Independent Study

Biology majors are encouraged to engage in independent study projects in areas of their interest.  Independent study projects provide research experience and academic credit for laboratory, field work, or theoretical research.  Independent study projects may be done with any faculty in the biological sciences.  Eligible students may use their independent research as the basis for an honors thesis, leading to graduation with distinction.

Students in Biology are encouraged to pursue independent research projects in the biological sciences under the supervision or sponsorship of a faculty member. Up to 2 course credits (cc) in Independent Study will count as upper-level elective courses for the biology major, and one for the minor. Independent Study will also satisfy one of the two laboratory course requirements for the major, as well as the Small Group Learning Experience (SGLE) requirement for graduation. Additionally, Independent Study can satisfy the general education requirement for a Research Course (R).

All students should register for Independent Study under Biology 293 for the first semester of a project. Registration in Biology 493 is used for subsequent semesters in the same lab. The second semester, if it is a continuation in the same lab, will count toward the 400-level 'capstone' requirement (200-level prior to the renumbering) of the biology major. Students may also request Writing (W) credit for an independent study, typically in the second semester, with approval of their Research Supervisor and the DUS. No credit can be awarded for paid work.

Independent Study

Project Guidelines

The specific goals and expectations for each independent study project are determined by the student and faculty supervisor, and may vary to reflect the particulars of the research area. The following are some suggested guidelines:

1. The project should be appropriate work in the biological sciences.

Projects which are primarily clinical in nature are typically not appropriate for credit in Biology. A degree awarded by Trinity College is based on coursework and credit earned in the various disciplines of the arts & sciences. Scholarly research is an important part of that experience, an engagement where scholarly questions are explored using the methodology of the disciplines. However, training in professional skills, such as clinical practice, is generally not part of the liberal arts degree. Although Duke is privileged to include several professional schools including Law, Business, and Medicine, undergrads in Trinity College are not allowed to use professional school courses as part of their degree. Similarly, credit for research in professional practice, such as many clinical research projects, is simply not part of the liberal arts degree.

That said, some clinical research projects may overlap with the disciplines in the arts & sciences. A clinical project and data collection may be designed based on, and inform, basic questions regarding the nature of health and disease (= biological sciences), human motivations and behaviors (= psychology and behavioral sciences), the analysis of data sets (= statistics), or the institutional nature of health care systems (= sociology, economics), etc. The key thing is that the project, and therefore the independent study proposal, needs to have a clear statement of a research question, methods, and significance that anchors it in one of the disciplines. 

Projects which have a primary focus in chemistry, psychology, environmental or health policy, or related areas may also not be appropriate for credit in Biology. Students working with faculty outside of the Biology department or one of the Medical Center Departments should consult with the Biology sponsor or the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Biology to determine the appropriateness of a project.

2. The project should be an independent research project.

Although most projects are conducted under the close supervision of a mentor, the student should take substantial responsibility for the formulation of a hypothesis, experimental design, data collection, analysis and interpretation. In the case of a collaborative effort, the student should have a distinct and identifiable role in the project. A student's responsibility should extend beyond simply providing low-level technical support for other projects or observing the work of others,

3. The student should spend at least ~120 hours per semester on the project.

The expectation is that the student will invest time equivalent to a laboratory course, i.e. ~8-10 hours per week for 14 weeks. This may include planning, data collection (including field work), analysis and writing. Note that the time spent writing should be a relatively small portion of the total time investment, except in the case of ‘W’-coded registrations where it will be a more significant part of the experience and final grade. Conversely, a research supervisor should not expect a student to invest an excessive amount of time, to the detriment of their other course work.

4. The student should produce a report of their work.

The University specifies that all independent studies must result in an ‘academic product’. Most commonly, this is a final written report describing the work. A student may also make an oral presentation of their work, in addition to the written report. Commonly, a student should also submit brief proposal at the beginning of the semester and/or a mid-term progress report. The details of reports, both written and oral, are to be specified by the research supervisor or sponsor. However, in all cases that should document the background and rationale for the project, the methods and results, and some discussion of significance and future directions.

5. The research supervisor must submit a grade during the exam period for each semester.

A student's grade in Independent Study is primarily assigned by the research supervisor. As in any course, the grade should reflect a reasonable assessment of the student's effort and the merit of the work. The basis for that assessment is at the discretion of the supervisor, but it should be clearly communicated with the student at the beginning of the semester.

If the student has registered for Independent Study through a Biology sponsor who is not the project supervisor, the research supervisor must convey a grade to the Biology sponsor well before the end of the exam period. In addition, the student must submit a copy of the final report to the sponsor. It is the responsibility of the Biology sponsor to submit a final grade, based on the report and supervisor's recommendation.

Getting Registered

The first step is to identify a faculty member who will serve as your advisor. The departmental Undergraduate Studies Office cannot assign you to a lab nor make specific recommendations, however we do provide information and suggestions for finding a mentor.  How you will enroll in the Independent Study depends solely on the Departmental affiliations of your Faculty Research Mentor. The Biology Department requires students, wherever possible, to enroll for Independent Study directly with their Research Mentor through the Mentor's Department.

You may:

Register for Independent Study with a Biology Department Faculty Member

  1. Obtain a Permission Number to Register through DukeHub. You must request a permission number directly from your research supervisor. Remember that you must register for the specific section number of BIOLOGY 293 (for first semester of a project) or 493 (for subsequent terms in the same lab) listed in DukeHub for your supervisor. Registration through DukeHub can be done any time until the end of Drop/Add.
  2. For a Writing Intensive Independent Study, fill out the Request for Writing Code for Research Independent Study Course form, available through the Trinity Requirements. Discuss the specific writing expectations with your research supervisor. The form, signed by the student and the research supervisor, must be signed off by the DUS and submitted to Trinity College before the end of drop/add. More info on Writing Intensive Independent Study.

Register for Independent Study with a Faculty Member in Pratt or another Trinity Department

  1. Obtain a permission number from the Department of your Research Supervisor (BME, EvAnth, Psychology, Environ, EOS, Neuroscience, etc), and enroll for an Independent Study in that Department.  Because Independent Study policies and procedures vary by Department, you will need to visit the appropriate Department's website or speak with the appropriate contact to determine their registration procedures. Registration through DukeHub can be done any time until the end of Drop/Add.
  2. Some Independent Study projects registered through Engineering and Trinity College Departments other than Biology are appropriate for use towards the Biology major, while others are not, so the DUS Office reviews those projects on a case by case basis to determine whether the project is sufficiently biological. Email a project description and a request to use your Independent Study as an elective towards Biology major requirements to our Associate DUS, Dr. Eric Spana.  If the Independent Study is approved for use towards the Biology major, your Independent Study will be arranged to serve as an elective for the Biology major on your advisement report in DukeHub.

Register for Independent Study with a Duke Faculty Member in the Medical Center

If your research supervisor is not listed in DukeHub for BIOLOGY 293 or 493, you have two options. Both options require completion of an online Independent Study Form.  It can take anywhere from several days to a week to complete the processes below. As such, students are strongly recommended to initiate the process no later than a full week prior to drop/add to allow sufficient time to receive a permission number and enroll before the deadline.

Research supervisor has a faculty appointment in one of these Depts: Cell Bio, Biochem, Immunology, Molecular Genetics & Microbiology (MGM), Neurobiology, Pathology, Pharmacology & Cancer Biology Research Supervisor is only faculty in the Department of Medicine/Clinical Department
  • You do not need to have a faculty sponsor in the Department of Biology in addition to the Medical Center research supervisor.
  • Registration for independent study in the Medical Center departments below are pre-approved for the major and may be considered equivalent to BIO 293 with respect to the requirements of the major.
  • Independent study in these departments may also be considered to the equivalent of BIOLOGY 493 (capstone course) if there are two or more registrations with the same mentor, as documented via the Independent Study form.
  • You will register for Biology 293/493 using a Biology Department Faculty Sponsor.
  • The current Biology Faculty sponsor for all students needing one is Dr. Eric Spana.
  1. Submit the online Independent Study Form by the end of drop/add; the form includes the name and contact information of the research supervisor and a brief description of the project. A copy will be sent to the research supervisor, asking for him/her to respond with approval of the project.
  2. Request a permission number directly from your research supervisor or someone within your supervisor's Department, as one will not be sent automatically; the Biology Department does not have access to the permission numbers for Indepdent Study outside of Biology. The Medical Center Department may require their own paperwork, a copy of the Independent Study with faculty outside of Biology, and/or emailed authorization from your research supervisor before providing the permission number. See information in the box below for further information on receiving a permission numbers from Departments in the Medical Center.
  1. Submit the online Independent Study Form, which includes the name and contact information of the research supervisor and a brief description of the project. A copy will be sent to the research supervisor, asking for him/her to respond with approval of the project. Then, the approval and project information will be sent to the Biology Faculty Sponsor, Dr. Spana, for review.
  2. Dr. Spana will review the form, and if approved, will provide a permission number for registration and a schedule for meetings, reports and grade recommendations during the semester.  If there are issues or concerns with the project, Dr. Spana will offer suggestions for revision of the proposal and/or reframing of the project. Note that the sponsor will be available for help with any problems in the conduct of the course, but the research mentor is responsible for scientific supervision of the project. Your biology sponsor will report your grade at the end of the semester, based on his assessment of your work and a recommendation from the research supervisor.
  1. Register for Independent Study on DukeHub under your research supervisor directly through the appropriate Medical Center Department.
  • Biochemistry: Permission numbers are obtained directly from the research supervisor, but Amy Norfleet, (919-681-8770, e-mail: anorfleet@biochem.duke.edu) can assist with obtaining a permission number if your mentor is not able to provide one. Register for course BIOCHEM 393/593.
  • Cell Biology: See the Cell Bio website for their procedures for enrolling in undergraduate independent study. Dr. Sharyn Endow is a primary point of contact for independent study in Cell Biology. Register for course CELLBIO 493.
  • Immunology: Permission numbers are given out directly by your faculty sponsor. If you have trouble obtaining one, contact Jennifer Goins for assistance at immunologydept@mc.duke.edu. Register for course IMMUNOL 493/494.
  • Molecular Genetics and Microbiology: Permission numbers should be given out by the faculty member, but can be given by Kim Kobes (kimberly.kobes@duke.edu) if the faculty member isn't able to provide one. Register for course MGM 293/593.
  • Neurobiology:  Permission numbers should come from your research supervisor if possible, or from Carla Sturdivant (carla.sturdivant@duke.edu). Register for course NEUROBIO 393.
  • Pathology: Permission numbers for registration can be obtained from Dr. Soman N. Abraham (919-684-3630 or abrah006@mc.duke.edu). Register for course PATHOL 293.
  • Pharmacology: If you cannot obtain a permission number from your faculty sponsor, contact Dr. Schwartz-Bloom http://www.dibs.duke.edu/research/profiles/131-rochelle-schwartz-bloom. Register for course(s) PHARM 393 / 394 / 493 / 494 / 495
  1. Register for BIOLOGY 293 or 493 as appropriate once the permission number is received.
  1. For a Writing Intensive Independent Study, fill out the Request for Writing Code for Research Independent Study Course form, available on T-Reqs. Confirm that your research supervisor will take responsibility for the supervision of the writing component, and discuss the specific writing expectations with him/her. The form, signed by the student, research supervisor, and faculty sponsor must be signed off by the DUS of the Department where the student is registering and submitted to Trinity College before the end of drop/add. More info on Writing Intensive Independent Study. Note that you may not add a W to an Independent Study more than once.
  1. For a Writing Intensive Independent Study, fill out the Request for Writing Code for Research Independent Study Course form, available on T-Reqs. Confirm that your research supervisor will take responsibility for the supervision of the writing component, and discuss the specific writing expectations with him/her. The form, signed by the student, research supervisor, and faculty sponsor must be signed off by the Biology Department DUS and submitted to Trinity College before the end of drop/add. More info on Writing Intensive Independent Study. Note that you may not add a W to an Independent Study more than once.

 

Writing Intensive Study

Form for Requesting a Writing Code (W) for a Research Independent Study Course 

What is Writing Intensive Independent Studies?

All students enrolled in Independent Studies in Biology must complete a written report at the end of the semester. However, only those students who sign up for the “W-designation” receive university credit for that writing activity. If interested in attaching a W to your Independent Study, you should ask your research mentor to agree to work with you on your writing skills throughout the semester.

Please note that you can only receive university credit for the W-designation for one semester of Independent Studies. If you are planning on two or more semesters of Independent Studies in the same lab then you are advised to defer the official application for the W-designation until the second semester. Although you cannot receive writing credit for more than one semester, some students prefer to do the writing for the W-designation across both semesters (versus completing all the writing for the W-designation in one semester). If you are interested in this option, discuss it with your research mentor or your Writing Advisor at the beginning of the first semester of your Independent Studies.

What does a W-designation involve?

A Writing Intensive Independent Study should, as much as possible, follow the guidelines for any W-designated course, which are:

  • The student should write frequently throughout the term – periodically submitting either several discrete writing projects or drafts or sections of a longer project;
  • The faculty member should comment on these writings with advice toward revision;
  • The student and faculty member should meet regularly to discuss the student’s writings;
  • The uses of writing in the discipline should be one of the focuses of the Research Independent Study; and
  • A significant percentage of the grade awarded for a W-designated Research Independent Study should reflect the growth and quality of the student’s work as a writer.

How do I sign up?

A “Request for Writing Code for Research Independent Study Course” Form should be signed by the student, research supervisor, faculty sponsor (if different from research supervisor).  The form also requires the signature of the DUS of the Department where you are registering for the Independent Study. If enrolling for BIO 293/493, submit the form to the Biology DUS Office, Bio Sci Room 135.  If enrolling through Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Neurobiology, Pathology, Immunology, Pharm & Cancer Biology or MGM, you should get the signature of their DUS or DGS. The form is due to 011 Allen Building by the drop/add deadline, so allow enough time before the end of the drop/add to obtain the DUS/DGS signature.  You should discuss the specific writing expectations with your Research Supervisor before submitting the form.  A copy of the student's writing schedule (see below) with the research supervisor's signature on it should also be submitted to the DUS office along with the request form.

What do I have to write?

At the beginning of the semester, your Research Supervisor will give you a set of written instructions on how to write each of the required components discussed below: a project proposal, literature review, and final paper. At each stage, the writing should be understandable to a scientifically literate reader from an unrelated field of biology.

1. The proposal (1-2 pages) should contain:

  • a brief introduction to the problem
  • describe the question(s) asked
  • the main methodologies to be used
  • cite one to three key references.

Your Research Supervisor will review your proposal during your meeting in week 3 of the semester, suggest corrections and immediately give an informal grade to orient you on the level of your work. One week later, you should submit a corrected version to your Research Supervisor. Once again, she/he will review your proposal during your meeting, suggest corrections, and give a final grade.

2. The literature review (5-10 pages) should contain:

  • an extended introduction
  • a description of the outstanding questions in the field
  • a description of the particular points addressed by the project
  • an outline of possible outcomes
  • an overview of the approaches followed, with possible alternative plans if the primary ones do not work.

Your Research Supervisor will review your literature review during your meeting in week 6 of the semester, suggest corrections and immediately give an informal grade to orient you on the level of your work. One week later, you should submit a corrected version to your Research Supervisor. Once again, she/he will review your proposal during your meeting, suggest corrections, and give a final grade.

3. The final paper (10-15 pages) should be organized as a typical professional scientific paper** with:

  • title
  • abstract
  • introduction
  • materials & methods
  • results**
  • discussion
  • figures/tables
  • references.

Your Research Supervisor will review your final paper during your meeting in week 12 of the semester, suggest corrections and immediately give an informal grade to orient you on the level of your work. Two weeks later, you should submit a corrected version to your Research Supervisor. Once again, she/he will review your proposal during your meeting, suggest corrections, and suggests final corrections. During reading-period/finals week, the student finalizes the paper and hands it in for grading. The final grade should integrate the performance at all three writing stages.

** Depending on the degree of completion of the actual experiments at that point, the relevant parts of the paper may contain gaps. If the experiments do not provide sufficient data for a full experimental paper, the final write-up should have an expanded introduction and reduced material and methods and Results sections. The discussion should address possible reasons for the experimental shortcomings or failures.

How often would I meet with my Research Supervisor to work on writing?

You should plan to meet with your Research Supervisor approximately 9 times throughout the semester. The following schedule is a rough outline of when these meetings should occur. It is the student’s responsibility to arrange the exact dates and times of these meetings.

Week Meetings with Research Supervisor Writing due
1 Student gets written instructions  
3 Discuss draft of proposal Proposal
4 Discuss proposal Revised proposal
6 Discuss draft of literature review Literature Review
7 Discuss literature review Revised Literature Review
10 Discuss outline of report Outline of Report due
12 Discuss 1st draft of Report 1st draft of Report due
14 Discuss 2nd draft of Report 2nd draft of Report due
15 Drop off final draft (and celebrate!) Final draft of Report

Independent Study Abroad

The Biology program will grant credit for independent research projects conducted as part of an approved study abroad program. Students should make an effort to adhere to the general guidelines for Independent Study.

In order to receive final approval for credit, the student should submit the following to the Director of Undergraduate Studies: a copy of the final paper, signed by the project supervisor; the academic credentials of the project supervisor; a copy of the lab/field notebook, or; a note from the project supervisor attesting to the student's effort and independence. The note should also attest to the student's merit, if there is no course grade or other indicator of merit.

Guidelines:

1. The project must be appropriate work in the biological sciences.

This assessment will be made by the Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS) in Biology. It will be based on a final report or written description of the project and on the academic credentials of the project supervisor.

2. The project must be an independent research project.

The student takes substantial responsibility for the formulation of a hypothesis, data collection, data analysis and interpretation. In the case of a collaborative effort, the student should have a distinct and identifiable role in the project.

3. The student should spend at least ~140 hours on the project.

This may include planning, data collection (including field work), analysis and writing. Note that the time spent writing (not including data analysis) should be a small portion of the total time investment. Partial credit is possible for more limited projects. The student's time investement should be documented, either in the form of a notebook signed by the supervisor or a note from the supervisor.

4. The student should prepare a final written report of the project.

The final paper should be evaluated and signed by the project supervisor. The format of the final paper is at the discretion of the project supervisor.

5. The student may not be paid, either during or after, for the work done in the project.
 

6. In order to receive final approval for credit, the student should submit the following to the Director of Undergraduate Studies:

  • copy of the final paper, signed by the project supervisor
  • the academic credentials of the project supervisor
  • copy of the lab/field notebook, or
  • a note from the project supervisor attesting to the student's effort and independence. The note should also attest to the student's merit, if there is no course grade or other indicator of merit.

An example of a supervisor's statement:

To the Director of Undergraduate Studies, Duke University:

This letter is to attest to the directed research work undertaken by Melanie while she was a student at the Centre for Rainforest Studies (School for Field Studies) in North Queensland, Australia. My background is in zoology, with an emphasis on vertebrate ecology. Since 1987 I have been focussing on composition and dynamics of bird communities of the Australian Wet Tropics subregion. Currently I am carrying out this research while teaching rainforest ecology at the Centre for Rainforest Studies.

I supervised Melanie's directed research, at which time she worked on my ongoing project at the centre. This is a long-term project investigating the dynamics of bird communities in relation to rainforest succession. The project has been in operation since 1988, and currently includes the largest database of banding and census data in the Australian Wet Tropics. The long-term aims are twofold: gaining a knowledge of the successional processes of both forest and bird communities will allow firstly an evaluation of landscape level dynamics of bird communities and secondly a comparison of avifaunas of natural regrowth versus those of actively restored sites, to assist in development of strategies that will optimise recovery of forest fauna in degraded sites. During the directed research period (March 29 - May 4 2005), Melanie worked fulltime on the project and devoted approximately 16-18 hours to research design and set-up of the field sites, 110 hours to data collection, 24 hours to data entry and analysis and about 48 hours writing. This letter is also to state that the work presented in Melanie's research paper was written independently by her.

Yours faithfully,

John D. Grant, PhD

Finding a Research Mentor

Research Laboratories & Research Supervisors To Find Projects that Might Interest You

Your research supervisor may be a faculty member in any Duke department, including Medical Center departments.  In general, it is up to you to contact and speak to faculty members until you find someone appropriate that agrees to take you on. You should start your search for an independent study one semester before you plan to begin.  You will want to time to speak with several faculty members and meet other people in their labs. Also, space in labs is limited and you must often reserve in advance.

The Undergraduate Studies Office cannot assign you to a lab nor make specific recommendations, however, some useful information is below.

Resources for Finding Mentors:

  • MUSER (Matching Undergraduates to Science and Engineering Research) - active at the start of each term.
  • Look for postings on DukeList (http://dukelist.duke.edu/). Note that most mentors do not post their independent study opportunities. You don’t need to limit yourself to these postings.
  • Biology Faculty Research Pages: this site lists Biology faculty by research area. Use this site to identify Biology faculty that are working on subjects in which you are interested.
  • Scholars@Duke website provides info on faculty research.
  • Talk to other students who are doing independent study. Find out how they got started.
  • Talk to your Biology Advisor or any Biology Faculty in your area of interest for possible ideas on labs to approach.

Contact faculty and ask about the possibility of doing an independent study in their laboratory.

  • Some great advice for contacting mentors can be found here, on the website of the Office of Undergraduate Research Support: https://undergraduateresearch.duke.edu/tips-contacting-mentors
  • If you get a positive reply from a potential research supervisor, meet to discuss both your and their expectations. Work out a weekly schedule, a semester timeline, and rules for your project. Discuss the overall duration of the independent study – many mentors will expect at least a two semester commitment. General guidelines for independent study are available from the web site.
  • Be sure to adhere to the Independent study guidelines. You can also refer research supervisors to Dr. Eric Spana, Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies, should they have further questions or concerns.