Participation in either an independent senior research project (Biology 193-194 or 195-196) or clinic project is required of all senior biology majors. Our goal is to introduce you to the type of open-ended investigative work that is one of the primary activities of most professional biologists, and that attracted most of us to this field. We expect your senior research project to represent a significant and original piece of work that you will carry out independently. In the course of your project we expect you to experience and progress through the initial stages of project development and experimental design to collection and analysis of data, culminating in formal presentations of your results in both the written format of a journal article and in an oral presentation to an audience of peers. Your faculty research advisor can help guide your ideas and teach you techniques, but your project is ultimately your responsibility. The outcome of a senior research project varies, and whether or not you get “good” results depends as much on the nature of the project itself as on the effort you put into it. Nonetheless, in the past 5 years at least 5 HMC senior research projects in biology have resulted in journal publications (more are in the works!), and several have been presented as posters at national meetings of professional societies.
During the course of the year, you will be asked to complete several exercises of the same sort professional biologists must carry out in the course of doing research. During the fall semester we will ask you to prepare a written research proposal in the format of a grant proposal, and to present that proposal orally to an audience of your peers. At the end of the second semester, we expect you to present the final results of your project in a written report that conforms to the standard format of a biological journal article. In addition, you will present your findings in a 15-min talk during HMC Presentation Days.
Specific Expectations and Assignments
- Time Commitment: We expect you to spend at least three (3) hours per week per unit working on your research project (in lab, library or writing). Students taking Biology 193-194 (3 units per semester) should therefore be spending a minimum of nine (9) hours per week engaged in research-related activity; students enrolled in Biology 195-196 (Intensive Research, 6 units per semester) should count on spending twice that amount of time. Be aware that you may have to spend more time in lab some weeks than others — experiments do not always fit into neat pre-arranged time blocks, and living subjects don’t always cooperate at scheduled times! You should arrange the details of your research schedule with your individual research advisor. S/he will probably want to know what hours during the week you intend to work in the lab, and may also want to arrange a regular conference time or group lab meeting..
- Lab Notebook: You are expected to keep careful records of all research work, including details of the methods you use and the results of all experiments you do (even those that “don’t work”). Your records should enable you, another student, or your advisor to understand what was done when and to repeat the experiments exactly. Your notebook should be neatly organized and clearly legible. The particular format you use to record your data (e.g. bound notebook, 3-ring binder, computer files) must be approved by your advisor. Different advisors have different record-keeping preferences, and conventions also vary among sub-disciplines of biology. Note that your lab book and all other research records (e.g. computer files) must remain in your advisor's laboratory following the completion of your research project.
- Research Proposal: All good research projects begin with a well-thought-out research proposal; in most cases, the only way to receive the money necessary to do research is to write a grant proposal that will convince a panel of peer reviewers (usually other experts in the same field) that the proposed project is important, interesting and feasible enough to warrant funding. During the first semester of Bio 193 we will ask you to prepare a written research proposal in a format similar to that of a grant proposal. Your proposal should include a detailed review of the literature relevant to your project. Details of the proposal format will be given out in a separate handout. In addition, you will be asked to present your proposal in a 10-minute oral presentation to the biology department, to be scheduled during our regular Wednesday afternoon (4:15-5:30 pm) colloquium series (Biology 191). See the accompanying schedule of due dates for both written and oral proposals..
- Final Results: Learning to communicate your research results effectively to other scientists is as important a skill to learn as doing the actual research. Remember, if you can’t convey your conclusions clearly, you might as well not have done the project in the first place! You will have the opportunity to present the final results of your project in two different formats, orally and in a written paper. Fifteen-minute oral presentations, identical in format to the talks that are given at professional meetings, will be given by all senior research students during spring Presentation Days (5-7 May 2008). Written results will be presented in a paper that conforms to the standard format of a professional biological journal. These final papers will be due during the last week of the spring semester.
- Your Grade: Your grade will be based on the quality of your work as known to the department, as reflected in your oral presentations, and in particular as reflected in your papers. Your research proposal and final paper will be read by a second member of the biology department in addition to your research advisor. Your grade will also reflect the amount of time you devote to your project (students who spend less than the expected number of hours per week on their projects are unlikely to get an "A" even if their results are great) and the initiative and independence you show. For the fall semester please note that you will receive a grade of "N" ("continuing"); because senior research is a year-long course, the grade you receive at the end of the spring semester will be applied retroactively to the fall semester. Please be aware that research grades are determined by a consensus of the biology faculty – although your research advisor’s input is vital, s/he will not assign your final grade.
- Questions and Correspondence: As a general rule, you should address questions concerning the specifics of your research project to your research advisor. Questions concerning general requirements can be addressed either to your research advisor or to Prof. McFadden. Periodically throughout the year we will send or request information via e-mail – it is your responsibility to read all e-mail communications and to respond in a timely manner when so requested
Students are sometimes unclear about the expectations for research and how their final grade is determined. Although different advisors may emphasize different aspects, the following comments should give you a better idea of what is expected for successful completion of various research activities and requirements. Please read this section, then discuss with your advisor what s/he expects in each area (it is your responsibility to do so).
- Collect and analyze data.
Directed research or project work is different from directed reading, although appropriate reading is certainly part of research. In any research project, you must perform an experiment and collect and analyze data, either from the laboratory, in the field or from computer simulation. In a design project, you are expected to collect and analyze data from a prototype or simulation to demonstrate the design. Successful research students analyze their data appropriately, seeking help if necessary. They think about what their data mean, and what this implies about the next step in their projects.
Be advised that both experiments and the data analysis that follows always take longer than you think they will. Equipment fails or is difficult to obtain. Stock rooms run out of things, computers crash and animals die. You are still responsible for the results of the semester. In some two-semester projects, the actual experiments may not be carried out until the second semester, but in all of these cases, a detailed experimental plan should be completed by the end of the first semester. The most successful students organize their work, work carefully, and use their heads to minimize mistakes. They keep up a sustained effort and do not let their flies, Arabidopsis, Tetrahymena, lizards, etc. die from lack of care and feeding. They pay attention to important details and know when something is not as it should be. They notify a faculty member (or other person in charge) if a piece of equipment does not appear to be functioning properly.
You will probably learn that experiments can have negative or ambiguous results and some designs don't work. In these cases it is most important to demonstrate the thought that went into the work and to make a good analysis of where things went wrong and what might be done differently in the future. The best students put a lot of their own creativity and originality into the experimental design. Not all students can design experiments initially when the projects are technically complex, but they should become independent as they learn the experimental system. And all good students think independently about control experiments and replication of results (reproducibility).
- Know the literature in your field.
Good scientists must be conversant with the work others have done in the past and are doing currently in their field. The best research students become familiar with the background literature related to their research project and actively seek out new references throughout the year.
- Write a report and give a talk.
The final paper should describe the work done during the project in sufficient detail that another student with only general background in the field could continue the work based on the content of the paper and its references. Good research-paper practices must be followed. The literature review and research proposal (due at the end of the first semester) sets forth the project, puts the project in context with the existing literature (i. e., what has been done already by you or someone else), and prepares the reader for the research to be described. Appropriate references to the literature are essential. The best students not only know the research literature related to their projects but also seek out newly published articles on their own, without prodding. They are able to explain clearly to others what their project is about (i.e. “The big picture”) and demonstrate a knowledge of professional communication in biology.
- Keep good records.
The most successful students keep good records of all work done throughout the project period, so they know what's happening as they go along. As stated above, you should discuss with your advisor the format you should use for record keeping.
- You are responsible.
In directed research the student is expected to demonstrate initiative beyond what is normal for a lecture or laboratory course. Your instructor will act as an advisor and resource for the work, and approve the direction and priorities of the project. But the responsibility for keeping up the pace of the work, solving day-to-day problems and seeing to it that something is complete by the end of the project period lies with you.
- Amount of effort.
Your advisor expects a certain amount of effort (at least 3 hours per week per credit hour). Even if a student does all of the above well, but for only a fraction of the agreed-upon time, then that student may not receive a high grade.
- And most important: Have fun!
The guidelines and assignments outlined here are intended to help you become proficient at designing and performing experiments and communicating your results effectively. These skills will serve you well whether or not you plan a life as a researcher. During the year, we hope to convince you that research is both a useful and an enjoyable activity. Most of us who do it find it to be tremendous fun! We hope that you will not consider senior research merely as another course required for graduation, but that you will view it as an opportunity to explore a side of biology that you may not have encountered in your previous time at HMC. Designing and performing your own experiments can be enormously satisfying. We hope that you experience first-hand the excitement of biological discovery during the upcoming year.