BIOL W3500 - Independent Biological Research for College, GS and SEAS Students

For further information about this course, contact:


Professor Ron Prywes

1002 Fairchild

854 8281

Office hours: by appointment



Introduction to the course

BIOL W3500 -Independent study is an opportunity for full-time undergraduates in the College, SEAS and GS interested in laboratory research to share in the work of an ongoing research program in our Department or in a comparable laboratory elsewhere in the region. Projects should address a specific biological problem. Clinical projects are not allowed. While most projects are laboratory-based, computational projects that address specific biological issues are allowed. Projects are approved at the beginning of the course after review of the one page proposal, but Prof. Prywes can be consulted beforehand.

The grade for the work in the course is determined by Prof. Prywes in consultation with the sponsor.  The grade is based on regular attendance in the laboratory, a demonstrable understanding of the underlying question being asked by the research, research findings, and a clear report on the work accomplished.  Further details are below.



            There are two recitations times for the course, Wednesdays at 5:40-6:30 PM and Thursdays at 5: 40-6:30 PM, each for 50-80 minutes. You must sign up for one of these times and be present at most sessions (details will be announced during the course). These sessions will be used primarily for student presentations. The recitations will start in October in the Fall semester (March in the Spring semester) as announced during the course. Anyone who cannot make the recitations due to unavoidable course conflicts should meet with Prof. Prywes for alternative meeting times and assignments.



A.     Finding a research sponsor


The first step towards doing independent study research is finding a sponsor who will supervise your work. You must take the initiative to find a sponsor by contacting faculty who do research you are interested in. Any faculty member doing laboratory-based research in biological and biomedical sciences is an eligible sponsor; however mentors that are not on the approved list require departmental approval before registration is considered final. There are many excellent mentors not on the list; we would just like to make sure that the projects are appropriate for this course. Most sponsors are at Columbia’s Morningside Heights or Health Sciences Campuses, however, sponsors in the New York area outside Columbia are also allowed. Some research projects are not allowed if they are not sufficiently related to the type of laboratory-based biological science performed in the department. Examples of disallowed work are clinical studies, reading of patient data and surveys of human behavior. Therefore, if there is any question, it is good to get approval from Prof. Prywes as early as possible. Note that sponsors approved for SURF are not all eligible for W3500 as SURF is a broader program.

You can find a spot in a lab as late as the first week of the semester, but you'll have the best chance at getting into a lab of your choice if you start looking during the previous semester. Some further suggestions are given on the page "How you can do biological research."

B. How to register (4 steps)

You must complete the following steps to register for W3500. Note that you have to register with the Registrar, as for any other class, AND you have to register with the Department, which requires completion of ALL FOUR STUDENT'S TASKS, listed below, in a timely manner.

1                 University registration.Register for W3500 with the Registrar. Students register for 3 or 4 credits. A general rule is a minimum of 4 hours lab time/week/credit, i.e. register for 3 credits for 12 hours of lab time/week and 4 credits for 16 or more.


2          Departmental registration.
Fill out the on-line registration form. Due Date: As early as possible during the registration period, but definitely no later than one week from start of classes. (Tuesday, Sept 15, for fall term 2015; Tuesday, Jan 26, for spring term 2016). No late registration will be accepted.


3          One Page Proposal.After consulting with your sponsor about the project that you will work on, you should write a one-page proposal in clear prose describing the planned work, and submit the proposal through Courseworks/Assignments.  Do not copy your sponsor’s grant application or research papers; we want your own words.


A.     If you chose a mentor on the approved list or if you have been approved for W3500 in a previous semester, your proposal is due by Friday of the second week of classes (Sept. 18 for Fall 2015; Jan. 29 for Spring 2016). You should receive an email either approving your project, or requesting additional information, within a week to 10 days after submitting your proposal. No late proposals will be accepted.


B.   If you chose a mentor who is NOT on the approved list, your proposal is due by noon on Friday of the first week of classes (Sept. 11 for Fall 2015; Jan. 22 for Spring 2016). There will be no extensions or exceptions. You should receive an email either approving your project, or requesting additional information, early the next week. Your registration for the course is considered tentative until your project is approved. If your project is not approved, you may still work in the lab as a volunteer, but you will not receive course credit for your work. 


4          Sponsor’s Approval Letter.  Make sure your sponsor has sent an approval letter (see below) by the deadline for departmental registration (Tuesday, Sept. 15, for fall term 2015; Tuesday, Jan. 26, for spring term 2016).


B.               Sponsor's Approval Letter 


Ask your sponsor to write a letter by email, 1) confirming that s/he will supervise your work in their lab, 2)) describing in a brief paragraph the work you will be doing, and 3) that they understand that they are taking on the responsibility of mentoring you and that they will provide a grade for your final paper during finals period. This letter should be sent to Prof. Prywes at The deadline is the same as for on-line registration (Tuesday, Sept. 15, for fall term 2015; Tuesday, Jan. 26, for spring term 2016). Note that the sponsor must be a faculty member, not a postdoctoral fellow or research associate, though a lab member may be designated for day-to-day supervision during the semester. 


C.               Course Requirement: Progress Report.


About 6 weeks into the semester, you must turn in a one-page progress report, describing your work thus far. Most students will not have research results at this point, but the progress report must provide an indication that your project is proceeding in the context of your own understanding of the underlying issues and hypotheses being tested. This report should be submitted online through Courseworks/Assignments by the following deadlines: Fall semester: Thursday, October 22; Spring semester: Thursday, March 5. 


E.         Final Paper. 

Near the end of the term, you are required to write a paper -- in the style of a scientific research article -- at a level understandable to a scientist who is working in a different area of biology. Page limits (6 pages single spaced) and guidelines will be provided during the semester. Do not copy or paraphrase your mentor's grants or papers. Assistance with the writing of your first scientific paper can be found on the page Writing a scientific research article.   Students may in addition review Professor David Helfand’s book “Habits,” from their Core science course Frontiers of Science for guidance. The paper must be submitted online through Courseworks/Assignments by the last day of the reading period, i.e., before the first day of finals- Fall 2014 semester deadline: Dec 16; Spring 2015 semester deadline: May 5. You should also submit a final copy to your lab head. You should plan to write a first draft of the paper, submit it to your mentor for comments a week before the deadline, and then revise the paper accordingly, before the deadline. Students who register Pass/Fail are required to follow all the above steps, except that a one-page summary of research will be accepted in lieu of the research paper, for the grade of P, with the sponsor’s agreement. Failure to submit that paper by the deadline will lead to the assignment of an F. 


F.         Sponsor's Grade.  Your sponsor submits a grade for the semester, based on your laboratory work and your research paper.


After reading your paper, your sponsor should submit a grade to Dr. Prywes ( The deadline for receiving this grade is the last day of finals (Fall semester 2015: Dec 23; Spring semester 2016: May 13). 


The grades for this course are not curved.  Students are expected to do credible work, but not necessarily to have solved a major problem.  To maintain a rough parity of grade from lab to lab, we ask mentors to hold to the following guidelines:


The student who gains both experience and acceptance as an articulate and productive member of a lab team, should receive a grade in the A range [A-, A, or RARELY, A+].  An A+ is rarely given and is typically reserved for the best student in a large lab in the last ten years. A grade of A+ requires a detailed explanation to Prof. Prywes as to the reasons for this extraordinary accomplishment.


The student who has a routine, uneventful lab experience should receive a grade in the B range [B-, B or B+].


The student who is episodically unreliable or lazy should receive a grade in the C range [C-, C, or C+].


A student tracking worse than that, should be brought to the attention of Prof. Prywes by the mentor early enough to avoid a disaster [a D or an F]. Note that not every student should expect to earn an A or A-.

Additional grading guidelines will be sent to the sponsors.


G.        Board of Undergraduate Research Advisors.

            Each student will be assigned an advisor from our Board of Undergraduate Research Advisors comprised of faculty from across the university. The student will meet with this advisor at least once during the semester and this advisor will read and grade the final paper.


H.         Final Grade. 

Prof. Prywes will assign your final grade, based on your progress report, the review of your paper by a member of the Board of Undergraduate Research Advisors, and your sponsor's recommendation. Important: you must have submitted all the information required ON TIME in order to receive a full grade.


I.          Lab safety. Research laboratories contain equipment and chemicals that can be dangerous if used improperly. If you are working with radiation or animals, you will be required to complete specific training by the university. You should take seriously the risks involved in laboratory research and make yourself aware of proper laboratory procedures. It's a good idea to read through one of the on-line manuals of laboratory safety that may be found on the Laboratory Safety page at the SURF site. 


J.                 Academic Credit for W3500 for Biology Majors:
Biology majors may earn up to 2 semesters of lab credit toward the requirements for the biology major. W3500 cannot be used to fulfill an elective requirement. Although additional semesters of W3500 do not count towards the biology major, additional terms of W3500 can be taken and count towards the 124 points needed for graduation. Students who carry out summer research elsewhere (not SURF-Columbia) may not combine that with one semester of W3500 to fulfill the laboratory requirement.


K.         Salaried work is not allowed. Note that one cannot receive academic credit for salaried lab work, nor for unpaid work that was done before you registered for W3500.