This article by Clare Sansom first appeared in The Biochemist, Dec/Jan 1995/6, and is reproduced here with their explicit permission. Please respect their copyright.

Molecular Education on the Web

It is September, 2002 - the beginning of a new academic year. Biochemistry students browse through descriptions of courses, attracted by big-name lecturers and titles such as "Structures of Membrane Proteins". Yet many of these students are registered at small colleges of higher education. When term begins, these British students will be joined by others based in countries throughout the world and by biochemists working in industry taking advantage of distance learning courses to catch up on their knowledge of basic science.

Futuristic? Hardly. The pilot year of an undergraduate level course in Principles of Protein Structure (1), believed to be the first international science education course to be taught entirely via the Internet and the World-Wide Web, finished in Summer 1995. Some 250 people from 27 different countries were involved in this course, as students, advisors or "consultants" (the nearest equivalent of lecturers), and about 70 students finally "graduated". Some of these were senior scientists from academia or industry.

It is perhaps appropriate that the first course of this kind should have been organised from Birkbeck College, London. Birkbeck has both an excellent reputation for research into protein structure, and a distinguished history of providing access to higher education, often on a part-time basis, to adults outside the traditional higher education community. Birkbeck's partner in this experiment in "virtual education" was the Globewide Network Academy, a non- profit organisation based in Texas which is destined to become "The University of the Internet". As in a bona fide university, subject teaching is organised into "schools" of which the Virtual School of Natural Sciences is one. One of the directors of the PPS course, Professor Peter Murray-Rust of Glaxo Wellcome, is both a visiting professor at the Department of Crystallography at Birkbeck and a voluntary "visiting professor" of VSNS. His co-director, Dr Alan Mills, has migrated painlessly from a researcher of aspartic protease structure into a Web author and educator.

Figure 1: Overview of the Principles of Protein Structure Course as it was run in 1995

PPS '95 was an experiment in teaching technology and distance education. It was consequently free and unaccredited - members of the "Class of 95" were only offered Certificates of Participation. The main distinguishing feature of the pilot course was probably its informality. The Net, as a medium, seems to encourage informality, if not downright anarchy. The difference between "students" and "consultants" was deliberately blurred. All students were encouraged to contribute material which (if judged to be up to standard) could be used in later courses, and to criticise material provided by consultants. All this material was freely available to anyone with a personal computer and access to the Internet and the World Wide Web. Consequently, students in poorly funded colleges throughout the world had the kind of access to expert scientists working at the cutting edge of biochemical research which was previously only possible for those studying in top institutes. Students from China, Colombia, Brazil and Slovenia were able to take part in the course. This contribution to "levelling the playing field" in international science education would surely have delighted Dorothy Hodgkin, to whose memory the course was dedicated, as she took a keen interest in the development of science and the well-being of its practitioners in the Third World.

All the physical teaching material, either written for the course or adapted from reviews and the primary literature, was mounted on the World Wide Web. Consultants and registered students also took part in discussion groups by email, so the students had access to one-to-one advice. The students were encouraged, and helped, to set up simple molecular graphics software such as RasMol (2) on their systems so that they could display and manipulate protein molecules while reading the text. Links were provided to publicly available software and databases elsewhere on the Web.

Each student was assigned to a group named for one of the 20 naturally occurring amino acids, with a volunteer group leader. One of the tasks given to the groups was to prepare a set of web pages for "their" amino acid. Another ongoing project throughout the course was the "hyperglossary". Definitions of biochemical terms were collected by course participants and assembled into an online glossary with cross-references which has been mounted on the Web.

Figure 2: Molecular model of the insulin hexamer produced using RasMol (3). Students were expected to use this program and others to study molecules in three dimensions alongside the course text.

Virtual reality technology first used in adventure games has been adapted for use in education. MUDs (Multi-User Dimensions) and MOOs (a variant constructed on object-oriented principles) are virtual reality environments where participants can move around and interact with each other. "BioMOO" (3) was set up by Gustavo Glusman and Jaime Prilusky at the Weizmann Institute, Israel to be the "virtual meeting place" on the Internet for bioscientists. Students on the PPS course held meetings and poster sessions in BioMOO, and took part in some of the community activities of a "real" university - from relaxing in the coffee bar to attending the end of session party.

Quotes from participants on the course

Following this successful pilot, plans are well underway for a similar course in 1996. This will be formalised as a one-year course leading to a London University Advanced Certificate in "Principles of Protein Structure using the Internet", and it will be necessary to charge fees. The directors hope that much of the informal flavour of the original course can be maintained with free interchange of information and ideas between students and consultants.

All course material will still be freely available on the Net, but fee-paying students will also receive tuition, one-to-one advice, assessment and accreditation. Registration for the new course should be in progress, and it is planned to start on 15 Jan 1996.

Contacts, URLs, and addresses...

Looking much further ahead, there is great potential for the development of distance learning at undergraduate level. Although it is by no means free, it can be much cheaper than conventional university education. Hopefully, initiatives like this will allow students and scientists who feel isolated from their peers through geography, lack of resources or even physical disability to take a fuller part in the international scientific community. The success of the First Electronic Glycosciences Conference (4) has shown that it is already possible to offer an international meeting with a full scientific programme entirely over the Net. However, even the greatest enthusiasts for "virtual education" see that it complements, rather than replacing, traditional higher education. Peter Murray-Rust hopes that in the next century his kids will still go to a real university - as well as a virtual one.


  1. Times Higher Education Supplement (Feb 10, 1995), Multimedia supplement p. v. Feature, Durham, A;
  2. Sayle, R. (1994), RasMol v. 2.5 molecular graphics program. Available via anonymous ftp from in directory pub/rasmol
  3. Anderson, C. (1994). Science 264, 900-901.
  4. EGC-1.

Clare Sansom is a postdoctoral research fellow in molecular graphics and modelling at the Leeds Centre for Molecular Recognition in Biological Systems at Leeds University. UK. Her current research includes the design of therapeutically important protease inhibitors and the topology of sugar transporters. Her wider scientific interests include developing novel uses of the Internet in teaching and research in the biosciences, and she occasionally works as a consultant in this area.

Clare Sansom

Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
University of Leeds
FAX: 0113 233 3167