Part II Pathology

by Thomas Yip (2017-18)

Congratulations on completing parts IA and IB of your course! Gone are the days of juggling four separate subjects at once – Part II Pathology gives you the opportunity to focus on building upon Part IB BOD/Pathology and exploring the forefront of your chosen options. Part II brings with it new challenges and demands, and I hope this guide might be helpful in answering some questions to those interested in taking up Part II Pathology or who have already begun the course.

Part II Pathology consists of five options, of which you need to choose two:

  1. Cancer & Genetic Diseases
  2. Immunology
  3. Microbiology and Parasitology
  4. Virology
  5. Dynamics of Infectious Diseases

The only combination you cannot choose is options A and E together, but otherwise everything goes.

There is a difference between ‘Single Subject Pathology’ and ‘BBS Pathology’, in that ‘Single Subject Pathology’ involves a two-term research project, whereas the BBS course involves a minor subject (in addition to the two major options listed above), as well as a dissertation instead of the research project. I will talk mainly about the Single Subject Course, since it is the one that I did myself. Note that the course content might have changed in the time since I did the course in 2017/2018.

The Course

You may have heard some seniors talking about Part II Pathology as a painful course, involving lots of information and rote memorisation of facts (and certainly not “Patholiday”). While the course does cover a wide range of content, memorisation of the facts is less important than it was in Part IB, as there are no more true/false or MCQ papers. You do not have to know everything, as long as you are able to discuss information relating to the question decently enough.

Each option generally has 3 lectures a week held in the Department of Pathology, with the exception of DID that has fewer but longer lectures in the vet school. Lecture timings can vary between options – Immunology and Virology had lectures at 5pm most days, while MMP and CGD had morning and afternoon lectures. Additionally, CGD and Immunology had lectures Saturday morning.

In terms of teaching, there are tutorials organised by the department that you can sign up for, as well as supervisions that can be organised directly with the lecturers. The former typically involves larger groups of students, and is an opportunity to ask questions regarding the lectures and discuss some areas that may be of interest or that have caused some confusion. Supervisions have to be organised directly with the lecturers in your own groups of 3-5 students. In most cases, we would write an essay from past papers or request for an essay topic for submission some time before the supervision, where we could then receive feedback or discuss particular points about the lectures and beyond.

Each option generally has quite a broad focus, and covers a wide variety of topics. Unlike part I, you do not necessarily have to know allthe content given in the lectures, although a surface understanding of the topic would be helpful for discussion in essays. Further reading of papers given in the reading lists or other sources is generally helpful, particularly for the 90 minute essay papers, where you will be expected to critically discuss experimental evidence.

The Exam

The examination consists of 4 papers – 2 of which involve 4 45-minute essays, while the other 2 involve 2 90-minute essays. These make up 65% of your final grade. The 90 minute essays involve a choice of 1 essay out of 3 for each option. The scope of discussion is usually fairly broad for the 90 minute essays, and you will be expected to discuss information coming from different parts of the course, and occasionally relevant information that you may know from the other option you have taken. I found that discussion of relevant experimental evidence is particularly important for this paper, and the lectures typically contain several key experiments that can be supplemented by further reading. I emphasise the importance of relevantinformation – it is far too easy to get caught up describing and explaining information and evidence only tangentially related to the question, and this will not score you any points!

In contrast, the 45 minute papers typically have a narrower scope of discussion, with some questions arising from information contained in only a couple of slides given in a single lecture. You will need to write 2 essays out of a choice of 4 for each option. I would advise practising writing both the 45 and 90 minute essays throughout the year, particularly in the lead-up to the exams, as it may be difficult to gauge the appropriate scope of discussion during the exam itself.

Single-subject course students will also need to sit for 2 data-handling papers, each relating to the options taken. These account for 15% of the final grade. These typically involve data from actual scientific papers, ranging from historical papers to recent publications. The scope of questions also varies, with some requiring simple description and inferences based on data, while others require novel hypotheses based on data and suggestions of further experiments to further investigate these hypotheses. I would suggest getting used to the common techniques and types of data involved in your chosen option, which you may come across during your research project.

The Project

Most students will start their research project at the beginning of Michaelmas, although some may start about a week in advance with prior arrangement with their supervisors. Most labs will be in the department itself, at the Biomedical Campus or at the vet school. Commitment to the research project is really up to you – some students go to the lab from 9am to 5pm daily during the week with the exception of lecture times, while others may only go to the lab a 3 times a week for a few hours at a time. It is important to note that the project accounts for only 20% of the grade, so make sure to divide your time wisely between the core coursework and your project! You may also be assigned a day-to-day supervisor during your project, and this is often an excellent opportunity for discussion not only of your project, but also information from your course that may be directly relevant to your lab’s research interests.

Don’t get overly caught up in ensuring you get results – most projects will not yield meaningful results. You may struggle with problems such as contamination of tissue culture samples (as I did) that may set your project weeks behind, but ultimately your grade in this portion of your project comes from your supervisor’s evaluation and your written report. In fact, some projects may not progress further than construction of a plasmid due to difficulties in experimental procedures or design! More importantly, enjoy the opportunity to work in a research environment, and identify whether or not you are interested in research as a future career.

For the report, it may be helpful to begin writing parts of it earlier during the Christmas break or in Lent term to avoid unnecessary stress near the submission date. You will have to submit your report at the end of Lent term. The experimental results you obtain are less important than demonstrating a solid understanding and discussion of relevant background information and context behind your project, as well as being able to critically appraise your data and suggest reasons behind the data you have collected or future experiments you could do. Some example projects can be found in the reading room in the department or may be uploaded onto Moodle. You will have to give a short presentation early in Easter term, although for my year this was not examinable but may be subject to change in the future.

Possibly helpful tips

During Part II, many students will have to adapt to the different demands of the course compared to 1stand 2ndyears. I have written down some information that hopefully may be helpful to those sitting for the course.

  1. Don’t memorise all the details. It may sound counterintuitive compared to Part IB where essentially every sentence was examinable, but in part II not knowing the name of a particular receptor or protein is completely fine. More importantly, examiners are looking for a discussion of the topic and for you to address the why’s and how’s. One example I can think of would be in virology, where explanation of the underlying reasons behind the unique aspects of the life cycles of different viruses is particularly important. Some information may also be based on theories that may not be completely proven yet, and further reading might be helpful in discussion.
  2. Think about how different aspects of the course fit into the wider picture. Particularly for the 90 minute essays, the topics will be phrased in ways that allow you to bring in information from different parts of the course and possibly from other options. If it interests you at all, extra reading can often be brought in and discussed in these essays.
  3. Make a note of references that could be of interest. I initially used Mendeley as a reference manager during the part II project, but found that I was collecting far too many papers that are not always relevant to the course or to exam questions. In Easter term, I began to organise references in a word document with descriptions of the experiments performed and their key findings for easy reference during revision. I would advise you to organise experiments that you may want to make use of for discussion in the exams earlier in the year! Also, don’t worry too much about memorising names, dates and data – knowing the broad experimental procedures involved and being able to discuss their findings and conclusions is more important!
  4. Read broadly enough! The 45 minute essay papers are notorious for being focused on a single lecture or even several slides from a lecture. While you do not have to know everything in a single lecture series, make sure you have covered enough of the course to write up a decent essay if none of them are areas that particularly interest you. More importantly, ensure you answer the question in a relevant manner – I wrote one of the 45 minute essays using knowledge from Part IB BOD with some added extras, and did decently well on that paper!
  5. Practise writing essays and getting feedback. It is far too easy to not write essays or organise supervisions during the term, and then struggle during Easter term when looking at past essay questions. The number of essays varied between people in my year – I knew some who wrote an essay a week for each option (or more!), and others who did not write essays at all. Find out what works for you and try to keep up the habit during the year. I wrote about 6-8 essays for each option that I got feedback on during the year, with some additional timed practice essays in Easter term.

I hope this write-up has been helpful to you. Part II may seem challenging at times, particularly at the start of the year, but don’t get too overwhelmed by all the suggested reading material! More importantly, enjoy the course, identify your interests, and get into the habit of discussing the course content rather than being caught up in trying to memorise every single detail in the lectures.