Course Breakdown


Mid-Semester Test: 25%
Laboratory Component: 10% lab assignments
Lab Performance: 5%
Exam: 60%

Course Information


Recommended textbooks:
Developmental Biology - Gilbert
Principles of Development - Davis & Tickle
The Basic Science of Oncology - Tannock & Hill
The Biology of Cancer - Weinberg
Official UoA Website: link.

Basic Information

BIOSCI 356 was a highly enjoyable, interesting and well-taught course which was, however, heavy in content and could quickly leave you behind if you did not keep up with the lectures. Quite a content heavy paper in my opinion, with lots of pathways to memorize and such. However, would recommend to any student interested in cancer research since the whole second half of the paper (and hence the final exam) is cancer based.

It is split into two broad parts, with lectures in part 1 addressing the main mechanisms driving developmental processes and exploring how the body is constructed using model organisms. You will also be taught about the later phases of development demonstrated in the study of regeneration, growth and aging. The lecture material taught during the developmental lectures were only assessed in the mid-semester test which were a mix of multiple choice and written answer questions. Be sure to ask the course coordinator, Dr. Hilary Sheppard, which relevant labs, if any, will be assessed also.

Part 2 featured three modules, and discussed the fundamental mechanisms that cancer cells exploited to increase their growth and invasive characteristics. The molecular biology of certain cancers, such as cervical and melanoma cancers, and the involvement of the immune system, "cancer stem-cells" and cancer metastasis were also introduced. The content taught in these three modules were assessed in the end of semester exam which contained both multiple choice and written answer questions, plus all the laboratory content from the entire semester. 


Laboratory Component

There were six laboratories in BIOSCI 356, and five of them were developmental-biology based. There was no end-of-lab hand in sheet for any of the labs, but in 2015 for the developmental laboratories you were expected to hand in a question sheet posted after both streams had completed labs 3 and 6. The contents of the first worksheet covered materials introduced in labs 1-3 while the second worksheet examined your knowledge of work done in labs 5 and 6. These questions can be confusing and take quite a long time to do, but if you pay attention to your demonstrators during the lab, complete the relevant questions in your lab manual (which were very similar to those in the actual assignment sheet) and ask lots of questions then you will have a much easier time. You also gain marks for participation in the labs, so always be active, be engaged and be proactive in your learning. The material in these labs were a great reinforcement of what was being taught in the lectures and we also got to see embryo development in real-time which was very cool to say the least.

​The only 'cancer-based' laboratory session (Lab 4) was held at the AMRF Medical Sciences Learning Centre at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, Grafton Campus. If you've never been to Grafton Campus before, detailed instructions were provided in the lab manual on where it is and Dr. Graeme Finlay who led this lab session also told us different routes of how to get there from City Campus. This was a very sobering and eye-opening lab where you got to explore and see for yourself preserved specimens from real patients who were suffering from different forms of cancer. There was no post-lab assignment for this lab, but be wary that the content you learn is still examinable in the end of semester exam. 


Lecture Content

Mechanisms of Development

Your course co-ordinator for BIOSCI 356, Dr. Hilary Sheppard, kicked off the course with her block of 9 lectures and a review, in which she taught us the following content:

  • Introduction/Germ cells and Fertilisation

  • Basic Concepts of Development

  • Early Development: Cleavage and gastrulation

  • The magnificent nematode

  • Xenopus - the frog

  • Drosophila development (fruit fly)

  • Senescence

Her lectures were content heavy - a common theme in BIOSCI 356 as you will soon come to realise - and can also at times be conceptually difficult to understand, but in the end it is all just about one process leading to another and another. Like the other lecturers in this course her slides provide excellent notes for you to study from, but personally I found her explanations to be super helpful in understanding key mechanisms so do make sure you attend her lectures as she also provided hand-outs at the beginning for you to write on. After her lectures have finished, Dr. Jonathan Astin took over for two lectures on zebrafish development, with Associate Professor Alan Davidson and Dr. Teresa Holm finishing off with a stem cells lecture. In 2015 these lectures did contribute questions in the MCQ portion of the incourse test, but all the written-answer questions were based on Dr. Sheppard's lectures. I highly advise you to - if you haven't already - to set yourself an efficient study routine early and stick to it as the cancer lectures following will not be any easier either.


Cellular Changes in Cancer

The highly-likable Dr. Graeme Finlay gave the first series of lectures based on cancer, and in 2015 he taught us about the following topics:

  • Introduction to Developmental Biology and Cancer

  • Disruption of Regulatory Genes

  • Disruption of Communication

  • Disruption of Signal Transduction

  • Disruption of Cell Cycle Control

  • Disruption of Genome Surveillance

  • Disruption of Cell Death Control

  • Disruption of Angiogenic Balance

If you've taken MEDSCI 203 in the past, you would be forgiven to assume that he will once again bring a lot of content because that was exactly the case this year in 2015. However, he will also bring the same amount of energy, passion and enthusiasm in his lectures which are sure to keep you awake and make you come alive. His notes in the course guide contains everything that you need to know in the perfect amount of detail, so please do make sure you bring them along to annotate during his lectures. Extra lecture handouts and some very helpful practice essay questions were also given out during his lectures, so please do make sure you attend and be on time!!


Cancer Biology

Professor Rod Dunbar who would have first introduced and enlightened many of you to the world of cancer biology was back after Dr. Finlay's lectures, giving seven lectures and a tutorial. In 2015 they were based on the following concepts:

  • Introduction 

  • Integrating knowledge of cancer biology

  • Melanoma

  • Cervical cancer

  • Colorectal cancer

  • Stem cells and cancer

  • Immunity and Cancer

Both his lecture slides and his course guide notes contain a very comprehensive set of notes, but pay attention during his lectures as he may tell where you should focus your learning on. Like in BIOSCI 201 his lectures are very interesting but he does cover quite a bit of content very quickly, so pre-reading his course notes before lectures would be recommended as it makes understanding and keeping up with him during lectures just that much easier. 


Cancer Metastasis

Dr. Kate Angel finished off BIOSCI 356 with four lectures and a review on cancer metastasis, covering the following content in 2015:

  • The Invasion - Metastasis cascade

  • Colonisation and the epithelial - mesenchymal - transition (EMT)

  • Factors that regulate an EMT and proteases

  • Locomotion, dispersal and seeding of cancer cells

As you would have come to expect by now her lecture slides contain a very comprehensive set of notes which are excellent to study from, and she also explains her concepts and material very clearly and thoroughly. As her material only spans four lectures, I found doing past exam papers to be excellent preparation for her exam questions although be wary that the lecturer for this section in 2013 and earlier had a focus on proteinases which only formed a small portion of what was taught in 2015. Her review lecture was very helpful as she reviewed past content, went over past exam MCQs and gave out tips and tricks on how to write a high quality essay in order to score top marks in the exam.