Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Hello from a recent graduate of the Structural Molecular Biology MSc

Hello everyone.  My name is Jill Faircloth and, as the title suggests, I graduated from the MSc last year.  My plan is to become a freelance science writer and Clare has very kindly allowed me a voice on this blog.  I will be blogging from the Birkbeck Science week next week but first I thought I’d introduce myself.
I read Chemistry as an undergraduate but soon discovered that aspirations to a glorious research career were incompatible with my lab skills.  I therefore put on a suit and became a chartered accountant before moving to ICI and working my way up the finance ladder.  That’s where I was when I had my first child and I would have stayed but an opportunity arose in my husband’s career and we left for San Francisco for a couple of years.  This and the subsequent baby gave me (plenty) of time to realise that I couldn’t go back to the spreadsheets and I decided to follow my interest in structural molecular biology.
This took me to where you are now and, since it is March, and assuming the timetable hasn’t changed too much, you have just navigated symmetry and are now battling through the fascinating but rather dense protein lifecycle.  Since I know that it can be a little overwhelming when you’re in the middle of one of the lengthier sections, I thought I’d give you a quick heads up of what’s in store.  Section 9 is on molecular forces and has quite a different flavour from the rest of PPS.  There’s more physics to contend with but by the end of it the logic behind protein interactions is much clearer.  After that you’re into the home straight and what I found to be the most enjoyable part of the course.  The last 3 sections deal with how the function of a protein is dictated by its detailed molecular structure and by the interactions which are promoted or inhibited by that structure.  For me, this is where I could really get a sense of quite how remarkable the evolution of proteins is.  Various protein types are examined and used as examples of the elegance of mechanisms in which subtle molecular changes can trigger impressive macro consequences.  This is what the rest of the course has been building up to.
After that you will be out of the comparative comfort of working through the sections, with some of you performing the delicate balancing act of simultaneous revision and project work.  This is where I can offer you a few top tips from the previous class.  You should definitely get hold of at least 5 years of past papers.  Even if you don’t have time to work through them all, as you go through you will see that certain topics have a higher probability of featuring than others.  Also, don’t leave all of your work on the project until after the exam, particularly if you are new to HTML.  HTML takes a little time to crack, although a speedy way to do it is to look at the text of previous years’ projects and copy the bits for inserting titles, tables, pictures and links.  Another reason for getting some foundation research in early is that sometimes a key review paper may not be available online and, although the Birkbeck library is extremely helpful, there is a time lag in retrieving hard copies which you may not be able to accommodate in the time between the exam and the project submission.  Please don’t let these comments put you off.  Producing the project is hard work but is extremely satisfying as you get the scope to really engage with a subject in a way that there isn’t often time for during the coursework.  Speaking personally, it was the experience which inspired me to try my hand at science writing, hopefully the beginning of a shiny new career.
The other subject which may be on your minds is the choice of course for the second half of your MSc.  I chose TSMB on the basis that we were told by Prof Nick Keep that it was the best basis for a PhD and at the time I was labouring under the fond delusion that I would be able to attract sponsorship to do a part time PhD.  I have asked an old PPS colleague who chose PX for his opinions so that I could give you a brief student’s view of the choices on offer. 
TSMB is Techniques in Structural Molecular Biology.  It covers a myriad of techniques that are employed to decipher the molecular structure of proteins from the DNA technology employed to code the protein of interest, through the wet lab skills used to identify, isolate and prepare a sample to the physics of different methods of structure solution.  The sections consequently vary greatly in density and difficulty but the course has been thoughtfully structured so that the more demanding sections are interspersed with the lighter ones.  I found the course very interesting and indispensible for understanding structural biology literature.  I can definitely see why Nick said that it would be the best basis for a PhD although I should say that the consensus among the students that I used to chat with regularly was that it was more challenging than PPS.
PX is Protein Crystallography, which is where a crystal of a protein is obtained and x-rays are directed through it to produce a diffraction pattern.  This pattern can be interpreted to give the electron density of each non-hydrogen atom in a molecule and hence its structure.  This is a technique in which Birkbeck has an extremely strong reputation and consequently is a tempting course for anyone wishing to specialise.  My inside source reported that there was a good variety between sections and that on balance he found it slightly less demanding than PPS although I would have to say that his perception probably speaks to his non-biological background.  There is also the opportunity in this module to handle real data and solve a structure as a project. 
Being that I am over my 1000 word limit, I had better sign off.  I hope that one or two of these observations may be helpful and wish you all the best of luck with the rest of the course.


Robert said...

Thanks for the nice introduction & helpful hints, Jill. Having a mixed background myself (hopefully will include this lovely MSc) I found very instructive the following book: "Alternative Careers in Science" by Cynthia Robbins-Roth, maybe you would like to take a look at it. Good luck in all your endevours!

Jill Faircloth said...

Thank you, Robert. The book looks very interesting. I'll give it a go. Enjoy your course.



Hi there Jill,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences about your life and your studies at Birkbeck. I found it very helpful, as I am in the process of getting an interview with the admissions for the MRes in Structural Biology, starting this autumn.

I come from a non-science background (business consultancy) and re-trained in 2007 when I started my foundation course and BSc degree in Biomedical Science. During my studies and countless lab work experiences, I have not been exposed to structural molecular techniques, but I am intrigued by it and want to follow down this path. My hope is to follow a research career. This MRes is the start and hopefully I can gain a place, then pass and get a funded PhD.

Am I crazy for wanting to study this, as there seems to be physics, chemistry, maths and statistics in this not to mention the biochemistry? Do I need to be a genius for this?

Many thanks and good luck with your future career.

Happy writing!

Jill Faircloth said...

Hi Venividivici,

I think your plan sounds excellent. The MRes will put you in a fantastic position when you are applying for PhDs as you will have a demonstrable background in all the key techniques used in structural molecular biology. What supervisor wouldn't be happy with that?

The course itself sounds intense but very interesting with a great mix of course work, projects and practicals. I'm sure you will enjoy it. Also, it's broad enough that you should get a good sense of which research area you want to pursue when you're putting in PhD applications.

Do you need to be a genius? Well, I can't speak to the practicals, but I have personally demonstrated that that's not necessary for the courses. There are aspects which are definitely challenging, and that will depend on your interests. I didn't come across much maths or statistics in PPS or TSMB and I would say the chemistry is largely limited to biochemistry, which sounds like it will be your comfort zone. There is a fair amount of physics in TSMB and PX, since you need it to understand the techniques which are used. This was the area which I found most difficult and I sent many emails to the tutors. They were extremely supportive and I always got back explanations that helped. The online tutorials were great for this too.

I think it's a great choice and hopefully the beginning of a great career. Best of luck with your interview.



Hi there,

Thank you for your detailed and very informative reply. It has been re-assuring and have given me more confidence that I can succeed if I go ahead with this course.

Since my last post, I've been for my interview (last week) and have now officially received an offer of admission to the MRes. Exciting stuff and very happy about that.

I was shown around the labs and also attended a seminar that day, which was very interesting and gave me a taste of the research being done using structural techniques.

May I ask which technique(s) do you think will be the most useful in the years ahead? X-ray crystallography? NMR? cryo-EM?

I have noticed that Birkbeck has the X-ray equipment and UCL the NMR equipment as part of the ISMB co-operation. When choosing my research project, I would need to choose, as I'm sure it won't be possible to do a project which covers all these techniques? Correct me if I'm wrong. What was your project on and did you get to choose or were you assigned?

Many thanks for your advice.


Jill Faircloth said...

Hi Sean,

That's fantastic news. Congratulations.

I don't want to duck the question but I did different projects as part of the distance learning MSc, which has no practical work. Given that, I'm not really in a position to try and give advice but the tutors are very approachable and I'm sure they'll be happy to discuss your options with you. The course spec says that you get the chance to speak to several supervisors before making a decision so you should definitely take advantage of that.

In terms of which of the 3 techniques are most useful, the unhelpful answer is all of them. It depends on which area of structural biology you want to study. If you want to research macromolecular machines you will use cryo em but for individual proteins you would probably use either x-ray or NMR depending on whether or not you can get a crystal. I would choose a project based on the biology rather than the technique but that's a personal choice.

Birkbeck is a renowned centre of excellence particularly for crystallography but there are some very exciting labs using predominantly cryo em.

Sorry, I'm not sure that I can help. I would struggle to make the choice myself. Maybe wait until you're there and follow whatever catches your interest.

Congratulations again,



Dear Jill,

Don't worry, you have been more than helpful and I do appreciate your views and input. I will keep it in mind.

I now have other postgraduate study offers on the table, so need to make a decision fairly soon.

Many thanks and happy writing :)