Graduate Program in Biological Sciences

An example of a Graduate Student Research Proposal in the Department of Biological Sciences Cluster of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Research Topic: Students' Explanations of Graph Construction in Biological Sciences

How do novice biology undergraduate students, graduate students, and expert faculty differ in reasoning used for graph evaluation, construction, and understanding?

An example of graduate student research in the Department of Biological Sciences for a student in the Disease and Development Cluster doing a dissertation on biology education.

Research Topic: Assessing Student Difficulties with Experimental Design in Biology

How well do published assessments reveal students’ difficulties with biological experiments? How can we use current research as a context for a valid and reliable probe that is designed to show how students think about experimental research?

This biology education research project is focused on the role assessment plays in monitoring teaching practices that improve student learning about experimental design in classrooms. A key focus is to look into alignment and the tight connection between course learning outcomes, instructional strategies, and assessment of how students think about experimental design. 

Department and Program 

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology is a cluster within the department of Biological Sciences. The Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Cluster (EEB) is a dynamic and cohesive research and teaching community with interests spanning ecology, evolution, organismal biology, conservation, and integrating fields across the diversity of life sciences with biology education. Focal research areas include Evolutionary Ecology, Physiology and Behavior, Biology Learning Research, and Applied Ecology and Conservation Biology. Many faculty members belong to multiple focus areas, and most areas include faculty from other departments due to the breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research. (Source)

How to apply 

How to demonstrate discipline-specific competence

Select a topic in Ecology, Evolution, or Behavior and write a review based on the guidelines provided by the Trends in Ecology and Evolution Journal (TREE). You must also register for two seminar classes: Advanced Ecology Discussion (Fall semester) and Advanced Evolution Discussion (Spring) and get at least a B in both classes. In the spring, you must give an oral presentation (worth 30 points) and submit a review article (worth 70 points). You must earn at least 80 points out of 100 points in order to pass your qualifying exam.  An example of a Qualifer Research Project would be something like, "The evolution of the avian wing in migratory birds of prey and its influence on conservation modalities." 

Although Biology Learning Research (BLR) is within the Ecology and Evolutionary biology cluster (EEB), students with knowledge in domains outside of evolution can focus their research on a biology education project.

The Development and Disease Cluster is focused on revealing the molecular bases of both normal and abnormal cell and tissue biology. Focus areas include cancer, microbial pathogenesis, neuroscience, development and stem cells, plant biology and bioenergetics. Experimental approaches in physiology, cell biology, molecular biology, genetics and advanced cell imaging are interleaved throughout these major focus areas. Many model systems inform our research endeavors: mice and other mammals, zebrafish, avian embryos, Drosophila, Aplysia, yeast, Arabodopsis, maize and a variety of bacterial and viral pathogens.

Just like other graduate students doing wet-lab research, students who do education research in this area pass a content-based qualifying exam in the first year. The qualifier is a week long exam with 7 written questions from 7 faculty. Throughout the preceding months, students prepare for the exam by reading select papers on the 7 topics to prepare for the exam.

How to demonstrate independent research competence

Come up with a novel project idea in Biology Education Research and present it to your committee. (Preliminary/Original Proposal)

Lab Rotations. Graduate students rotate through as many as four labs. Each rotation lasts about 6 weeks. During laboratory rotations, the students are exposed to methods, equipment, and experimental procedures currently inused in wet lab, theoretical, or education research laboratories.

Selection of Research Director. Graduate students submit their preference for a research director. The research director-graduate student relationship must be mutually acceptable.

Preliminary Examination and Research Conferences. After forming their Advisory Committee, graduate students take their preliminary examination.

Advisory Committee and Plan of Study. Graduate students select an Advisory Committee that consists of their research director, two additional members from within the Purdue Department of Biological Sciences and one member from a Purdue Department other than Biological Sciences (including facultyin the Chemistry Education or Science Ed programs). The Advisory Committee acts as the Examining Committee.

The exam is based on a proposed research project. Biology education research is an option. The student must come up with a novel project idea in Biology Education Research and present it to the committee. The student outlines the objectives of the proposed research and explains how the objectives would be met. After passing the preliminary examination, the student meets at least annually with the Advisory Committee.

Thesis and Final Examination. After the student has written their thesis, they defend it to the Examining Committee. This examination consists of a public seminar, during which the candidate summarizes his or her thesis research, followed by an oral defense of the research that is attended only by the Examining Committee members.

A student can complete the MS degree with at least 21 course credits plus 9 research credits from lab rotations for a minimum of 30 credits.

The Advisory Committee may approve a maximum of twelve (12) credit hours earned in appropriate coursework from another university toward an advanced degree at Purdue.

Suggested Course Work

After forming their Advisory Committee, graduate students submit an Electronic Plan of Study. On average most Ph.D. students take 24 course credits. The student and all Advisory Committee members agree to and sign the Plan of Study. A typical Plan of Study for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology could look like this:

9 credits of BIOL 699 ­ three 6-week Research Rotations

BIOL 652 - Advanced Ecology Discussion
BIOL 653 - Advanced Evolution Discussion
BIOL 662 - Professional Seminar I and II
EDCI 517 - Survey of Science Education
EDCI 518 - The Nature of Science and Teaching Science
BIOL 595 - Ecological Statistics
BIOL 524 - Teaching Evolution: Online Course
BIOL 624 - Human Learning and Memory

A typical Plan of Study for Disease and Development could look like this:

9 credits of BIOL 699 ­ three 6-week Research Rotations

BIOL 662/663 - Professional Seminar I and II
EDCI 517 - Survey of Science Education
EDCI 518 - The Nature of Science and Teaching Science
BIOL 624 - Human Learning and Memory
BIOL 524 - Teaching Evolution
BIOL 595 - Advanced Cell Biology

Research Advisor 

Dr. Nancy Pelaez (a temporary advisor is assigned the first year until the student and faculty agree on a placement)

Chair of the Qualifier Examining Committee

Dr. Stephanie Gardner (in addition to the Research Advisor, each student is assigned a chair for the Examining Committee)

Graduate Funding Support and Opportunities

Experience as a teaching assistant can provide funding as well as help you provide professional development practice for aspiring future higher education faculty members. Classroom teaching can also inform your research goals focused on biology education practices. 

- Half-time Teaching Assistantship (20 hours per week) for full support (up to 7 years of tuition support)
- NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (3 years of support; $30,000 per year, and a tuition stipend)
- Research Assistantship such as Diagnostic Questions Clusters Project evaluation or a position to provide support for a Faculty Learning Community