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Subject Summary

Systems biology is an interdisciplinary field that aims to generate mathematical and computational models of biological systems with predictive and explanatory power. These are based on the collection and appropriate statistical analysis of large-scale biological datasets created with the latest techniques and technologies.

The Part III in Systems Biology is unique in that it routinely takes students from both the Natural Sciences Tripos (NST) and the Mathematical Tripos, with the students from NST coming from a wide range of Part II courses, mostly biological sciences but also regularly chemistry and physics. The breadth of intake makes for a stimulating cohort and challenges students to broaden their skills.

The course provides an excellent grounding for a career, in research whether continuing to a postgraduate research degree, or moving to industry.

An individual research project is undertaken over two terms and assessed by a report of not more than 6000 words. Students are able to choose from a selection of computational and/or wet laboratory projects provided by research groups based in departments and institutes across the Cambridge region, as well as local industry. Students may also approach potential supervisors to arrange their own project, subject to approval by the course management committee.

Each of the four taught modules comprises lectures, supporting practical sessions, seminars and journal clubs. The practical sessions ensure that skills in data handling and analysis as well as modelling are developed. The final module includes an intense one-week small-team project assessed by joint poster and presentation as well as an individual report. Examinations (four papers) take place towards the end of the final term.

Programme Specification

The Schools to be involved in delivering the taught parts of the Course include: Biological Sciences (Departments of Biochemistry, Genetics, Pathology, Plant Sciences and the Sainsbury Laboratory); Physical Sciences (DAMTP). Additional material will be contributed by local institutes which may include: the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI); MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology (LMB); Cancer Research UK; Cambridge Research Institute (CRI); MRC Toxicology Unit.


This course aims to:

  1. acquaint students with backgrounds in the biological, physical, mathematical or computational sciences with the concepts and techniques of each others' disciplines that are relevant to an integrated approach to the study of living systems;
  2. equip students with the skills to generate comprehensive biological data sets, analyse them using appropriate statistical techniques, and use such data to generate mathematical or computational models of biological systems with predictive and explanatory power.

Learning outcomes

At the end of the course a student should be able to:

  1. demonstrate advanced knowledge and understanding of the biological, computational, mathematical, and physical sciences relevant to the integrative study of living systems;
  2. demonstrate knowledge of the objectives, methods, and efficacy of a team project by presenting a computer model/simulation to peers and academic staff;
  3. demonstrate knowledge of the objectives and methods of their individual research project by means of presentations to peers and academic staff soon after the start of their individual research project;
  4. demonstrate knowledge of, and ability to present the objectives, methods, results and conclusions of their individual research projects through the production of a report;
  5. analyse and critically research literature and contemporary topics in systems biology, and present such analyses in written and oral formats;
  6. adopt a model-building approach to the analysis of large-scale experimental data;
  7. explain the importance and impact of topics in systems and biology to both non-specialists in the natural sciences and engineering and to the lay public;
  8. demonstrate cutting-edge computational and experimental techniques relevant to systems biology.

Teaching and learning methods

These include an introductory and three specialist taught modules. Each module comprises both formal lectures and computer-based practical classes. One of the specialist modules will include a team project. Weekly discussion groups will include Journal Clubs and seminars from external speakers. A 12-week individual research project will take place in the Michaelmas and Lent terms.


Course performance is assessed on the basis of:

  • three written papers; one paper of three and one quarter hours, one paper of three hours and one paper of two hours (for aims 1-2 and learning outcomes 1,5, 6, 7);
  • a computer based practical examination of three hours;
  • a practical report of a team project (for aims 1-2 and learning outcomes 2, 6, 8);
  • a report of an individual research project of not more than 6,000 words, excluding footnotes and bibliography (for aims 1-2 and learning outcomes 3-6, 8).

Courses of Preparation

For details of entry criteria, please see The Fourth Year - Part III.

Additional Information

Further information is available on the Course Websites pages.