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Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology

 
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The four key learning areas of the programme are explored through six complementary elements with taught, practical and research formats:

1. Core biotechnology course 

At the start of the programme, students take a compulsory taught course on principles of biotechnology. This is a broad-spectrum course that progresses from the fundamentals of molecular and cell biology to more advanced topics on synthetic biology, transgenic animals, plant biotechnology, biological warfare, forensic molecular biology and environmental biotechnology.

The aim of this course is to equip you with the biological language and reasoning necessary for you to effectively apply your analytical skillset in biology-related areas.

2. Practical course

The practical module complements the core lecture course in giving students a strong foundation in modern biotechnology. Over approximately 50 hours, you will learn essential and state-of-the-art techniques in biology research, developing practical skills through both taught and hands-on elements. 

The course involves both computer-based sessions, covering DNA design and analysis software, and wet-lab sessions, where students have the opportunity to execute a range of molecular and cellular biology protocols as well as attend demonstrations on specific tools.

Examples of techniques covered in the practical course include:

  • molecular cloning,
  • CRISPR-Cas9,
  • bacterial transformation,
  • DNA sequencing and analysis,
  • recombinant protein expression and purification,
  • binding assays,
  • cell culture,
  • mammalian cell transfection
  • and fluorescent lifetime imaging microscopy.

3. Elective advanced courses 

The programme offers students the possibility of tailoring your studies to your educational needs and career goals. In addition to the foundational biotechnology modules, students take six elective courses, which you can choose from a list of subjects taught at CEB and at other departments across the University. These courses allow you to acquire advanced knowledge and skills in specific fields close to your interests. 

Given the interdisciplinary nature of the MPhil in Biotechnology, most of the offered courses explore areas that are transversal to biology, engineering, chemistry, physics and computer sciences; some of the courses allow students to complement their training with business-related topics. 

Students can select their advanced courses along three axes – analysis, application and business – with the following options being normally available*:

Analysis-oriented courses

  • Biophysics (CEB) 

The aim of this course is to provide an understanding of how to model biological systems and make them amenable for quantitative exploration. The course introduces the students to quantitative biology and leads them through the process of examining life from a biophysicist’s perspective applying thermal and statistical models to living systems. In the course, the students also learn the principles behind various biophysical and optical techniques and explore specific applications of those techniques in living systems.

  • Mathematical biology of the cell (Department of Engineering)

The course covers topics in stochastic processes and statistical mechanics with application in biology. It introduces the students to sub-cellular processes and the role of thermal fluctuations, addresses the shift from the classical biology approach to a more physical description of the relevant processes, and illustrates the use of mathematical/computing approaches to study regulatory networks and biomolecular dynamics.

  • Cellular and molecular biomechanics (Department of Engineering) 

This course deals with the relation between the microstructure of soft biological materials and their mechanical properties. In the course, the students get a working understanding of the various components within plant and animal cells, cytoskeletal components in particular, explore key mechanical properties of cells and tissues, and study muscles as actuators at the tissue, cell and protein length scales. 

  • Computational neuroscience (Department of Engineering)

This course covers basic topics in computational neuroscience and demonstrates how mathematical analysis and ideas from dynamical systems, machine learning, optimal control and probabilistic inference can be applied to gain insight into the workings of biological nervous systems. The course also highlights a number of real-world computational problems that need to be tackled by any ‘intelligent’ system as well as the solutions that biology offers to some of these problems.

  • Materials and molecules: modelling, simulation and machine learning (Department of Engineering)

This course introduces the concept of computer simulation of material and molecular properties on the atomic scale, teaching basic techniques of molecular dynamics and data analysis and providing hands-on experience with commonly used software packages. The students are first guided through fundamental modelling concepts, ranging from quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics to the practicalities of numerical simulation, multiple length and time scales and error control. Then,  they learn about specific models for materials and molecules that facilitate calculation of basic properties of matter, allowing both a deeper understanding of experimental observations and first principles prediction of new phenomena. The final section of the course addresses machine learning and how it  allows breaking previously established limitations of numerical approaches, both for direct first principles dynamical simulations and using statistical ‘data mining’ methods.

  • Systems biology (Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics)

This course covers kinetic design principles in cells, deterministic rate equations, stochastic processes, master equations, the Gillespie algorithm, linear noise approximation, performance bounds and trade-offs in control and biological model systems (e.g. bacterial gene expression, plasmids). Single cell and single molecule experiments and synthetic biology are also covered.

  • Optical microscopy (CEB)

This course focuses on the fundamental principles of optical microscopy, covering image formation, the physical concepts that affect image resolution and contrast, and quantitative image data analysis in the presence of noise. Modern microscopy technologies that are used in research and industry are described, and students learn about the process of conceptually designing advanced instrumentation that meets the requirements of a given application.

Application-oriented courses

  • Bionanotechnology (CEB) 

This course explores bionanotechnology, an interdisciplinary field at the interface of nanotechnology and bioscience, and looks into bionano hybrid design and applications. In the course, the students learn about the fundamental principles of nanoengineering, including nanomaterial preparation, assembly and characterisation, get an overview of the scales of biomolecular systems, and explore strategies to join biointerfaces with engineered components. DNA nanotechnology, bioinspired catalysts, biosensors and nanomedicine are embedded throughout the course to give an overview of the potential, advantages and challenges that need to be overcome in bionanotechnology.

  • Biomimetics (Department of Engineering)

This course explores the idea of adopting and adapting ideas from nature to make new engineering entities, putting a strong emphasis on the interdisciplinary communication between engineers and biologists. In the course, the students learn how to plan and conduct biomimetic research by having the opportunity to examine a number of projects and applications, namely bioinspired legged locomotion, biomimetic adhesion and adhesives, orthotic design and assessment, biomimetic flight dynamics, and biomimetic materials for mechanical support and for visual appearance.

  • Biomaterials (Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy)

This course starts by addressing the relationship between structure and properties in soft natural materials, including proteins, polysaccharides, and composites of proteins and polysaccharides. Then, it explores the issues involved in the design of a material to replace a failed natural material in a medical context. Emphasis is put on soft tissue replacement, including spinal disc replacement, vascular grafts, skin grafts and tissue engineering scaffolds. Drug delivery systems, particularly those for controlled delivery, are also covered in the course.

  • Chemical biology and drug discovery (Department of Chemistry) 

In this course, key biological systems are used to explain ideas about the interplay between structure, function and inhibition in chemical biology. The course also highlights chemical strategies that allow for site-selective protein modification and how these are being used to provide biological insight and for the construction of protein conjugates for therapeutics. The science behind the different approaches adopted by academia and the pharmaceutical industry in the early stages of drug discovery are also discussed.

  • Biosensors and bioelectronics (CEB and Department of Engineering)

This course covers the principles, technologies, methods and applications of biosensors and bioelectronics. The first part of the course gives an overview of biosensing and the application of principles of engineering to the development of biosensors, electrochemical and optical biosensors in particular. In the second part of the course, students are introduced to bioelectronics and learn about implantable electronic medical devices and wearable devices.

  • Medical physics (Department of Physics)

This course gives an overview of the use of physics in medicine. Particular attention is given to medical imaging, and contrast mechanisms, data acquisition hardware and the general principles of image reconstruction are covered for a range of clinically applicable techniques. Clinical applications of physics, including in diagnosis, patient monitoring and treatment of diseases, are also described. 

  • Pharmaceutical Engineering (CEB) 

This course aims to give students an understanding of the fundamentals of pharmaceutical engineering. It introduces the subject and builds on established concepts from general chemical engineering to highlight specific applications and requirements of this industrial sector. The students learn about the design of solid dosage forms and modified released technologies and explore current trends in pharmaceutical processing.

  • Healthcare biotechnology (CEB)

This course aims to lay a foundation in the prevalence, pathologies, diagnosis and treatment of the major diseases afflicting humans in the 21st century. The course covers the challenges encountered in drug discovery and development, drug delivery, regulation and the newer approaches involving gene, protein, cell-based and bionic therapies. Key developments for the future, including AI, stratified and personalised medicine, and digital health applications, are also discussed.

Business-oriented courses

  • Strategic management (Department of Engineering; Judge Business School)

This course provides students with an opportunity to discuss the strategic challenges faced by managers in today’s business environment and to develop a facility for critical strategic thinking. Students become familiar with key strategic analysis models, understanding their application and limitations, and explore some of the current hot topics in strategic management. 

  • International business (Department of Engineering; Judge Business School)

This course aims to provide future managers with an enhanced understanding of international business by covering globalisation, socio-cultural and political variation in business environments, and international business strategy. The course moves beyond the analysis of market opportunities and industry competitiveness by paying extensive attention to the social, political and cultural differences that businesses need to consider when their activities cross borders. An appreciation of this broader ‘institutional’ environment is essential for managers in order to accurately identify international opportunities and threats. 

  • Management of technology (Department of Engineering; Institute for Manufacturing)

This course addresses the ways in which technology is brought to market by focusing on key technology management topics from the standpoint of an established business as well as new entrepreneurial ventures. Emphasis is placed on frameworks and methods that are both theoretically sound and practically useful. Through the course, students will not only understand the core challenges of technology management, but also acquire practical means of dealing with them.

  • Innovation and strategic management of intellectual property (Department of Engineering; Institute for Manufacturing)

This course builds on the state of the art in strategic IP management thinking for maximising appropriation value from technological innovations. While the course emphasises a management perspective on intellectual property, it also includes concepts from engineering, law and economics. 

* Please note that the courses on offer may change slightly from year to year, subject to, for example, student numbers and academic staff availability.

4. Individual research project

The MPhil in Biotechnology is a taught programme with a strong research component, which includes an individual research project and a team research project.

From the start of the programme until early summer, students undertake an individual research project, which allows you to extend your specialised knowledge by exploring a topic of your choice, develop practical skills in wet-lab and/or computer-based environments, and acquire a range of technical and transferable skills that will set you up for independent research. 

Depending on your specific interests, the individual research project is based at CEB, other participating University departments and/or a site of one of our industry partners. All projects have a supervisor who is an academic at the University of Cambridge. Co-supervisors, from academia or industry, may also be involved. 

This element of the programme requires students to plan and execute your own work, and analyse, interpret and critically discuss your results, which are submitted in the form of a final report. Normally, students also write a review paper and deliver oral and poster communications as part of the individual research project.

Candidates are not required to identify their topic of research at the time of application for the MPhil in Biotechnology. Each year, students are provided with a list of projects to choose from. The list of projects is put together in the summer before the start of the programme and includes titles proposed by academics from departments across the University as well as our industry champions. If candidates have specific research interests, we are happy to discuss those during the admission process.

Examples of individual research project titles in previous years:

  • DNA origami nanostructures for the targeted destruction of bacteria (CEB)
  • Visualising tumour vascular microenvironment (Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute and Department of Physics)
  • 3D-printed microfluidic structures towards exosome-based point-of-care diagnostics (Mursla and Department of Physics)
  • Novel approaches to increase high-value compounds in microalgae (Department of Plant Sciences)
  • Drugging the undruggable: combining large scale omics data with machine learning techniques to identify novel E3 ligases for PROTAC drug discovery (Milner Therapeutics Institute)
  • Measuring action potentials with nanopipettes in photoactivated neurons (CEB)
  • Development of graph-based computational methods for the design of custom organic chemical syntheses (AstraZeneca and CEB)
  • How do bacteria age? Studying senescence and death in microbes (Department of Engineering)
  • Developing a toolbox for probing protein homeostasis in naked mole-rats (Department of Pharmacology)
  • Antagonism of TLR4 as a novel therapy for inflammatory diseases (Department of Veterinary Medicine and CEB)
  • Influence of calcification and heparin coating on polymeric prosthetic heart valves (CEB)
  • Design of robust multivariate predictive models for process analytics in the biopharmaceutical industry (GSK and CEB)
  • Synthetic biology for diterpenoid metabolic engineering in the marine diatom Phaeodactylum tricornutum (Department of Plant Sciences)
  • Modelling FRET to estimate bacterial dynamics in vivo (Department of Veterinary Medicine)
  • Exploring the multivalent nature of CTPR proteins to study liquid-liquid phase separation (Department of Pharmacology)
  • Contractility measurements in tissue engineered constructs (CEB)
  • Nanodiamond probes for characterisation of P-granules (Department of Physics and CEB)
  • Using computational biology to identify novel therapeutic targets for ion channels-related disease (LifeArc and Milner Therapeutics Institute)
  • Engineering of imine reductases to elucidate sequence-structure-function relationships (Johnson Matthey and CEB)

5. Team research project

Over the summer, the whole class works collectively on the team research project, which is a distinctive feature of the MPhil in Biotechnology. Often, the team research challenge is organised in collaboration with one of our industry partners; sometimes we set it in an applied context of sustainable development, working with Cambridge Global Challenges. Students plan and deliver the project together, supported by an academic supervisor and experts from industry and/or other external organisations. Strong emphasis is put on team-driven and peer-to-peer learning. The class is required to manage and effectively capitalise on the individual technical and management strengths of each student to complete the challenge.

 In this element of the programme, students have the chance to further develop technical and practical competences in biotechnology as well as transferable skills. The team research project is also key to the acquisition of business-relevant knowledge as students work on a problem that is motivated by the needs of a contributor from industry or other external organisation. Students rely on leadership competences, effective project management, multilingualism to understand a range of different stakeholders, and commercial awareness to successfully complete the exercise.

The team research project culminates in the delivery of a report and an oral presentation to the project sponsor. 

Titles of the team challenges completed by previous cohorts:

2018-2019    Predictive development of complex biopharmaceuticals. The cohort spent the summer at MedImmune/AstraZeneca.

2019-2020    A systems biology approach to investigate the role of cholesterol in neurodegenerative diseases. The cohort produced a business plan for a software start-up in addition to tackling the scientific challenge.

2020-2021    Circular design of a CRISPR toolkit for the SDGs. The cohort designed a manufacturing toolkit for CRISPR-based biosensors for improved access and capacity building in low-resources contexts. Additionally, the students worked with end-user researchers and educators from Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon and Ethiopia to produce educational materials for HE providers and governmental research institutions in these countries.  

6. Professional and career skills module    

In addition to providing strong scientific and technical training in biotechnology, the programme intends to help students to develop competences and a mindset that ensure a smooth transition from university education to the workplace. Transferable and business skills training is central to various elements of the programme and further promoted by a dedicated module running throughout the year. 

This module covers professional skills all the way from the lab bench to the market. At the start of the module, emphasis is put on research skills in areas such as data management, academic writing and presentations, and science communication and outreach. Then, students are guided through the journey of turning lab research into marketable products and have the opportunity to hear about a range of aspects relevant to the development of new biotech products (e.g. intellectual property, regulatory affairs, biotechnology governance and bioethics). The module also includes sessions on careers, addressing careers advice, entrepreneurship and biotech contributions to UN Sustainable Development Goals.

This module was created to complement the core, advanced and practical biotechnology knowledge that is acquired in the other elements of the programme, and it is tightly integrated with the programme’s research component, with some research skills sessions being specifically designed to support students with aspects of the individual and team projects.