Earn honors while studying biology at Iowa

The Honors Program in Biology offers students who are majoring in biology or biomedical science the opportunity to learn research techniques directly from the faculty and their research groups in the Department of Biology.

These students acquire skills through:

  • Independent research projects
  • One-on-one mentoring by one of the department's scientists
  • Seminar presentations
  • Writing an honors thesis describing their research results

Contact your academic advisor if you are interested!

Requirements and planning

Degree requirements

In order to graduate with Honors in Biology or Honors in Biomedical Sciences, students are required to:

  1. Fulfill the regular requirements for Biology (BA or BS) or Biomedical Sciences degree.
  2. Graduate with a grade-point average of at least 3.33, both overall and in the biology major. The major gpa can be found on your degree audit and includes all biology courses as well as all other course requirements in the major.
  3. Biology majors complete a minimum of 6 semester hours of BIOL:4999 Honors Investigations. Biomedical sciences majors should consult their advisor for course approval.
    • This requirement is intended to be fulfilled over two or more consecutive semesters.
    • One semester hour is generally equivalent to three to five hours per week in the lab in the fall and spring semesters, and six to 10 hours per week in the eight-week summer session.
    • Biology honors students typically perform their honors research in the laboratory of a Department of Biology faculty member. For biomedical sciences students that want to pursue research projects outside the department, the student must submit a prospectus on the research plan to the Director of the Biomedical Science program (Professor Jan Fassler).
  4. Write a brief research proposal (not exceeding five to six double-spaced pages) summarizing the background, goals and significance of the honors research that is to be undertaken.
    • This proposal should be approved by the research supervisor approximately two months after beginning your honors research project.
    • Students who are not ready to write a research proposal within the first semester of research for academic credit should register for BIOL:3994 or volunteer until the semester when ready to prepare the proposal.
  5. Write an honors thesis upon completion of your honors research.
    • This thesis should have the general format of a scientific paper and should be printed double-spaced.
    • The text of the thesis, which does not include the tables, figures or references, will ordinarily range from 15-30 pages.
    • After its approval by your research supervisor, the thesis should be submitted to the Department of Biology to be kept on a secure departmental server no later than the Friday of finals week of the semester in which you intend to graduate (i.e. one full week before commencement).
  6. Give a brief oral presentation of their research findings to other biology honors students as part of a colloquium held at the end of the Spring semester.
  7. Complete one of the following seminars designed to foster science communication skills prior to graduation:
    • BIOL:4898 Communicating Research
    • BIOL:4998 Honors Seminar in Biology
    • An advanced-level biology seminar course approved by your faculty honors research advisor

In addition to satisfying an experiential learning requirement for the major, Honors in Biology will satisfy the experiential requirement for University Honors.

For further information or answers to any questions you may have, consult your advisor.

Deadline for submission of honors research proposal

Your proposal should be approved by your faculty honors research advisor no later than two months after beginning laboratory research. Guidelines for submission deadlines for fall, spring, and summer semesters are Nov. 1, April 1, and Sept. 1, respectively.

Deadline for submission of honors thesis

It is advised that you write and submit your thesis to your honors research faculty advisor the semester in which you intend to complete your honors research project. You should work directly with your honors research faculty advisor to determine specific deadlines for drafts and a final version of your thesis. The final version of your thesis must be submitted to the department by Friday of finals week in the semester in which you intend to graduate.

Biology Honors Colloquium

The Biology Honors Colloquium takes place in the spring semester during the last week of classes. You only need to present your research once at this event to meet the requirements for Honors in the Major. Please inform the Department of Biology (biology@uiowa.edu) by mid-semester of your intention to take part in the colloquium. You will be notified later of the date, time, and location of this event.

Application for graduation with honors in biology or honors in biomedical science

At the start of the semester in which you intend to graduate, confirm with your advisor that you are pursuing honors so you will have an honors in the major box to check on your degree application.

When you begin your honors research, one of your first tasks is to write a research proposal. This proposal, which should be five to six double-spaced pages, should include the following elements:

  • Research background
  • Proposed experimental goals or hypotheses to be tested
  • Overview of experimental approaches to be taken
  • Significance of proposed work to the field
  • Literature citations (not included in the five to six page requirement)

Your proposal should be approved by your honors research faculty advisor no later than two months after beginning your honors research project.

Submission deadlines are:

  • Fall semester: Nov. 1
  • Spring semester: April 1
  • Summer semester: Sept. 1

Upload your final proposal

Thesis sections

Your thesis should have the general format of a scientific paper and should contain the following components in the order indicated below. Each section begins on a new page.

  • Title Page
  • Abstract (400 words or less)
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of contents
  • List of tables (optional, but desirable for lengthy theses)
  • List of figures (optional, but desirable for lengthy theses)
  • Introduction
  • Materials and methods
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Literature cited

A combined results and discussion section is also permissible, but check first with your thesis supervisor to see if they approve of this approach.


Please use Times or Times New Roman with a font size of 12.

Formatting of title page

Use this template (Word/PDF) to format your Title Page.

Page margins for remainder of thesis

All pages, except for the title page and abstract, should have margins (top, bottom, left, and right) of 1.0".

Page spacing

All pages, except for the title page, abstract, and the legends to tables and figures, should be printed double-spaced.

Formatting of table of contents, list of tables, and list of figures

Use this example (Word/PDF) to view correct formatting of these documents, as illustrated by pages from David Brauer's thesis.

Tables and figures

Make sure that you draw the reader's attention to a specific figure or table by inserting a "flag" within the main body of text, e.g. "Castanospermine competitively inhibited amygdalin hydrolysis (Figure 1)". Tables and figures (with relevant legends) should NOT be provided as a collection at the end of the thesis.

Insert figures (along with relevant legends) into the thesis, one table or figure to a page, immediately following first mention of that table/figure in the text. This means that the main thesis text should be taken to the end of the page (leaving no large empty spaces preceeding figure and table pages) and then the figures and tables that are mentioned for the first time on that page of text should each occupy their own page. 

The easiest way to do this is to draft your thesis with the figures and tables in a separate document. Once your research advisor has approved your thesis, go back through and insert the figures and tables into the document. First, read through the main text and highlight the first mention of each figure and/or table. Wait until you get to the bottom of a page and determine how many new figures and tables were mentioned on that page. Next insert each figure or table in the order in which they were mentioned in the preceeding text. Remember that each figure and table should be printed on a separate page.

Page numbering

The title page and abstract should NOT be numbered. The acknowledgements (ii), table of contents (iii), list of tables (optional) (iv), and list of figures (optional) (v) pages should be numbered with Roman numerals (iii, iv, etc). Then, use Arabic numerals for the remainder of the thesis, beginning with the Introduction as page 1. Number the pages centered at the bottom of each page. Check out this documentation for more information on creating section breaks. Alternatively, you can create two separate Microsoft word document files and then combine into one PDF when finished.

Preparation of thesis for submission

  1. Required: Once your faculty mentor has approved your final thesis, obtain their signature on the title page and turn the signed title page in along with an electronic copy of your thesis to the Department of Biology by submitting it here
  2. Optional: If you wish to publish your thesis online, follow these guidelines. Both the student and the faculty thesis advisor must give permission for this intellectual property to be shared and made public at Iowa Research Online (IRO) by using the required submission agreement form. The deadline to submit the required form is always the Wednesday of final examination week at 11:59 p.m.

Submission deadline

Please submit your approved thesis to the Department of Biology no later than the Friday of finals week of the semester in which you intend to graduate.

Frequently asked questions

There are several reasons why this goal may be advantageous to you and your career, including the following:

  • It's a great opportunity to participate in an independent research project in one of the biology department's laboratories guided by a faculty member.
  • The Honors Seminar in Biology (or equivalent seminar) is an ideal opportunity to improve your skills in seminar presentation and scientific writing.
  • Throughout undergraduate residence, you may take advantage of enrollment in honors sections of courses within the college.
  • Irrespective of where you're headed after graduating from the UI (e.g. medical school, graduate school, or elsewhere), your honors degree will make your application more competitive.
  • The ties you establish with your mentor and honors advisor will strengthen your letters of recommendation.

Each semester hour of BIOL:4999 credit you register for is equivalent to three to five hours per week in the lab. Students should expect to spend on average 10 to 12 hours per week in the laboratory working on their research project during the academic year.

You will work with your research advisor to come to an agreement as to how many hours per week you will be required to work in the lab for X hours of research credit. You will also work together to set how those hours fit best into your class schedule for that semester.

Six semester hours of BIOL.4999 will satisfy the experiential learning requirement in the biology major. Talk with your academic advisor if you have questions on how BIOL.4999 counts towards the major.

In addition, Honors in Biology will satisfy the requirements for a University Honors degree.

When you sign up to do an independent research project, you will interview with a biology faculty member who will discuss potential research projects available in the lab. This person will serve as your research advisor and will guide you as you conduct a research project in their laboratory. Oftentimes, you will learn techniques from research assistants, graduate assistants, or post-doctoral researchers in the laboratory. 

Honors Seminar gives you an excellent opportunity to understand scientific methods and concepts in some specific area of biology. Furthermore, you will be able to improve your skills in seminar presentation, reading primary literature, and scientific writing.

The honors seminar is taught in spring semesters by Department of Biology faculty and has a maximum enrollment of 12 per semester. This course is restricted to biology honors students.

The topic of the seminar varies widely from semester to semester, generally correlating with the research interests of the participating professors.

You should take this course as a junior or a senior. Keep in mind that there are many skills learned or developed in this course that will prove invaluable to you, as you work toward your honors degree in biology. These include building upon your foundational knowledge base and moving towards critical analysis of peer-reviewed scientific writing.

If the honors seminar doesn't fit into your schedule, or if the topic of the honors seminar does not interest you, you may fulfill the seminar requirement of the honors degree by taking BIOL.4898 or another two semester hour advanced-level biology seminar course, provided that the latter has both oral and writing components. Please consult your faculty honors research advisor or our biology undergraduate advisor Anna Gaw for further information.

In theory, the research requirement of the biology honors degree (namely, six semester hours of BIOL:4998, Honors Investigations taken over a minimum of two semesters and completion of an approved thesis) may be fulfilled entirely in your senior year. However, this modus operandi leaves little or no chance for you to extend your research opportunity, if you would so desire.

For this reason, it is preferable, but not mandatory, that you start your honors research as a sophomore or a junior. Keep in mind that many research labs will expect you to have completed BIOL:1402 and BIOL:1502 (Foundations of Biology and Diversity of Form and Function) before you start your honors research; some may also require BIOL:2512 (Fundamental Genetics). Please consult your potential faculty honors research advisor for any minimum course requirements.

About three to six months before you wish to begin your honors research, you may explore the faculty research areas and directly contact faculty via email to express interest in their research.

Alternatively, you may contact Dr. Lori Adams by email and set up an appointment to discuss research options. At that meeting, she will give you an overview of research being undertaken in the department and will ask you to review the faculty research areas. You will be requested to provide her with a shortlist of labs that interest you. Based on information provided by her faculty colleagues, she will assist you to reduce your list to two to three labs. It will then be your responsibility to contact the individuals on your shortlist and discuss potential honors projects. 

Biology honors students usually perform their honors research in the laboratory of a Department of Biology faculty member. In cases where the research is performed in a lab outside of the biology department, a Department of Biology faculty member must serve as the supervisor of the project.

As the honors research supervisor, the biology faculty member approves the biology honors proposal, the thesis, and attends the colloquium presentation. The student will register for BIOL:4999 using the section of the biology faculty supervisor.

After being accepted into a lab for honors research, you should discuss the following issues with your thesis supervisor:

  • In which semesters will I undertake my honors research?
  • How many credit hours will I enroll for each semester?
  • How many hours per week am I expected to work in the lab per semester hour credit?

With these issues resolved, sign up for BIOL:4999 Honors Investigations using your thesis supervisor's 'instructor number' as the section number. The latter action is important for two reasons:

  1. It allows your supervisor to receive due credit for guiding your research
  2. It allows the honors advisor to keep track of your progress toward an honors degree.

The appropriate instructor number can be obtained from your thesis supervisor or the Biology Main Office (143 Biology Building).

Certainly, the summer is an excellent time to undertake your honors research, especially since your thesis supervisor may have fewer teaching commitments then. Also, if your research involves field-work, summer may be prime time to gather data.

It is recommended that you begin writing your honors thesis as early as possible. For example, by the end of your first semester of research, you should be able to write an initial draft of the Introduction as well as several sections of the materials and methods.

It is unwise to delay thesis writing until near the end of the second semester of research, because, unless you are gifted in scientific writing, you will probably face several revisions of your thesis, before it is finally approved by your thesis supervisor.

Work with your faculty honors research advisory on a plan for submitting your thesis. All requirements for honors in the major, including the submission of the honors thesis, will be due no later than the last day of finals week of the semester in which you plan to graduate.

The final requirement of the biology honors degree is to give a brief (~12 minutes) oral presentation of your research findings to the department as part of the Biology Honors Colloquium, which takes place in the spring on the Wednesday of the last week of classes.

Please inform the Department of Biology (biology@uiowa.edu) by mid-semester of your intention to take part in the colloquium.

In addition to submitting your application for degree, you must also complete the application for graduation with honors form at the start of the semester in which you intend to graduate.

University of Iowa Honors Program

In addition to honors in the major, students may pursue honors study and activities through membership in the University of Iowa Honors Program. University honors students must maintain a 3.33 grade-point average, complete 12 semester hours of coursework designated as honors courses, and complete 12 semester hours of an experiential learning project. Visit Honors at Iowa to learn about the university's honors program.

NOTE: Membership in the UI Honors Program is not required to earn honors in the major.