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Basic Science Concepts for MVST Students


You will soon be coming up to Cambridge to begin your course in Medicine or Veterinary Medicine. Attending University for the first time tends to be a bit of a cultural shock for most people, and Cambridge is no exception to this. The terms are short, the learning process is more pressurised than you will yet have experienced, and you will find that University teaching is not like school, and you should not expect it to be. GCSEs and A levels are governed by a strict syllabus which determines the material taught in each course, and this in turn sets limits on the questions you encountered in the examinations. Your teachers had the task of making sure that you were thoroughly familiar with the syllabus and were prepared for the examinations.

University education will demand more of you in terms of assimilating new material, balancing work and social commitments, and adjusting to a different style of teaching and learning. For example, you should not expect in any of your courses at University, the same degree of definition of the syllabus as you had at A level. Lectures and handouts will cover the bones of the subject; however, you will be expected to put flesh on these bones yourself in your reading, and in small group teaching (called supervisions in Cambridge). This is a huge change in emphasis, because in school you were told, within limits, what you needed to know: in University, the burden of deciding what you need to learn and understand is transferred to you.

The Cambridge Medical and Veterinary courses are heavily science-based in the first two years, and you will be expected to deal with and understand a lot of new concepts, which demand a thorough grounding in basic science.

Why a list of basic concepts?

Present students tell us that they find the first few weeks of their medical education a steep learning curve, no matter how good their performance at A level, and they suggested that a list of basic concepts would have helped them to prepare for the very different pace of University teaching. In response to this, we have attempted to draw up a list of key terms and concepts which all lecturers in the main first year medical and veterinary courses will expect you to be at least familiar with. When you read through this list, you may find that you perhaps do not have an in-depth understanding of all of them, but you should at least know what is meant by these terms.

This is not an exam, nor is it an exhaustive list of topics, but if you are familiar with these terms and concepts, your first few weeks in Cambridge will be easier.

If you do not know, or do not understand what some of these concepts are, we advise you to do some preparatory reading before you arrive. There is a suggested reading list at the end of each section to help you with this. The texts are A level standard, and the web sites are for further exploration. At the end of your first year, we will ask you to comment on this list to help us refine and alter it.



Basic chemical concepts

1.1 Do you know the difference between an atom and a molecule?

1.2 What is the difference between atomic and molecular mass?

1.3 Define the terms mole and molar.

1.4 Define what is meant by the terms oxidation, reduction.

1.5 Define what is meant by the terms cation, anion.

1.6 Do you understand the nature of the following types of chemical bonds: ionic, covalent, co-ordinate (also known as "dative covalent bond"), hydrogen?

1.7 What are van der Waals forces?

1.8 What do these terms mean? Hydrophilic, polar, hydrophobic (non-polar), amphipathic.

1.9 Describe the structures of the following functional groups: alcohol, aldehyde, ketone, carboxylic acid, amine, amide.

1.10 Describe the structures of ester, thioester, anhydrides and peptide bonds. Only ester, anhydrides and peptides figure in the syllabus.

1.11 Define what is meant by the terms acid and base? What is the meaning of pH, defined as the negative log (base 10) of hydrogen ion concentration?

1.12 Do you have a first-level understanding of what is meant by entropy and enthalpy changes, and of how these are related to the Gibbs free energy change?

1.13 Define the equilibrium constant for a chemical reaction.

1.14 What do the terms electrophile and nucleophile mean, as applied to chemical reagents?

1.15 What are diffusion and osmosis?

Reading list - Chemistry

Single texts


Cambridge Advanced Sciences, Chemistry 1., Ratcliff, Eccles, Johnson, Nicolson & Raffan, Cambridge University Press


Collins Advanced Modular Sciences, Chemistry A2. Harwood & Hughes

Collins Advanced Modular Sciences, Physics A2. Kelly

Basic mathematical concepts

2.1 Do you understand these terms: hypothesis, theory and proof?

2.2 What is meant by "statistical significance"?

2.3 Do you understand the terms "log" and "exponential"?

2.4 Can you explain the concepts of integration and differentiation?

Basic physical concepts

3.1 Define the terms: mass, force, pressure.

3.2 Distinguish between work and power, and define watts and joules.

3.3 State Ohm's Law relating potential difference, current and resistance. Resistors added in series sum, but in parallel the conductances sum (conductance = 1/resistance).

3.4 What is capacitance? What is a capacitor?

3.5 Can you explain the difference between current and voltage?

3.6 What is the difference between reflection, refraction and diffraction?

3.7 What is the ideal gas equation?

3.8 What do you understand by partial pressure of a gas?

3.9 State Le Chatelier's principle (Chemistry A level).

3.10 Can you explain how surface area to volume ratio changes with size - why is it important?

3.11 What is heat, and what is the lowest temperature that can be achieved?

3.12 What are kinetic energy, potential energy and pressure energy?

3.13 What is the first law of thermodynamics (energy can neither be....)?

Health Physics Option (eyes and ears)

3.14 Revise the structure and function of the different parts of the eye.

3.15 Revise how visual defects can be corrected by suitable lenses.

3.16 Describe the responses of rods and cones to variations in light intensity.

3.17 How does the ear act as a transducer in response to sounds?

3.18 What is meant by frequency response? What is meant by intensity levels?

3.19 Describe the effects of ionising radiation on living tissue.

Basic biological concepts

4.1 What are the main structural features of a prokaryotic cell?

4.2 What are the main structural features of a eukaryotic cell?

4.3 What are the main constituents of a biological membrane?

4.4 What are the main organelles found in the cytoplasm of eukaryotes?

4.5 What are carbohydrates, amino acids, nucleotides and fatty acids?

4.6 What is meant by the term macromolecule?

4.7 What is the structure of DNA?

4.8 How does DNA encode genetic information?

4.9 What is RNA and what is it used for?

4.10 How is the amino acid sequence of proteins specified by DNA?

4.11 Briefly explain enzyme catalysis.

4.12 Do you understand what is meant by the following terms: hormone, neurotransmitter, growth factor and receptor?

4.13 What do the terms "dead" and "alive" mean?

Tissues and organs

5.1 What is a chromosome?

5.2 What is the difference between mitosis and meiosis?

5.3 Do you understand Mendel's laws of segregation and independent assortment?

5.4 Do you know the main long bones of the human body?

5.5 Define the following systems: musculoskeletal, nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive and genito-urinary.

5.6 Do you know the principal components of the following systems: musculoskeletal, nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive and genito-urinary?

5.7 Do you know the approximate positions in the human body of the principal components of the following systems: musculoskeletal, nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive and genito-urinary?

Reading List - Biology

For those without A-level Biology, it is better to focus on the relevant topics rather than recommending general elementary text books or revision guides for the A-level course.

The following notes on Basic Cell Biology are intended to help bring those without A-level biology up to speed on the material they will meet in the first term, and may also serve as a useful revision for others.

Essential Cell Biology (2nd Edition) by Alberts et al., is also a book recommended for the course. The first 100 pages or so cover the necessary elementary chemistry (bonds, forces, mole, small and large molecules). Mitosis, meiosis and Mendel’s laws are dealt with in Chapters 19 and 20. Tissues are dealt with in Chapter 21.

This web site is an 'A' level, UK friendly web-site: Mark Rothery's Biology web-site.

Another source of material for A level biology is : Biology For All

Cell Biology: Cells Alive website

Other books of more general nature that would be useful (interesting and fun) are

Frances Ashcroft “Life at the Extreme”

Michael G Sargent “Biomedicine and the Human Condition: Challenges, Risks, and Rewards

David Attenborough "Life on Earth"

Richard Feynman "Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!"

Bill Bryson "A Short History of Nearly Everything"

Ben Goldacre "Bad Science"