Student-Faculty Collaborative Research in the Biology Department

Student research is an important element of the biology curriculum at Lafayette, and teaching basic research skills is one of the missions of the biology faculty. Student collaboration also furthers our faculty research programs, and student-faculty projects increase our faculty research productivity.

Why should you become involved in a collaborative research project with one of the Biology Department faculty?

  • Student research can help you decide whether or not a research-based career in biology is for you.
  • Research hones independent thinking and laboratory skills for a variety of careers.
  • Undergraduate research leads to a better professional understanding of how basic research is carried out.
  • Collaboration initiates a mentoring relationship with a professor who can be an important resource for career advice and letters of recommendation.
  • Participation in independent research (especially in an honors thesis program) is an important credential for admission to graduate and professional school and in obtaining any lab-based position.
  • Research is just plain fun!

For these and other reasons, approximately half of our graduating majors each year have become involved in collaborative research with faculty mentors during the academic year or in the summer. Much of this research is published in refereed scientific journals and also is presented by students at local and national scientific meetings. This document describes the research options available and how to become involved in student research. Other documents linked to this one describe the honors thesis procedure in detail.

Biology - ResearchResearch Options

Biology majors may participate in research by enrolling in one or more courses: BIOL 401-404 Independent Research, or BIOL 495-496 Thesis. These courses are intended to provide students with individual research instruction in a subdiscipline of biology and to allow them to develop and pursue their own laboratory or field research projects. Rather than simply serving as laboratory technicians, students taking these courses are expected to develop their own research projects in consultation with a faculty mentor and to carry the projects to completion. Research students should expect to spend time each week working in the lab, reading published research papers, caring for living material, etc.

Although students enrolled in Independent Research or in Thesis engage in many of the same activities in the laboratory, the courses are different and they serve different purposes. Independent Research may be taken for up to four semesters by junior, senior, and occasionally sophomore students. This offering is intended to allow any biology major to pursue an advanced laboratory research project under the supervision of a faculty mentor. Many students who participate in the Honors Program begin their research projects in their junior year by taking one or two semesters of Independent Research to define their research projects and to obtain preliminary data. Thesis is a course normally taken only by seniors and it is expected to lead to the presentation of an honors thesis by the student at the end of the senior year, although other timetables are possible. There are minimum all-college grade requirements for enrolling in Thesis, currently 3.00 GPA (grade point average) overall and 3.20 in courses in the major. Further, the student must earn an “A” in Thesis each semester, write and successfully defend the thesis, and be approved for graduation with honors by the Biology Department, the Faculty Academic Progress Committee, the entire Faculty and, ultimately, the Board of Trustees.

An alternative means of performing research with a biology faculty member at any point in your academic career is through the campus-wide EXCEL Scholars program. In this case, the faculty mentor and student apply for an EXCEL scholarship to the Academic Research Committee of the Faculty. Students who are selected for the program receive a stipend and room and board for the summer or interim sessions, or can obtain financial support for the school year. However, students receive no formal course credit for their EXCEL research. These scholarships are highly competitive and have their own guidelines for GPA, etc. Please discuss the EXCEL program with a faculty member if you are interested. The deadline for proposals for the summer program is in early February.

Students who are majors in other departments or programs and who wish to take Independent Research (BIOL 401-404) should consult the biology faculty member with whom they wish to collaborate and then obtain permission to register for the course from the department chair. It is also possible for nonmajors to graduate with honors in biology. By faculty policy, students who wish to do honors work in departments other than their major department must separately petition the Faculty Academic Progress Committee for permission to do so. Such students must have taken at least six courses, exclusive of Thesis, in the honors department, four of which must be at or above the sophomore (200) level.

Biology - ConsoleHow to become involved in research

The best way to become involved in research is to discuss the possibility of collaborative research with the professor whose research interests lie in the area of biology that most piques your curiosity. It is also a good idea to take a laboratory course with this person. In fact, most biology professors will require this as a test of your interest in and commitment to research. Taking a course that includes laboratory training in the area in which you hope to do research will provide useful skills in the research project to follow.

Assuming that your interest in doing research is now strong, it is time to approach the professor who taught the course and discuss again the possibility of a project in an area of mutual interest. In nearly all cases, students perform research projects in the faculty mentor’s area of research interest. Do not be afraid to approach the professor of your choice and express an interest in doing research in his/her lab; biology faculty usually have several ideas that they would like to investigate and are often eager to find students who will collaborate with them. The professor will provide guidance, training, and resources for the research project, and you will provide interest, hard work, and enthusiasm. Having successfully negotiated the support of a faculty member and obtained the permission of the department chair to register for Independent Research, you will be expected to pursue your research project vigorously. Remember, you will be taking Independent Research as a full-fledged course, and you should expect to spend a substantial amount of time each week on your research project. You should take this into account when scheduling other course work for the semester.

Schedule for Independent Research Students

The scheduling of courses in Independent Research is not mandated by special faculty rules, as are Thesis courses. Thus, students can begin their work in their sophomore or junior years as a prelude to registration for Thesis in the senior year. Others may elect to work in Independent Research for as many as four semesters. Students may not receive credit for more than four semesters of Independent Research/Thesis. Many professors require at least a two-semester commitment to the research project, so you should discuss this issue with your prospective mentor.

Schedule for Honors Students

Detailed information is available in Appendix 1.  Below, is a summary timeline intended as a resource for those who have already read all of the  information presented in Appendix 1.  If you do not pay strict attention to that information, you risk missing important requirements that will eliminate you from consideration for Honors.

Summary timeline

Spring semester junior year

  • Discuss the possibility of an Honors Thesis with your mentor
  • Enroll in BIOL 495

Summer between junior and senior year

  • draft thesis proposal and start putting together a thesis committee

Fall senior year

  • After the mentor has signed off on the proposal, the completed Honors Thesis Proposal is submitted for departmental comment and approval by 5 pm of the Friday of the 4th week of classes.
  • During the last week of October, candidate presents and orally defends the Thesis Proposal.

Interim senior year

  • Candidate works on thesis
  • Thesis committee decides whether the candidate can enroll in BIOL 496

Spring senior year

  • If approved, the candidate enrolls in BIOL 496
  • The student follows the committee-specific timeline regarding submission of drafts and other materials.
  • By 5 pm on Monday of the 13th week of classes, the Thesis Committee will meet with the Honors candidate to review the Thesis and decide whether the candidate can submit the thesis to the department and stand for defense.
  • By 4 pm on Friday of the 14th week of classes, the candidate will submit a near-final draft of the Honors Thesis to the Department Head for faculty comment.

During the last week of classes, the Honors candidate will publicly present and defend the thesis research.

Additional Information

Additional information about research in biology can be obtained by speaking to any member of the department. Additional appendices (presented at the top of the page) provide information on specific policies and resources for student research in the department.