Bio 200 (Freshman/Sophomore)/Bio 500 (Junior/Senior)

Independent Study – Research

Professor: Ken Olsen

You MUST complete an application for each semester you plan to do research.
You will not be enrolled for continuing research unless you complete an application by the deadlines below.


Summer 2017 Registration deadline: Friday, June 2nd
Fall 2017 Registration Deadline: Friday, September 1st

Your application and research description must be received by this date to be considered for enrollment.

NEW: ALL Bio 200/500 Students are required to have HIPAA training. What is HIPAA? If you have not completed HIPAA training please contact Erin Gerrity ( and request the HIPAA online training link. 


To provide opportunities for students to gain experience in using the scientific method to resolve problems of scientific importance. This includes acquiring technical skills, reading and evaluating articles in the scientific literature, gaining experience in design and conduct of experiments, learning to evaluate experimental data in relation to existing knowledge, and in expanding skills at communicating results of research both orally and in writing. Students who spend several semesters and a summer(s) in the same laboratory often accomplish enough to be co-author of a paper in a scientific journal.


Typically a student will start Bio 200/500 in the sophomore or junior year, often in the spring. Much of the first semester is taken up with the student learning techniques and mastering the background and intellectual context of the ongoing research in the laboratory. Our experience is that students will often ask questions if they do not understand one or another specific point, but that sometimes they need help in assimilating the overall perspective even when they correctly understand each detail.  We ask that the student be given material to read and then report back to the mentor.  Many people find a more or less formal presentation by the student to be a good way to report. In addition, students should participate in lab meetings and journal club, if their schedule permits, and should be asked to present at appropriate intervals. For the student's first semester in the lab, the "description of research" may be general and is often derived from material written by the mentor.  However, the student should write the description.  By the end of the first semester, the student should have sufficient mastery of techniques and intellectual context to participate in developing an experimental plan and to prepare the "description of research.”  The description of research can be short - a paragraph or two - but should include information about the research question being addressed and the main methods to be used.  It should be easily understandable to a researcher who is not familiar with the specific area of research.

Projects should have defined goals. Most often the goals are not realized in one semester. The Biology Department recommends that the student be asked for a brief formal report(s) either at times dictated by the rhythm of the work or at the end of the semester. This should require the student to think hard about what she or he has been doing.  This is an extremely useful experience at this early stage.

Students may work either directly with the mentor or with someone of the mentor's choice; e.g., research associate, post-doc, senior graduate student, technician. Most often the latter works out very well. However, in such cases we ask two things of the mentor: (1) The mentor should be sure, on the basis of a specific discussion, that the lab member who will work most closely with the student is enthusiastic about the prospect. If that lab member is hesitant, please reconsider the arrangement. (2) The mentor should consider herself or himself still responsible. We encourage the mentor to meet from time to time with the student to monitor progress in understanding and achievement, as well as to lend encouragement.

As all mentors know, considerable care must be taken if the initial research experience of an undergraduate student is to be successful. It is important that the student be in an active and productive setting, one in which good work is done and then published. However, students are advised to exercise caution before going into a lab that is so large that the undergraduate might get lost in the shuffle. We ask mentors not affiliated with the Division of Biology and Biomedical Science to provide a current CV (unless one is already on file in the Department) to the student who will submit it, along with the Bio 200/500 form, to Ms. Erin Gerrity or Mr. Patrick Clark in the Student Affairs Office located in the Plant Growth Building, Room 105.

Although project goals usually cannot be met in one semester, occasionally, either student or mentor does not care to extend the arrangement beyond the first semester and both must feel absolutely free to terminate the relationship after one semester. In that case, we hope the student will come away with a working knowledge of new techniques and a taste of the culture of experimental science. But usually students continue in Bio 500 for at least 3 semesters. In addition, they often have paying jobs/fellowships in the laboratory during the summer. In the remaining time in the lab beyond the first semester, the student builds, in obvious ways, on the foundation that has been laid. There is some danger that, during the second semester or so, the mentor will begin to view the student as an experienced researcher and that the amount of interaction between the mentor and the student will decrease as a result. We ask mentors and students to guard against this possibility.

Occasionally, there is confusion on the part of a student or a mentor on the difference between Biology 200/500 (Independent Study), General Studies 400 (Laboratory Assistant) and a paid job. Sometimes the actual work performed for a paid job is quite consistent with independent study, but the employer certainly has the right to ask an employee to pour plates, wash dishes, etc., with the aim of facilitating the work of someone else in the lab. Facilitating the work of others would, of course, be an inappropriate primary goal for a Bio 200/500 student. Tasks assigned a Bio 200/500 student should have as their object learning things that will probably be needed in the student's project. This does not preclude the Bio 200/500 student doing a fair share of the routine lab chores, if these are shared by all lab personnel. There are occasions when a student would prefer to be "another pair of hands" while taking no independent responsibility for the scientific work. That is a legitimate experience and is provided for under the rubric of General Studies 400. Student perspective on Bio 500 research

In addition, we offer Bio 265, (Experiences in the Life Sciences) for students whose primary goal is to gain practical experience; e.g., by "shadowing" a physician or developing and teaching primary or secondary school curriculum in collaboration with a classroom teacher.  For a more complete description go to:

The Biology Department realizes that the distinctions among the categories are not absolutely clear-cut. We ask either students or mentors who are uncertain about the department's expectations to discuss the matter with us.



Note: Biol 200 offers research experiences to students who have completed less than 60 units of credit at the time of enrollment, whereas Biol 500 provides research experiences in a similar format to students who have completed at least 60 units of credit at the time of enrollment.
  1. Click on the Pre-application link
  2. After completion of the pre-application, you will receive a request for additional information, including a 1-2 page project proposal. The proposal should be written by you, but with input and assistance from your faculty mentor. It should include at least one paragraph on each of the following:
    1. Project Background (e.g., what are the broad biological questions that are being addressed and the and the specific hypotheses to be tested)
    2. Project Description (e.g., what are the general methods to be used, experimental design, laboratory tools/techniques, etc.);
    3. Project Goals (e.g., anticipated outcomes of your project).
    4. Students are required to complete this application process before each semester that they plan to do research. The application deadline applies to all students taking this course, even those who are planning to work in the same lab on the same project. If you are continuing research in the same lab, there is a space provided on the full application for you to provide a description of how your research has evolved from the previous semester's research. You are not required to turn in a full research description.

  3. Please be patient during the registration process. This course is not affected by the drop/add dates. You will be manually enrolled by Mr. Clark once your application/research proposal have been approved. Applications and research proposals are not always reviewed and approved immediately after they are submitted.
  4. If there is a problem with your application or research proposal you will be contacted. Students are given the chance to rewrite their proposals and tailor them to meet course expectations.
  5. You will be notified once your application has been reviewed and approved.  If you have any questions about this process, please contact Patrick Clark.


  • Credit/No credit or **Audit only. Course may not be taken for a letter grade. Maximum 3 units per semester.
  • Students average 9-10 hours a week at the bench for 3 units of credit, or audit units. Preparation for lab, data reduction and reading requires additional time. Field-based research requires a comparable expenditure of time.
  • If a student wants to receive credit, or audited units, for fewer hours per week in lab (e.g., 6-8 hrs/wk for 2 units), this will require special permission from the mentor to verify that it will still be a useful research experience.
  • The mentor should assign a grade of Incomplete (I) if the time commitment agreed upon has not been met. This "I" can be changed to "Pass" by work the student completes after the semester is over. For students auditing the course, the mentor will assign either a grade of L (successful) or Z (unsuccessful). Please consult Ken Olsen at the earliest time any problem is perceived.
  • BIO 200/500 is a demanding experience. It should not be treated as an add-on to a full schedule. If total course load is above 16 units, consult your advisor about dropping a course or BIO 200/500. Lab work typically requires two or more big blocks of time (e.g., 4-5 hours) in lab per week, so your schedule will need to be able to accommodate this.
  • Students should begin their independent research projects at the start of the semester, which will be prior to their official registration in Bio 200/500 because of the time required to review applications.
  • Summer Research is available by enrolling in Bio 500S. Credits are received in the fall semester following the summer research. The BioSURF fellowship program is separate from the Bio 200/500 research.  A student receiving the BioSURF summer stipend cannot simultaneously count their summer fellowship research as Biology research-for-credit (or research-for-audited units).
  • Credit cannot be given in the Spring semester for Fall semester research.
  • **Students may request to perform Bio 500 research for pay instead of credit. In such cases, a student will choose the audit grade option on the Bio 500 application. Students auditing Bio 500 are expected to conduct research for the full time expected for the enrolled units. Audited units do not count towards the Biology major or graduation; however, they do count towards the six units required for Research Emphasis and Honors. Arrangements to conduct Bio 500 for pay rather than credit are at the discretion of the faculty mentor. All salary details should be discussed directly with the faculty mentor. Students cannot simultaneously receive credit and pay for the same work.



To qualify for Latin honors in biology a student must meet the following requirements. For requirements 1, 2, and 3, only courses taken at Washington University are considered. Averages are now computed after 8 semesters, at the time of graduation.

1. Cumulative B+ average (3.3) or better in biology courses.

2. Cumulative average of B+ (3.3) or better in the science courses required for a biology major (math, chemistry, and physics)

3. Overall 3.65 average (for students entering Fall 2010 or earlier, overall 3.5 average).

4. Six units of independent work (BIO 500). Generally, research to be considered for honors starts in spring of the junior year or earlier.  Most students spend full time devoted to this research the summer following their junior year and complete their work during the senior year.

5. Submission of an honors thesis that describes the research conducted while enrolled in Bio 500.  This thesis is to be written by the student.  In order to ensure that students and mentors have a clear understanding of our expectations, examples of past years’ theses are available in the Biology Student Affairs office (Plant Growth Room 105) or in Olin Library (ask at the information desk).

Thesis Guidelines
An honors and research emphasis thesis should be closer in format to a Masters’ thesis than to a journal paper, but will usually contain less material than a Masters’ thesis.  It should follow this format:

  • An Abstract is required.  It is typically one page or less and presents the essence of the research problem, key methods and results, and the main conclusions.
  • The Introduction describes the biological context of the problem (that is, why this research question is interesting and the information known at the start of the study). The Introduction should be more extensive than in a typical journal article, introducing a non-specialist to the field and the specific work performed.
  • The Methods section should describe the methods used in enough detail to make them clear to an informed reader. The typical journal article format - "... was performed according to the method of Schwartz (1987)" - is too brief; however overly detailed protocols are inappropriate.
  • The Results and Discussion may either be presented as separate sections or together.  If separate, the figures and tables showing the findings of the research should be in the Results, along with explanatory text; this is followed by the Discussion that provides context for the observations and conclusions that can be drawn.
  • A Conclusions subheading at the end of the Discussion is often useful to summarize the findings; however, it is not strictly required.  Similarly, some prefer a “Future Work” subheading at the end of the Discussion (which can also be combined with the Conclusions) to discuss where the work is likely to proceed from here.  This is also optional.  Mentors will often have additional specific ideas and suggestions regarding the organization of the thesis.

Students should consult with mentors about the organization and content of the thesis well in advance of the submission deadline.  STUDENTS WILL NOT BE DESIGNATED FOR HONORS WITHOUT CERTIFICATION BY THEIR MENTOR THAT THE THESIS MEETS BASIC REQUIREMENTS OF AN ACCEPTABLE RESEARCH PAPER.

The Biology department suggests that initial planning begin before the end of the fall semester, with actual writing beginning no later than the first week of the spring semester.   Sections like the Introduction and Materials and Methods can be written starting in late fall or over winter break, even if all results are not finalized until much later.  Usually students work with their mentors and other members of the lab to generate the final version, as any researcher would in writing results for publication.  HOWEVER, THE WRITING IS PRIMARILY THE STUDENT’S RESPONSIBILITY and others’ contributions should be limited to commenting on student drafts.

From time to time, despite considerable effort, students have few, if any, results to report.  If the absence of results is because of bad luck or an intractable (perhaps too ambitious) problem, then the criterion for writing a thesis is that the student has invested considerable physical and intellectual time and effort in the work.  In that case, the thesis will be heavy on background.  It may include the results of others in the lab, as long as the person who did the work is acknowledged.  If the source of the absence of results can be identified, writing about this would be appropriate, especially if the student has any advice for anyone else who might pursue the same question.  Having definitive results IS NOT REQUIRED to write a suitable honors thesis. (Revised 7/15)

6. The certification of your thesis by your **mentor and final approval of your thesis by Dr. Kenneth Olsen.
**Your mentor will receive the Thesis Certification Form by email.

7.  Presentation of thesis work in poster or oral form at the spring Undergraduate Research Symposium, sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Research.  This symposium is usually held late in April. [This presentation is considered a departmental oral examination and is required for student receiving honors starting in 2008.]

Time Table for Honors

Honors theses are due the Monday following spring break of the senior year. (Students graduating in Dec. will have a different deadline - consult Mr. Patrick Clark) To have an acceptable thesis, students must begin writing and submit draft versions of each part of their honors thesis to their mentors to get feedback well in advance of this deadline. Students are advised to consult with their mentors about an appropriate time table by the end of the Fall semester of the senior year. Generally, writing should begin no later than January (start of spring semester) and preliminary drafts of sections like introduction, methods should be presented to mentors for feedback beginning early in February. There should be several rounds of revision and discussion among mentor, possibly others in the lab (bench mentor and others who are familiar with the project) and the student to generate the final version. The process is akin to writing a manuscript for publication and students should seek advice and feedback as would any researcher writing up results for publication. Mentor approval is required on the final version. If a mentor has not seen and approved the final version prior to the deadline, the department will NOT recommend the student receive honors. If any delay or problem in submitting an acceptable thesis by the deadline is anticipated/suspected, students and/or mentor must discuss the problem with the department (begin by notifying Mr. Patrick Clark) as soon as possible.

Theses should be submitted electronically as a pdf by email to Patrick Clark.

NOTE: The Department of Biology annually awards three prizes/awards.The Marion Smith Spector Prize is awarded to an undergraduate who has compiled an excellent academic record and submitted an outstanding honors thesis. The Biology Department also awards the Harrison D. Stalker Award to a graduating senior whose college career has been distinguished by scholarship, service, and breadth of interest. The Quatrano Prize is awarded to the thesis showing greatest evidence of creativity in design, research methodology, and/or broader scientific implications. For details, please see the Biology Major's Handbook.

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