What is Honors?
Participants in the honors program conduct original, independent research in the biological sciences and write an honors thesis formatted as a scientific paper in the field of study. All students in the program are mentored by a Cornell faculty member on the Ithaca campus. After successful completion of the honors program students graduate with special distinction. Students in CALS are awarded “Distinction in Research” and Latin honors (e.g. Summa cum laude, etc.) are awarded based on GPA. Biological sciences majors in CAS must complete an honors thesis to be awarded Latin honors, and the level of Latin honors is determined by GPA of the students penultimate semester.
Who Can Apply?
Students with an intended graduation date of December 2023 or May 2024 who are:
- Biological sciences majors
- CALS: Juniors whose research area is within the biological sciences (See this list of CALS honors programs)
- CAS: Junior Biological Sciences majors (Students must do honors within their major!)
- Have an overall Cornell cumulative grade-point average of at least 3.0 at the time of application and maintain a 3.0 GPA throughout the honors program.
- Have completed at least 30 credits at Cornell or have junior standing (transfer students).
- Conduct biological sciences research under the mentorship of a Cornell faculty member on the Ithaca campus.
Honors candidates usually enroll for credit in BIOG 4990 under the direction of the faculty member acting as an honors supervisor, although it is not a requirement of the Honors Program. Students choosing to earn credit for honors research must register in BIOG 4990 using the enrollment process for that course (separate from the Honors Program application process). Students with questions about BIOG 4990 can email bioresearch [at] cornell.edu.
If you have any concerns about whether BioSci Honors is the right program for you email us at biohonors [at] cornell.edu.
What Forms of Scholarship are Eligible for Honors Theses?
All honors students conduct original, independent research in the biological sciences and write an honors thesis formatted as a scientific journal article in the field of study. There are several ways to accomplish this, all of which involve time-intensive, rigorous studies. For all cases, plan on completing data collection by December 2023-January 2024.
Options for scholarship include:
- Planning a study, collecting data in a laboratory and/or field setting, analyzing these data.
- Analyzing a dataset collected by your lab and made available to you by your research mentor to answer a novel research question.
- Using a publicly available dataset (e.g., eBird) to answer a novel research question.
- Performing a meta-analysis using published data.
If your application to the honors program is accepted, you will be assigned to a research group leader with other students working in similar branches of biology. A faculty member (see list below) leads each research group and will be one of your primary contacts throughout the honors program. The faculty member will organize a mandatory meeting in the fall semester at which they will review program logistics and all students will give an overview of their project. The group leader will provide additional information as the meeting approaches. In the spring semester, you will submit your thesis to the group leader, and they will coordinate the review of your thesis.
Research Group Leaders:
Dr. Adam Boyko (arb359)
Dr. John Helmann (jdh9)
Dr. Ailong Ke (ak425)
Dr. Andre Kessler (ak357)
Dr. Jaehee Kim (jk2287) & Dr. William Lai (wkl29)
Dr. Yuxin Mao (ym253)
Dr. Wojtek Pawlowski (wp45)
Dr. Kerry Shaw (kls4)
Dr. Tudorita (Doina) Tumbar (tt252)
If you have questions about the honors program, you can email the Honors Coordinator and Honors Program Assistant at biohonors [at] cornell.edu.
Each student in the Biological Sciences Honors Program is expected to abide by the Cornell University Code of Academic Integrity. All work submitted by a student as part of the honors program must be the student’s own work.
Academic Year 2023-2024
December 2023 Graduates
- April 15 – July 3, 2023: Honors application submission. December grads that are concerned about this deadline should contact biohonors [at] cornell.edu by June
- October 30, 2023: Submit full draft to thesis mentor at the latest!
- November 13, 2023:Thesis submitted to group leader by uploading to Canvas (Note: this is your best work. This is what will be sent out to reviewers)
- November 27, 2023: Group Leaders send compiled reviewer feedback to students
- December 11, 2023: Upload formatted and revised thesis to Canvas
May 2024 Graduates
- April 15 – July 3, 2023: Honors Application Submission
- September 5, 2023: Honors Application Submission for students with exceptional circumstances. You must contact biohonors [at] cornell.edu by July 3 if you would like to request a late honors submission. No submissions will be accepted after this date. (This does not apply to December 2023 graduates)
- September 25, 4:30PM-5:30PM: Mandatory Fall Meeting "What You Need to Know to be Successful in Bio Sci Honors"
- November 6, 2023: Submit Progress Reports
- November – December: Honors Group Meetings. Look out for emails from your group leader!
- February 2024: Date TBA, Mandatory Spring Semester meeting. "Bringing it Home! Logistics and Tips for Completing Bio Sci Honors"
- March 15, 2024: Full draft of thesis to thesis mentor for review
- March 30 – April 7, 2024: Spring Break
- April 10: Feedback from thesis mentor review incorporated into the new draft. *Student uploads final thesis to Canvas.
- April 29: Group Leaders and two Reviewers upload their feedback to Canvas.
- TBA--- Maybe May 9, 2024: Honors Symposium, 12:00 PM to 2:30 PM, Corson/Mudd Hall Atrium,
- TBA --- Maybe May 10, 2024: Honors Symposium, Time TBA, Locations TBA
- May 19, 2024: Group Leader and Reviewers feedback incorporated. Student uploads formatted and final revised thesis to Canvas.
*Formal thesis submission: This is NOT A DRAFT. It is your best work. Data set is complete for the purpose of your manuscript.
Each student in the Biological Sciences Honors Program is expected to abide by the Cornell University Code of Academic Integrity. All work submitted by a student as part of the honors program must be the student’s own work.
The Honors program encourages candidates to format their thesis following a journal in their field. Most journal websites will have Instructions for Authors that provide detailed formatting guidelines. The thesis should include the following sections with separate headings. Except for the title page, all the text should be double spaced, with a font size of 12. Consult with your research mentor.
Title Page. The title page should use the template provided by the Honors program and specified by the candidate’s college. It should show the title, the student author, and the mentor’s name and departmental affiliation. See template at the end of this document.
Abstract. (250 words maximum) The abstract should be on its own, separate page. The abstract should summarize the results and conclusions of the paper, including the broader significance of the research. In the abstract, as well as elsewhere in the thesis, the author should use active voice and the first person singular (“I”) -- not the first person plural (“we”), except for those experiments or results that were truly obtained in collaboration with someone else. You may switch to passive voice (e.g. “xxx was measured…” as opposed to “I measured…”) only if the authorship has been clearly established in an earlier sentence, usually in the same paragraph by use of “I”. Note that the suggested use of the first person singular is in contrast to modern scientific publications, which almost invariably have multiple authors and thus use the first person plural “we”.
Introduction. The introduction should state the reason for conducting the research, the nature of the problem and/or hypotheses addressed in the paper, and outline essential background from the field. The introduction should provide enough background for a reader who is knowledgeable in modern biology, but not expert in this particular field, to understand the thesis research and the results. The introduction should explain any field-specific concepts, methodologies, or assumptions necessary to understand why the study was undertaken, and what the objective(s) of the study were (or what hypotheses were being tested). Writing a good introduction usually requires citing perhaps twenty or more published papers. Note that introductions are not comprehensive literature reviews, but rather discuss the most relevant work.
Materials and Methods. This section should explain in detail the source of the starting materials and the experimental design (i.e. how the experiments were done, data were collected, and results were analyzed). Also included in the Materials and Methods should be a paragraph explaining what statistical tests were used to analyze the data and to gauge their statistical significance. This section, which can be placed either after the Introduction and before the Results, or at the end after the Discussion (varies across journals), should be detailed enough so that someone in a different lab but with the same equipment and reagents could repeat the results. Rather than a detailed description of some experimental approaches, papers that fully describe the methods that you used may be cited. However, it is almost always appropriate also to summarize in a couple of sentences the most important methods. For example: “Proteins were purified after expression in E. coli as described in ref X. Briefly, after induction of protein expression, lysates were fractionated by ultra centrifugation to remove ribosomes and debris, and then submitted to ion exchange chromatography, with XX assay used to identify the purified protein.”
Results. This section is the meat of the thesis. It should be organized with separate headings for the different experiments or measurements that were carried out, perhaps with one or a few paragraphs each. Every paragraph should have an easily understandable topic sentence (usually the first sentence) telling the reader what the paragraph is about. Paragraphs should not be longer than about one page (double spaced).
Discussion. This section may be combined with the Results section (“Results and Discussion”) if this type of presentation makes the data and interpretations easier to follow. The Discussion often is the most challenging to write. Frequently in scientific papers the first short paragraph of this section briefly again summarizes what the Results have shown, but this is not required. The Discussion should not repeat what has already appeared in the text of the Results, but instead should take up the bigger issues raised by the data that are presented. For example: How firm are the interpretations, or what are their limitations? Are other interpretations possible, and if so, what experiments might address this in the future? How do the data and the conclusions fit with other published work? If the results contradict something that was published earlier, how could the contradictions be resolved? At the end of the Discussion, it is often suitable to write a paragraph describing how this work could be continued profitably by others. It will strengthen the thesis if the candidate spends time discussing results with lab members in advance of writing, and/or presents the results in a lab meeting and asks for feedback on the validity of conclusions.
Figures and/or Tables. These present the data collected. As the results are described, the text should refer to each figure or table. Every figure and table must be referred to at least once some place in the text, usually in the Results but perhaps also in the Materials and Methods or Discussion. The order in which the figures are mentioned in the text determines the numbering of the figure. For example, as in journal articles, one cannot refer to “Figure 4” before one has described “Figure 3”. Graphs should have error bars or some other way of indicating statistical significance. Each Figure should have a legend that describes what is in the figure. The legend should include a short sentence about statistics. For example: “Error bars indicate standard deviation from the mean, N = 6”. In some cases, e.g. pictures such as fluorescence images of a cell, it will be necessary to say that this picture is a representative example of N such pictures that were taken. The pixel size of pictures should be reduced so that they are not unnecessarily large, to keep the megabytes of the thesis to a reasonable value. The figures or tables, with their legends, may be integrated with (interdigitated with) the text, or they may be placed after the text at the end of the thesis. In most journals, figures and tables are provided at the end of the manuscript submission. However, if you choose, you can integrate figures and tables throughout the manuscript if it makes it easier for the reviewers to read.
Acknowledgements. This short paragraph after the Discussion should give credit to those who helped in the research, including financial support, technical support, and intellectual support.
Citations (Bibliography or Reference List). Any of a variety of styles can be used for references, but the list should include all of the authors of every paper (not only the first one or two authors followed by “et al”), the date published, the full title, and of course the journal name, volume and page number. Generally it is best to use a referencing style that is common in journals in which this kind of research would be published. Whatever citation style is used, it should be the same throughout the thesis. It will be highly advantageous to use a reference manager application like EndNote or one of the similar open access applications (Mendeley or Zotero). See [http://guides.library.cornell.edu/c.php?g=412004&p=2807644] or the Mann workshops calendar for training sessions. Most theses have approximately two dozen or more citations, although the number may vary a lot depending on the scientific field. One common style for the reference list is that the papers appear alphabetically by first author (e.g. starting with “1. Adamson, …, and then “2. Bailey…”, etc.) Then the text refers to the paper by its number (e.g. “Cells were grown in DMEM medium as described in ”. Another common style is to number the references by the order in which they appear in the text. Still another common style is not to use numbers at all, e.g. “Cells were grown in DMEM medium as described in [Smith et al 2006].” Once you pick the style, the Citation Manager application will do all the formatting for you.
Submission of the thesis. The first submission of your thesis should be by email to your honors group leader both as a Word document and as a PDF. Please use the following convention for naming the files: “LASTNAMEfirstname thesis”, for example: “SMITHjudy thesis”. Using this convention facilitates any manual sorting of the theses. If the file size is too large for Cornell email, please use Cornell DropBox. The final version of thesis, after making revisions suggested by reviewers, should be submitted to the honors Canvas site as a PDF file using Canvas' Turnitin function.
Contribution of others to the thesis. Theses authored by more than one student are not acceptable. The thesis may include some figures or tables or diagrams from other people’s work (either published or unpublished), if the purpose is clarity of presentation of the student’s own results. But in each such case it is critically important to write an attribution in the legend, i.e. who is the author of the data and where was this published, e.g. “This figure is reproduced from Figure 2 [or perhaps ‘modified from Figure 2’] in reference 6”; or “This diagram was modified from one drawn by Nancy Smith”; or “This experiment was done by Paul Jones”; or “These data were obtained with help from Paul Jones”.
Honors Thesis General Formatting
8.5 x 11 inch pages with 1 inch margin on left side and sensible page numbering.
The title of each honors thesis should include the following items, centered from side to side and spaced on full page:
Presented to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (or Arts and Sciences),
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the
Biological Sciences Honors Program
[author's name, Note: the author’s name should appear as it does in the university’s official records.]
[date, e.g., May 2024]
[research faculty mentor name]
Note: If you want to include your thesis in Cornell’s digital repository, eCommons, your thesis must meet accessibility standards. Use this guide to learn how to make your thesis accessible. eCommons is a great way to allow other researchers to access your work in addition to future employers, graduate schools, and friends and family.
Research in the Biological and Life Sciences: A Guide for Undergraduate Honors Students
A guide supplied by Mann Library. You will find tips for science citation management (so important!!), data management, and literature searching. See also the "Locating Theses" tab to direct you to published undergraduate honors theses on eCommons, the Cornell University Library public database.
Cornell offers multiple grant programs to support undergraduate research. You can also find funding from external sources, including professional societies. See the OUB’s list of funding opportunities.
Cornell Statistical Consulting Unit (CSCU)
CSCU can help you as you design your experiments and analyze results. Remember, you should know what analyses you will do before actually start the experiment! CSCU offers workshops in statistical methods and software and one-on-one consulting .Check out the workshop options
Cornell’s digital repository, eCommons, allows you to publish your thesis online once it is accepted. This way, your thesis will be freely accessibly and searchable via engines like “Google Scholar.” To publish your thesis in eCommons, you and your faculty mentor will sign a release agreement and submit it to the OUB in person or by email to biohonors [at] cornell.edu (). The OUB will ensure your thesis is published on eCommons! All theses published on eCommons, must meet accessibility standards. Use this guide to learn how to make your thesis accessible. eCommons is a great way to allow other researchers to access your work in addition to future employers, graduate schools, and friends and family. To view examples of honors theses use the following links, eCommons for Arts and Sciences, eCommons for CALS.
- Research in the Biological and Life Sciences: A Guide for Undergraduates
- CU Library Training Workshops
- Mann Library Individual Research Consultations
- Plagiarism and Copyright
- Recognizing and Avoiding Plagiarism
Latin honors, as recorded on the diploma (cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude), is assigned differently for students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and students in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS). In CALS, the level of Latin honors is determined exclusively by the student’s grade point average (GPA). More details on CALS academic honors requirements. If the CALS honors candidate has written an acceptable honors thesis, the further words "with Distinction in Research" are added.
In CAS, Latin honors requires a student to write a thesis. Once the thesis is accepted, the level of honors for CAS candidates is also determined by GPA of the students penultimate semester. In CAS, “distinction in all subjects” is awarded to the graduates who achieve a GPA in the upper 30 percent of their class at the end of the seventh semester or next to last semester for transfers.
Deciding to do an honors thesis a personal decision. An honors thesis is a great way to experience the scientific process and have ownership of a project. However, collection of quality data and preparation of a thesis are time consuming processes that might interfere with your ability to commit time to academics and other activities. Keep in mind that the thesis is due just after spring break when many students are applying for jobs or interviewing. Consider your academic goals and plans for after graduation, then evaluate what is the best use for your time.
The honors thesis should capture the full range of the scientific process, from selecting a research question and designing a study through analysis and presentation of the results. In addition, the honors thesis should represent original research done by the student. Working in a lab for credit or pay might include part or all of this process, but the honors program requires it.
The research must be carried out under the direct supervision of a faculty member on Cornell’s Ithaca campus. If a student plans to do research off campus, it must first be approved by the Honors Committee, and a faculty member on the Ithaca campus must be a co-mentor who is actively engaged in the research. Surrogate mentors, i.e. Cornell Ithaca campus faculty who are mentors in name only and are not directly involved in a student’s research, are not allowed. Contact Dr. Lora Gruber-Hine (lkh24) to discuss further.
Ideally, one goal of an honors thesis is to present results that are publishable in a scientific journal, not necessarily independently but integrated with other work to flesh out the story. However, given the time limits inherent in undergraduate research, this goal in many cases is not achievable. If the results are not publishable, to be acceptable a thesis should describe the design and implementation of the experiments undertaken, the analysis of the data that were obtained, and any future modifications of the design that in principle might lead to publishable results. The initial decision on what comprises a suitable project for an honors thesis is made by the research mentor and the student.
If there is some disagreement or uncertainty in this decision, the mentor and student (together or separately) should consult with the leader of the appropriate honors group. The Honors Committee, comprising all of the honors group leaders, has the final say in whether the thesis is acceptable. The committee relies heavily on the reviews by other faculty to make this decision. The most important factors considered in evaluating the thesis are the quality and rigor of the scientific work, feedback from the thesis mentor, and the thesis presentation itself.
The honors program has no explicit requirements that you study on the Ithaca campus while writing an honors thesis. However, honors theses do require substantial time investments some of which might need to be in the lab. Discuss your plans with your research mentor and together, you can determine whether working on an honors thesis while away from Cornell is a viable option for you.
Many students spend a summer at Cornell working on the honors thesis, but this is not a requirement of the honors program. The nature of research in some labs can require large blocks of time, seasonal data collection, or have other requirements that result in the need to work in the lab over the summer. Consult with your research mentor to determine if research during the summer will be necessary for your project.
There are no consequences for deciding to leave the honors program. We understand that sometimes research takes more time than anticipated, unexpected challenges arise, or your priorities can change. Completing an honors thesis is completely optional and you can leave the program at any time.
Except for the abstract (250 words), there are no length requirements for any part of the thesis. The length of any given section will depend entirely on the content of the specific thesis and the standards for that field of biological sciences. See journal articles in your field to get a sense of how to structure each section of the thesis
If you have further questions about this program, please contact the Office of Undergraduate Biology, at biohonors [at] cornell.edu.