Embracing the potential of digital exams

Horizons in STEM Higher Education has become a summer fixture for many science academics. In keeping with many 2020 events, this year’s conference switched to an online format. The first plenary lecture was Digital Exams: Transforming Assessment by Professor Mariann Rand-Weaver from Brunel University.


This was a really inspiring session, demonstrating the opportunities that are presented by actively moving examinations from a traditional paper-based format to using digital platforms.

Brunel has been moving to digital exams over the past few years (i.e. not just in response to recent pandemic), partly motivated by asking themselves why exams were almost the only time we ever ask students to hand write anything these days. Additionally, a switch to provision of computers is already a typical “reasonable adjustment” on accessibility grounds, so why not level the playing field by allowing this for all?

There are a range of benefits. For the markers it is easier to read typed scripts. The answers are often better structured, as the students can move around the text to the relevant point. There are also administration benefits – e.g. less paper , less manual handling, more streamlined processes. Continue reading

Thirteen take-home messages from the Nuffield webinar on fair and equitable access to Covid-19 treatments and vaccines

nuffieldOn 5th June 2020 I was privileged to be able to listen into the latest in a series of webinars on Covid-19 and ethics organised by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Sharing the benefits of research: facilitating fair and equitable access to Covid-19 treatments and vaccines. The meeting, held on Zoom and chaired by Nuffield Director Hugh Whittall featured contributions from four experts, followed by a Q&A session. The panelists were: Stefan Swartling Peterson (Chief of Health at UNICEF); Ellen ‘t Hoen (Director of Medicines Law & Policy, and founder of the Medicines Patent Pool); Achal Prabhala (Coordinator of the AccessIBSA project, which campaigns for access to medicines in India, Brazil and South Africa); and Sheuli Porkess (Executive Director for Research, Medical and Innovation at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI)).

What follows are my initial reflections on a terrific and informative session. I offer the caveat that I have not listened back to a recording of the meeting (though I gather one will be made available shortly). I am therefore working just from my ‘live’ notes and these points are likely a blend of what was actual said, things where I might inadvertently have got the wrong end of the stick, plus tangents towards which my brain spiralled at the time and in preparing these notes. Continue reading

Biology in Broadcast Media

Back at the start of the lockdown, I noted that it would be a good time for University staff and students to make more use of various online resources, notably the Box of Broadcasts archive of TV and radio programmes (more than 2 million in total). I was therefore delighted to respond to a request from Learning on Screen to curate the Biology section of a new teaching resources collection they are developing.

boblistI have started by the new list by including a variety of programmes which I had previously identified as part of the Biology On The Box project, Over time I will add more news items and other classic documentaries. Of course if you have any suggestions or requests for inclusion then do please let me know. Similarly, I know that they are seeking academics willing to curate collection for different disciplines so, if you think that might be you, do get in touch with Learning on Screen directly.

[Note: the link in the above screengrab is not live. If you would like to access the playlist, click here.]

UPDATE (24th April): rather than start a fresh post on this theme, I add here that Learning on Screen made a promotional video about the playlist (see https://vimeo.com/407951233) and they also asked me to host a two-hour “takeover” of their Twitter account. I have make the latter thread into a PDF file, which can be accessed via this link.


Adjusting “exams” as they move online

Universities across the world are having to adjust to the fact that rooms full of students sitting exams is not an appropriate assessment format for May and June this year. As a consequence, teaching teams are needing to think laterally about how to interrogate students about the learning they have gained from their modules.

celebrity squares

Online meetings have started to look like episodes of the old “Celebrity Squares” gameshow

I am sure many places are way ahead of us on this one, but a few reflections on a recent teaching and learning committee meeting (held via zoom) may be of benefit to those who are just getting going in their thinking about this.


  1. Duration of tests and the length of time they are accessible. The amount of time that a test is “live” and the time for which an individual student can respond are not necessarily the same thing. A defined two hour period is not applicable for a number of reasons – including potential timezone differences and connectivity problems. My institution has mandated a “24 hour window” for assessments and it is our understanding at the chalkface (as it was) that this means that they are live throughout that time.
  2. Factual recall questions aren’t going to work. There has, of course, been a long-standing debate about the educational merits of an over-reliance of questions that reward regurgitation of factoids rather than probing higher learning skills. However, a move to remote (ie unsupervised) assessment of students who have ready access to Google* makes this format of question entirely redundant (*other browsers are available).
  3. Students need examples of any new style of questions. A decision that MCQs are not going to be appropriate is only half of the story. Introduction of radically different types of questions is going to require not only production of the actual paper but also additional specimen questions for students who will not be able to draw on past papers for guidance.
  4. Clear and timely instruction. Students are going to need clear guidance before the day of an exam, reiterated in the “instructions” section of the assessment itself. There will be all sorts of practicalities about submission as well as the questions themselves about which students will need advice.
  5. Essay questions will need word limits. For all manner of reasons the standard “three essays in two hours” format is not going to work. More time is inevitably going to mean more words. We all hope that essays represent carefully constructed and reasoned arguments in response to a specific question. Sadly the reality can sometimes be “brain dumps”, in which any material matching identifiable keywords in the title is served up for academics to sift through. A longer time will just allow for more of this unstructured stream of consciousness.
    Even taking a less jaundiced view, a good student is going to be tempted to offer far more material in support of their answer than they would realistically have managed in the typical exam scenario. If we cannot restrict the available time, then another option is to impose a word limit. Having looked at past answers, a suggestion of 1200 words for a 40 minute question (i.e. 30 words per minute) has been floated. The emphasis on “quality over quantity” needs to be emphasised – more is not necessarily better. Of course there may be a minority of student who would have written a longer essay that this, but even they will benefit from tailoring their material as a response to the specifics of the question.
  6. Plagiarism detection, and other “course essay” regulations, are back in play. The kind of measures being considered as “reasonable adjustments” in this unprecedented scenario are much more akin to coursework essays. We aspire to have novel synthesis presented in exam essays, but in the past we would not have penalised faithful regurgitation of material from lectures and other sources. Now, however, there is the very real danger of copy and paste plagiarism from lecture notes, from books and articles, or indeed of collusion between students. The requirement to use plagiarism detection tools is therefore going to be essential. Similarly, students will be able to drop in images taken from sources. Whereas in a constrained exam format we might not have worried about their origins, appropriate citation will need to be factored into marking criteria.
  7. Practicalities about format of paper set and submission requirements also need to be clear. It is not just the content of the questions that need addressing, but also aspects of the delivery of the paper and the safeguards students need to put in place regarding submission. For example it is likely that a paper will be distributed as a Word document, which is actually more accessible than many other potential formats. We know, however, that some elements of layout can be altered during the submission of word documents (eg positioning of images) and so we would probably recommend saving as a PDF before submission (much as we would usually for coursework).

This is not an exhaustive list, and you may instantly spot the flaws in the observations made – if so then do please let me know. I am very conscious that this is prepared in the context of a science program and that other disciplines may see things differently. But I hope these notes will be helpful for at least one or two of you.



Putting my concerns on the Table

[This article was first written as an editorial for  the August 2019 issue of The Biochemist, magazine of The Biochemical Society. The issue focused some of the elements that play a major role in the chemistry of life ]

bio04104_cover-figureIn the August 2019 issue of The Biochemist we join with other scientific communities in marking the International Year of The Periodic Table, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of Dmitiri Mendeleev’s groundbreaking systematic organisation of the elements. As our contribution to the celebration we have a collection of features describing facets of the contribution played by several of the elements most important to the chemistry of life.

A recent visit to MediaCity, home to parts of both the BBC and ITV networks, illustrated the reason why I have a love-hate relationship with the periodic table. In ways reminiscent of the cultural appropriation of the double-helix, wider society has taken and abused the notion of the periodic table for purposes that reveal a fundamental lack of understand about its power and significance. Many people are under the false impression that the periodic table is merely a convenient way to put vaguely related things into a series of boxes. The grid on display at MediaCity, for example, was serving to advertise different components of the BBC’s output. A quick Google search also throws up “periodic tables” for beer, cocktails, iPad apps, wrestling, horror movies and even meat. Whatever your interest, it seems, some wag had authored a “periodic table” for it.

There may or may not be an element (no pun intended) of rationality underpinning the clustering of components within such grids. However, even the most logical arrangements fail to recognise the crucial dimension of Mendeleev’s original and its descendants. As most readers of The Biochemist will, of course, be aware the elegance and power of the periodic table is the predictable progression in properties associated with moving across any row or down any column. The astonishing thing about Mendeleev’s table were the blank spaces—gaps left for as-yetundiscovered elements about whose properties he was able to make accurate predictions. Subsequent research not only confirmed their existence, but also Mendeleev’s description of their characteristics.

Random things put in boxes doth not a periodic table make. So, my churlish attitude towards these faux periodic tables largely derives from what is, in effect, their black and white appreciation of Mendeleev’s masterpiece where their ought to be wonder expressed in glorious technicolor.

Now the T-shirt emblazoned “Ah – the element of surprise”, however, that IS funny.

A copy of the original article can be found via this link

Synthetic Biology: With great knowledge comes great responsibility

[This article was first written as an editorial for  the June 2019 issue of The Biochemist, magazine of The Biochemical Society. The issue focused on Synthetic Biology and appeared shortly after the death of recombinant DNA pioneer Sydney Brenner.]

Since the publication of our previous issue of The Biochemist, we have been saddened to hear of the death of Sydney Brenner (see this link for a fuller obituary). Brenner was a giant of molecular biology in the second half of the 20th Century, conducting pivotal experiments and generating insights on many aspects of biochemistry which have become the cornerstone of our understanding of how life works. These include the existence of the triplet codon for ‘reading’ nucleic acids to make proteins, the existence of messenger RNA and, prior to that, fundamental work on the structure of bacteriophage. Brenner was a pioneer in establishing the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans as a model organism, a decision that was to lead to his sharing the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002 for “discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death”.

In the context of the current issue, which has a focus on synthetic biology, it is also relevant that Brenner was a key participant at the famous February 1975 conference at Asilomar, California. The meeting had been organized to discuss the safety and regulation of the emerging field of recombinant DNA technology. Over 100 leading molecular biologists were present, and the consultation was conducted in the presence of sixteen members of the press. Journalists included Michael Rogers from Rolling Stone who described Brenner as “the single most forceful presence at Asilomar” (Fredrickson, 1991). Amongst Brenner’s major contributions was promotion of the concept of ‘biological containment’ alongside physical interventions to safeguard against the accidental spread of genetically modified organisms.

The technology debated at Asilomar, combined with forty years of subsequent innovation are, of course, pivotal to synthetic biology. Concerns about ‘bioerror’ as well as bioterror persist, especially when some of the intended applications (e.g. bioremediation) would require the release of altered organisms into the environment. Much of the focus of this field remains the remodelling of microbes to carry out specified function, an emphasis which is reflected in several articles in this issue. As will also be evident, however, developments are occurring in a variety of other organisms. These include altering plants to be biofactories to manufacture a chosen product, or exploiting our knowledge of molecular biology to reduce unwanted effects of protein therapeutics whilst retaining the desirable characteristics.

The potential applications of synthetic biology are extraordinary, and we are certainly only at the beginning of this revolution. We need, however, to heed the spirit of Asilomar and proceed with due caution, in case our knowledge outstrips our wisdom.

Fredrickson D.S. (1991) Asilomar and Recombinant DNA: The End of the Beginning, in Biomedical Politics (ed: K.E. Hanna). Washington DC, USA: National Academy Press

A copy of the original version of the article can be found here.

What is neuroethics?

[The following text was originally written as an editorial for the October 2018 issue of The Biochemist, magazine of the Biochemical Society. The full issue can be found here].

Oct2018For many readers of The Biochemist, it will have been curiosity about the inner workings of the body, and what goes wrong in states of disease, that triggered their journey into studying molecular biology. No organ of the body is more important than the epicentre of that very curiosity, the brain. Through a variety of approaches, we are building understanding of the functioning of both the healthy and the diseased brain.

These discoveries raise a plethora of ethical questions, and represent one dimension in the burgeoning field of Neuroethics. As far back as 2002, philosopher Adina Roskies noted that Neuroethics encompassed both the ethics of neuroscience and the neuroscience of ethics. Even sticking, in the present context, to ethical issues associated with biochemistry, there are plenty of examples where dilemmas are raised.

  • If someone’s aggression is linked to possessing the “wrong” Monoamine A oxidase gene and, in consequence, they are less efficient at breaking down neurotransmitters, can they be held less culpable for criminal behaviour than someone with the more “restrained” allele?
  • As we start to understand more about the molecular changes (e.g. epigenetics) underlying the influence of environmental factors on behaviour, can it be acceptable to artificially mimic those changes in order to achieve the same (or a different) outcome?
  • Is there an ethical difference between providing Ritalin to a boy with attention deficit, in order to move their concentration more into the “normal” range, and offering the same drug to a university student hoping to avoid distraction in the run-up to an exam?
  • Is it morally acceptable to conduct brain-based research on model organisms, when the relevance of that research become more applicable to human health as the animal studied get closer in mental capacity to humans?
  • If, as an alternative, we use human brain tissue organoids in research, is there a point in their development when they are “too human” to use in this way? And would transplanting human brain organoids into rodent models be an acceptable alternative to research on primates?

A PDF of the article can be found here.

Forty years of IVF

I mentioned in a recent blog post (here) that I was intending to re-post some of the Editorials I have written for The Biochemist over the previous two years. Here is the first, from June 2018, in which I reflected on forty years of IVF in the introduction to an issue on Fertility.
The Editorial can be found here.
The full issue on Fertility can be found here.
And the text is also reproduced below

One of the unsettling aspects of growing older is the realization that events which occurred within your own lifetime are considered by others to be history. This experience struck me for the first time when one of my children was studying the fall of the Berlin Wall for their GCSE course.

2018 marks the 40th birthday of Louise Brown, the first baby produced by IVF (in vitro fertilization). For many readers of The Biochemist this pre-dates their own birth, and definitely falls into the category of history. In 1978, I was a schoolboy who hadn’t quite qualified for long trousers. I was sufficiently news-savvy to appreciate that a significant breakthrough had occurred but without being clear on the details. (In truth, I rather suspect this caveat could also have been applied to my understanding of the more traditional route to conception). In the intervening period, IVF has become the cornerstone of a broader array of assisted reproductive technologies (ART), some of which are discussed in more detail in articles in this issue.  Continue reading

Ruminating on my ruminations

BiochemistMagHomepageBoxImgAs the articles for the December 2019 issue of The Biochemist start to loiter in my inbox, I realise that we must therefore approaching the second anniversary of my taking over as Science Editor for the magazine. Doesn’t time fly when you are having fun!

It is a huge honour to have a big hand in production of this Biochemical Society publication. The Biochemist is intentionally a magazine, as opposed to a journal, and this influences the style and depth of the contents. It is hoped that all of the pieces are accessible to an undergraduate biochemist but with content that will be of interest to more seasoned academics, possibly introducing them to sub-fields of molecular bioscience that are outside their usual area of expertise. Each issue has themed features in the “front half”. In the past couple of years we’ve looked at:

  • Biomaterials;
  • Molecular Motors;
  • Fertility;
  • Food Production;
  • Molecular Biology of the Brain;
  • Immunology;
  • Biophysics;
  • Synthetic Biology;
  • Elements in Biochemistry;
  • Artificial Intelligence (forthcoming);
  • Venoms and Toxins (forthcoming)

Those who have done a quick tally will recognise that this equates to six issues per year, which represents quite an undertaking. My role as Science Editor includes: chairing the Editorial Board which, amongst other things, decides on the themes for the year’s issues; suggesting potential authors; reviewing and editing papers.

Continue reading

Questions at the Edge of Consciousness: A review of “Into the Grey Zone”

Imagine (and I hope this is a theoretical scenario rather than a real experience) that a friend is involved in a road traffic accident. The collision leaves them in what neuroscientist Adrian Owen terms the “grey zone”; the patient is alive (and does not require artificial ventilation) but they are in a “vegetative” state. Their body has periods when they appear to be awake, but they do not demonstrate any awareness of their circumstances. In the absence of intentional movement, how can we be sure that they are not, in fact, conscious – hearing the conversations next to their hospital bed, maybe even experiencing pain?

ITGZFor a long while this question seemed unanswerable. However a flurry of scientific papers, published about a decade ago, demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that it was possible to communicate with some patients in an apparently vegetative state. Now Professor Owen has published a memoir Into the Grey Zone capturing his experience at the heart of that groundbreaking work. (I couldn’t wait for publication of the Anglicised version, so I actually have “…Gray Zone“, but am assured that aside from spellings and the occasional idiom, the contents are the same. I notice on social media that Owen himself refers to the book at ITGZ which not only saves a few characters but neatly side-steps the issue of the different title.)

Whatever we choose to call it, this is a remarkable and moving read – I cannot think of any other book that has simultaneously thrilled me with the clear and logical presentation of scientific experiments and moved me to tears with their implications of the experiments for patients and their families. What follows is my rather lengthy summary of the book, followed by some specific reflections. If you want to skip directly to the latter, click here.

The book follows a general pattern in which each chapter introduces us both to the individuals who had slipped into the grey zone, and to the emerging tools of neuroinvestigation which enabled Owen to demonstrate that many of these patients, perhaps 15 to 20% of those previously considered as “vegetative”, do in fact retain some level of consciousness.

The first chapter The Ghost That Haunts Me is slightly different. It features two central characters who slip into the grey zone, but neither is a patient of Owen. Instead they are his mother, who developed a brain tumour, and his former lover Maureen who suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage that left her in a vegetative state. Continue reading

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