Graduation with Distinction

Biology majors who achieve excellence in both their studies and a research-based thesis may apply for Graduation with Distinction in Biology.  Students may apply if they have a grade point average of 3.0 or above in Biology courses and courses approved as electives for the major, NOT including Independent Studies, at the time of application. The award of Distinction requires the maintenance of this grade point average through graduation.

Graduation with Distinction also requires the completion of an original research project, usually carried out as an independent study in biology (e.g. BIOLOGY 293/493), or in an appropriate biological science department at Duke University, or as an interdisciplinary study that includes biology as a focus. However, the Distinction project may be completed without a formal enrollment in independent study.  The research project must have a primary disciplinary focus and research question in the biological sciences, even in the case of interdisciplinary research. Projects that are related to Biology, but not primarily focused in the discipline, may be eligible as the basis of a thesis written for Graduation with Distinction Outside the Major.

Eligibility for candidacy is determined on the bais of an application that inclues a student-written abstract of the project proposal. Distinction will be awarded by a faculty committee based on an oral poster presentation and the written thesis. The thesis and poster should present a significant achievement in research and demonstrate a clear mastery of the research field.

Graduation with Distinction

Deadline May Distinction December Distinction
Submit application for Graduation with Distinction Sept 23 Sept 2
Submit draft of introduction to Research Supervisor Jan 17 Oct 7
Communicate with BIO Faculty Reader & submit draft of introduction Feb 6 Oct 17
Submit list of figures/tables to BIO Faculty Reader March 10 Oct 24
Submit first draft of whole thesis to Research Supervisor March 20 Oct 28
Submit first draft of whole thesis to BIO Faculty Reader March 27 Nov 11
Submit title and abstract April 14 n/a
Poster Symposium April 21 present poster by Dec 9
Final thesis due April 24 Dec 6

1. Friday, Sept 23, 2016 - Online Application Due.

The online Application Form is due by Sept 23. The project abstract must be written by the student and clearly articulate the research question and proposed methodologies. Your Research Supervisor will receive an emailed copy of the application with a request for an endorsement, and his/her email reply will serve as an electronic signature of approval for the application. This research supervisor approval is due by Monday, October 3rd. The Principal Investigator or faculty member most closely associated with your project should be listed as the research supervisor, not the post-doc or graduate student with whom you might work more closely. Any Duke faculty member in a biological sciences department (including the Duke University Medical Center) may be a Research Supervisor. 

Approval of the application by the Directors of Undergraduate Studies (DUS) indicates that the student may proceed with the completion of the written thesis, and each student will be matched with a Reader from the Biology Faculty (called the Biology Faculty Reader) shortly following the start of Spring Term.

Students accepted as candidates for Distinction will be eligible to register for a special 1.0 cc course, Writing in Biology, BIO 495, in the spring. This course will be an intensive training in the principles of scientific writing, with a focus on the preparation of the honors thesis. This class is recommended, but not required and carries a W designation.

2. Tuesday, January 17, 2017 - Submit first draft of your Introduction to your Research Supervisor

Even if you are still collecting and analyzing data, you should prepare an introduction as described in the Thesis Guidelines and submit to your research supervisor for feedback. Be sure to include a clear statement of hypothesis, a review of the relevant literature, and an explanation of the rationale for your specific experimental approach. Feedback from your research supervisor should be incorporated into the Introduction before you submit the draft to your reader. 

3. Monday, Feb 6, 2017 - Last date to meet with and submit draft of introduction to Biology Faculty Reader

Students will be notified about their Biology Faculty Reader assignment shortly after returning from winter break.  By Friday, Feb 6 you should be in contact with your assigned Biology Faculty Reader to discuss the criteria, format, and general expectations for the writing of the thesis and to submit your introduction draft to him/her and solicit feedback. 

4.  Friday, March 10, 2017 - Submit list of figures/tables/legends to your Biology Faculty Reader

Your faculty reader will want to know what will be included in your thesis at this time. You should draft a preliminary list of the figures and tables. It is okay if these will change in the final draft - the intent is to gauge your progress towards completing the thesis.

5. Monday March 20, 2017 - Submit first draft of the entire thesis to your Research Supervisor

The Research Supervisor must review and approve the thesis draft before submission of the first draft to your Biology Faculty Reader (deadline #6). Feedback from the Research Supervisor is crucial and it is wise to anticipate one or two rounds of revision before the March 27 deadline. 

6. Monday, March 27, 2017 - Submit first draft of the entire thesis to your Biology Faculty Reader

 Submit your draft of the entire thesis to your Faculty Reader, and make plans with him/her to discuss the thesis draft and receive feedback.

7. Friday, April 14, 2017 - Electronic Submission of Thesis Title & Abstract

Abstracts should be ~ 250 words, single paragraph, no references. A link to a web form for submission will be sent out prior to the deadline.

8. Friday, April 21, 2017- Present research results and conclusions as a poster (3:00-5:00pm; location TBA)

A poster summarizing the results and conclusions of your project will be presented at the Poster Symposium as an oral defense of your thesis. Students should be available to answer questions from 3:00-5:00 PM. It is important to meet with your Faculty Reader at the Poster Symposium to discuss your poster- you may want to contact your reader in advance in order to arrange a time. All candidates for distinction must present a poster, but presentation does not guarantee the award of distinction. More info at "Guidelines for the Preparation of an Honors Poster."

9. Monday, April 24, 2017 - Final thesis (one hardcopy) due in Room 135 Bio Sci Bldg by 12:00 pm. Also, you will be asked to submit a PDF copy. Instructions for PDF submission will be given closer to the due date.

The approval of the Research Supervisor is required for consideration of your final thesis and indicates that the work is complete and is nominated for distinction. The thesis should be submitted in the format described here.  An honors committee consisting of the DUS and the Faculty Reader appointed by the DUS will evaluate the thesis for distinction.  The committee will evaluate the thesis in its final form and revisions will not be considered.

It is the responsibility of the student to meet all requirements and deadlines. Students will be notified about their distinction status after a review of final grades, prior to graduation.  Awards of Distinction will appear on the final transcript.

Role of the Research Supervisor

The Research Supervisor's primary responsibility is to provide feedback and guidance to the student in the preparation of the thesis. The Research Supervisor is best able to determine the following:

  • that the student's review of pertinent literature is a comprehensive and accurate assessment of prior work in the field;
  • that the general aims of the student's project are indeed significant questions in the field;
  • that the specific aims of the project constitute appropriate experimental approaches;
  • that the interpretation and discussion of the results are meaningful.

The Research Supervisor should carefully review the initial draft(s) of the thesis before they are submitted to the faculty reader and before approving the final draft. Approval indicates that the student has successfully addressed the guidelines given above and that the work presented is indeed the result of the independent effort of the student. The Research Supervisor *must* approve the final draft, by signature or e-mail, before the final copy is submitted to the DUS office.

Role of the Faculty Reader

The Faculty Reader will determine whether the thesis clearly demonstrates the student's understanding of the general aims of the study and intellectual ownership of the project. The Reader will evaluate whether the student's presentation:

  • is free of jargon and comprehensible by the non-specialist;
  • includes a useful background and introduction to the general aim of the study;
  • contains a clear statement of general aim (hypothesis) and the rationale for the specific aims;
  • includes a clear presentation of meaningful results;
  • concludes with a thoughtful discussion of the significance of the project and possible future directions.

Expanded guidelines and evaluation rubric can be found as part of the Biology Thesis Assessment Protocol: Thesis Evaluation Rubric (PDF). The Faculty Reader should provide feedback on an initial draft of the thesis submitted by the first draft deadline. A Faculty Evaluation Form is available for your convenience.

The Reader should include the student's oral presentation at the Poster Symposium as a component of their evaluation. All Readers are expected to visit the Symposium in order to review the poster.  The final draft must be reviewed as is. No revisions are allowed after the submission date. If a Reader does not approve the thesis, the Director of Undergraduate Studies will review the thesis.

A thesis for Distinction in Biology should be a presentation, written primarily for the non-specialist reader, of the significance, results and conclusions of a productive research project. The thesis is a written exam to be evaluated by the Faculty in Biology and must answer the following questions: What did you do? Why did you do it? What is the significance of your results? What else would you do, were you to continue the project?

In answering the above questions, you have an opportunity to demonstrate your understanding and intellectual ownership of a project; not simply your productivity in the lab. The volume of results or completeness of the study is not critical for a successful thesis. Instead, we will be looking for the following:

  • a statement of a general aim, i.e. a meaningful question of biological importance;
  • a review of appropriate literature as a means to define the terms and context of the general aim;
  • presentation of a set of specific aims or experimental approaches to specific hypotheses;
  • presentation of results and their meaning;
  • discussion of the significance of the results in terms of the general aim;
  • a description of future directions for the project.

Format of the Thesis

The basic format of the thesis should resemble that of a scientific journal article and should include the following sections: Introduction & Background; Methods; Results; Discussion; and References. In some instances, it may be useful to sub-divide the Methods & Results section to reflect and correspond to each separate "Specific Aim". However, if you chose to take this route, remember that there should still be a general Introduction and Discussion sections that address the project as a whole. The thesis should not consist of several "mini-papers" stapled together.

1. Introduction Section

The introduction & background section should provide the non-specialist with a clear understanding of the subject and the nature and rationale for the specific project (i.e. general & specific aims). As part of writing for a non-specialist, be sure to include definitions of any specialized terms that are critical to your work. The thesis should be completely free of unexplained jargon!

Begin with an explicit statement of your general aim (hypothesis). A review of pertinent literature then serves to define the context and import of your general aim. Alternatively, the statement of the general aim may follow logically from the review of literature. Typically, this section will be longer and more comprehensive than that found in an article for publication. It will be followed by a listing of your specific aims and a brief explanation of why you chose the specific experimental approaches for each.

2. Methods & Results Section

The presentation of methods and results may follow the format recommended by your research supervisor for publication in an appropriate journal. However, limit your thesis to experiments and their results that are the product of your own work. It is strongly recommended that these sections be written in the first person to make clear that you are presenting your specific work.

If you must allude to work done by collaborators as part of your presentation, be sure to cite the precise source. For example: "The sample was collected using needle biopsy by Dr. So&So" or "There was a significant increase in activity as compared to control experiments performed earlier by Dr. What's-her-name". In general, comparison of your results with the results of others should be reserved for the Discussion.

3. Discussion Section

The Discussion Section should provide the non-specialist with a clear interpretation of the experimental results. Avoid simple repetition of the results, focusing instead on their significance in the context of the general aim and the findings of others. It is perfectly okay to be speculative here - this is your opportunity to demonstrate that you are really thinking about the big picture.

Devote a portion of this section to addressing future directions for your project. You should comment on how any uncertainties in your results might be resolved. In addition, you should suggest additional experiments and approaches that you might take if you were to continue the project.

Your Faculty Reader should provide feedback on an initial draft of the thesis submitted by the first draft deadline. The Faculty Evaluation Form will give you a sense of how your Reader will evaluate your draft. Expanded guidelines and evaluation rubric can be found as part of the Biology Thesis Assessment Protocol: Thesis Evaluation Rubric (PDF).

Submission Guidelines

The format of the final copy should follow these guidelines:

  • Cover Page (sample): Title; student's name; supervisor's name; date of submission; 3 signature lines at bottom right (Research Supervisor, DUS, Reader). Please follow the format and language of the sample.
  • Abstract Page: single-spaced, no page number
  • Text, figures and references: double-spaced, page numbers centered at the bottom
  • NO STAPLES or BINDERS, paperclips or binderclips are okay

Sample Theses

Examples of Distinction papers from previous years are available for examination in the Undergraduate Studies Office (Rm 135 BioSci).  Four samples are also available below as PDF files.

  1. Phosphorylation of inositol hexakisphosphate and diphosphoinositol pentakisphosphate by a conserved class of kinases
  2. Does dinoflagellate bioluminescence deter shrimp grazing? An investigation into the Burglar Alarm Hypothesis
  3. Predictors of Microstegium vimineum and their implications in stream restorations of central North Carolina
  4. Deleting the SAM Domain of Adaptor Protein SLP-76 Impairs Thymocyte Development and T Cell Receptor-Mediated Signaling in Mice 

Additional Resources

The Honors Poster is a summary of the results and conclusions in the honors thesis. The poster must be displayed at the Poster Symposium. The poster should include the following: Title (w/student's name and research supervisor's name); Introduction/Background; Materials & Methods; Results; Conclusions (list of concluding statements).

Many students use Powerpoint to create their posters, but you may choose whatever program you're most comfortable with, such as Illustrator, Photoshop, etc.

Poster Printing Information

Students whose research mentors are faculty in the Biology Department ( or the EvAnth Dept have the option of using the Departmental Poster printer.  A poster print request ticket must be submitted at least 5 business days in advance ( Students with mentors outside the Biology or EvAnth Depts (Med Center, other Trinity Depts, etc.) will need to use an alternate print service; some local options include:

Poster Specifics

Design and Format: Know your audience. Keep in mind that people will be seeing your poster that don’t have a background in your field. Know the primary message you’re trying to get through to your audience.

Include the following parts:

  1. Author/Title/Affiliation: TITLE YOUR NAME MENTOR(S) names DEPARTMENT
  2. Background/Introduction
  3. Methods and Materials
  4. Results
  5. Conclusions
  6. Acknowledgements

A good poster should have enough information to stand on its own and present your research when you’re not standing by it to go into greater detail. It should provide a brief overview and background for your research, as well as show data and explain the results and implications of your findings. During your poster session you’ll often be asked to take someone through your project. At those times you’ll need to not only discuss your work, but use your poster to highlight the most important findings and points you want to emphasize to your audience. One thing a poster is NOT is a research paper thrown on a large sheet of paper. Too much text is distracting, and is rarely read. Figure out what your main points are and emphasize those.

Design Suggestions

Experiment by sketching out your poster on a sheet of paper. There are examples of scientific posters around the Biological Sciences Building, many of the Medical Center buildings, and there are many examples on the web, etc. - looking at these may help you decide what you want your poster to look like (or not look like). It's also likely that folks in your lab have made similar posters and can offer suggestions.

A good poster will guide the reader through the project. Think about this in terms of design and laying out the parts of your poster (people tend to look “up to down” and “left to right” when reading a poster).

The size of all graphic elements should be determined by their relative importance and environment. Balance space that is devoted to text, artwork, and white space.

Don’t go nuts with weird fonts, more than 2-3 fonts on the poster, or lots of different text sizes. Do not use the Helvetica font. Serif fonts (like Times) are legible at smaller sizes. An individual should be able to read a poster from 6 feet away. Use the following ballpark font sizes for the different parts of your poster:

TITLE: 72-120 point
SUBTITLES: 48-80 point
SECTION HEADERS: 36-72 point
GENERAL TEXT: 24-48 point

Be consistent with your style. Keep in mind that colors may look different once printed than they do on your monitor.

Other Tips and Ideas:

  • Boxes around sections can be helpful if it fits with the overall style you’ve chosen.
  • Use clear headings.
  • A simple flow chart describing your Methods is nice.
  • Avoid using a lot of text. Just give highlights on the poster. - Avoid using strings of all capital letters in titles and text blocks.
  • Don’t use “title” case for figure and slide legends.
  • Be careful using abbreviations. Make sure you define them when first used.
  • Use italics instead of underlining.

Some great info on poster making is offered from Mr. Colin Purrington: