Guidelines for Undergraduate Research - BIOL399
Science is the effort to discover and objectively describe natural phenomena and their functioning within systems. Most science entails collection and analysis of quantitative data, and some work includes designing and carrying out experiments or construction of models. Biology focuses specifically on living systems. Students seeking to undertake independent research (BIOL399) should wish to complement their growing "book knowledge" with experience in the actual conduct of biological science.
There is much to be gained from independent research. After a credit or two of research, one should better understand whether s/he should target a career as a practicing scientist (after further training in graduate or professional school). Independent research should help one to hone his or her abilities in logical analysis and in writing. Some independent research leads to such well-documented and original findings that publication of a peer-reviewed scientific article results. These are only some of the valid reasons to pursue independent research credit.
I. How to Arrange for Credit in Independent Research
The possibility of independent research begins when a student investigates the kinds of research conducted by different faculty members. One approach is to explore the Biology Department web site (http://www.departments. bucknell.edu/biology/faculty). Students will also benefit from talking to others already engaged in independent research, perhaps in a laboratory of particular interest. Next, the student will initiate discussions with one or more faculty members about possibilities for independent research in their laboratories. Ultimately, the student's work will take one of the following forms: (a) assistance of the faculty member with his or her ongoing research, (b) collaboration with the faculty member on research of mutual interest, or (c) guided initiation of a novel project of the student's own conception. In any case, the student is expected to conduct work in every characteristic phase of research -- from presentation of hypotheses in a formal proposal, through the development of research design, on to data collection, and finally written and perhaps oral communication of results.
Most faculty are willing to advise more than one research student in a given semester, but also most faculty accept only promising students for research mentoring. What is generally most important to faculty is the degree to which the individual student shows a commitment to succeed in research. For particular projects, some faculty may require the prospective research student to plan for their independent research effort to span two consecutive semesters and/or have taken specific courses.
Pending faculty approval, students can enroll for independent research projects (BIOL399) in a given semester worth 0.5, 1.0, or 2.0 course credits. As for all full-credit Bucknell coursework, the basic expectation of students enrolled for one full credit of research is approximately 12 h of work weekly. Naturally, half-credit projects anticipate students spending half as much time weekly on their work, while two-credit projects anticipate twice as much time investment. Two-credit projects would only be appropriate for the most advanced research students. Half-credit research might be appropriate for a student wishing primarily to investigate the background literature pertaining to a specific area of research, perhaps to determine whether they might be interested to pursue actual empirical work in that area. Alternatively, a half-credit of research might enable a student to learn a specific technique in the laboratory or some particular method of data collection in a naturalistic or true field setting. In any half-credit scenario, however, students are expected to produce a term paper, present a poster, or undertake an oral presentation similar to those produced for full-credit projects (see below).
II. Requirements of Your Research Activity
The first requirement is for the student to discuss with a particular faculty member the possibilities for a research mentorship in his or her lab and the general scope of the student's interests. The student may want to have this discussion one to two semesters ahead of time. These discussions will enable the prospective mentor and student to determine whether the student is interested more to assist the faculty with an ongoing project or to initiate relatively new research related to primary thrusts of the faculty member's ongoing research program. This planning for independent research should occur during the semester prior to the one during which the independent research is meant to occur. Once the general domain of intended research is understood between mentor and student, the student is in position to begin reviewing pertinent literature and methods and outlining his or her research proposal.
B. Proposal and proposal revision
Every formal effort in independent research (BIOL399) must be founded on a clear and complete written proposal. A proposal generally contains an introduction, a section on methods, a section describing anticipated analyses and results, a section outlining the significance of the intended research, and a bibliography (literature cited in proposal). Typically, a student generates an initial draft of a proposal for review and criticism by the faculty mentor. Thereafter, the proposal is revised in accord with the written criticism and further discussion. Revised proposals should be completed no later than the third week of the semester of research.
C. Weekly work
The most diligent student researchers often invest more than 12 hours in a given week, whereas some weeks might see slightly less time spent directly on research activity. However, because research is so multifaceted (see sections II. E. and III., below) and the fullest possible success with any research relates directly to the time invested by the investigator, weeks during which fewer than 12 h are spent on research should be rare. Ultimately, this is a matter that will depend most on the individual student's organizational skill, foresight, and resourcefulness. The student's particular activities will be planned during regular meetings throughout the semester with the faculty mentor. All undergraduate research students are required to attend all Friday afternoon seminars organized by the Department.
D. Regular meetings with the faculty mentor
Most independent researchers benefit from regular communication with primary colleagues. For student researchers this means weekly meetings with one's faculty mentor. Meetings might be scheduled for a particular day and time or rather occur at frequent but irregular intervals. Most important, students should not expect their faculty mentors to run them down to determine their state of progress. Instead, the reliability with which a student schedules and attends meetings with his or her mentor can be expected to be one major element of the faculty member's ultimate evaluation of the student's performance. Some professors organize weekly lab-group meetings at which all students conducting research in their lab discuss ongoing activities, journal articles, or recent findings of interest. Often, students take turns leading discussion by making brief presentations describing progress with their project.
E. Communication of data
Written communication is an essential element of virtually every meaningful effort in science. Anyone with appropriate insight, precision, and commitment can discover something by implementing "the scientific method." But, a contemporary project remains incomplete until one submits their methods, results, and interpretation to full evaluation, which is normally achieved via written reports. Most faculty will ask student researchers to draft their report in the form of a manuscript that might be accepted at a particular professional journal in one's field. This requires that the paper be drafted in precise accord with the format specified by the given journal for all manuscripts submitted for potential publication. Regardless of whether the student's results may be publishable, this practice offers invaluable experience with the process of formal scientific writing. Typically, mentors offer to critically review first and sometimes second drafts of a student's article. Final versions are normally due just before or during the week of final exams.
Poster or oral presentation
In lieu of or possible addition to a written report, students may be asked to give an oral or poster presentation. This activity may occur locally, such as the Kalman Symposium every March, or at regional and national meetings. Students will be expected to be actively involved in the drafting of the presentation. It is also expected that students presenting an oral report rehearse the talk in front of their advisor and lab group for constructive comments.
III. Criteria for Evaluation of Independent Research Projects: Effort and Quality
The faculty mentor evaluates and grades the student's performance. Both the effort a student invests and the resulting quality of scholarship determine the degree to which excellence is achieved with an independent research project. But, it is important to remember that excellence in research, as with any coursework, is judged somewhat indirectly in relation to effort. Outcomes are generally evaluated more directly in relation to the actual quality of scholarship that emerged. The student researcher should be sure to engage his or her mentor in a discussion of this issue during the planning stage of the project. That discussion will help the student decide whether to conduct independent research and guide his or her approach to solicitation of feedback and assistance throughout the project.
Mentors will determine in advance how each project will be evaluated in relation to effort and quality of scholarship. For example, 30-40% of a grade for independent research may be based on the mentor's assessment of the effort that the student advanced while 60-70% is based on the actual quality of the scholarship, especially as reflected by the content, organization, and clarity of the final paper.
Faculty mentors monitor the many dimensions of effort expected of research students. One essential aspect is the level of initiative exhibited. A student applying high initiative achieves progress with the current literature pertaining to his or her investigation relatively independently after beginning stages, sometimes bringing to the mentor's attention more than one relevant article of which the mentor is not yet aware. Mature correspondence with scientists in the particular research area might be undertaken, sometimes leading to receipt of yet-unpublished manuscripts or additional leads to relevant literature. High initiative could include development of required skills in data tabulation, graphical analysis, and/or statistical analysis without undue exhortation on the part of the primary mentor (e.g., use of SPSS, SigmaPlot, or similar software). Appointments might be made with other students, Bucknell staff, or faculty with particular expertise in these areas to make essential progress. Most important, initiative entails taking full and primary responsibility for arranging when and how often information is exchanged with one’s mentor, so that the supervising faculty member is easily able to offer appropriate advice. The faculty mentor cannot be expected to locate the student to determine whether appropriate progress is being made along all dimensions of the project.
B. Quality of Scholarship
There are also many dimensions to the quality of scholarship. One is how comprehensively the student has dealt with the scientific literature pertaining to his or her research. The student should show awareness of both important seminal publications and recent books and journal articles that are influencing the work of investigators in their sub-discipline. Some high-achieving students might also discuss in their paper how their own results suggest that consideration of literature rarely or never before cited by investigators in their field may be important to achieve fullest possible insight. In other words, mentors will read student papers with an eye toward determining how well their students understand "the big picture:" i.e., how the results of their own research fit into existing knowledge.
The clarity and precision of written reports are also essential aspects of scholarship. As with manuscripts submitted by established researchers for potential publication, student reports will generally be evaluated regarding how well they conform to the format required for manuscripts submitted to a particular journal in their field. Unless particular variances are agreed upon in advance, the paper should be organized in a way that would make it completely ready, after final revisions of content and wording, for submission to the journal targeted by the student. The number of significant revisions of content, wording, and format that would be required will reflect the degree to which the student succeeded in producing a clear and complete manuscript that lacked superfluous information.
Finally, it is important in assessing all scientific projects to determine whether the empirical work represents an original effort, with regard to methodology or to generating new information about the world around us. If so, and clearly communicated findings are well interpreted in relation to existing knowledge, the research student may be on the threshold of actually submitting a final revision of his or her research article for potential publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
In summary, the faculty mentor will evaluate performance in independent research along many dimensions that indicate the degree to which the student applied diligence, resourcefulness, and creativity in their effort. These guidelines should help prospective research students decide whether to undertake independent projects and help guide the efforts of those who do from the start to finish of their projects.