Honors in the Biological Sciences

Honors in the Biological Sciences


More than 30 percent of concentrators in the Biological Sciences earn honors each year. To be eligible for honors, students must meet three requirements: 

1) Completion of an original research thesis that is recommended for honors by both the Thesis Advisor and Second Reader.

2) Formal and public presentation of the thesis (oral seminar or by poster presentation).

3) Demonstration of quality grades in the concentration.  

The senior honors thesis is typically developed through a minimum of two, but more often three, semesters of research. Students intending to pursue a thesis in Biology often have a Brown faculty mentor and project secured in the summer prior to the senior year. Many students use UTRAs to help support research, though this is not the only mechanism of support. Often faculty members provide student support from their own grants. Students may also register for BIOL 1950/1960 independent study courses to support honors theses research, though this is not required. Please note that the Honors application process is separate from the independent study BIOL 1950/1960 registration project proposal. The application for Honors is below.

Quality Grades

Students who have earned a majority of "A" grades in courses required for the concentration and who are in good academic standing are eligible to apply for honors at the start of their penultimate (typically 7th) semester at Brown. Classes taken S/NC will count as qualifying towards that majority if they are marked "S* with distinction" indicating that had the student taken the course for a grade, the grade would have been an "A". Courses with a grade of S may be counted when a Course Performance Report indicates a grade of A. Students just shy of meeting the grade requirement for honors are encouraged to apply. Grades earned in penultimate semester concentration courses will be accounted for in the determination of quality grades made in the final semester. In order to verify quality grades efficiently, please make sure that your concentration course plan in ASK is up to date and that the number of required courses is listed.

Deadlines, and guidelines listed below apply to students in the following concentrations:

Biology AB

Biology ScB                        

Health & Human Biology AB

Biophysics ScB

Students concentrating in Biology AB, ScB, or Health & Human Biology are all eligible for Honors and the process is the same for each of those concentrations.

Concentrators in Biochemistry apply via Biochemistry advisors; Applied Math-Biology students apply via Applied Mathematics; Computational Biology students apply via CCMB; Biomedical Engineering concentrators proceed via Engineering.

As per University policy, students may not use the same thesis to gain honors in more than one concentration. If pursuing honors in two concentrations, the theses must be fully distinct in content. 

Thesis Advisor & Second Reader

The Thesis Advisor and Second Reader will evaluate and recommend the thesis for honors based on the criteria outlined below.

The Thesis Advisor is the primary investigator who will mentor the project, and who will be available to the student in developing the thesis aims, designing methods, analyzing data, interpreting outcomes and casting the work in the context of the scholarly field(s) of relevance. The Thesis Advisor is also expected to guide the student in developing and delivering a polished final presentation of the thesis. The Thesis Advisor should be a Brown faculty member, usually but not always, from the Division of Biology and Medicine.

The Second Reader will be a faculty member or associated scientist who is identified by the student, in consult with the Thesis Advisor, as appropriate to review the work. The Second Reader will evaluate the thesis, and provide an evaluation of the work. Second Readers should be acquainted with the field of research described by the project, and be willing and able to provide input and critique that will challenge and strengthen the thesis. The Second Reader should be at the doctoral level and ideally not from the same laboratory or research group where the project originates.

Honors Deadlines

Application for Honors

Students should complete the Honors Proposal Application in collaboration with the Thesis Advisor and Second Reader. Both advisor signatures are due at the application proposal deadline (below). 

Thesis Presentation

Presentation of the thesis can be fulfilled by participation in the Annual Biology Senior Research, Capstone, and Declaration Day or an arranged oral seminar. If the oral seminar format is chosen the student will make scheduling arrangements with guidance from the Thesis Advisor. The oral presentation should be scheduled early to mid-April in order to meet the Thesis Advisor and Second Reader Final Evaluation Deadline.

While formal presentation of the thesis is required, there is not a specific set of criteria for evaluation. Advisors have the opportunity to comment on the presentation in the formal evaluation. Advisors should develop a mentoring plan to teach students about the various approaches to presenting scientific research. Opportunities for students to practice the presentation, receive, and incorporate feedback is especially helpful and encouraged.

Biology honors applicants are required to present their thesis research and senior capstone students are encouraged to do the same (though this is not a requirement). The Program in Biology will host the Annual Biology Senior Research, Capstone, and Declaration Day event on April 12, 2023, 1-3pm in Alumnae Hall Auditorium. 

Final Thesis Submission

Students are required to submit a pdf of their final thesis to their Thesis Advisor, Second Reader and the BUE Office via email by the third Friday in April (see dates below).

BUE submission instructions:

1. Email a copy of the final thesis to [email protected] as a single pdf document. The format of the thesis is determined by the faculty advisor and student. The pdf file name should be the student’s first name initial(s) in all caps, followed by the last name (no spaces). For example, Dean Smith’s thesis file name would read KFSmith.pdf. The BUE Office will maintain a copy of the thesis for programming purposes. The thesis will not be shared or made public without the student’s permission.

2. The email subject heading should read: Honors thesis for BUE filing only.

Thesis Evaluation for Honors

The Thesis Advisor and Second Reader will evaluate and recommend the thesis for honors based on the criteria outlined below. An electronic honors evaluation form will be provided directly, via email, to the Thesis Advisor and Second Reader by the Office of Biology Undergraduate Education. This form will be sent well in advance of the final evaluation due date (below). It is up to the student and Thesis Advisors to develop internal project deadlines for submitting drafts and final copies of the thesis so there is time for revisions, as well as formal presentation of your honors thesis (poster/oral) so that the final evaluation can be submitted. The entire thesis presentation should be delivered prior to the final evaluation deadline. Please adhere to the BUE internal deadlines below.

Students graduating in May:

- Honors Application Due Date
Thesis Advisor and Second Reader approval signature required

First Monday in October
October 3, 2022

- Formal Presentation (poster/oral)
Poster Day Presentations: April 12, 2023, 1-3pm in Alumnae Hall Auditorium
Oral Presentations: scheduled & arranged with Thesis Advisor approval early to mid-April

-Submission of your Final Thesis to your Thesis Advisor, Second Reader, and the BUE Office Third Friday in April
April 21, 2023
- Final Evaluation Forms Due from the Thesis Advisor and Second Reader

Fourth Friday in April
April 28, 2023

Students graduating in December*:

- Honors Application Due Date
Thesis Advisor and Second Reader approval signature required

First Friday in March
March 3, 2023

- Formal Presentation (poster/oral)
Mid to Late November 2023
-Submission of your Final Thesis to your Thesis Advisor, Second Reader, and the BUE Office Fourth Friday in November
November 24, 2023
- Final Evaluation Forms Due from the Thesis Advisor and Second Reader

First Friday in December
December 1, 2023

Thesis Guidelines & Expectations 

A senior honors thesis in Biology is a substantial body of original scholarly research. Successful theses can be grounded in a number of methodological approaches including bench or field research, clinical study, mathematical models, computer simulations, meta-analyses that test hypotheses or yield new synthesis in a scholarly context. Regardless of the approach, successful theses will be inquiry-based and demonstrate contextual understanding of the work, formal assessment of scientific information, critical thinking, clear communication and a high level of independence.

Faculty Advisors recommend the thesis for honors based on the following criteria:

1) The writing, format, and presentation of the thesis are appropriate for the intended audience.

2) The introduction of the thesis offers a formal review of the literature that presents the state of the field to date, and in doing so sets up a clear argument for the value of the work presented.

3) The introduction of the thesis offers a clearly articulated goal, aim, question, and /or hypothesis to be tested.

4) The methods and analyses selected are clearly justified.

5) Results are interpreted appropriately and based on the analyses presented in the methods.

6) The discussion section offers a compelling consideration of a) unexpected findings or challenges during the research process that may have influenced the results, b) implications of overall findings and their impact on the relevant field(s), c) future directions / next steps.

Thesis Form and Format

A thesis in Biology, Health & Human Biology, and Biophysics make take a variety of forms and formats. It is up to the honors candidate and Thesis Advisors to determine the specific expectations for the final thesis form and format. Elements of a thesis in Biology vary greatly depending on the nature of the project, the specific sub-field, and the student's learning goals. Communication about these expectations should be clearly articulated and agreed upon early in the research process.

A common choice is for students to prepare the thesis as if they were to submit the work to a peer-reviewed journal. This approach offers the opportunity for students to experience the first step of the publication process. Another option is to prepare the thesis manuscript following the dissertation guidelines set forth by Brown's Graduate School. Previous students have found this useful in preparing for doctoral or master's research programs.

Students and Advisors may also look to Brown University's Digital Repository of Undergraduate Theses in Biology for examples of formatting previously followed. Regardless of format, a thesis in Biology, Health & Human Biology, and Biophysics will exhibit the highest quality writing, novel content, context of findings, and documentation of sources expected at the undergraduate level. STEM theses generally include an abstract, robust introduction, complete methods, results, full discussion & conclusion, a complete list of references that illustrate the state of the field of relevance, clear figures and tables with appropriate captions, and necessary appendices. Regardless of format, a thesis in Biology, Health & Human Biology, and Biophysics will exhibit the highest quality writing, clear articulation of the state of the field relevant to the work, novel content, context of findings, and documentation of sources expected at the undergraduate level. 


“There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes (Richard Buckminster Fuller).”

Science does not always go as planned. Methodological hurdles and insignificant results are common experiences of researchers at every stage. Regular communication with the Thesis Advisors is essential for navigating hurdles that arise during the research process. Students with an approved application to the honors program are encouraged to submit the thesis even when challenges occur along the way. When outcomes are not as planned the student and Advisors are encouraged to work together to develop a new plan for presenting the work in the form of a formal thesis. Indeed, there is great value in presenting work completed and formally discussing challenges, unexpected outcomes, and insignificant findings. Dean Smith is available to assist with planning during this process and to discuss alternative means of evaluation as necessary.


Thesis Archival in the Brown Digital Repository

Fill out the archiving form here and upload your thesis.  The BDR is Brown University's online archive of student and faculty scholarship maintained by the Brown University Library. By choosing to deposit your honors thesis in the BDR, you are making your scholarly work discoverable and accessible into the future. 

Students wishing to archive their thesis with the BDR should follow these instructions:

   Fill out the archiving form here. Information on access and licensing are provided in the form.

   June 10  is the deadline to submit a thesis for BDR archiving.

Students who encounter any issues with the upload process to BDR can email [email protected].