level theory, just with a lot more manipulation of the mathematics behind it.
3. Organic Chemistry. The subject people either love or hate. Unlike A levels, it is a lot harder to do well in this subject through memorization of reactions. The key difference at university is being able to appropriately select the most important factors that drive a reaction – a lot of this involves thinking about molecules interacting with each other in 3-dimensional space (similar to thinking about orbital shapes back in high school). You’ll learn significantly more types of reactions but they ultimately follow the same fundamental laws. By focusing on understanding these underlying concepts, most of the problems thrown at you are definitely doable.
4. Biological Chemistry is somewhat of a crossover between MCB and Organic Chemistry. A major portion of the course is devoted to studying the properties of key biological molecules such as proteins, polysaccharides, nucleic acids and lipids. A lot of the mechanisms and theories learnt concurrently in Biophysical and Organic Chemistry is applied to this course, making it very satisfying to see how everything synchronizes together.
5. Maths – the bane of most biochemists. Whilst there is an assumption of no prior knowledge, A level Maths certainly makes the course a lot easier. The course goes by very quickly and the few that have not done Maths since GCSE may struggle (begins with quadratic equations in week 1 to differential equations by week 8). The course is split into Maths & Statistics and, with the exception of one or two concepts, does not go beyond the A level syllabus. The Maths section is predominantly focused on calculus and its applications to biological systems – virtually all the long answer questions in problem sheets and exams are linked to a theoretical experiment. Similarly, the Statistics section places emphasis on the applications of significance testing, normal distributions, and linear regression in a biochemical setting.
Second & Third Years:
The 2nd & 3rd years are organized 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 courses stem from the MCB and Biological Chemistry topics taught in first year with a lot of the concepts built upon the application of theories from Biophysical and Organic Chemistry.
The fourth year is research focused, including a 20-week research project followed by studying two options from a list of advanced topics.
Type of work
The difficulty of the course isn’t that the concepts are extremely hard to grasp, but rather due to the sheer amount of information thrown at you. Most science subjects at university are either essay based (Biology) or numeric based (Chemistry/Physics). Biochemistry is unique for first year as it is pretty much split down the middle – work is set as a mixture of essays and problem sheets both quantitative (Math, Biophysical Chemistry) and qualitative (Biological Chemistry). Most tutorials set by your college will be essays predominantly on topics regarding MCB. These tutorials are either solo or with another student, and involve a discussion with your tutor (usually a professor) on the topic of your essay. This is a great way to get into the nitty gritty details of the subject and to clarify any misconceptions you may have.
Work set in the following years is almost completely essay based, with tutorials revolving around a topic from one of the four courses above.
At the end of first year, students are required to take an exam known as prelims on each of the five courses studied. Thankfully, these exams do not count towards your degree but you do need a pass on each paper (around 40%) for you to proceed to the second year.
The only assessments that count are those taken in your 3rd and 4th year. At the end of your 3rd year, you sit 6 papers – 4 of which are the main topics studied in 2nd and 3rd year, and the remaining 2 being the general paper (a combination of the main topics learnt throughout the course) and a data handling exam.
Apart from the data handling paper, the other five exams are purely essay writing, with each exam being three hours in length and requiring three essays to be written. These papers count for an overall 60% of your degree.
The remaining 40% is in fourth year which consists of a combination of your research project and coursework on selected advanced topics.
N.B. As with most subjects at Oxford, students are required to take informal exams known as collections at the beginning of every term (don’t worry they don’t count for anything).
Typical week (1st year):
2-3 hours of lectures a day
A tutorial (requires writing an essay of about 1200 – 2000 words beforehand)
An Organic Chemistry tutorial (problem sheet taking 5-6 hours, due beforehand)
A Biophysical or Biological Chemistry class (problem sheet taking 5-6 hours, due beforehand)
A Maths/Statistics class (problem sheet taking a few hours, due beforehand)
A practical that lasts 3-6 hours
Oxford Biochemistry course:
More resources regarding the course: