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Teaching with a Vision

I mentioned in a recent post that I haven’t yet detected any great vision behind the medical teaching in Cambridge. Today, I’d like to write about a place where I have actually experienced teaching with a vision: at the university where I did my undergraduate degree. Ok, admittedly I did not go to a large state-funded university, but the small private University Fresenius in Idstein/Germany (where I did a chemistry degree), but I don’t think it’s necessarily the source of funding that makes a difference here.

In Germany, the name Fresenius (for an article on the Chemist Carl Remigius Fresenius, see here) is associated with excellence in analytical chemistry. Therefore, one strong point of the chemistry degree at Fresenius Uni is still a solid background in analytical chemistry to this day. However, being named after the great founder of analytical chemistry does not mean that the university is resting on its laurels. A quick visit to the website reveals that the chemistry course has undergone several transformations since my graduation year, proof of ongoing improvements and adaptations in times of change. Already when I was a student, the curriculum had been refined over the years by constant feedback from industry, ensuring that it was up to date, but also that the graduates would be readily recruited and employed. Furthermore, I found the content of the course very well constructed, both in terms of what was taught and what content was omitted (that’s also important!), as well as in terms of organisation. (Ok, to be completely honest, those who’ve known me since then know that I sometimes wished at the time to learn particular topics in a bit more detail, such as quantum chemistry, but that still has not changed even today as a student in Cambridge. It’s obviously more to do with my personal preferences than anything else!)

Studying at Fresenius, it seemed as if someone had sat down initially to really think about what knowledge makes a good chemist and then built up the curriculum from first principle, open to constant improvement. The key philosophy seemed to be the communication of what is the most comprehensive “working knowledge” of a chemist, and to really bring across these principles. One way in which this was achieved was the high amount of practical lab teaching, more than 50% of the time if I remember correctly. Apart from the obvious different disciplines of chemistry, the overall masterplan also included the possibility to integrate minor studies in other subjects such as economics and languages, in order to develop a well rounded set of skills relating to a career in chemistry. Another very important aspect of the degree was the possibility to study/work abroad for up to 3 semesters (of 8 in total) during the final two years of the degree (which by the way I took full advantage of, as explained here).

All this is the result of a conscious effort to not just educate excellent chemists, but “international chemists” equipped with a set of generally applicable skills indispensable in our modern world. I think all this is possible because the groundwork is laid down so conscientiously, which enables students to develop into their own direction and indulge in more detailed studies, able to fall on the fertile ground of a sound foundation of knowledge.

Germany is different to the UK in that there aren’t (m)any elite universities with longstanding traditions (although there is a discussion if this should be changed), and there is a much more common-sense attitude towards the significance of school grades. As a result, there is no restriction on the A-level average of a student wanting to study Chemistry at Fresenius or anywhere else (apart from the requirement that he/she gets an overall pass, of course). Some may say that this puts a limit on the quality of graduates that can be produced, but I am convinced that every student going through the Fresenius system, no matter how academic or not, will emerge with a sound knowledge of chemistry in the end. I think this steady output of good graduates is quite an achievement in the light of the generous admission policy and is certainly tribute to the educational philosophy. In Cambridge and Oxford on the other hand, where only the best A-level students of the country are admitted, I don’t think it’s as surprising that the graduates are excellent, because they were already excellent in the first place. (Sometimes I even think they are excellent despite the teaching they have encountered, not because of it! ;-))

To sum up, as a result of this overall vision, I think that the students graduating from Fresenius enter the professional world with a great foundation and working knowledge of Chemistry, perhaps not excessively familiar with the academic intricacies of the most advanced chemical topics, but well rounded and ready to be placed in any lab and start working. I don’t think this is the result of chance, but of a well thought through approach to produce exactly the type of graduate needed in the world of chemistry.


I definitely think that every course on offer in an institution should be based on an overall vision or special philosophy, whatever that may be. This allows a course to stand out among the plethora of available programmes and gives the students something unique along the way. Fresenius definitely shows that this can be done, even on a smaller budget and without relying exclusively on the best students in the country.

Good and Bad Teaching…

For months I have been pondering about what it takes to teach (science) well, inspired by many far-from-ideal lectures I had to endure. At the beginning of this academic year, we had three great lectures within first week only (exceeding the number of great lectures of the whole last academic year), so I decided to put this blog entry on hold. Now it’s 6th week and there definitely haven’t been any great lectures since, so I am back to thinking… the writing is still in progress, but I thought I put up these two pictures in the meantime. In my opinion, they summarise the bottom line of ideal versus reality….

Number one is how I would imagine one would go about teaching. Start with the basics (the foundations, but it seemed too hard to draw a basement) and then build on them.

Number two is a summary of how I often feel in lectures. Imagine the paper shredded… It was too hard to draw that, too!! 😉

1 Year into Medschool…

one year ago, i put my scientific career on hold to start an adventure… med school in cambridge.

i took this leap in order to work more closely with people rather than proteins, to do something more applicable that may perhaps lead me to a new direction of (potentially more fundable) research in the future. even though i loved my job, the science and academic life, i wanted to do something more tangible and be able to approach science with a much broader perspective.

so i moved from oxford to cambridge in september 2010, ultra-keen and excited about what was to come. so now, after my first year in medschool, what are the conclusions i can draw?

it has definitely been a year of adjustments… it started off with my initial expectations meeting reality (see this previous post), and then getting on with things and studying for the exams. now that i’ve passed the 1st year exams and gained some more experience, i can look back and evaluate:


would i choose cambridge again?

* cambridge’s special focus on science

the cambridge graduate course is one of the few in the country that does NOT compress two years of pre-clinical teaching into one year, but keeps two full years of pre-clinical science on the curriculum. these two years are accompanied by an accelerated version of the first clinical year of the standard course, taught during the term “holidays”. after these initial two years, one enters straight into the 2nd clinical year of the standard course, i.e. the penultimate year of medical school, making it a 4-year course in total.

since obtaining a broad and in-depth foundation of the science involved in medicine was one of my reasons for starting medschool in the first place, i have definitely enjoyed this aspect of the course.

working through the material my own way, i definitely got a lot out of it and am full of ideas for the future. in that way i can only recommend it to anyone interested in science.

but contrasting the amount of cambridge’s scientific teaching with the required working knowledge of a physician, one can perhaps understand why other medical schools choose to define their focus differently. given that this is a graduate course and there is also a lot of medicine to learn, the two years of intense science are perhaps a bit of an indulgence. that’s why i recommend thinking about how much science you wish to encounter before choosing any particular medical course… 😉


* tailoring of the course to graduate students

the course organisation i described in the previous paragraph means that the graduate students work alongside the undergrads during termtime of the first two years, and have their own separate clinical teaching during the term “holidays”. after pre-clinical finals in the 2nd year, the graduates join a more advanced cohort of undergrads for full-time clinical training for another 2 years.

so apart from the few weeks of clinical teaching in the first two years, very little course content has actually been specifically designed for graduates. the grads do almost everything the undergrads do, only in less time and with much less time off.

in my opinion, the course hardly takes into consideration or even exploits the different starting points and skill sets of graduates and professionals compared to younger undergrads. while this is a pity, it would be much less of a shortcoming if it wasn’t for the relatively ineffective timetabling and execution of the course. the time constraints of the graduate course (and without wanting to sound snobbish: perhaps also the higher degree of university and life-experience of older students??) definitely highlight any lousy teaching, inefficient planning and scheduling. while it was definitely painful to sit through practicals teaching you how to hold a pipette, no matter how many times you have done it before, it was worse to suffer through full schedules of compulsory attendance, no matter how dull and superfluous the event. this left you with very little freedom to organise your time in a way that makes learning most efficient for you, something that a mature student could definitely be entrusted with.

finally, with only very few weeks off during the year (in total ~5, of which at least 2 have to be used for studying), there just isn’t much flexibility for any unforeseen events that may occur (such as parents falling ill etc… sadly more likely to happen as you get older), or to simply coordinate your life with that of your family or partner.

i wonder if other medical schools offering accelerated courses have incorporated more obvious strategies for teaching older students. at least the titles of some other courses (e.g. “graduate/professional entry” at king’s college london) suggests some awareness in that direction.


considering these aspects, the course has definitely been quite disappointing. but then again, there is no guarantee that it will be better anywhere else… 😉


* to sum up…

given that cambridge is a beautiful and convenient place to study, i’d probably still choose cambridge again. but if i could start over, i would equip myself with thick skin and various coping mechanisms right away:

– keep your expectations low and your humor high

– keep up as much of an outside life as you can

– keep some aspect of your previous career going to give you some affirmation

– never lose sight of the big picture.

Seeing the World with the Eyes of…

I don’t know about you, but when I study a particular subject in depth, my view of the world changes… literally!!! It has happened to me before, but now that I am studying medicine, it is happening again.

During my first degree in chemistry, I spent four years looking at chemical formulas learning about the molecular make-up of the world. Since then, without intending to, my brain has tried to identify chemistry everywhere, most commonly on car license plates:

During my PhD in Biochemistry, I spent day and night analysing NMR data, i.e. looking at spectra with different constellations of dots, in order to identify amino acids and their close neighbours in a protein sequence (for more detail on how this works, see here). After doing this for a while, my brain automatically tried finding protein sequences everywhere. I could no longer look at the night-sky without seeing amino acid side-chains:

This year I have been studying anatomy. My colleagues and I have spent more than 50 hours in the dissection room, cutting into cadavers to explore the human body. I have seen a lot of organs, nerves, muscles and tendons. The other day I was in a place where they did some building works, and my brain identified the cables hanging out of the wall as the flexor compartment of the forearm:


With this little presentation, I acknowledge these perceptual changes, but hope they won’t extend too far. Some things are better appreciated as they are… 😉




Leaving Science for a while…

I haven’t posted in ages… it’s been a busy year with lots of changes.

I’ve decided to put my scientific career on ice for a while and start med school. How come?

It’s not that I did not like being a post-doc… I loved it: the research, the teaching, learning new things every day (or most days), the flexible working hours and lack of dress code. I love wearing sports clothes to work! What I did not love was being in a constant state of desperation. Desperation for publications, for producing results to put into publications, for experiments to work in order to get results, for a decent project that will let you do experiments that are interesting enough to get them published. See, it’s a long chain of desperation, and after a while it is bound to get you down. Additionally, there is a lot of competition out there, and the success is not always distributed fairly. So I decided to take a detour away from science. Maybe (hopefully) I will come back to it one day, but if not, then I will be able to say that my job involves helping people on a really tangible level. If worst comes to worst, it’s better to be a failed doctor than a failed scientist!

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