UCL Department of Biochemical Engineering


Undergraduate FAQs

Need guidance writing your UCAS statement? Want to know how much time you'll get in our labs? What's the difference between Chemical and Biochemical Engineering? Find answers to FAQs here.

What is the difference between Biochemical Engineering and Chemical Engineering?

In some ways we share many courses in common with Chemical Engineering e.g. Heat and mass transfer, thermodynamics, mathematics. However, the main difference is that we also train our students in biochemistry and molecular biology from year 1. Biochemical engineering seeks to apply the fundamental principles of engineering to biological systems and processes e.g. for the production of pharmaceuticals, biofuels or stem cells. 

A technical example to take is how we might study fluid flow: as biochemical engineers our aim might be to understand how we can mix a fermenter to make sure nutrients can be accessed by cells growing in the bioreactor. The cells are making a biopharmaceutical antibody, and under strong mixing the extracellular product is damaged, so we need to optimize the system to keep the cells alive and the product intact. In this way we connect the physical engineering parameters to the biological outputs. 

By learning the core engineering science and combining this with applied molecular biology, we can apply the same principles to a range of processes: whether we are investigating how to make pluripotent stem cells for regenerative medicine, manufacturing vaccines or making sustainable polymers for bioplastics.

Can I become a chartered Chemical Engineer if I study Biochemical Engineering?

Yes. Our degree is accredited by the IChemE, so you can go on to become a chartered Chemical Engineer after studying Biochemical Engineering. 

At UCL there is the flexibility to combine courses. On our degree programmes you can opt to do the final MEng year in the other department e.g. Biochemical with Chemical Engineering.

What kind of jobs can I do after graduating as a Biochemical Engineer?

Our alumni have a diverse range of careers, many work in the pharmaceutical industry on process development or in research, or else on the business and management side of the industry. Our graduates also join biotechnology start-ups where their varied skill set and sense of entrepreneurship is an advantage. We also have a number of students who enter specialist consultancy or finance jobs where their knowledge of drug development and manufacturing gives them a competitive edge.

A significant proportion go on for further study, gaining PhDs. This reflects the emerging nature of our discipline, as we link research with teaching wherever possible.

How much labwork/practical work will I get to do?

Our classes are relatively small, which means that we can offer plenty of practical sessions. There are molecular biology lab sessions in the first year as well as practicals in our pilot plant facility where you will learn about fermentation and downstream processing.

What does an average week look like? How much contact time will I have?

Our degree is fast paced, and this is reflected in the number of contact hours. The first two years will be a mixture of our Integrated Engineering Programme lectures, covering fundamentals such as mathematics and design. There are then discipline specific courses for biochemical engineering. In the third year, the Design Project forms a significant component of the course.

How can I best prepare my UCAS Personal Statement?

For the BEng/MEng route we’re looking to see that you have an interest in how to solve problems practically. Quite frequently students are worried that if they pick a mixture of chemical and biochemical engineering degrees that we will look upon their application unfavourably. This is not the case! There are many examples of processes that involve biochemical and chemical engineers working together such as pharmaceutical or biofuel production.

It is more important that you show us how you can combine science and maths together, and apply your knowledge to problem solving. You may wish to pick a topic that relates to an area you that you are passionate about such as healthcare or the environment and explain how you believe engineering can change the world. This may have come through personal experience, something you have learned in your A-levels, or through your own personal research. If you would like some inspiration, we recommend you read or listen to podcasts about new developments in drug discovery, biotechnology and engineering in places like New Scientist, Science , Nature or PNAS. Or take a look at our News page!

There are a number of useful websites that can also help, such as the IChemE website or the WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) Campaign where you can see the various career paths open to you, or view the profiles of people who have studied similar subjects. There is also UCL Engineering Inspiration where you can find curated articles on a range of engineering subjects. We do encourage you to read around your areas of interest to find out the latest advances.

What do prospective students ask you most often?

Many questions! Often candidates have alternative qualifications, and they want to check their eligibility. Or they may be considering their options between Biochemical Engineering, Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology so they want to be clear on the differences between the subjects. Or, they want some advice on how to tailor a personal statement as there are only a few Biochemical Engineering courses in the UK and they are worried if their statement isn’t specialised. As an interdisciplinary degree, we accommodate a wide range of interests, so quite often candidates just need to the confidence to know they are on the right track.

What advice do you have for people writing a UCAS personal statement?

We’re looking for enthusiasm and an insight into what the degree is about. A common mistake that many people make is thinking that we require that they must have relevant work experience. We know that isn’t always realistic, and there are many other ways you can show your active interest in the subject. This might be through reading about developments in biotechnology through a journal or scientific publication, we recommend you read or listen to podcasts about new developments in drug discovery, biotechnology and engineering in places like New ScientistScience , Nature or PNAS. Or take a look at our News page! I’m always excited to hear how a new development had captured somebody’s attention and they have made the effort to read beyond the A-level curriculum. 

We share the same team working, problem-solving and numeracy requirements to Chemical Engineering, so candidates should focus on demonstrating those skills if they have multiple applications. Biochemical engineers are often motivated by altruism or by a desire to make the world a better place, so volunteering shows that candidates are self-motivated and committed. 

In line with UCL policy, we don’t have an interview process so it is good to inject your personality and energy into the personal statement. You may have had a personal experience that has ignited your passion to study this subject, the key thing is that you come across as genuine and authentic.

What kind of careers are people interested in following?

We have a real range, from those interested in Regenerative Medicine and clinical applications of stem cell therapies, through to green chemicals or biopharmaceuticals. An up and coming aspect is synthetic biology, sustainability and industrial biotechnology. Quite often our applicants know they want to be involved with start ups in pharmaceuticals or biofuels, but they aren’t sure in which sense. Some candidates are looking for a way to combine their skills in maths and science – the beauty of this degree is that you learn the fundamentals, so you can still change your mind and getting exposure to industry helps them decide!

How can people help make up their minds about what to study and where?

We host a number of Open days: during the UCL Open Days you can visit the pilot plant and talk to our students and alumni. If you can’t travel easily to London on those dates we have recorded a virtual open day, where we give examples of the kinds of topics we study, and the destinations of graduates. If you are curious about the facilities available, then you can get a 360 degree view of some of our laboratories (this works really well on a smartphone as you move it around!)

Information on the degree structure can be found on the website, and entry requirements are on the prospective student website and the prospectus. We’ve asked some of our students to talk about their experience studying in the department, so you can hear their perspectives.

What are the key factors that students should consider when deciding on a degree, and what should they ask on Open Days?

You should think about the style in which you like to learn. Our intake in Biochemical Engineering is quite small compared to many of the bigger degrees, so although we are a central London university, it feels more like a family. Another important factor is contact time, and hands on learning. In particular, if you think you would like to work in industry or research it is vital to have ample practical courses and opportunities to get exposure to the kinds of equipment or techniques that you would be using. Look for a department that is innovating, and responding to outside challenges. For instance, we listened to our undergraduates and have pioneered a new MEng year in Industry where our students can experience R&D at a company. In this kind of emerging field the integration of research and teaching is vital, so you should be assessing how a department links these two fields. At UCL we’re building this into our culture through the Connected Curriculum.

Another factor to consider is the opportunities to diversify or specialise, and the options available to tailor your degree. For example, the Integrated Engineering Programmeenables you to pair Biochemical Engineering with a range of subjects from Programming to Policy. 

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