by Abarna Ramanathan
As with other part II biological natural sciences subjects, part II biochemistry relies on significantly more independent working than in previous years. Not only are lecture notes scant, but students must also organize their own supervisions throughout the year. This can seem overwhelming at first but, provided you settle into a good routine early on, you will enjoy the freedom to explore your own interests. In fact third year was by far my most favourite during my time at Cambridge and the one in which I felt that I really started to understand the biochemistry frame of mind as well as the workings of the research world.
Work throughout the year…
Lecture series are divided into four main modules, each of which is examined in a separate paper at the end of the year. Details of the contents can be found at the following website http://www.bioc.cam.ac.uk/teaching/partii/, however broadly speaking, most lectures take place in Michaelmas. Lent term has fewer lectures in order to allow time for the lab project and Easter term is completely lecture-free.
Unlike in part IA and part IB, it is impossible to get a good grade in part II by relying entirely on lecture notes- these are often full of poorly annotated images and graphs. Additionally there is a heavy focus on being able to cite and critically assess the experimental methods used to derive a certain fact, rather than simply stating the fact itself. Therefore it is important to note down the key points pertaining to each experiment during lectures- if anything is unclear you should either seek help from the lecturer afterwards or look up the relevant research paper.
Each lecturer will also provide a reading list associated with his or her lecture series. These are often demoralizingly long, so do not waste your time and perturb your mental equilibrium by trying to get through everything! In saying that, due to the aforementioned inadequacy of the lecture notes, it is vital that you read the key papers, as recommended by the lecturer- I usually aimed to read 2 – 4 for each lecture series throughout the year. Primary research papers are important in order to get experimental detail, however I found review papers (which summarize all the significant experiments and knowledge pertaining to a certain topic) vastly more entertaining and useful to understand the field in question. I personally liked to print out all the papers I read and annotate these for future reference. Because of the sheer volume of information, it is also important to organize your work logically early on e.g. using a file for each module/lecture series to save hassle in exam term. Later on, once you decide which topics to focus on for exams, you may want to read a few more papers from the relevant reading lists.
Unlike in the first two years, when supervisions are organized by the college, in part II you yourselves are expected to approach the lecturers to arrange these. You may want to form a small group with three or four other students on the course for this purpose. Undoubtedly these supervisions are useful- you have the opportunity to interact with a leading expert in the field (i.e. the lecturer him/herself) and to clear up any inconsistencies in the lecture notes or in your personal reading. Although there is no set supervision work, I would recommend writing essays and handing these in to the lecturers on a regular basis, so as to improve your understanding of the subject and keep up with exam technique. However do not stress if you cannot organize a supervision for every lecture series- I remember I became quite slack in Lent term, due to the lack of time. You can simply catch up in exam term for the topics on which you decide to focus.
During Lent term you will undertake an 8 week lab project, which you will then write up in the form of a primary research paper- this is worth about 15 % of your overall grade (I think). You will be assigned to a research group, usually within the biochemistry department (you can also pre-arrange to do your project with a particular group beforehand if you wish). Do not worry if this is your first attempt at lab research- you should be closely mentored by senior lab members throughout your time. In many cases due to the short nature of the project, students do not achieve their initial research aims and it is usual to encounter technical setbacks at every turn. Have faith: credit will be given in the write-up for demonstrating problem-solving capability. Thus you should keep close written track of your progress e.g. adjusting experimental conditions etc. On the other hand you may make unexpected discoveries and your project may turn out to be a resounding success!
It is entirely your responsibility to manage your time wisely. While it is important to put in sufficient effort to get results for your lab project, you must ensure that you also keep pace with the lecture material, since the written exams contribute to the greater proportion of your overall grade.
As to the write-up, you should receive plenty of guidance for this through lectures and from your day-to-day lab supervisor. Make sure you hand in a draft to your lab supervisor in order to get feedback and make adjustments before the final submission.
Each week you will have a seminar with a few other biochemistry students and a handful of academics from the biochemistry department in which you critically analyse a primary research paper. These will help to prepare you for your practical exam at the end of the year.
During the Christmas holidays you will write an extended essay (under 3000 words) on one of a range of set topics- this is worth roughly 5 % of your overall grade. Guidelines for this will be provided by the department
Cumulatively, the written exams are worth 80 % of your overall grade (lab project = 15 %; extended essay = 5 %). You will have five 3 hour exams in total: one on each of the four modules and one practical paper. For modules A, B and D you will be required to write 3 essays each and 4 essays for the module C paper (though it is best to double-check this in case the set-up has changed).
I thoroughly recommend steady work throughout the year as opposed to near-exam-time cramming. The latter is unlikely to be very successful in part II (or will be so only with a lot of un-necessary struggle on your part), since you no longer receive all-encompassing hand-outs from the lecturers and must instead rely on your personal efforts.
Assuming you have made good notes throughout the year, during exam term I would go through these repeatedly and condense them every time so that eventually you end up with a set of succinct notes that serve to efficiently jog your memory. I found it useful to summarize and list the key experiments for each lecture series and also to make mind maps for each topic – these are good for quick revision on the exam day, when the adrenaline rush may thwart your attempt to make sense of lengthier notes. Try different revision strategies: flashcards, group revision…everyone has a unique learning style.
It is also essential to practise writing essays under timed conditions- you might like to write such an essay each time you revise a given topic. Make sure you look through past papers to get a feel for the exam format as well as for favoured essay titles – it is worth brainstorming/writing practice answers to these in case they are repeated/paraphrased in your exam. Make an effort to structure your essays with subheadings and use diagrams where possible to illustrate complex ideas. You may like to hand these in to your lecturers for feedback or else go through them yourself in order to identify ways through improve your answer.
To revise for the practical paper, I would go through past papers and briefly look through notes from part IB biochemistry. I myself tended to focus on the essay-based exams and revised for this paper only intermittently – you can revise for it in earnest once the essay papers are over (but make sure you don’t ignore it completely beforehand, as it still makes a significant contribution to your overall grade).
Finally, try to make your revision as efficient as possible. Remember that you will need to write 3 essays for each paper (and 4 for Module C), and therefore to revise a minimum of three topics. Every moment spent revising a topic for which you will not write an essay in the exam is time not spent comprehensively revising the topics for which you will write an essay, or alternatively in enjoying the tantalising revision term sunshine. In saying that, you must be prepared for the situation in which your favoured topic is not mentioned on the exam paper or has an obscure essay question associated with it. Thus towards exam time I would narrow my revision focus to one or two topics more than the minimum for each exam paper, and perhaps revise a couple of others in less detail, just in case. It is perfectly justified to completely ignore the remaining topics and I would say entirely necessary in order to preserve your peace of mind, unless you are the Rain Man. However choose wisely, based on the particular exam format in your year. Distribute your time equally between the different modules/topics, as each essay will eventually be worth a similar amount.
Remember to take plenty of breaks and to maintain your other hobbies/ social life to some extent (NB this is assuming you have been working diligently throughout the year and are not cramming frantically at the last minute)! Sometimes this can take as much self-control as establishing a good work ethic in the first place. No one has an infinite attention span and revising for lengthy periods (more than 1 – 2 hours in a go) will both muddle your mind and make you lose the will to live long before exams are over. Also, pick an effective revision spot: do not slave away in the library if you find that it is ineffective – try other locations instead. My personal favourite spot was outside, in the Fellows’ Garden!
Good luck and remember to enjoy, both within and outside your subject, what might be your final year in Cambridge!