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.
Deadlines, and guidelines listed below apply to students in the following concentrations:
Health & Human Biology AB
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.
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.
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 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 and final evaluation. The thesis presentation should be delivered prior to the final evaluation deadline (more on the presentation expectations below).
Students graduating in May:
|- Honors Application Due Date
Thesis Advisor and Second Reader approval signature required
First Monday in October
|- Final Evaluation Forms Due from the Thesis Advisor and Second Reader||
Students graduating in December*:
- Honors Application Due Date
First Friday in March
|- Final Evaluation Forms Due from the Thesis Advisor and Second Reader||
First Friday in December
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.
There are no specific formatting requirements for an honors thesis in Biology. It is up to the honors candidate and Thesis Advisors to determine the specific expectations for the final thesis. 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.
“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.
Presentation of the thesis can be fulfilled by participation in the Biology Undergraduate Research Poster 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 Biology Undergraduate Research Poster Day is organized annually for mid-April. In mid-March, the Office of Biology Undergraduate Education will extend an invitation to all biology concentrators to present at Research Poster Day.
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.
Honors recipients typically maintain a Grade Point Average of 3.4 or higher in the concentration. However, in the case of outstanding independent research, as demonstrated in the thesis and supported by the Thesis Advisors, candidates with a GPA between 3.0 and 3.4 will be considered and are encouraged to apply.
Thesis Archival in the Brown Digital Repository
Students submitting honors theses in the Biological Sciences are encouraged to electronically archive their thesis with the Brown Library's Brown Digital Repository (BDR). 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:
1. Fill out the archiving form here. Information on access and licensing are provided in the form.
2. Email a copy of the final thesis to firstname.lastname@example.org as a single pdf document. 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 provide work with BDR staff to upload the thesis.
3. The email subject heading should read: Honors thesis for BDR archive.
4. May 5 is the deadline to submit a thesis for BDR archiving.
Students who DO NOT wish to archive their thesis with the BDR should follow these instructions:
1. Email a copy of the final thesis to email@example.com 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.
3. May 5 is the deadline to submit a thesis for archiving with the BUE Office.