Course: MOL345
Instructor: Hughson
F 2014

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

Fundamental concepts of biomolecular structure and function will be discussed, with an emphasis on principles of thermodynamics, binding and catalysis. A major portion of the course will focus on metabolism and its logic and regulation.

The aim of this course is to synthesize the material learned from introductory biology (MOL 214/215) and organic chemistry (CHM 303/304/304B) while understanding the fundamental concepts of biomolecular structures and functions and metabolic pathways. In short, the course teaches students how food is broken in human bodies and then used for energy to power metabolism and to maintain homeostasis. There are 2 midterm exams which essentially divide the course into thirds. The first third emphasizes the principles of thermodynamics, kinetics, and catalysis and it may seem like a review of familiar topics from basic chemistry. Biological macromolecules and their structures will also be introduced like carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and membranes and the student is expected to memorize the structures of key molecules like all the amino acids, glucose, etc. A major portion of this course focuses on metabolism, its logic, and its regulation. This material provides fundamental knowledge of the building blocks of metabolic pathways which will be explored in the second and third parts of the course. The second third of the course is largely dedicated to learning the details of the pathways of cellular respiration: glycolysis, citric acid cycle, and oxidative phosphorylation. There is a large focus on glycolysis and students are expected to learn all eight steps of the pathway including structures, enzymes, and mechanisms. However, as will become evident as the course progresses, many pathways learned in one direction often have a reverse pathway and the course is structured in a way that once glycolysis is learned, gluconeogenesis follows; glycogen synthesis is followed by breakdown (so on and so forth). This method of how the material is presented throughout the course is carried into the last third of the course where more metabolic processes are covered: fatty acid catabolism and lipid biosynthesis, amino acid catabolism, etc.

This fast-paced course demands a lot of work both inside and outside the classroom, more so than other Princeton courses. First, all materials and resources provided by the course range from required to supplementary; none are optional if you want to do well in the course. Second, there are lectures three times a week plus precepts. This course is also very time-intensive. A large amount of time will be spent studying lecture notes and reading the textbook on a regular basis in order to understand the material in manageable increments. Since biochemistry is a very expansive subject, there is an overwhelming amount of information to learn and this course really does need to meet as often as it does, even spilling over into Reading Period. Meeting during Reading Period serves two important functions: 1) Kick-start the brain after a long winter break; 2) Comprehensive (but not detailed) review of metabolism and “integration” of metabolism which is the intellectual highlight of the course for most students as the details of the disparate pathways that have been learned will elegantly come together in human bodies. Since this course is more biology-oriented, more memorization will be required than organic chemistry to do well in the course (like enzyme mechanisms and reaction pathways). However, there is also an emphasis on problem solving through problem sets, precept problems, and exam questions of biochemical novelty and medical relevance. The daily iClickr questions are also intended to not only help students keep up with the material, but to also consolidate material, apply knowledge, and practice problem solving skills used to solve exam questions. Lectures are structured in the sequence of the textbook and ensure that students are equipped with the fundamental knowledge of each topic. After going through the material, students will be expected to “teach themselves” and fill in the knowledge gaps. Students will need to turn to the textbook to read the finer details of such topics which will be tested on exams. Precepts also serve to reinforce the information learned from lectures and the textbook. Students will be constantly synthesizing material from lecture notes, textbook readings, problem sets, precept problems, iClickr questions, etc. finding connections between different concepts. This is the foundation for the conclusion of the course: metabolic integration. As the course progresses, notes about how various metabolic pathways are integrated will be addressed. When students gain a deep understanding of integration, mastering the material will come less from memorization and more from biochemical logic.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

Overall, the knowledge and concepts extracted from textbook readings, lectures, iClickr questions, precepts, and problem sets all serve to reinforce each other.

The textbook, Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry, is like a guiding force in the course because lectures are carefully organized in the same sequence as how the material is presented in the textbook. The readings will build on top of one another and this is evident by the cumulative nature of the lectures and the course in general. Thus, reading the textbook is very, very important. There is approximately 60 pages of reading per week from the textbook. Compared to humanities classes, this may not seem like much, but the textbook is very richly detailed so the amount of time spent reading for the course may take up more time than expected. The professor highly suggests students do the relevant textbook reading before class and to use class to reinforce the reading. Reading the textbook prior to class primes the student’s brain for that day’s topic in lecture and also helps the student follow along with the fast-paced lectures with less confusion.

The professor primarily uses the chalkboard when giving lectures. Most student will find that taking notes by paper and pencil is more conducive and efficient for transcribing diagrams and structures. Lectures also contain an interactive component of iClickr questions. iClickr questions are “unknowingly” important. By interspersing these questions throughout lecture, these questions really help consolidate the course material and as the semester progresses, these questions will also refer to concepts from earlier in the course. These questions emphasize the interconnectedness of the course and help strengthen the “integration” skills students need to do well on exams and to understand biochemistry by orienting students to focus on connections within biochemistry, to find the overlap between topics covered in lectures and the textbook, and to continuously combine parts from various metabolic pathways into what will eventually become a giant web of processes happening in the human body.

Every lecture after the first lecture begins with iClickr questions which make up 10% of the final grade so it is important that the student arrives on time. In the beginning of lecture, there are two multiple choice questions based on previous lecture material. These are closed book, closed notes, and no student collaboration is allowed. This encourages students to review lecture notes before class and to stay on top of the material.

During the lecture, there will be 2-3 iClickr questions where the student will be able to consult notes and sometimes converse with other students for difficult, classroom-polarizing questions. iClickr questions are typically presented in multiple choice format in a similar style as multiple choice questions on exams. The wording can be tricky in multiple choice questions on exams in that a single word in either the question or answer choice can significantly change the meaning of it so the student has to approach these questions with great scrutiny. This pattern is mimicked well in iClickr questions too, giving a good idea of exam expectations. It is especially important then to double-check answers and reading both the question and answer choices very carefully for multiple choice questions in this class.

Precept attendance is mandatory and will reinforce concepts as introduced in lectures, the textbook, and problem sets. They are a practical experience in working with the material and solving additional problems (in addition to problem sets) and especially difficult problem set problems may be discussed further during precepts. By communicating knowledge and problem solving methods among a small group, students can learn from others content as well as helpful and novel ways of approaching such problems.

Learning For and From Assignments

There are weekly problem sets which serve to reinforce fundamental concepts from the lecture and textbook readings. Compared to learning through “absorption” in lecture, problem sets are a learning activity in their own right in that students may learn through solving and applying. Since the style of the problems is similar to exam questions, doing the problem sets is good preparation for acquainting the student with the way exam problems are phrased as well as the nature of applying and synthesizing knowledge in order to solve a familiar (easy/medium level) or unfamiliar (medium/hard level) problems. Because problem sets are not graded for correctness rather for completion, it is in the student’s best interest to complete the problem sets as if they were being graded for correctness (like providing answers in complete sentences, drawing detailed diagrams, and using lecture notes and/or the textbook). When problem sets are returned, the student should make sure to understand the answers to each of the problems after the answer key is posted to Blackboard. The student should understand why each answer received full credit (the breakdown of points for each answer), the fundamental concept each problem was addressing, and perhaps think of other examples of how a future question on an exam may ask you to apply this concept again.

I think one of the biggest strategies for studying for biochemistry exams is prioritization. Biochemistry exams cover an extensive amount of material and cramming a few days before an exam does not work well in this course. Students have a variety of materials they can use to prepare for exams and going through all the lecture notes, textbook readings, problem sets, suggested problems from the textbook, precept problems, iClickr questions, etc. is really too much and as Princeton students, we honestly would not even have enough time to go back and sufficiently review all of these materials. Therefore, we must prioritize those resources to make the most of our precious studying time. I found that the key study materials I used were lecture notes and the textbook. The professor also gives a study guide with topics that *could* be tested on the exam. I would suggest that as the student goes through lecture notes when studying to check off the topics being hit on the study guide and to go back to topics that were not addressed at all or in minimal detail and read them up more in the textbook. For example, the professor may only draw part of an enzyme mechanism in lecture for the sake of time to illustrate the final steps where an enzyme is converting a substrate to product, but the student will have to return to the textbook to see, understand, and memorize the rest of the steps of the mechanism. It is also very helpful to make diagrams and draw out enzyme mechanisms and metabolic reactions and pathways. Biochemistry very much attests to visual style of learning and lectures often present illustrated views of concepts.

From my point of view, I think students are constantly studying for biochemistry: they are reading the textbook every week in preparation for lectures, doing weekly problem sets, and studying lecture notes prior to or during lecture to answer iClickr questions. When it comes down to 1-2 weeks prior to an exam, this is when the “hardcore” studying kicks in and students have to buckle down and dedicate extra time to reviewing the material in larger scope and ingraining minute details into memory. These hours you put into studying will eventually pay off! The point I’m trying to drive home is to start studying early so that you can take on the density and propensity of the material one step at a time. Keep up with the course throughout the semester by doing textbook readings and reviewing lecture notes right from the beginning and it is very important to begin memorizing amino acids, enzymes, molecular structures the professor specifically tells the class the memorize early on because it will make the subject material more manageable for the student and the brain to process. Repetition facilitates memorization so I suggest the student should re-read lecture notes and/or the textbook to cement the content.

External Resources

There are optional, night time 1-hour review sessions which are another resource to reinforce course material and reviewing key concepts. They start off with a quick 1- or 2-slide content summary for the week. If the student has been attending lecture, keeping up with textbook readings, and is on top of the material, then this summary should sound like a brief overview. Use this summary to do a mental check that you understand the “big picture” and broad themes in the content that week. This is followed with original examples (different from lectures and precepts) which are framed in the style of exam questions and also focus on applying fundamental concepts. Because exam questions require students to apply fundamental concepts to familiar and more complex problems, this section of the review session is helpful for preparing your brain to approach and answer these kinds of questions which are not only novel examples, but also because they follow the exam-format. These review sessions are also opportunities for open Q & A to help prepare students for precepts and exams and I suggest listening to your peers’ questions to see if you can mentally answer the question yourself as well as to jot down notes as the TA is answering this question.

What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection

Since this class is required for MOL concentrators and premedical students, it is largely composed of students from these fields. However, compared to other MOL departmental courses, it provides more resources to help you learn the material and to master this class. Lectures are also structured in a more student-friendly manner. Compared to other premedical classes, it is more contextually applicable to medicine and to understanding human body functions and metabolism which is a rewarding aspect of the course for most students.

Having a basic understanding of organic chemistry (CHM 303/304/304B) is very helpful as much of biochemistry lends itself to organic chemistry concepts and lectures often make references to reviewing certain sections of the Sorrell organic chemistry textbook. Having an understanding of introductory chemistry (CHM 201/202) may also be helpful near the beginning of the course where the emphasis is on thermodynamics, kinetics, pH, and equilibrium. The material learned from MOL 214/215 is not as prominent as the aforementioned courses but having a good grasp of general biology is the last piece of the puzzle to the “orgo-chem-bio” trilogy that underlies the expansive biochemistry narrative.

For students who are considering taking this class out of interest or to fulfill an STN distribution requirement, I want to reiterate that this course demands a lot of hard work due to lecture time, independent studying, textbook reading, and all other time you can spend perusing the many resources available. However, you will definitely learn a lot and deepen your understanding of how human bodies work while meeting one of the most passionate and engaging lecturers on campus. If you are in this situation and are leaning towards enrolling in biochemistry, I would highly suggest a 4-course semester for the main reason that you will be dedicating a lot of time inside and outside the classroom for this course.


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