Undergraduate Research


The Biology Department is home to a thriving program in undergraduate research. This program provides diverse opportunities for students to conduct scholarly research in the laboratory and field in close collaboration with a faculty mentor. In fact, a major portion of the research carried out in the department is done or aided by undergraduates. This opportunity to mentor undergraduate students in research is one of the reasons that many biology faculty chose to come to the College of Charleston.

See also, below: 

Why should I do research as an undergraduate?

Becoming involved in a research laboratory can be one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of your education. The potential long-term rewards are many: 

  • establishing a professional relationship with a faculty member 
  • gaining insight into the process of doing science 
  • participating in the generation of new knowledge 
  • learning about a field of interest in greater depth 
  • learning about the culture of academic research 
  • setting and reaching individual goals 
  • experiencing scientific collaboration as part of a research team 
  • participating in the publication of a scientific article 
  • creating a tangible record of achievement to support your applications for employment or further education

Are there any immediate rewards?

In addition to the benefits described above, in many cases students can enroll for course credit (see requirements for Biol 450/451) and in some cases, a stipend may be available. But even if you “volunteer” in a lab (see the “0 credit” option, Biol 397), the long-term benefits can exceed any short-term rewards many times over. 

What kinds of students participate?

Students include research experience in their undergraduate studies for several reasons. Some students are headed to professional or graduate schools, which tend to favor applicants that have demonstrated the interest and motivation to do research. Some have come to appreciate that science is a way of knowing as well as a body of knowledge, and want to experience the process of gaining knowledge first hand. Some are unsure of what to do after college, and want to see if a career or job involving research is a good fit. All of these and others are valid reasons for approaching a faculty member about doing research in his or her lab. 

What is the time commitment?

Research experience in a laboratory can range from providing occasional help to carrying out an intensive, independent research project. Such projects are usually developed in collaboration with a faculty or graduate student mentor--that is, you do not need to come with a research idea in order to do independent research. Many students start as assistants and work their way up to independent research. The time you would spend in the lab each week would depend on the depth of your involvement, as well as the number of hours for which you are receiving course credit (normally a minimum of 3-4 hours per week for every hour of credit). Research experiences can last for one to multiple semesters, again depending on the depth of interest and motivation. 

When do students normally carry out research?

You can become involved in research during academic semesters as well as during the summer. In fact, many labs are especially active in summer months. Many opportunities exist at the college, while some mentors provide opportunities for students to travel with them to distant field stations. In terms of the timing during your undergraduate years, some students get involved early, though many feel better prepared to make a choice of research area and to understand the literature after some course preparation. 

What do faculty get out of it?
 Many of our faculty were drawn to the Biology Department in part for the “teacher-scholar” model it promotes. In this model, faculty view their teaching and research as interrelated and equally important contributions to their fields. An important cornerstone of this model is the mentoring relationships that faculty can form with undergraduates while guiding them in research. In addition, students help to generate, analyze, and write about data that go into scientific publications produced by the lab. In these essential ways, students contribute to the productivity and career development of the faculty they work with. 

Do faculty advertise opportunities in their laboratories?

Sometimes. Faculty may announce opportunities in their classes or post fliers in hallways. But in many cases, faculty are eager to take on motivated students who seek them out even if they have not advertised a specific opportunity. It is up to you to contact faculty whose work interests you (see How do I get started? below). 

How would the expenses for my research be paid?

Funds are sometimes available for research expenses and stipends through grants awarded to a specific laboratory through CofC or external sources. In addition, students with well-defined projects—worked out in consultation with a faculty mentor—can apply for special awards from the College, including Major Academic Year Support (MAYS) and Summer Undergraduate Research Funding (SURF) awards. These awards are competitive and require the submission of a research proposal written by the student and mentor. They not only pay a stipend and expenses for carrying out the research, but are also in themselves a valuable form of recognition when applying for jobs or educational opportunities. 

Are there any special opportunities I should know about?

Several special research programs exist at the College.

  • In the summer, the College hosts an National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at CofC’s Grice Marine Laboratory (see this website and contact Dr. Lou Burnett [email] for more information). 
  • The INBRE program provides special funding to a few labs for students interested in biomedical research (see this website). 
  • CofC also recently received a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Undergraduate Science Education Program to develop research opportunities for undergraduates in the areas of chemical biology, computational biology, and neuroscience (see this website and the list of faculty therein for more information). One goal of all these programs is to improve participation of students from underrepresented minority groups. 
  • And, be sure to take a look at the Internships page.

To receive credit, must I work with a faculty member in the Biology department?

No—you can work with someone outside the department (at MUSC, for example) and still receive course credit. However, you must be sponsored by a member of the Biology department, who will check on your progress and make sure you are meeting the expectations of research for credit in Biology. 

How will my hard work be recognized?

If you assist with research being done in the lab, your research mentor will likely acknowledge you in any publications that result. If you participate more extensively in the research and writing, you may be invited to co-author a professional publication or poster presentation. Such decisions are left to the judgment of the faculty member. In addition, there are opportunities to present your work during student poster sessions sponsored by the College and by the School of Science and Math. If you meet certain requirements, you may also choose during your senior year to write a Bachelor’s Essay based on your independent research project, which becomes part of your official college record (see Biol 499). Finally, positive experience with a faculty mentor often figures into special academic awards given by the department. 

How do I get started?
  1. Identify potential faculty research mentors. To learn about the research interests of faculty, read their research profiles on the Faculty & Staff page. Consider faculty you have had as teachers, as many faculty like to take on students they have had in classes. Choosing the right mentor will have a large impact on your experience and deserves serious effort and preparation on your part. You do not need to have a particular research project in mind, just the desire to do research.
  2. Contact faculty whose work interests you. It is never too early to contact faculty—by email, phone, or in person--to learn what kinds of opportunities are available in their labs. Students who eventually pursue independent research and receive course credit often begin earlier by helping in a lab. Be aware that not all faculty have the space, time, or resources to mentor every interested student. Therefore, you should consider multiple faculty members, start your search early, and be patient and persistent.
  3. Evaluate your schedule and availability. Engaging in research can require a serious commitment of your time, mental focus, and physical effort. Do not plan to take on more than you can handle, in order to avoid compromising your ability to meet your goals in your research or your coursework. Carefully discuss your other commitments with faculty you contact.
  4. Consider which credit option is appropriate for your level of involvement. The “zero credit” option (Biol 397) is open to all students regardless of course preparation, year standing, or GPA. It provides to you and your mentor official recognition for your commitment and effort. Course credit for research (Biol 450/451) requires at least junior standing, a minimum GPA, and a formal study plan. Biol 499 is appropriate if you will write a Bachelor’s Essay in your senior year. Talk with your faculty mentor about the best option and ask for the proper forms for enrollment in the Biology office (SSMB 231).

Questions not answered here? Feel free to email Dr. Bob Podolsky (podolskyr@cofc.edu) for more information or clarification.


397 Research Experience in Biology (0 credit option, repeatable)
Laboratory/Field based research in biology. An excellent option for students interested in research who are not of Junior standing or do not have the minimum GPA required for 399 or 450/451. Specific projects/requirements vary by faculty member. Successful participation does appear on transcript. 
Requirements: permission of the instructor and Department Chair.

450/451 Problems in Biology/Marine Biology (1-4 credits, repeatable up to 4 credits maximum)
Literature and laboratory investigations of specific problems in biology and marine biology. The nature of the problem(s) are determined by the interests of the student during consultation with departmental faculty. Prerequisites: at least junior standing (60 semester hours), overall 3.0 GPA in all science courses [Biology, Chemistry, Physics], and a formal study plan. prior to the beginning of the semester in which the independent study is to be done. 
This study plan must be completed prior to the beginning of the semester, and requires the signature of the student, the faculty supervisor, and the Department Chair. Forms for completion of the study plan are available in the department office. 

499 Bachelor's Essay (6) Fall and Spring
A year-long research and writing project done during the senior year under the close supervision of a mentor from the department. The student must take the initiative in seeking a mentor to help in both the design and the supervision of the project. A project proposal must be submitted in writing and approved by the department prior to registering for the course. 
Prerequisite: Overall 3.0 GPA in Biology courses, Senior standing, permission of faculty mentor.


399 Tutorial (1-3 Credits, repeatable up to 3 total credits)
Individual tutorial instruction on a topic of special interest to the student, supervised by a faculty member during regularly scheduled meetings. 
Prerequisite: overall 3.0 GPA in Biology courses, Junior Standing, and permission of the instructor and Chair of the Biology Department.


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