Term Project

The goal of the 20.400 term project is to induce students to think creatively, and as a member of an interdisciplinary team (2 or 3 students per team, depending on class size), about posing and addressing an original research problem at the interface of biology and engineering. The research topic is open to the student team's choosing, but must incorporate technically substantive contributions from both bioscience and bioengineering perspectives. The scope of this assignment is explicitly intended to be open-ended and, therefore likely less narrowly defined than student might ordinarily prefer - but this step of discomfort is a crucial one for moving from classroom to research education. The project is meant to simulate, on a reduced timescale, the task of identifying a research question and of formulating innovative and effective ways to approach it. In doing so, you should integrate knowledge gained from the other subjects in the BE core curricula along with your undergraduate coursework and any previous research experience. To gain the greatest possible interdisciplinary integration, we request that each student team does not include two people with similar undergraduate disciplinary backgrounds.

In past years, projects have typically fallen into one of two broad categories: those with a primary focus on computational modeling and those with a primary focus on experimental design. Projects in the first category (computational modeling) usually involve either applying new (to biology) analytical tools to explain biological systems, or applying more conventional computational approaches to new biological problems. Projects in the second category (experimental design) involve developing or exploiting new technologies (e.g. microfluidics, protein engineering, RNAi, genomics, proteomics, etc.) for the analysis of biological problems. Although projects tend to focus on one of these broad categories, it is important to note that the most successful projects are those that include elements of both computational modeling and experimental design. For instance, modeling focused projects should also include details of experiments necessary to obtain relevant parameters. Similarly, projects centered on experimental design should also include a substantial element of quantitative analysis, directed towards modeling/optimizing the operation of the proposed experiment and/or illustrating how anticipated data would be interpreted.

In order to provide a formal structure for the project, the chosen research problem should be presented in the form of an NIH grant proposal. In brief, your proposal should include an abstract, specific aims, background/significance, research design, and conclusion. You may also want to include a brief section of preliminary results. Since this is a proposal, we are not asking you to implement the modeling or experiments that you propose in the course of the term. Rather, you should focus on planning and describing the techniques that you would use if given funding and time to pursue this problem in greater detail. As you begin to formulate your project, keep in mind the principle criteria by which successful NIH proposals are judged: significance (Does the study address an important problem?), approach (Are the design and methods appropriate to address the aims?), and innovation (Does the project employ novel concepts, approaches, and methods?). Also, remember that NIH grants are typically for a period of 3-5 years so all work described in your proposal should be accomplishable within this timescale. We hope that the NIH format will not only prove a helpful structure for organizing and expressing your thoughts, but also serve as a useful exercise for future endeavors such as your thesis proposal.

In addition to the written grant proposal, you will also present an oral summary of your research project at the mid-point and end of the term. The mid-term presentation will be an opportunity to get helpful feedback on the envisioned project from the instructors. Further information on the oral format will be provided closer to the presentation dates.

Suggested Grant Proposal Format

Abstract (less than 1 page): A summary of your entire proposal emphasizing the motivation and specific goals of the work. The abstract should serve as a "stand alone" piece encompassing the key points from all other sections.

Specific Aims (less than 1 page): A concise description of the goals that you plan to accomplish, or hypotheses that you plan to test, in the course of the proposed work. A proposal typically includes 3-4 aims presented in the order in which they will most likely be accomplished.

Significance/Background (2-3 pages): A summary of important work in the field, remaining questions that need to be answered, and how your proposed work addresses these problems. This should not be a comprehensive review of the field, but rather a summary of how previous work motivates your current proposal.

Preliminary work (optional) (less than 2 pages): A small selection of results that demonstrates your capability to complete the work proposed in the specific aims. For a modeling proposal, this section may include an implementation of your computational technique on a small, model data set. For an experimentally focused project, this section may include a quantitative analysis of how the proposed experimental technology would operate in generating anticipated data. Other demonstrations of feasibility based on examples in the published literature can be discussed in the Research Design and Methods section. Keep in mind that a Preliminary Work section may not be appropriate for some projects.

Research Design and Methods (8-10 pages): A detailed description of the experiments and/or modeling techniques that will be utilized to carry out the specific aims. Each specific aim should be addressed with a thorough explanation of proposed methods, rationale for selecting these methods over other approaches, potential limitations of the proposed methods, and solutions for these problems.

Conclusion (less than 1 page): More than a mere summary, this is your last chance to impress upon the reviewers the importance of the work. The conclusion should emphasize how your proposal satisfies the criteria of significance, approach, and innovation.


Tables, Figures, and/or Appendices

Overall, your proposal should be approximately 15-20 pages in length (excluding tables, figures, and appendices). Concise writing is appreciated. Longer does not equate to better.