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MEDSCI309

BIOPHYSICS OF NERVE AND MUSCLE

Course Breakdown

 

Laboratory Component
Numerical Problems: 5%
Laboratory Reports: 15%
Theory Component
Mid-Semester Tests (x2): 10% (5% each)
Exam: 70%

Course Information

 

Official UoA Website: link

Lecture Recording: most lectures were recorded in 2017, but some were not due to technical difficulties- so do not solely rely on them. 

Basic Information

This paper is notoriously regarded as the most challenging MEDSCI paper across Stage III. This course has 2 lectures per week and 20 examinable lectures in total. Historically, the lectures have either been at 8am or 5pm (i.e. the worst times possible). There are 4 actual labs (3 hours each) along with 3 data analysis tutorials (3 hours each) and 2 workshops: a total of 10 lab/tutorial sessions. This paper is usually inhabited by 3 types of students: Biomedical Engineering students, Medical Physics and Imaging Technology students and Biomedical Science/Physiology students; regardless, it is still incredibly challenging for all students. This paper requires you to keep on your toes due to something constantly being required to be handed in; either numerical problems or a lab report. 

The course-guide is very comprehensive but often doesn't synchronise nicely with the lecture slides. However, they more or less cover the same content and thus when going through the lecture, if you don't understand what's on the slides, definitely do consult the course guide to see if that clears anything up before consulting the textbook and/or article readings. Also, although content outside of the lectures and labs is not directly assessed, readings are highly recommended for this course especially Hodgkin and Huxley's research and the Berne and Levy textbook. Doing readings will really help you understand and be able to explain concepts and research for lab reports, tests and the exam. 

Laboratory Component

Numerical Problems
These numerical problems are a set of questions which usually require you to use some sort of equation to answer each question then follow up and explain the meaning of calculated numbers with the physiology learnt in the lecture content. These questions tie in very well with the lecture content but not much guidance is given. Some weeks, only one question is required to be handed in and some weeks, two questions are required to be handed in. These numerical problems are very good also in preparing you for what's to be expected in the mid-semester test and the final exam as there is a numerical problem you're required to solve in those assessments. The presentation of the in-course numerical problems can be either typed or handwritten and must be handed in as a physical copy.

Labs
The labs themselves are quite fun where you actually get to replicate electrophysiology experiments, e.g.: utilising the glass microelectrode to record current changes on live muscle tissue, stimulating the muscle with electrodes etc; stuff you always hear about in cell physiology lectures but never got to actually try out in the lab. It is very helpful to pre-read the lab in order to figure what's going on. Make sure you ask what on earth is going on if you get lost - the demonstrators are very helpful! Even if you run out of time within the lab itself, there is always a data analysis tutorial session where the demonstrators/lecturers (lecturers attend these sessions to help out as well!) to explain what on earth the data you collected mean. Note that you'll deal with many squiggly lines and graphs in this paper so you'll need to brush up on both your LabChart skills and your excel skills. The labs also tie in very much so with lecture topics and hence are quite useful in consolidating lecture concepts; in fact, lecturers in class may allude to the lab content occasionally to explain certain concepts!

Lab Reports
These lab reports take a long time to complete. Additionally, they require a lot of effort. Do not be surprised if they take up approximately 15 pages and/or thousands of words. There are questions scattered throughout the lab guide so make sure you answer all of them in order to be credited with marks! The marking for the lab reports are considered 'harsh' by many but I prefer the term 'realistic'. A 10/10 literally means it's a perfect lab report with no mistake; and a 0/10 literally means you handed nothing in. As per usual, don't try to waffle in these lab reports because it will probably confuse the marker (who are your demonstrators) and thus cause them to not credit you with marks.

 

Mid-Semester Test/Exam

Whilst this course is still very challenging, to make it more manageable in 2017, the mid semester test was split into two - one before the mid semester break and one after. The class averages for 2017 were as follows:

Mid-Sem Test 1 = 60.4%
Mid-Sem Test 2 = 66.2%

Test 1 was based on the first five lectures of the course by Peter Freestone and Mark Trew and involved 1 numerical problem and 1 data analysis question. Test 2 was "essay based" but really involved a series of short answer questions on Marie Ward's neuromuscular junction and muscle structure lectures (x6). These tests took place in the 8am lecture slots right before the mid semester break, and right after the mid semester break and each lasted 50 minutes in duration. There is little guidance prior to this test and so many find it very hard, but looking at past exams for examples of each question type is what seemed to help most people with their study. However, the information provided does tell you that the MST consisted of 3 sections: 1x Numeric Problem, 1x Data Analysis Question and 1x Essay (from a choice of two). 

As from past-exam papers, you can see that there are 3 sections in the exam: 1x Numerical Problem, 3x Data Analysis questions (from a choice of four) and 2x essays (from a choice of three). Note that it is quite possible to predict which essay topics are going to show up. Note the length of each lecture block and make relevant deductions. Additionally, if a lecturer hints that their section is going to be data analysis and their section wasn't particularly long, it probably means they won't have an essay question. This may or may not affect how you revise their section!

Data Analysis Section
What on earth are "data analysis questions"? These are questions where you're presented data from an actual experiment performed by some researchers who then published their results in a paper you're unlikely to have read before. You are then required to answer questions based on the graphs you see from the data; hence "data analysis". These questions are difficult to "prepare" for since all they require is very sound knowledge of physiological aspects. Lecturers usually go through what you can be expected to interpret in a data analysis question during lectures anyways so revising the your lecture notes and the relevant graphs would be helpful. E.g. when going through a graph about isometric contraction of muscles, memorise the axes titles, axes units, and the range of isometric contraction lengths. Don't worry if this doesn't make too much sense now as the lecturers do go through this in decent depth. Make sure you do a couple of past papers to familiarise yourself with expectations though!

 

Opinion

This paper is indeed difficult. The lab reports usually took up many hours of work and it was hard to come up with explanations for certain observations you saw. As such, it would be very wise to know what to expect in the labs (by both revising the lecture content and reading through the lab content) and then ask the demonstrators the explanations for why things didn't go as planned. (Unless they did, in which case, hooray!). Apart from the labs, this paper required a lot of time in general - every week, there was something to hand in and thus kept you constantly busy. You hear stories of how hard this paper is; in certain topics, it is, but overall, if you are able to commit to the paper in all its readings, lab reports, numerical problems and understand the concepts, it is probably by far one of the most rewarding papers out there. This is because you actually do some very cool labs and to see the lecture content come alive in actual experimentation done by your own hands, you develop quite an appreciation for experimental procedure! But be warned, again, that this paper does require a lot of attention!!

 

Lectures Content

Resting Membrane Potential - Dr Peter Freestone (2)

The first two lectures of the course were taught by Dr Peter Freestone in 2017 and were about the resting membrane potential. This section threw students straight into the physics concepts of electrical circuits, mathematical manipulations of equations and physiological explanations for the RMP. However, you don’t actually need to memorise a lot of it for the exam as equations are on the formula sheet- but you do need to have a general idea of what the equations mean! The lecturer also recapped a lot of first year knowledge where you should already know for example: that RMPs exist due to Na/K ATPase and potassium leak channels etc. The lecturer also covered a lot of information regarding the experiments which found out about the mathematical models of RMP (e.g. Nernst equation and GHK equation). This lecture series was also covered in the first lab report so revising these lectures prior to writing your first lab report would definitely be useful!

 

Action Potentials - Dr Mark Trew (3)

The next section of lectures were taken by Dr Mark Trew from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) in 2017. He was a real chill guy who enjoyed his mathematical and physical explanations of the action potential along with the propagation of the AP. The mathematics undoubtedly bedazzled many and personally, it required quite a bit of extra reading in order to fully grasp the concept. This section also contained the Cable Equation which is that massive equation in the front section of the course guide. Check out YouTube videos if you're having a bit of trouble understanding the Cable Equation! Overall, the lecture slides were decent for this section and coupled with the lecturer's explanations and a bit of re-watching recordings, it was understandable - if you had any questions, however, the lecturer was very open for you to email him! This lecture series was also covered in the first lab report so revising these lectures prior to writing your first lab report would definitely be useful!

 

Neuromuscular Junction- Dr Marie Ward (3)

This section of 3 lectures was taken by Dr Marie Ward in 2017 as Dr Meagan Barclay was unavailable this semester. In each of these lectures, she ended relatively early and overall, this felt like one of the 'easier' sections of 309. Not only was the content not too heavy (mind you, there still was quite a bit, but after going through a BIOMED/PHYSIOL degree, you definitely get used to it!), the concepts were not too difficult to grasp and the mathematical modelling in this section was easily understandable.

 

Muscle Structure and Contractile Function - Dr Marie Ward (6)

This section of 6 lectures was also taken by Dr Marie Ward in 2017. These lectures were the most BIOMED-like where there was a lot of things to memorise. This series covered the following topics: "Muscle structure", "contractile proteins", "excitation contraction coupling", "activation, contraction & relaxation of smooth, skeletal and cardiac muscle". This section recalled many experiments performed to determine how these concepts originally came about (thus the readings are decades old) which could potentially form the basis of both data analysis questions. Alternatively, the many names required to be memorised could also form the basis of many different essays as well. As long as you could memorise the many different proteins which contributed to muscle physiology, the concepts should've been easier to understand. Drawing your own diagrams to collate all the information was extremely helpful!

 

Mechanics of Contraction - Dr Kim Mellor (2)

This section of 2 lectures was taken by Dr Kim Mellor in 2017. This section was mostly about understanding how experiments were conducted and how the graphs were produced and what the graphs physiologically explained. This section recruited the explanatory power of the Hill model as well- which was needed for one of the lab reports. The lectures usually took place with Dr Mellor going through the lecture slides. As she usually uploaded them prior to the lecture, printing these off usually provided the basis for a set of decent study notes to refer back to.

 

Associate Professor Denis Loiselle (3)

This section of 3 lectures was taken by A/Professor Denis Loiselle in 2017. Additionally, this was split into 2 sections: "Energetic Aspects of Contraction" (x2 lectures) and "Theories of Contraction" (x1 lecture). The energetics sub-section, as the name suggests, went through the chemical processes required for contraction (Calcium release and ATP hydrolysis) along with the thermodynamic properties of muscle contraction. This section used quite basic knowledge of thermodynamics and chemistry to build upon the complex energetics aspects of contraction. This section had lots of graphs to understand and was thus quite challenging. Meanwhile, the theories of contraction section went through the cross-bridge cycle and further theories by which muscle actually contracts. As with all A/Professor Loiselle's questions, they are ruthlessly tricky and required you to do a lot of careful thinking in order to obtain the correct answer! Also do past papers (especially essays) because he loves to repeat or make similar questions!

 

Dr June-Chiew Han (1)

Dr Han was great, and very interesting. He talked about Energetics of the Diseased Heart. In 2017 and 2016 he had a data analysis section in the exam, and gave you an idea of what parts of the lecture were most important to study. 

 

End of Semester Tutorials

In the last week, with 2 lecture slots and a 2-hours of the lab slot available, this gave the basis of 4 hours' worth of tutorials. Within these tutorials, the lecturers usually went through past exam question answers along with exam hints. As such, attending these tutorials (or at least asking a friend what exam hints were dropped) were extremely useful.