Undergraduate Research

Table of Contents

What is undergraduate research?

An integral part of our biology undergraduate program is the opportunity to participate in a research experience. This experience may be a research project in a faculty laboratory or independent study with biological sciences education faculty. In laboratory research you will interact with graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and faculty to learn basic technical and communication skills necessary to help you be successful in a variety of settings after graduating from the University. But more importantly you will learn how science is done and the processes by which scientific questions are formulated and then converted into experiments.

What are the benefits of doing undergraduate research?

By becoming a member of a research group, you will gain a depth of knowledge in an area of Biology that cannot be offered through classes at the University. You may also participate in conferences outside the University or establish personal contacts, which will be of benefit in future years. Many students engaging in research are encouraged to report their findings at local or national scientific meetings and publish their results in international scientific journals. In 2012, ten students presented their research at the Experimental Biology meeting in Boston. The undergraduate research competition featured about 250 posters from universities across the country. Our students won two honorable mention citations. These experiences are particularly valuable for those students wishing to attend graduate school, but are also beneficial for those planning on applying to professional schools. Independent study with our Biological Science faculty generates a perspective often missing in classroom education.

What is a senior thesis?

To earn an Honors Degree with Distinction or a Degree with Distinction, a student must write a senior thesis. A senior thesis is also required to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology. Research done in the lab of a sponsoring faculty member is reported formally during the second semester of the senior year and defended in front of a committee of three faculty.

How do I get involved?

Although students interested in a research experience are encouraged to identify mentors in their sophomore year, students can do so in the junior, or more rarely, in the senior or freshman year. Each faculty member has his/her own criteria for accepting students into their lab. Most require a minimum grade point average, some a minimum time commitment and others specific courses. To begin the process, consult our lists of faculty mentors for a statement of faculty research interests and requirements.

Once you have identified potential faculty sponsors, please submit an undergraduate research interest form. This form helps us find a place for you in a laboratory, but does not obligate you to do research. Because the demand for research projects is higher than the number of openings in some laboratories, we recommend that you identify three faculty members whose research interests you and submit your application before one of the deadlines. Although the deadlines are not absolute, students applying after those dates often find it difficult to secure a place in a laboratory. Once the application has been reviewed, the Director of Undergraduate Research in the Department of Biological Sciences will submit your application to individual faculty and then notify you of available positions. You will then be asked to make an appointment with one or mentors. This will give you the chance to determine if the research project and the laboratory situation is right for you. You must let the faculty member and the Director of Undergraduate Research know of your choice within two weeks of the interview. Please DO NOT contact professors without first having submitted an application.

Besides working with Department of Biological Sciences faculty, students may work with faculty in other departments. In the past Biological Science majors have worked in laboratories of faculty in the Departments of Animal Science, Plant and Soil Science, Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Physical Therapy and Chemical Engineering. Independent study projects in these other departments can earn Biological Science credit but this credit must be approved by Dr. David Usher or Dr. David Smith prior to registering with the other department. Research in faculty labs listed in the linked mentor web pages have already been approved for Biological Sciences credit.

What am I expected to do in a research laboratory?

In interviews with faculty members, make sure that you understand exactly what is expected. If you intend to apply for a summer fellowship, you must also write a research proposal outlining the aims of the project and the methods to be used. Once you start research, you will be teamed with a technician, graduate student, postdoctoral fellow or faculty member to learn relevant techniques. It is important at this stage to know how much time must be devoted to research. You should expect to spend about 10 hours per week in the lab during the academic year and more during the summer (optional), but this may vary. After the initial training, faculty will either allow you to work on your own research project, or assign you to a part of an ongoing laboratory effort. In many labs it is also important that you attend weekly lab meetings.

How do I get involved in the Summer Research Program?

The Summer Undergraduate Research program runs for ten weeks starting the first week of June. Students are expected to work full-time on an independent study project, under the guidance of a research scientist. In addition, students are expected to attend weekly meetings meant to inform them about the business of scientific research. All students in the summer program are required to present a poster summarizing their research at the Undergraduate Research Symposium at the end of summer and at the Scholars Poster Session scheduled for the last week in April or first week in May. They are also strongly encouraged to present their research at regional or national meetings. An update on what current summer fellows in Biological Sciences are doing is available.

The Department and University have six different fellowship programs that offer financial assistance for summer research projects. These fellowships are highly competitive and are based on academic record, a personal meeting with and a recommendation from a faculty mentor and a clearly thought out research proposal. Because applications for summer research fellowships are usually due around March 1, students must identify a faculty mentor before February 1. Students awarded summer fellowships are not charged tuition but are responsible for their own living expenses. The University makes available dormitory rooms for those needing accommodations but meals are the student's responsibility. Cooking facilities are available.

The programs supporting students for the summer.

To apply for a summer fellowship from any of these programs, please fill out the convenient single online application form.

It is also possible to apply for national fellowships. Students from our department have been awarded prestigious fellowships from Pfizer and the American Society for Microbiology. Please contact Dr. Usher about applying for these awards.

Although it is possible to participate in laboratory research outside the University, a Biology faculty member must oversee the project to earn University course credit. There are a many good opportunities to do research in laboratories in other Universities during the summer. Some of these opportunities can be found at the following web sites:

What else is involved besides doing bench research?

All students beginning a research project are required to participate in safety training. This training is the responsibility of the faculty mentor. This training should occur within two weeks of joining the laboratory.

The Department encourages students to present their research findings. At the end of the 10 week summer session, the department sponsors an undergraduate symposium. In addition, fellowship students are required either to present a poster or to give a seminar during a University wide research symposium sponsored by University's Undergraduate Research Office. Many mentors require additional oral presentations during laboratory meetings.

Dates to Remember

  • November 11, 2013: Department interest form deadline for Spring 2014
  • November 11, 2013: Department interest form deadline for students submitting Summer 2014 fellowship applications
  • November through December: Interviews to identify a faculty mentor for Spring or Summer 2014
  • March 1, 2014 (optional): Summer Fellowship application deadline
  • April 5, 2014: Department interest form deadline for Fall 2014 (forms will be accepted starting March 11)

Who do I contact, if I still have questions?

Contact the Undergraduate Research Director, Dr. David Usher, at dusher@udel.edu to answer questions or schedule an appointment.