Department of Biochemistry University of Oxford Department of Biochemistry
University of Oxford
South Parks Road
Oxford OX1 3QU

Tel: +44 (0)1865 613200
Fax: +44 (0)1865 613201
First year Biochemistry students at a practical class
Image showing the global movement of lipids in a model planar membrane
Matthieu Chavent, Sansom lab
Anaphase bridges in fission yeast cells
Whitby lab
Lactose permease represented using bending cylinders in Bendix software
Caroline Dahl, Sansom lab
Epithelial cells in C. elegans showing a seam cell that failed to undergo cytokinesis
Serena Ding, Woollard lab
Collage of Drosophila third instar larva optic lobe
Lu Yang, Davis lab
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Student Profiles

Lauren Turrell - completed final year
Charles Underwood - completed final year
Katherine Rollins - end of 2nd year

Lauren Turrell

Lauren Turrell, who has completed her final year, talks about how she has found the course and Oxford.

'I always liked science and really enjoyed biology and chemistry too. So I decided that I wanted to do Biochemistry. We had a Biochemistry module within the Chemistry A' level class and I enjoyed that.

When I visited Oxford in my lower sixth year, I really liked it. It was a general open-day for the University. I came round the Biochemistry department when it was in the old building, and also to colleges, because I had never been to Oxford before then.

I noticed that there was quite a bit of maths on the course and I had really enjoyed maths but didn't take it as an A' level because it didn't fit in with my options. So I took up AS Maths in my A' level year and did that as well. I think it was quite good because the maths was fresh in my mind when I came here.

A practical class

I applied to Worcester because previously a student from my school had applied there. However I was offered a place at St Hugh's. I was given quite a lot of help from my careers service and my biology teacher for my personal statement.

The interviews were college-based with people from the department who are associated with that college. The interviews were a bit daunting but OK. I didn't know what to expect, and we didn't have much preparation for the interview at school. We were told to try and read around the subject to show that you are willing to go that extra mile and that you are interested in what you are wanting to study. My interviews for other Universities were much less formal than Oxford.

I came straight here and didn't take a gap year. The first year was quite a lot of work and we had deadlines most days of work to hand in, but I really enjoyed it. I think the year gives you a good broad basic understanding of the field. You have practicals every Friday, and then you have classes, tutorials and lectures. The tutorials are college-based, whereas the classes are departmental-based which is very good because you get to know people on your course.

I struggled a bit more with some of the topics than others, but it evens itself out in the end. It's quite independent learning and you have to take the initiative to look stuff up yourself. The exams come round quickly but are done quickly too.

The second year was probably the best year as there were no exams – the pressure's off a bit. Up to end of the third year, the courses are all compulsory. So you get a very good grounding in Biochemistry .

A microbiology class

In my fourth year, I did a research project in Dr Ervin Fodor's laboratory in the Dunn School of Pathology on influenza virus which I really enjoyed. You work from 9 to 5 in the lab and then you have the evenings and weekends to relax. It's an 18-week project followed by an 8000 word dissertation. You have a viva on the project where you have to present your work and you are then questioned about it.

I had also done some lab work at Reading University during the Summer at the end of my second and third years. If you want to go on to do a PhD, you need to get some lab experience. I wrote to Reading University because I live locally to there, and I ended up working in Dr Ben Neuman's lab.

I knew I wanted to stay in science because I really enjoy it. I really enjoyed the research I completed in my Part II, so I decided that I wanted to do a PhD. I've got a place at the Dunn School of Pathology to study for a PhD for 4 years in the lab in which I did my Part II project. To take up the place next year I'll have to get a 2(i) degree.

I'll be going to Toronto in July to work in a lab there, looking at lung transplantation, which I got through Oxford Careers Service. It's an international internship programme. I'm doing that for 2 months this Summer because I just wanted to do something different and gain more lab-based experience before I return to Oxford.

I've enjoyed Oxford a lot and have made some amazing friends. I played netball for college, I was the captain in my second and third year, and I also helped a charity called 'Hands up for Darfur'. I was events director and we organised a 'cirque du soir', like a royal variety performance, at the Oxford Town Hall. I did that in my second year which ended up taking up a lot more time than I realised but it was really enjoyable. You definitely do have time to do extra-curricular activities you just have to manage your time well. I also really enjoy formal hall and the whole college system, it works really well. 

If you want to do something that's going to challenge you and also provide you with a broad background in science, Biochemistry is a very good subject to do. In terms of advice when you are here, I'd say that you should make sure you organise your time well and stay on top of things. Ask for help when you need it, and you'll be fine.'


Charles Underwood

Charles Underwood, who has completed his final year, talks about how he has found the course and Oxford

'I studied biology, chemistry, maths and economics at A' level, and the two subjects I liked the most were biology and chemistry. Deciding to apply here came from a parents' evening. One of the teachers at college asked if I'd thought about applying to Oxford or Cambridge. I hadn't really thought of it. On the back of that, I came on a trip organised by my college in Preston. I stayed here at Jesus College and came to one of the open days here in the department. Then I came down again to St Anne's with my dad, for a college open-day, and we talked with a biochemistry tutor. I ended up deciding to apply for St Anne's.

I had to write a personal statement which was mainly academic-based. Then I got invited down at the beginning of December and had two interviews, one with Dr Harris from the department and one with a chemistry tutor. I think I was well prepared for the interview but I couldn't really tell how it had gone.

I heard from Oxford before Christmas. It was an offer of three As. I wanted to come here because I thought it was the best place.

I went to a tertiary college, with about two and a half thousand students, all 16 to 19 year olds. The college was very encouraging in the application process. They had a fairly organised programme for students applying to Oxford or Cambridge and organised the trip down here. They put on a lecture to explain how the application worked and how to write your personal statement. I had a mock interview with an academic from a local University, and it was useful to have a bit of practice and to have someone asking a few testing questions.

A practical class

Thinking about it, the first term of the first year is quite a shock. Getting to grips with it then is quite important, realising how much work you do have to put in and just being organised. After that I found the workload manageable. But I think it's important that you're interested in the subject – it's obviously a lot easier putting work in. And you'll enjoy it a lot more if you're interested. I think that people who are offered the chance to come here, because it is so rigorously assessed at interview, should be reassured enough that they can cope with it.

It was a big step up from college I think, but that might have been because I wasn't challenged before. So people shouldn't be worried about this because when they're doing their A' Levels they might not be being challenged fully. You have that capacity to go a bit further.

In the second and third year of the course, you have tutorials with college tutors and other specialists in the specific topics. In each topic, you have to read primary literature and then be able to discuss it. Because there aren't exams at the end of the second year, you can focus on understanding the topics and enjoy it. You might find a topic that you really enjoy that you want to carry on in your fourth year and study in your Part II project.

At the end of the second and third year, I did Summer lab projects. The second Summer I did a project in Munich as part of a Summer programme sponsored by Amgen (a biotechnology company). That was for about 9 weeks in the Summer and was my first real experience in a research lab. It was a really fun experience. There were about 20 students also taking part in the programme and they were from different countries, all over Europe. I still keep in touch with a lot of them.

Towards the end of the third year, different Professors in the department advertise 18-week lab projects for the fourth year. There are about 100 projects advertised and you go and meet the different professors who advertise projects you are interested in. There are supervisors in this department but also all around the University – for instance, in Anatomy and on the John Radcliffe Hospital site. If there is someone who doesn't advertise a project but you really want to work with them, you can go and do so. You can even organise something abroad. I ended up with my first choice – with Neil Brockdorff - and I really enjoyed it.

A practical class

You start the project in September and continue until the beginning of March. It's quite a long stretch which is good. It's long enough so that you can have a proper project and do some experiments.

I probably enjoyed the fourth year the most. You make use of everything you've learnt which is satisfying. A good thing about the way the fourth year is laid out is that you can afford to take off a day or two here and there, for an interview. When you are putting applications for PhDs together, you can ask people around to read your covering letters which I found really useful.

I applied for quite a few PhD posts, some in the UK, some abroad. I had an interview to stay here, and one in Cambridge as well, and an interview in Cold Spring Harbor in New York, and ended up getting offers for all three of these. I've decided to go to Cold Spring Harbor. I'm interested in non-coding RNAs and genomics, and there are quite a lot of groups there working in that area.

A practical class

I've really enjoyed Oxford. It's a lovely place to live and I think the social aspect of it is nice as well – because of the collegiate nature of the University you end up making friends with people who do different subjects. In fact, the people you are most friendly with are those doing different subjects because those are the ones you live with in the first year. I know quite a lot of people in the biochemistry cohort but they aren't the closest group of friends.

I've played quite a lot of football for the college over the years. Also, there are many notable speakers who come to Oxford. I went to listen to Gordon Brown whilst he was Prime Minister, and David Cameron before he became Prime Minister.

When I was applying to Oxford, I was advised to read a popular science book to demonstrate my interest and also provide a topic to write about in my personal statement or to talk about it in the interview. I guess the more things you can put in your statement that lead on to questions the better. I spent a week in a lab at Lancaster University – the lab work was really quite basic, but I could write about it in the statement and I was asked about it in my interview. Make sure you've got something which shows your interest and be prepared to get across what you got out of it.'


Katherine Rollins

Katherine Rollins - At the end of her second year:

'At school, biology and chemistry were my two best subjects and the two I enjoyed the most, particularly areas where the two overlapped. I spent quite a long time looking at Natural Sciences courses, but then decided that I wanted to study Biochemistry in more depth. What I enjoyed the most was the genetics and carbohydrate and protein chemistry that I did in my A' Level Biology, and I wanted to carry on with that.

I preferred Oxford over Cambridge. They run sciences very differently in Cambridge. I decided that I'd done enough Maths and Physics – though you do a bit of that in your first year in Oxford – and that now I wanted to study a topic in more depth. That's what Oxford offered over Cambridge. 

My school was really supportive and encouraged people to apply. We came as a school to look round Oxford on one of the open days. We were based at St Anne's but I managed to get to the department in the afternoon and have a look round.

I applied for Biochemistry courses at other universities. I thought the content of the Oxford course was much broader. At other universities, you have to pick a particular aspect of biochemistry – here, you cover it all.

I applied to Trinity College and was interviewed there. I had two interviews with the tutors who are now my tutors. I was allocated Wadham for a second interview. It was quite daunting to start with – you hear all these rumours about what an Oxford interview is like - but all the tutors were really friendly and they were there to help you. The interviews are essentially testing whether you'd be a good person to tutor rather than trying to find out how much you know.

Everyone starts off the course with basically the same knowledge, so it works out quite well when you arrive. Everyone on the course has A' level chemistry, and nearly everyone has A' Level Biology. About half the year have A' Level Maths, but if you don't have this, you get extra maths classes in the first year to bring you up to the standard.

The first year is very structured. You get classes in addition to lectures and tutors. You get problem sheets every week that are marked, and you go through these in a small group. You cover a wide range of topics, but not in any detail. You only have to pass the first year exams, so there isn't too much pressure on you. If you work during the year then you're fine.

All the tutors and lecturers know exactly what they are talking about because they are talking about their own work. On the whole, they are really good at lecturing. There are six biochemists at Trinity in my year, that's a big year. We have tutorials in two groups of three so there's nowhere to hide in a tutorial! The tutors in general are really helpful. We have meetings every term to check you are coping, and if you've got problems or struggling with work, there are always people to talk to.

Learning is quite a lot more independent than at school, the workload is higher, and it's a lot more challenging. But because of that, it's a lot more rewarding when you do well.

In my second year, I used what I had learnt in the first year. You need the basic understanding to do the detailed work in the second year. The second year is much more essay-based and you go into a lot more detail about specific subjects. You still have tutorials, you don't have classes, and there are fewer lectures. The practicals are less frequent but much longer.

I found the genetics really interesting. It's a field that's developing very fast at the moment. It's interesting to hear in a lecture: 'these are the current models... but the general answer is that we just don't know...' It makes you realise that you're at the cutting edge of science and you're not just regurgitating facts. You're working out the borderline between accepted facts, details that are still being disputed, and things that no-one has any ideas about. It's really interesting to be working at that level already when you're only in your second year.

The tutors encourage you to get some research experience before your fourth year – it's not essential but it definitely helps. The tutors are really good at helping you arrange these projects. Last Summer I did an 8-week project here in the Biochemistry department. I learnt so much from that project, it was definitely worth doing. 

People aren't like the Oxford stereotype in any way, shape or form you'll find when you get here. Everyone's very friendly. At college, I know everyone in my year and the majority of people in the year above and below, just because you do everything together in college. You'll have meals together, and you spend your social time in college. I know the biochemists less well than people in college. I think that's quite good because you get to meet people doing different things. You've got all the college sports teams and societies and then there is a lot going on at University level as well.

I've spent a lot of time swimming. I've been on the Blues swimming team and just finished being captain of that. I'm carrying on next year. I've been swimming around 7 times a week, plus all the captain's responsibilities. You can fit it in, you just have to be organised with your time.

I'd definitely encourage people to apply – it's been very rewarding for me. Although it's quite intense being here, you get so much out of it. Don't be put off by what you hear about Oxford because it's nothing like that. There's a big social scene. The interviews are not as scary as they're made out to be, and if you show enthusiasm and show that you want to be there, that counts for a lot.'



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