A Biology Dissertation Proposal

One of the compulsory modules in third year on any biological sciences undergraduate degree is the dissertation. This module is worth twice the amount of a single third-year module – and with third-year being weighed more than second, this amounts to a hefty percentage overall!

Perhaps some books from the new library in The Catalyst will help with your references!

The first part of the dissertation that is currently due in late June is the proposal. Worth 15% of the overall dissertation grade, this piece of work is focused on designing a scientific project that suitably addresses an identified knowledge gap within a field, whether it be ecology, human biology, or microbiology. The proposal for the biology dissertations is very similar to the proposal made for the research projects in the second year module Research Methods.

Part A of the proposal is an overview including context – does this project build on previous works; why is it important; how does it fit into our current understanding? Included in this section must be the project aims and a list of references used in Part A. It’s very similar to an introduction of a scientific paper, which starts out broad then narrows its focus until it is focused on a concise issue.

The Gantt chart I used in my second-year Research Methods proposal

The following part of the dissertation proposal, Part B, is all about the implementation of the project. This includes a clear indication of the research questions being asked; the methodology; timescale; and data analysis. Things to think about for the methodology include the basic experimental design – what kind of sampling and measurements are being taken, how many replicates, etc – sampling strategy, and sites. The timescale is an obvious one, but it might be an idea to include a Gantt chart to illustrate this clearly. Data analysis and management cover the statistical tests that will feature in the project and the tables used to record the data. This section should also feature difficulties that might be faced along the way, for example, the problems I think I might face are identifying sampling sites with my target organism and learning new programs related to genetic analysis.

 

The final parts, D and E, are all about health, safety, and ethics. As well as completing these parts in the proposal, it’s vital that the separate ethics form is filled in to be assessed by the Biology Department Research Ethics Committee (BDREC)! Other additional forms that need to be attached to the proposal are, for example, an equipment list, lone working, and risk assessment.

There are a fair few documents that need submitting, but they’re all important and make sure you’re ready to really begin work on this big project. You need to be prepared for a module that makes up a third of your final year grade after all!

Biosciences Cyprus Residential

About 8 weeks into my first year at university, then studying straight biology and not genetics, the year-group attended a week long residential in Cyprus. This was part of the module ‘Biology In Practice’ and included two assessed oral presentations. Although first year didn’t count towards my final degree mark, it was a vital time to adjust to university life and the type of work and assessments that we would face in the years to come.

We stayed in the village of Kritou Terra, in the Paphos province, and actually visited Paphos (which has been named one of the European Capitals of Culture 2017) during one of the days – we had free reign to explore the ruins, seafront, restaurants and shops. I also took this time to flex my novice photography muscles.

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We explored various aspects of the island’s ecology during the trip, primarily the variation between Cistus plants; as well as fire ecology – how forest fires influence the species composition of forests during years after a burn; invertebrate diversity (and how to use a key to identify them); and reptiles – particularly their thermoregulatory behaviour. The work we completed in assigned groups at Akamas Peninsula National Park on the Cistus genus was the topic of our first presentation and was our first rough look at what a scientific report should be composed of (we’d get a more detailed look later on in the module back home). The specific aspect of Cistus variation was also assigned to us.

After experiencing these topics, we then had the opportunity to choose our own groups and work on whichever topic we wished. This would be the subject of our second presentation, to be presented at the end of the trip. The group I was part of chose to head back to the mountainous slopes of Akamas Peninsula National Park and test the variation of Cistus some more.

Spending a week abroad, so soon after moving to uni and with a whole host of new people, was certainly daunting. But it was incredible. Not only did the experience give me insight into the years ahead, but what I think was more valuable was getting to know my coursemates (and lecturers). Working with them really helped cement friendships and put everyone at ease in the lab back in the UK. Overall, it was a wonderful trip; there was plenty of partying working, but that didn’t stop us having a great time.

(End note: Do not go out to social the night before the trip. You’re gonna have a bad time on the flight.)

ERASMUS+ Procedure and My Experience So Far

As I’ve mentioned before, the biosciences department currently have links to a few other universities in Europe with which the ERASMUS+ program is available. They exist in Sweden, Cyprus as well as potentially Germany. I have so far completed my first week of placement at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Umeå, with a fellow coursemate.

There was a fairly substantial interest in the program across my year group, so after applications were processed, interviews were held. The Erasmus Program Leader from the department, as well as the International Office, were both present to ask a few questions. After that, if you are selected, it’s a matter of waiting and filling in the relevant paperwork when the time comes. Make sure you fill this in as quickly as possible! The sooner you do this, the sooner you get approval to book flights and finalise accommodation. Which is an issue if you are staying in Umeå.

SLU, Umeå, Sweden,

Housing is hard to come by in Umeå, and can be expensive. The two options that might be best are either: staying in a current researcher’s residence with them or in their place if they are away during the summer; or staying in a student’s accommodation after they have moved out for the summer. For our Erasmus placement this year, we’ve had to stay in a hostel for a week, although will be staying in a current researcher’s apartment while they are away for the rest of the summer.

Despite the hostel, it’s been a good first week – I’ve got to know the city as well as fellow colleagues and have even managed to go clubbing and meet some new people here! If you’re so inclined, I’d recommend the pub/restaurant Droskan and the Take Queer event. Also if you are around for the end of semester, the festival Brännbollsyran which hosts music and a rounders-like tournament should be something you look into before going. Now that the introductory week is over, we’re off up to Gällivare to get stuck in with some real hands-on research!


If you want to stay updated with my adventures in Sweden with SLU, then you can check out my blog dedicated to it.

Employability in Biology

The biological sciences degrees at Edge Hill University – Biology, Ecology & Conservation, Genetics, Human Biology and Biotechnology (and soon to include Plant Science and Food Science) – offer a number of ways to increase your employability. Within your modules, many aspects enhance skills that will no doubt increase your employability – there are additional opportunities however that will further your employability by showing determination and experience.

Within Modules

Undoubtedly, all modules enhance your employability by virtue of their contents, however, some give you more experience than others, and some are designed specifically to increase your employability. For example: Laboratory Masterclass is a module that develops your lab skills through experiments; Research Methods, as you would suspect, develops your research skills, from experimental planning to statistical analysis – all enhancing your employability via experience.

Placement Module

During second year, you have the option to choose a placement module, and undertake work alongside your studies. It goes unsaid how this enhances your employability – real life experience is invaluable when it comes to employment. With Edge Hill having numerous links, there are options to what field of work you wish to do a placement in, although sourcing the work for yourselves is also highly encouraged.

ERASMUS+

ERASMUS+ is a European placement program for students that funds them to work abroad. The current Erasmus programs at EHU for biosciences take place across the summer between second and third year, lasting a minimum of 6 weeks. I myself am taking part in an Erasmus placement, with a coursemate, in Sweden – specifically at SLU in Umeå. The other current option is work in Cyprus (a country most Edge Hill biologists will be familiar with thanks to the first year residential field trip) with more options hopefully being available in the future.

Sandwich Years

The option also exists to take place in a sandwich year – spending a year at a foreign university or on a work placement. Studying abroad shows a great deal of adaptivity and resilience, each boosting your employability. Working for a year in between your studies is also good experience and may even give you some inspiration for your dissertation the following year.

Biology – Second Year Decisions

With the summer term of second year approaching, many people have had to decide on a number of future ventures – third year modules, dissertation topics, and perhaps summer placements. So, in chronological order I present to you – the recent decisions of biosciences students.

Erasmus

Although not a particularly​ recent event, it does pertain to the summer activities of the biology students and affects their summer plan. Back in term one, details of the ERASMUS+ program were announced and applications were accepted. The ERASMUS+ program is a europe-wide student exchange of sorts. In the case of the biology department, there are two institutes that currently offer summer placements for students: The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), and The Cyprus University of Technology (CUT). I have been lucky enough to be offered a placement at SLU, where the department that our own biology department is currently in contact with is the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Environmental Studies. The kind of activities that occur during placements here consist of bird, fish, invert, forest, and fire ecology, as well as research into genetically modified trees. Since I am to be abroad during the summer, I cannot be present at our very own Edge Hill University (EHU) to take part in the internships hosted closer to home.

Internships

A more recent decision to be made regarding the summer break is whether or not you would like to work an internship. Currently, the university offers​ a number of summer internships for students to assist in research with the lecturers. Since I was already due to be away over summer, I have experienced this process as a third-party of sorts as my fellow students have applied. Numerous topics are available with various lecturers, for instance: microbial genetics, extremophile microbial genetics, vector biology, dermatogenetics, conservation, and forest ecology. After the long summer, students will head back as third years and begin their new modules.

Module Choices

Third year, currently weighted slightly more than second year, will consist of new modules to those studied in the second year. A full list of modules (and who came take them depending on course) can be found on the relevant course pages in the biology section of the EHU websiteSome modules may be available to choose in second or third year, which is a wonderful idea, as it allows further customisation of your course – allowing you to choose a full range of modules relevant to your degree focus. Of course, the big one – the dissertation module, is a module you must choose for third year.

Dissertation

With a wide range of courses and lecturers, comes a wide range of topics for dissertations. As tutors are limited to a select number of students per individual, they are allocated as fairly as possible to the topics you have expressed interest in. Since deciding on your dissertation topic may seem like a herculean task when presented with so many options, help had been provided in the form of suggested topics and questions, and the option to begin research in the summer. So far, the department have been very helpful in assisting in our decision – with lecturers coming to pitch their topics and inspire us.

Biological Research Week

In my second year of BSc Genetics (but also in other biological sciences degrees such as biology, human biology, ecology and conservation, biotechnology) during the core module of research methods, research week occurred. The largest assessed portion of research methods is centered around this week of research – specifically the proposal and poster part of the week, but we’ll get to them.

Research week starts before it actually begins. Once a partner has been found, someone you’re willing to potentially spend a lot of time with and definitely spend a lot of time working with, you must decide upon your topic of research. Since the project is only meant to span a week, it’s not going to be groundbreaking research. Hopefully, you and your partner have similar academic interests, or one of you is going to be more interested in the project than the other. Thankfully, our lecturers are not short of ideas for research if you’re struggling to pin down a research question that’ll fit your timeframe. Since myself and my partner are interested in ecology, we ended up doing a project on morphometrics – “the quantitative measurement of the form especially of living systems or their parts.” Specifically, we measured morphometric variation across urban populations. Other groups studied the calorific content of food, micromineral production of microbes, and squirrel behaviour, to name a few.

The first assessed section of research week is the proposal (no, not the 2009 People’s Choice Award rom-com nominee). The proposal is a document you must submit before your research begins, detailing your topic and research question, ethical considerations, health & safety, as well as any requirements such as lab time, transport, or equipment. Also to be included is a timescale, which can be neatly presented in a Gantt chart.

The actual research portion of my project went fairly well. At times the sheer amount of work ahead of us was pretty daunting – particularly in actually finding the species of plant we were sampling – but in the end, everything worked out fine. There’s something oddly satisfying about measuring the various aspects of a leaf’s shape… eighty times…

If there’s anything I garnered from the week, it’s that things never go according to plan. Because of the mild winter, our initial species wasn’t flowering during the week of our research, forcing us to rethink our topic and ultimately change species. Also, when analysing our data, we also found that our hypothesis was actually the complete opposite of what we found to be the truth. This wasn’t a problem, however, as the prime goal of research week is to get you accustomed to proper scientific technique and give you the experience of completing your own research.

Another key learning point of research week was the conference experience – producing your own poster from your research and presenting it amongst your peers. If you have a passion for graphic design, then you will enjoy formatting your poster in the most efficient and aesthetically pleasing way – I certainly enjoyed the challenge of organising our research to highlight the key points and figures in the best way I could.

 

First Year Biology Modules

Although it seems like an eon ago, it was only last year that I was a first year. Back then, I was undertaking BSc Biology rather than BSc Genetics. I thought I wanted to keep my options open and get a degree in straight biology, but after getting a feel for the course and seeing what modules were available to me for second and third year, I opted to specialise.

Currently, the Biology department run a common first year – meaning that no matter what branch of biology your degree is in, you will be doing the same stuff in first year as everyone else. This was very helpful for me, as it gave me the time I needed to test the waters and decide upon my specialisation.

Ecology in my first year involved a lot of plant-based fieldwork, we visited Limestone pavements and Ruff wood to take quadrat readings and other observations such as with invertebrates. The assessments for this module for me were a data retrieval exam, and an assignment to produce a dichotomous key for the woody species of Ruff wood – which has been one of my favourite assignments so far.

Biodiversity was probably my favourite year one module, getting to learn about the wide range of organisms on the planet, and how they’re classified in taxonomy. From animals we’re widely aware of, like chordates such as birds, fish and mammals, to ones you may know less about, like cnidarians like jellyfish and corals. Also covered was the complex evolutionary history of plants, the origin of life itself, and the diversity of fungus. This modules was assessed by form of examination and presentation.

Biology in Practice was the module that hosted the trip to Cyprus which featured many fieldwork activities. All this fieldwork ended with two presentations that gave a good insight to the kind of presentations I’ve been doing in second year and will do in third year. The whole trip was incredible, and deserves a blog post of its own. Another aspect of this module was the idea of self-evaluation, as we had to write a reflective report on our time studying in first year. As well as this, we completed our first scientific report.

Cellular Form and Function was tested by means of a laboratory practical (in my case, a fluorescent gene transfer) and examination. This module focuses on the processes that occur within cells that make life possible, as well as the factors that can effect the biology of cells, and laboratory techniques used surrounding them.

Human Body Systems focuses on developing your knowledge of the structure and function of the human body and builds your understanding of the inter-relationship between the systems of the body in the context of human health and disease.” – EHU

This module’s examinations were of the open book/data retrieval kind, and also a regular closed book kind. This was the second ever data retrieval exam I had attempted and I was glad for it – it helped me improve how I handled these exams. Although not a human biologist myself, this module was certainly interesting in that it covered such a broad range of aspects of the human body and really gave a good insight into how our bodies systems come together to work and protect us from disease.

Variation, Evolution and Heredity‘s title is pretty self explanatory – we studied how variation in organisms comes to be, and how this is passed to further generations. For the assessment of this module – we wrote an essay on Darwin’s The Origin of Species, but were also tested in a regular examination also.

Overall, first year was a beneficial experience, helping me learn about the type of study I would undertake in my following year, as well as giving an insight into the topics I would study too. Of course first year (especially the cyprus trip) certainly also helped the whole year group to bond and become more familiar with one another.

Biological Applicant Day

From February to April 1st, applicant days are occurring here at EHU and you may be wondering what it’s like and how it will benefit you. Since Edge Hill University is so far away from my hometown, I could only make it to an Open Day, and not the applicant day (plus, I was already certain Edge Hill was to be my firm choice). However, I had the opportunity to work on the recent Applicant Day, both for the Money Advice Team, and the Biology Department.

First up in the day was a talk by the Money Advice Team. This covered specifically the loans, grants, and budgeting involved with university. Personally, I spoke in the presentation about budgeting at university from a student perspective, but more information was given by another team member on the intricacies of the loan system and also how the university delivers its scholarships.

After the morning finance talk, we moved onto the biological section of the day. This portion was for prospective students only (bar the department tours) and took place in the biosciences building. It started with Paul Ashton, the department head, giving an introductory talk about the biology department, its research, and staff. Whilst prospective students go off to this section of the day, parents and caregivers can attend a talk aimed specifically at them, providing more details on finance, UCAS, and accommodation.

After this, the students were split into three, based on the type of degree they have applied for. The university currently offers five undergraduate biological science degrees: BSc Biology, BSc Ecology & Conservation, BSc Human Biology, BSc Genetics, BSc Biotechnology. Those who chose either Genetics or Biotechnology did a genetics based practical, those who chose Ecology & Conservation an ecological practical, and those who chose Human Biology a human based practical. For anyone who chose straight Biology, they could pick which they preferred.

Despite my degree being in Genetics, I also have an ecological focus, so assisted another current student in supervising the prospective ecologists along with Anne Oxbrough, Reader in Ecology. After a presentation detailing the degree a bit more, and what modules and trips were available, the practical began. The ecological practical was centred around invertebrate identification, using microscopes and keys to identify specimens down to the class, if not the order.

Once the practical was over, building tours were given to anyone interested in viewing the department’s facilities, including a demonstration of the scanning electron microscope (SEM) and insectary. Also, the new Tech Hub’s top floor was available to be toured, showing the new labs that might be used primarily for biotechnology in the coming years.


On a separate note, current students may have noticed the flags up in the Hub – this is because it is Edge Hill’s first ever Pride week! Events still to come are: pride social tonight; a trans-exclusive sexual health workshop on Thursday; and a pride march around the campus on Friday, along with the showing of Rent in the Arts Centre for Free Film (and food) Friday.

nice one edge hill 👌 #prideweek

A photo posted by james 🌙 (@clokkerfoot) on Feb 6, 2017 at 1:32pm PST

Biology Lecture Structure

When I was deciding on my degree, I pretty much knew I wanted to do one in biological sciences (where I wanted to study on the other hand was something that took me a while to figure out). One thing I didn’t know until I actually started classes, was how they would be run, and what structure they would have.

So during my first and second year studying Biology at Edge Hill, all my classes have had the same overlying structure – a roughly four hour long session with a half hour break in the middle. Most of theses sessions have been lectures, so that’s what we call them. But they aren’t just one lecturer standing and speaking at you for three and a half hours straight, there is interaction, there are questions and answers and activities.

Probably around two thirds of the lectures were a typical “lecture,” with it mainly being note-taking, PowerPoints and small discussion. The remaining lectures were comprised of other activities and lab & fieldwork – which were scheduled in the same time slot for my sessions. The practicals didn’t have a separate name and time slot on my timetable, neither did field trips, also I’ve never had a seminar during my time here.

Lab work may be scheduled around the typical four hour (including a break – usually coinciding with the Hub breakfast), but fieldwork cannot be chained down to such timeframes. Transporting all the students to and from a particular area, whilst having enough time to actually carry out some work takes time – these trips were usually scheduled over the course of the whole day, from around 9am to sometime around afternoon/evening. Unless we were going across the road to Ruff Wood, that is the length of time we would spend on fieldwork. A good thing about spending the whole day on fieldwork and traveling, is that sometimes we managed to stop somewhere along the journey for food, or to enjoy the view, as some of the places we managed to go last year were quite remote.

For more information on the Department of Biology, from students’ perspective, look through the Biology category on the Inside Edge blog, or the uni’s biology page on their website.