Looking for resources and information to help you as a biology major? Learn more about our senior seminars and comprehensive exams below.
Senior seminar resources
Learn more about proposals for Biology 480: Senior Seminar and suggested milestones for you to keep in mind as you complete your biology major requirements.
During the semester prior to enrollment in BIOL 480 a seminar group must submit the Initial Proposal. It is due before noon on the last Monday of scheduled classes.
The Initial Proposal includes a list of the students in the group, a faculty adviser (usually a person familiar with the topic), the topic for the seminar, the subtopics that individuals in the group plan to pursue, at least five relevant references for each subtopic, some of which should be current (in the last few years) and some of which should represent the seminal literature of that field.
Significant planning should be accomplished in the semester before the seminar is to be taught, culminating with the Initial Proposal. Its purpose is to ensure that time during the seminar itself is not wasted by working out topics and logistical details. It also allows sufficient time for the library to obtain needed materials.
Format for references: See BioCite document in All Biology Research Guide.
At the beginning of the semester of the senior seminar, before 4 p.m. on the Friday of the first full week of the semester, the student group must submit a Full Proposal to their adviser. Failure to meet this deadline may result in postponement of the BIOL 480 to a subsequent semester.
Full proposals must include a title, list of participants, faculty adviser, day and time of weekly meetings, meeting place, overview of course topic, detailed description of subtopics, revised preliminary bibliography for each subtopic (10 sources, including several within the past 1-3 years), other resources to be used (books, guest speakers, field trips, etc.), attendance policy, and other required assignments. An appointment day and time with the Science Librarian must be stated in the proposal. Each seminar is required to meet with the Science Librarian by the end of the third full week of the semester.
The adviser will review the Full Proposal and suggest modifications. The department must formally approve the proposal. Approval by the department should be completed by the end of the second full week of the semester.
All seminars are two credits, requiring a minimum of six hours of work per week, including the meeting time. A minimum of two hours each week should be spent together.
Grading is CR/NC; this is by college rule for student-initiated courses. At the end of the semester, student participants will evaluate each other, including the ultimate determination of CR or NC.
Attendance at all meetings is required. No more than two absences are allowed for successful completion of the course. This attendance policy must be spelled out in the Full Proposal.
The minimum enrollment for a Senior Seminar group is three students. The maximum enrollment is six students. The graduating class is responsible for seeing that all students are enrolled in at least one seminar. Please be inclusive! Also, it is each individual’s personal responsibility to be an active part of a seminar group before the full proposal is completed.
Roles of the faculty adviser. The faculty adviser should be consulted before the initial and final proposals are submitted to the department. The adviser can be a helpful resource for the proposals and during the seminar. Advisers will not attend the seminar meetings unless specially invited. Each seminar group will meet with their adviser on three occasions during the semester.
The first adviser meeting must occur during the week before the Full Proposal is due. At this meeting the adviser will check the meeting schedule, will confirm that the group has scheduled a meeting with the science librarian, and will confirm the attendance policy.
The second meeting will occur around the mid-semester time so the faculty adviser can offer expectations for the written and oral component.
The third meeting will occur no later than one week before your colloquium presentation. Each seminar group must give a practice presentation to their faculty adviser plus one other faculty member chosen by the group. A hardcopy of the slides (4-6 slides per page) should be provided to the two faculty at the beginning of the practice presentation.
The Final Oral Component: The time slots for colloquium presentations will be reserved during the last month of the semester. The colloquium will be 40-45 minutes long with time left afterwards for questions. A seminar group of 5 or 6 persons should schedule two colloquium time slots.
After the colloquium, please send an electronic copy of your presentation slides to the Science Librarian for archival storage and program assessment.
The Final Written Component: The seminar group’s final paper will start with a 1-2 page abstract that states the group’s goals and summarizes each person’s topic. Then each individual’s paper will follow and should include an introduction stating the context of the topic and the goals for the paper, the body of the paper, and a finishing conclusion which includes an assessment of where the field is going. Subheadings are encouraged throughout the paper.
It is important that your voice be clear. Your words should both summarize information and show your ability to synthesize and combine information from multiple sources. You should provide your perspective on the information. Your paper should not just report the known; it should also critique the research that has been published in the field and describe experiments the field still needs.
Each individual’s paper must be at least 10 double-spaced pages with 11-12 pt. font and normal margins. Each paper must have at least 20 cited sources. Literature sources must be cited parenthetically in the body of the paper and listed in the Literature Cited section at the end. Reliable websites can be primary sources. See BioCite.
The final paper, submitted to the faculty adviser, is due by 4 p.m. on the last day of class. The faculty adviser will determine if the final written paper is acceptable.
Together, the oral and written work must demonstrate that the seminar participants have investigated the topic in sufficient depth and have effectively synthesized the knowledge gained. If either of these is not sufficiently demonstrated, the faculty may ask for additional work.
A checklist for a fall senior seminar course
Spring of junior year
- Decide on group members (3-4 students is best) and a senior seminar topic
- Find an adviser from Biology Department faculty
- Submit your Initial Proposal to your adviser via electronic copy before noon on Monday of the last week of classes
- Title of the seminar (topic)
- Names of students in the group and name of the faculty adviser
- Brief paragraph on the topic (overview)
- Title of each subtopic, brief description and name of the student responsible
- Five references, including 2-3 from the past 1-3 years (all using the same format; see formats in separate document)
Fall of senior year
- The Full Proposal is due at 4pm on the Friday of the first full week of classes
- Meet with adviser before Full Proposal’s due date
- Meet with the Science Librarian during the second full week of classes
- Meet with your group each week and discuss papers
- Meet with the adviser the week before mid-semester break
- Schedule the final oral presentation (about one month before classes end)
- Schedule a practice presentation of your oral presentation to your adviser and one other faculty member one week before your final oral presentation
- Reserve a room for this practice presentation for at least two hours
- Bring two hard copies of your presentation slides (4-6 slides per page) to the practice presentation
- Make the final oral presentation
- Submit an electronic copy of the final presentation slides to the Science Librarian (for archival and assessment purposes)
- Submit the final written report to your adviser on the last day of classes
- Title (topic)
- Names of students in the group and name of the faculty adviser
- Day, time and place of weekly meetings
- Overview of course topic
- Detailed description of subtopics
- Revised bibliography with 10 references for each subtopic (all using the same format)
- Other resources to be used (books, guest speakers, field trips, etc.)
- Attendance requirement policy (no more than two absences)
There are three components to the senior comprehensive examination which occurs in the spring of the senior year: Short Questions, Long Questions, and an Oral Examination.
Students receive twelve questions, three each in the categories 1) Genetics and Gene Expression, 2) Physiology, 3) Ecology and Evolution, and 4) Organismal Biology. These questions are distributed at a meeting late in the fall semester. Students work collaboratively in small groups to construct answers to the questions. At the written examination, which happens in the middle of the spring semester, students answer one question from each category; this question is selected randomly by the faculty a few days prior to the exam. More details are provided at the fall meeting.
There are typically three possible topics for the long comprehensive exam: an evolution question, a central dogma question, and questions pertaining to an assigned research article.
Two of the three topics are chosen by the faculty and seniors are asked to answer one of them.
Sample Evolution Questions
- A wide variety of evidence supports the hypothesis that evolution has occurred. Define “evolution” and describe various types of evidence that support the theory of evolution, giving examples. Be sure to explain how that evidence supports the evolutionary hypothesis. Also, be sure to include both direct (i.e., observed instances) and indirect (i.e., evolution can be inferred) evidence in your answer.
- Suppose you are studying a population of an animal or plant. You wonder if this population is genetically distinct from neighboring populations (i.e., an ecotype). Briefly state several ways by which you could determine if your population is indeed a locally adapted ecotype. Then describe in some detail how this putative ecotype could have evolved to be distinct from neighboring populations. Include the concepts of mutation, natural selection, gene flow (migration), genetic drift and inbreeding.
Sample Central Dogma Questions
- Mutations can occur in any area of a gene; in fact any nucleotide is a possible mutation site. Discuss several ways in which a point mutation can alter the expression of a gene. Discuss one mechanism whereby point mutations may be repaired.
- Compare and contrast gene structure in prokaryotes and eukaryotes. How do the differences in gene structure manifest themselves at the levels of transcription and translation? How do these differences impact regulation of gene expression?
Sample Question on an Assigned Article
Lim et al. 2004. Enhanced partner preference in a promiscuous species by manipulating the expression of a single gene. Nature 429: 754-757.
This paper makes the exciting conclusion that a change in expression of a single gene can result in a change in mating behavior. Write an essay demonstrating your thorough understanding of this paper by discussion the following:
a. The methods, results, and conclusions of the key experiments presented in the paper.
b. The context of the paper. Utilize your own area of biological expertise to discuss how the paper relates to biology as a whole. Your consideration of the paper’s context might include responses to some of the following queries.
- Nature specifies that the articles it publishes must be “of outstanding scientific importance” and that they must “reach a conclusion of interest to an interdisciplinary readership.” Why was this paper chosen for publication?
- This paper contradicts the assertion that complex traits result from the expression of many genes and hence, multiple gene products. Do the paper’s conclusions invalidate this assertion?
- What molecular and selection events must occur to achieve the evolution of monogamy from an original condition of asocial polygamy.
- Why do the authors claim that multiple neural circuits underly paternal care and pair bond formation? How does this relate to the generation of complex behavioral traits.
In addition to the written components, seniors have an oral examination. Each student will be interviewed by an outside examiner, usually faculty from a nearby college or university. During the first five minutes of the interview, students present on a topic of their choice (often a research project in which he or she has been involved). For the remaining twenty minutes, the outside examiner engages the student in a discussion that ranges across the breadth of biology, with an emphasis on the courses that have been taken by the student. More details are provided on this experience at the fall meeting.