Biophysics of Nerve and Muscle
This page was last updated on 19/11/2017.
This paper is notoriously regarded as the most challenging MEDSCI paper across Stage III. To paint the picture, the Mid-Semester Test average in 2015 was 45.5%. This course has 2 lectures per week and 20 examinable lectures in total. Note that historically, 309 lectures have always been at 8AM. 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. 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. Also, the course-guide is very comprehensive but often don'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.
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.
The labs themselves are quite fun where you actually get to replicate electrophysiology experiments, eg: 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!
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.
The Mid-Semester Test took place in a lecture slot (8AM start) of Week 6 in 2015. The Mid-Semester Test is usually considered very hard (as mentioned before, the class average was bedazzling low). There is little guidance prior to this test and so many find it very hard. 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). You only had an hour to complete this and thus many people felt incredibly rushed.
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!
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!!
Resting Membrane Potential - Dr Peter Freestone (2)
The first two lectures of the course were taught by Dr Peter Freestone in 2015 about the resting membrane potential. This section was quite a nice balance in the physics concepts of electrical circuits, mathematical manipulations of equations and physiological explanations for the RMP. This section recapped a lot of first year knowledge where you should already know that RMPs exist due to Na/K ATPase and potassium leak channels etc. However, as this is a 3rd year paper, this section went much more in-depth into the mathematical models behind the RMP. 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 2015. 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 at the front of the course guide. Check out the links below 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 lecturers explanations, 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 Meagan Barclay (3)
This section of 3 lectures was taken by Dr Meagan Barclay in 2015. 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.
Muscles - Dr Marie Ward (6)
This section of 6 lectures was taken by Dr Marie Ward in 2015. 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 2015. 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. 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 (4)
This section of 4 lectures was taken by A/Professor Denis Loiselle in 2015. Additionally, this was split into 2 sections: "Energetic Aspects of Contraction" and "Theories of Contraction" both of which were 2 lectures each. 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!
End of Semester Tutorials
In the last week, with 2 lecture slots and a 3 hour lab slot available, this gave the basis of 5 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.