Introducing BiologyOnTheBox

Today I am officially launching my latest project. BiologyOnTheBox is a website for sharing recommendations regarding broadcast media programmes and clips that might be useful in the teaching of bioscience. The majority of links and reviews relate to TV shows in the UK, though some relate to radio. is a site for sharing recommendations regarding TV and radio resources for use in teaching bioscience is a site for sharing recommendations regarding TV and radio resources for use in teaching bioscience

Recommendations on BiologyOnTheBox can, in principle, be used by anyone with access to copies of the original programmes. It is, however, intended to dovetail particularly closely with the fantastic Box of Broadcasts resource. I’ve enthused previously about Box of Broadcasts (BoB), including here (TES Opinion) and here (this blog). However having had a lunchtime conversation recently with a number of colleagues who had no idea what BoB was, here’s a brief intro. If you are already familiar with BoB feel free to jump down to the section on BiologyOnTheBox. Continue reading

To Whom It May Concern: Some advice for students seeking references

Reference writing takes time and effort, do your best to help your referee do the best they can for you

Reference writing takes time and effort, do your best to help your referee do the best they can for you

A number of recent events have prompted me to reflect again on the subject of reference writing.

Offering a letter of recommendation, or completing one of the myriad different online forms, is not a trivial task, either in terms of the labour involved or the potential significance of the resultant document. In this post I want to make some suggestions for any students seeking a reference from an academic, regardless of their discipline, which I hope will make the process more effective (and less fraught) for all parties.

1. Ask. Firstly, do ask a potential referee before you offer their name to the organisation seeking the reference. On one level this is common courtesy. However it also does two things to the benefit of the applicant: it forewarns the academic that they need to budget some time for writing a reference and gathering the relevant information (see 3, below); it also gives them the opportunity to suggest a more appropriate referee for the specific job. Unless there are exceptional circumstances, the first person you should ask for a reference is your personal tutor. For finalists or graduates requiring a second academic commendation the next person to ask is usually your project supervisor. Continue reading

Television as a teaching tool

My Opinion piece on use of TV for teaching was published in the 28th August edition of Times Higher Education

My Opinion piece on use of TV for teaching was published in the 28th August edition of Times Higher Education

Regular readers of The Journal of the Left-Handed Biochemist will know of my enthusiasm for exploiting multimedia in teaching. Back in January 2014 I hosted a conference on the theme, and it is also the raison d’être for two other blogs that I run Bioethicsbytes and the new Biology on the Box.

In August, Times Higher Education magazine published an opinion piece in which I discussed some of the ways that TV footage can be used in teaching and to try to dispel reservations that might be stopping colleagues from making more of this rich resource. The article can be freely accessed, so rather than repeating myself here can I encourage you to read the original piece via this link.

Discussing pedagogic research in Edinburgh

Freshly returned from the excellent Effective Learning in the Biosciences event at Edinburgh, I include below a poster that Jon Scott and I presented about our monthly Bioscience PedR meetings. Click on image to see larger version.

Preparing for Med School interviews

The following are notes written for a session I was asked to run with sixth form students about preparing for Med School interviews. I am quite sure there are lots of sensible suggestions that I have inadvertently omitted – please feel free to use the Comments facility to offer your additional advice.


Your personal statement: You’ve got an interview! Apart from anything else, that means you must have done something right in your personal statement. Even though it may be months since you wrote it, it is important that you re-read it thoroughly about a week before the interview to remind yourself what you said and then reflect on what questions this may lead onto. In particular, think about: Continue reading

CiteULike = SiteILike

delicious1I have been a devotee of social bookmarking tool delicious since 2007 and now have nearly 4000 items tagged. Although the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos (slide 17) in my July 2008 presentation Knowing where it’s at: find it? flag it? share it? (or how delicious saved my life) were staged for effect, the ability to accumulate links to resources online rather than generate piles on (unread) papers in my office has been a genuine revelation.

connoteaAlongside delicious, I also dabbled briefly with Connotea, the online reference management tool from the Nature stable. It has the same potential as delicious for user-generated tags, but at the time I couldn’t really see what additional value it was adding and I let my interest wither, electing instead to use delicious alone for all of my bookmarks, including journal articles.

citeulikeMore recently, I’ve been persuaded by a colleague to take a close look at rival social citation application citeulike. This time around I think I get it. One of the features that really appeals is the potential to import comprehensive bibliographic information armed only with the Digital Object Identifier (DOI). With journals making the DOI of articles increasingly obvious on their websites and in table of contents alerts, this becomes a very straightforward way to collate large quantities of metadata whilst retaining the capability to tag a paper with whatever keywords reflect its relevance to you.

In truth, I have not conducted a rigorous side-by-side comparison of citeulike v connotea (or any of the other similar tools). I am quite sure, for example, that they all have the potential to assimilate bibliographic details armed only with the DOI. For the foreseable future I will continue to tag journal articles using delicious. However, this feature of citeulike, couple with the capabililty to establish shared libraries of articles relevant to members of a particular list, has persuaded me to also give the latter a prolonged trial.

DVD storage ideas – here’s one I prepared earlier

As someone who regularly uses off-air recordings of TV programmes in my teaching (see BioethicsBytes), I’ve generated quite a library of DVDs which have been knocking around for a while in a series of boxes. With storage of the discs being in need of a bit of rationalisation, I bought an allegedly purpose-designed CD/DVD unit from a high street store. (We won’t embarrass them by naming them, but the shop sounds very like the boat on which Jason and his pals set off in search of the Golden Fleece). It turned out that the system of pre-drilled holes allowed the shelves to be arranged for CDs or for mixed media, but could not be made to work in any sensible manner for DVDs alone.

I finally decided to take the solution into my own hands, and in the best Blue Peter tradition I decided that with the aid of a little sticky-backed plastic the solution was much closer to home. I’m very please with the outcome, so I offer you the following practical suggestions.