Developing a molecular diagnostic test. The student could work to develop a new molecular diagnostic test for detecting a disease. This would involve researching the disease pathogenesis and biomarkers, designing primers and probes for PCR or another detection method, optimizing the reaction conditions in the lab, and performing extensive testing/validation of the assay on clinical samples. Assessment of the assay’s accuracy, precision, reproducibility and sensitivity/specificity would need to be conducted. A full report outlining the development process, validation results and discussing the clinical utility of the new test would be required.
Estimated length of project: 6-12 months. Requires access to a molecular biology lab and clinical samples.
Investigating environmental impacts on biodiversity. The student could design and conduct a field research project to study how certain environmental factors like pollution, habitat destruction, climate change or invasive species are affecting biodiversity in an ecosystem. This would involve developing a research proposal with clear hypotheses and objectives. Fieldwork would involve collecting data on species richness, abundance and diversity. Statistical analysis would then be used to look for correlations between biodiversity metrics and the environmental variables. Reports would discuss the findings, ecological implications, and make recommendations.
Estimated length: 6-9 months. Requires access to field sites and guidance from an ecologist.
Antibiotic resistance gene screening in pathogen populations. The student cultures bacterial pathogens from clinical samples and analyses them for the presence and variability of antibiotic resistance genes. Genomic DNA is extracted and sequenced. Bioinformatic tools are used to identify and analyze resistance genes present. Minimum inhibitory concentration assays determine phenotypic resistance profiles. Population dynamics of resistance genes over time and space can be investigated. Reports discuss clinical and public health implications.
Estimated length: 6-12 months. Requires pathogen culture and molecular biology lab access/resources.
Analyzing transgenic crop performance. The student grows different varieties of a transgenic crop side-by-side with its conventional counterpart under both controlled and field conditions. Comparisons are made for traits like yield, growth rate, resistance to pests/diseases. Economic analysis estimates profitability. Environmental impacts are modeled. Reports discuss agricultural and regulatory implications, addressing both benefits and risks of the technology.
Estimated length: 6-9 months. Requires greenhouse/field facilities and collaboration with an agricultural research group.
Investigating antimicrobial activities of ethnobotanical plant extracts. The student collects plant species used in traditional medicine and performs experiments to identify any with interesting antimicrobial properties. Extracts are tested in disc diffusion and minimum inhibitory concentration assays against a panel of human pathogens. The most potent extracts undergo bioactivity-guided fractionation to isolate/identify the active compounds. Their novel mechanisms of action are investigated.
Estimated length: 12 months. Requires lab access and botanical/microbiology expertise.
Assessing impacts of pollution on fish health. The student collects fish from reference sites and sites downstream of a pollution source, like an industrial discharge. Blood and tissue samples are analyzed clinically and histopathologically for biomarkers of pollution stress, like metal accumulation, organ pathologies and genotoxicity. Population-level impacts are characterized by examining fecundity, growth rates, deformities and mortality. Biomonitoring assessments provide valuable ecological and public health information.
Estimated length: 9-12 months. Requires fieldwork expertise and access to analytical lab facilities.
Capstone biology projects offer students opportunities to conduct authentic research addressing important scientific questions or real-world issues. By independently planning and executing a substantial investigation over 6-12 months, students integrate their classroom learning with hands-on experiences that improve their analytical, technical and communication skills. The examples given here cover molecular to ecosystem scales and showcase the diversity of research pathways within the discipline of biology.