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Guidance for MSc Students: Taking Projects

Students taking the MSc Structural Molecular Biology, but not those just taking individual Certificates, will need to take a project module that consists of two individual projects, one linked to each of their taught courses. For both the PPS and TSMB courses, each project takes the form of a Web based dissertation on an aspect of structural molecular biology. Each project is worth 30 credits, compared to 60 for a single taught module (e.g. PPS).

Project Choice

For PPS you will need to choose two projects titles in order of preference from the PPS Projects List and email your choices to Jim Pitts by June 19th 2017 at the latest.

For TSMB you will need to choose a project from the appropriate list and email your choice to tsmb@mail.cryst.bbk.ac.uk by June 26th 2017 at the latest.

PPS Projects List

TSMB Projects List

TSMB students who have already taken PPS projects should note that their projects should not heavily overlap. Please pick a different subject area!

For each project you will produve a Web-based review or dissertation (written in HTML) concentrating on the science behind your chosen area of structural biology. TSMB students should expect to devote a high proportion of their project to a discussion of experimental methods. Some of the projects (more often in TSMB) will require you to use bioinformatics tools on the web, and all require you to use a combination of web resources and the scientific literature to obtain information. You should be aware that much of the literature is available online and many (but not all) of the full text papers and reviews that you will need will be available free. You should also make use of the resources available in the Birkbeck e-library. The length of the dissertation should be between 10,000 and 15,000 words.

The main characteristics of an excellent dissertation on a scientific topic are given below; these form the basis on which your dissertation will be assessed. A detailed mark scheme is reproduced towards the bottom of this page.

It cannot be stressed enough that critical analysis of the chosen material is probably the major criterion that distinguishes excellent from good from poor dissertations.

Although we expect you to use the unique facilities of the Internet for presenting images and linking to external sites, we do not expect you to become Web programmers - therefore Perl, Java and stylesheets are not required to get high marks, although you will not be penalised for using them.

You will have approximately three months in total to work on your project. Initially, you will be required to submit a detailed plan of your project and a preliminary bibliography that includes 8-12 papers and reviews, at least thre of which have been annotated. This preliminary submission is worth 20% of the marks available for the whole project, with the project plan and bibliography worth 10% each.


We will contact you near the submission deadlines with full instructions for submitting your initial bibloiography and plan, and then your final dissertation.

The deadline for submission of the preliminary project plan and bibliography for students taking both courses is Monday 7th August. These should be submitted as a single file in Word, RTF or PDF format, by email to Jim Pitts for PPS students and to tsmb@mail.cryst.bbk.ac.uk for TSMB students.

It is a requirement of the course that you submit your final project to us by the published deadline, which is 2nd Oct 2017 for both PPS and TSMB.

Students are reminded that if they do not submit work on time then they must follow the LATE SUBMISSION PROCEDURE or they will not get any marks.

Important! - Plagiarism

Students are reminded that plagiarism, or presenting others' work as if it is your own, is illegal. See Birkbeck's definition of plagiarism. We will be running all your projects, including the project plans and reference annotations, through the Turnitin plagiarism detection service - you have been warned! We have had to take sanctions against more than one student!


Preliminary Submission

The dissertation plan and annotated bibliography are together worth 20% of the project marks. These will be assessed according to the following criteria:

Dissertation plan (10%)

  1. The plan should describe the topic of the paper thoroughly; it should give a concise, detailed account of both the problem that you intend to address or the "gap" in knowledge that you intend to close, and how you propose to research the topic.
  2. The plan should be adequately referenced, providing links to citations in the attached bibliography.
  3. The plan should be between 750 and 1500 words long.

Annotated bibliography (10%)

  1. The bibliography should include 8-12 citations of primary papers and reviews that are pertinent to the topic of your dissertation.
  2. The citations should be formatted correctly and consistently in a recognised variant of the Harvard or Vancouver reference styles.
  3. At least three of your references, all of which should be primary research papers, should be fully annotated. Each annotation should:

Final Project

The final projects for both PPS and TSMB (which are worth 80% of the project marks) will be assessed according to the following criteria:

Marks will be awarded for a clear overview of the context. What is the current scientific interest in the topic chosen, and how does this relate to any special features of the biology of the system along with the potential wider benefits of that understanding? The introduction should provide a clear and concise outline of the range and content of the project, and you will need to demonstrate an understanding of the underlying significance of the area you are investigating in relation to advances in the field.
Scientific Content
You need to investigate your topic thoroughly. Marks will be awarded for a wide survey of the scientific literature around the topic and this should be both factual and relevant. Think carefully about the structure of your project. The underlying science needs to be laid out in a clear manner and it should flow naturally in a structured and logical way. In other words, the scientific argument should appear seamless to the reader. Subdivide the project into appropriate parts, each with a particular role in developing the theme of your topic.
Conclusions and Critical Analysis
Marks will be awarded for the discussion, in a critical way, of the scientific evidence you have gathered. Any conflicts within the different sources of research you have found in the literature should be addressed. Issues of quality of data and interpretation may also be apparent and need to be discussed. The advantages and disadvantages of any given approach should be balanced with your own understanding of the validity and quality of the alternative approaches; you should insert information in a clearly thought out manner. If alternative methodologies come to different conclusions, you need to discuss how this could be. The weight of evidence from the literature should then allow you to come to some clear and balanced conclusions based on your own understanding of the information you have researched.
Style and Structure
Marks will be awarded for coherence in both style and structure. The project should be readable, easily understood and laid out in a structured and logical way. It is a story, but based on a guiding scientific theme. There are a number of previous successful projects, with different styles and structures, available on the project pages for you to view. There is no absolutely correct style and structure, so you are free to develop your own, but it must be logical, coherent and suit the nature of your topic.
Marks will be awarded for illustrations that are relevant and self-explanatory, with clear and complete figure legends. The legend should allow you to understand each figure without having to read any of the main text. Figures should add to the flow of your discussion and enhance it. Credit will be given to the production of your own figures, either entirely of your own design (e.g. using Jmol) or reworked and improved versions from a publication. You must acknowledge the source of any figures that are not your own, and if reworked indicate which source they have been adapted from. Additional credit can be gained by carefully annotating your own figures with relevant information for each one.
Marks will be awarded for a good coverage of the relevant literature. You need to consider carefully what sources of information you are using. These should be topical and be mostly original publications. We would expect you to make good use of peer reviewed scientific papers as much of your primary source material. This can entail a great deal of reading and so will use up a large amount of your time. These must be correctly cited in the text and if any direct quotations are used they should be fully quoted to avoid plagiarism. Do not rely on the web to gather your information. The references should follow a standard convention found in scientific papers, e.g. the Harvard system. Published papers should be listed first in the final bibliography followed by the list of any web URLs you need to use. Be consistent and check that all the references in the main text are matched in the bibliography and vice versa.
Presentation Quality
Marks will be awarded for the correct use of the English language, which must be in your own words. The write up should be of a high standard with good spelling, sound grammar and checked to remove simple typing errors. Scientific conventions should be observed, e.g. use of italics [(Jones et al., 2010), Escherichia coli]. You may wish to put a summary into each section, if you feel it is appropriate, and this can help to link the text together. The final conclusion needs to be from your understanding of the scientific knowledge you have gathered from your study of the literature. You should be able to navigate the pages simply and they should be easy on the eyes. We encourage you to look at the HTML source and keep it simple, and we do not encourage the use of HTML generated by Word which is over-fussy and not necessarily good on all browsers. Avoid spaces in file names as this is often a source of problems.

Marks will be awarded as follows:

Previous Projects

The best way to find out what we are looking for in a project is to look at some previous examples. Please let us know when you submit if you are not willing for your project to be shown to future students

All projects mounted anywhere on the Birkbeck hypertree have at least reached the standard required to pass.

However, the following projects have been judged to have reached a particularly high standard:



If in doubt about the choice of a project or any other aspect of the project procedure, PPS students should email Jim Pitts or Clare Sansom. TSMB students should consult Nick or Clare by emailing tsmb@mail.cryst.bbk.ac.uk. There will also be a couple of IM sessions specifically to discuss projects. All PPS students and those on the 3-year MSc programme are strongly encouraged to attend one of these, and TSMB students who have already taken the PPS project are invited to attend for a "refresher".

Clare Sansom, Nick Keep and Jim Pitts: June 2017