Treefrog tadpoles by Geoff Gallice (www.flickr.com/dejeuxx) used under CC-BY 2.0 license

Studying Biology at Merton

Biology at Merton is characterised by a very friendly, dynamic community, with manifold opportunities for field trips, travel and research. Oxford’s fantastic array of world-renowned museums and libraries, notably the Museum of Natural History, and its extensive reference collections, make this an ideal setting for delving into the study of this vibrant degree.
Course structure

The Biology course at Oxford is taught jointly by the Departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology. You will be taught in a variety of formats, including lectures, practical skills classes and laboratory work, field courses and projects, and college tutorials. Topics covered include cell biology, developmental biology, evolutionary biology and ecology, to name but a few.

Practical laboratory sessions and fieldwork are core aspects of this degree, and there is ample opportunity to pursue your individual interests and passions.

Students can either choose to complete their course after three years and graduate with a BA, or to continue to a fourth year and graduate with an MBiol (Masters in Biology). Progression to the MBiol is contingent on satisfactory academic performance in the first three years. The optional fourth year of the degree consists of an in-depth research project, which can be lab- or field-based, supervised and supported by an Oxford academic.

The teaching team

Teaching in Biology is co-ordinated by Professor Tim Guilford, with further tutorial teaching provided by Professors Matt Higgins and Craig MacLean and Dr Annette Fayet, with additional support from two college lecturers.

Graduate mentors (current postgraduate students) are available to provide additional help and support with all aspects of the course.

Student Profiles
Josephine Blagrove
Josephine Blagrove

Year: 2

Where are you from?: Shropshire

Best thing about your course?

I think biology is one of the broadest subjects you can study here- from biochemistry and microbes to ecosystems and conservation. Biology is an incredibly dynamic field and new research continues to transform how we understand the natural world, so it’s impossible to be bored!

This means that the course has a lot of flexibility too - in tutorials you can delve into whatever subject grabs your curiosity. This year my tutorials have covered topics such as the role of the cytoskeleton in cancer and tool use in animals.

Most important thing you’ve learnt?

Don’t let your past or your background hold you back. Imposter syndrome is something myself and a lot of other students have experienced - to overcome this I think you need to be unapologetic and proud of who you are. If you got so far as to get into Oxford University, know you deserve to be here and you will thrive here!

What do you do when you’re not working?

I try to spend as much time as possible with friends in college and outside of college too! I also love volunteering in Oxford and am on committee of a charity at Oxford Hub (Oxford University’s centre for social action - check it out!).

What do you do in the holidays?

In the short holidays between terms I go home to see friends and family, catch up on sleep and get a little work done. In the long summer holidays, I try to do an internship and get some work experience. Last year I worked as a lab assistant at the John Krebs Field Station at Wytham, focusing on honeybees and pollination.

Paris Jaggers
Paris Jaggers

Year: 3

Where are you from: Cambridge

Why Merton?
As soon as I walked round Merton I loved its cosiness and remember thinking that everyone seemed so friendly. It’s hands down the prettiest college and has a beautiful garden that’s lovely in the summer. Accommodation and food are very cheap too!

Best thing about your course?
Biology is unique in the extent to which it allows you to follow your own interests. While the first year involves exposing you to a tonne of new material you’ve probably never covered before, in your second you’re free to organise your own tutorials in whatever area takes your fancy. As it’s a very broad subject, this means you can be reading about wildly different things each week – I’ve had tutorials on things as varied as game theory, neuron regeneration and empathy this term.

What are tutorials like?
Quite varied. How much you enjoy them generally depends on how hard you worked on the essay – if you’ve found a way to be interested in the topic then tutorials are really rewarding. It’s also helpful to have tutorials with a range of people (mine are usually in pairs but can be one-on-one or with three or four others) as you get to see how other people have interpreted the same question.

What do you do when you’re not working?
Mostly rowing! I’ve been pretty involved in the boat club this year, which means organising training and races. It’s a great sport and introduces you to great people, but does mean getting up before 6am multiple times a week!

What do you do in the holidays?
In the shorter vacations, I do my best to do very little, but over the summer I try to do something interesting to do with my course. Last summer I was lucky enough to get a marine ecology placement in Madagascar and the college gave me a generous grant to support my travel there. I helped with research and conservation on coral reefs - Madagascar is hugely biodiverse and I got to dive on one of the biggest reefs in the world.

Charlie Lamb
Charlie Lamb

Year: 1

Where are you from?: Widnes (near Liverpool)

Why Merton?

Merton jumped out at me on open day as having a really beautiful garden and great facilities, with the size of a pretty big college but the intake of a pretty small one.

Best thing about Merton?

Just how everyone seems to know everyone, there’s a lot of friendships across different years and subjects. I can’t walk around college without saying hi at least four times.

Best thing about your course?

I get to do some really cool things in labs. There’s loads of really interesting dissections and practicals.

Best thing about the collegiate system?

The collegiate system lets everything be a lot more personal and manageable. As well as being a part of a large university with lots of people, you are also a part of a small community.

Highlight of the year?

Free ice cream trips during welfare week.

Most important thing you’ve learnt?

I’ve learnt that I am here to be the best that I can be, and that it isn’t the best of what my best friend can be or what my tutor can be, it’s about me, and if I want to make the most out of my time here then I’ve got to work for it myself and be proud of what I can achieve.

How has Oxford changed you?

I’m more appreciative of the little things in life, like how bees are able to move their tiny wings to fly, or how I’m helping my body whenever I get vaccinated.

How do you cope with the workload?

I cope pretty well with the workload. I always try and get something done when I’m in the mood, and try and finish something as early as I can. But if I feel like I deserve a break, then I get one. I only do this because I have good self-control to be able to tell myself when to start working again.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I like to cheerlead! I’m on both university teams and I’m going to coach one of the teams next year. (Fingers crossed for another varsity win!)

Favourite place to eat?

You can never beat a takeaway with all of your mates in whosever room is biggest.

What do you do in the holidays?

I like spending time with my family, and annoying them with cool biology facts I learnt over the term.

What are tutorials like?

Tutorials for me are usually discussions about different areas in biology. We convey our ideas and talk and debate how they may be true or not. It’s the chance for us to ask questions and expand our knowledge beyond lectures. However, it doesn’t feel much like teaching, more just like a conversation. It’s nothing to be scared of.

The benefits of studying Biology at Merton
  • The University of Oxford Botanic Garden is on our doorstep - in the words of its Director, Timothy Walker, "Holding tutorials in the Botanic Garden means that the words in the scientific papers come to life and in just one hour the students and tutor can travel together through the biology of the world and touch the world of biology. This cannot be achieved in any other way."
  • Merton’s student-run Biology Society holds a variety of events, social activities and talks throughout the year, which are ever popular.
  • Merton provides generous academic grants and funding for field trips, research projects and travel.
  • Merton is the college of the Linacre Chair of Zoology, Professor Peter Holland.
  • Distinguished biologists associated with the College include Niko Tinbergen, who shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz for their discoveries concerning the organisation and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns in animals; and Richard Southwood, Linacre Chair of Zoology 1979-1993, who went on to take up the Vice-Chancellorship of the University.
Video: Biology at Oxford University
Course information
Key facts
Average intake at Merton:

Four.

Test:

None.

Written work:

None required.

Specific subjects:

Biology is essential. At least one of Chemistry, Physics or Mathematics must also be taken. We expect you to take and pass any practical component in your chosen science subjects.

Deferred entry:

Applications for deferred entry will be considered on their merits.