Bio 200/500 Course Information Page


Bio 200 (Freshman/Sophomore)/Bio 500 (Junior/Senior)

Independent Study – Research

Course Master: Associate Professor Ken Olsen, Ph.D.

You MUST complete an application for each semester you plan to do research.
You will not be enrolled for continuing research unless you complete an application by the deadlines below.


Fall 2017 Registration Deadline: Friday, September 1st

Your application and research description must be received by this date to be considered for enrollment.

NEW: ALL Bio 200/500 Students are required to have HIPAA training. What is HIPAA? If you have not completed HIPAA training please contact Erin Gerrity ( and request the HIPAA online training link. 



To provide opportunities for students to gain experience in using the scientific method to resolve problems of scientific importance. This includes acquiring technical skills, reading and evaluating articles in the scientific literature, gaining experience in design and conduct of experiments, learning to evaluate experimental data in relation to existing knowledge, and in expanding skills at communicating results of research both orally and in writing. Students who spend several semesters and a summer(s) in the same laboratory often accomplish enough to be co-author of a paper in a scientific journal.



Typically a student will start Bio 200/500 in the sophomore or junior year, often in the spring. Much of the first semester is taken up with the student learning techniques and mastering the background and intellectual context of the ongoing research in the laboratory. Our experience is that students will often ask questions if they do not understand one or another specific point, but that sometimes they need help in assimilating the overall perspective even when they correctly understand each detail.  We ask that the student be given material to read and then report back to the mentor.  Many people find a more or less formal presentation by the student to be a good way to report. In addition, students should participate in lab meetings and journal club, if their schedule permits, and should be asked to present at appropriate intervals. For the student's first semester in the lab, the "description of research" may be general and is often derived from material written by the mentor.  However, the student should write the description.  By the end of the first semester, the student should have sufficient mastery of techniques and intellectual context to participate in developing an experimental plan and to prepare the "description of research.”  The description of research can be short - a paragraph or two - but should include information about the research question being addressed and the main methods to be used.  It should be easily understandable to a researcher who is not familiar with the specific area of research.

Projects should have defined goals. Most often the goals are not realized in one semester. The Biology Department recommends that the student be asked for a brief formal report(s) either at times dictated by the rhythm of the work or at the end of the semester. This should require the student to think hard about what she or he has been doing.  This is an extremely useful experience at this early stage.

Students may work either directly with the mentor or with someone of the mentor's choice; e.g., research associate, post-doc, senior graduate student, technician. Most often the latter works out very well. However, in such cases we ask two things of the mentor: (1) The mentor should be sure, on the basis of a specific discussion, that the lab member who will work most closely with the student is enthusiastic about the prospect. If that lab member is hesitant, please reconsider the arrangement. (2) The mentor should consider herself or himself still responsible. We encourage the mentor to meet from time to time with the student to monitor progress in understanding and achievement, as well as to lend encouragement.

As all mentors know, considerable care must be taken if the initial research experience of an undergraduate student is to be successful. It is important that the student be in an active and productive setting, one in which good work is done and then published. However, students are advised to exercise caution before going into a lab that is so large that the undergraduate might get lost in the shuffle. We ask mentors not affiliated with the Division of Biology and Biomedical Science to provide a current CV (unless one is already on file in the Department) to Mr. Patrick Clark,

Although project goals usually cannot be met in one semester, occasionally, either student or mentor does not care to extend the arrangement beyond the first semester and both must feel absolutely free to terminate the relationship after one semester. In that case, we hope the student will come away with a working knowledge of new techniques and a taste of the culture of experimental science. But usually students continue in Bio 500 for at least 3 semesters. In addition, they often have paying jobs/fellowships in the laboratory during the summer. In the remaining time in the lab beyond the first semester, the student builds, in obvious ways, on the foundation that has been laid. There is some danger that, during the second semester or so, the mentor will begin to view the student as an experienced researcher and that the amount of interaction between the mentor and the student will decrease as a result. We ask mentors and students to guard against this possibility.

Occasionally, there is confusion on the part of a student or a mentor on the difference between Biology 200/500 (Independent Study), General Studies 2991 (Internship) and a paid job. Sometimes the actual work performed for a paid job is quite consistent with independent study, but the employer certainly has the right to ask an employee to pour plates, wash dishes, etc., with the aim of facilitating the work of someone else in the lab. Facilitating the work of others would, of course, be an inappropriate primary goal for a Bio 200/500 student. Tasks assigned a Bio 200/500 student should have as their object learning things that will probably be needed in the student's project. This does not preclude the Bio 200/500 student doing a fair share of the routine lab chores, if these are shared by all lab personnel. There are occasions when a student would prefer to be "another pair of hands" while taking no independent responsibility for the scientific work. That is a legitimate experience and is provided for under the rubric of General Studies 2991.

In addition, we offer Bio 265, (Experiences in the Life Sciences) for students whose primary goal is to gain practical experience; e.g., by "shadowing" a physician or developing and teaching primary or secondary school curriculum in collaboration with a classroom teacher.  For a more complete description go to:

The Biology Department realizes that the distinctions among the categories are not absolutely clear-cut. We ask either students or mentors who are uncertain about the department's expectations to discuss the matter with us by contacting Patrick Clark at

Natural Sciences Learning Center
© 2017 CDT Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA

Contact Webmanager