Getting Started with Independent Research in Biology

There are many things to think about as you begin your independent project. Scientists spend a lot of time reading, thinking, discussing, and planning the details of an experiment before they start. The list below will help you to understand the steps that experienced scientists follow as they prepare and carry out an experiment. Use the ideas presented to help plan the details of your experiment before you begin.


ORGANIZING YOUR TIME
IDENTIFYING YOUR QUESTION
CHOOSING YOUR METHODS
PLANNING YOUR EXPERIMENT
CARRYING OUT YOUR EXPERIMENT
COLLECTING YOUR DATA
ANALYZING YOUR DATA
TELLING THE WORLD ABOUT YOUR RESEARCH


ORGANIZING YOUR TIME

Make a calendar to organize your time before you start your experiment.

Make sure to include the following:

  • Time to develop and research your question
  • Time to prepare for the experiment (growing cultures, preparing everything you will need, organizing supplies, etc.)
  • Time to set up the experiment
  • Time to carry out the experiment
  • Time to collect and analyze the data
  • Time to write up your results

(top)

IDENTIFYING YOUR QUESTION

What question do you want to explore? Be specific.

Science builds on what is known. Read about your topic. The more you know the better question you can come up with.

Is your question testable with the time and resources available to you?

What information do you need before you plan your experiment? Where can you get the information you need? Think about things like:

  • Background information about your topic
  • Information about working with Tetrahymena
  • Information about techniques that can be used to investigate your question
  • Other useful information

What preliminary tests do you think you need to do, if any, before committing to answering your question?

What background reading do you need to do? How will you evaluate the dependability of your resources?

Not everything that is written or posted on the Internet is of equal value. Deciding what information to use from what sources is a critical step in conducting research. Using reputable and respected sources will make your work more meaningful. Consider things like where the information is published, whether the information is well supported by the data presented, whether the information presented can be verified by other dependable sources, if the information is up to date, what the qualifications of the author are, and who the target audience is.

Science is collaborative. Scientists learn by discussing their work with others. At each step in your planning, go over your project with your teacher. Talk to other students to get feedback about what you plan to do.
(top)

CHOOSING YOUR METHODS

How do you intend to answer your question?

What experiments will you do and what methods will you use? Be specific.

What supplies and equipment will you need for your experiment? Are they available, either from your school or as part of the ASSET lending library?

Do you need any special conditions – temperature, light, shaking etc? Can you create and maintain the conditions you need?

Do you have any questions about running your experiment? If so, write them down.  Where will you get the information you need?

Discuss your proposed methods with your teacher.

(top)

PLANNING YOUR EXPERIMENT

Write a detailed plan for your experiment. Give enough information to make sure that you and your teacher understand what will be involved and how long it will take.

When do you plan to run your experiment?

Where will you carry out the experiment?

  • Does the space have the basics you need – table, sink, etc.?
  • Does the area you will work in need to be cleaned before you use it?
  • Where will you store your materials for the course of the experiment?

How long will it take to complete your experiment and gather your data?

How many replicates do you need to generate reliable data?

What do you need to do to prepare for the experiment? (grow cultures, gather materials, etc.)

Who will be involved in the experiment? Can you do it alone or do you need another pair of hands to help?

Do you need to use sterile technique and sterile materials, or can you use clean but unsterile equipment and supplies?

  • Does your experiment need to be sterile at one point, but not after that?
  • What needs to be sterile and when does it need to be sterile?
  • How will you sterilize your materials if needed?

Are there any hazards that you need to plan for?

  • Do you need gloves, goggles, lab coat, or any other protective gear?
  • How will you deal with spilled cultures or chemicals?
  • What will you do with experimental materials when you’re done with your experiment?
  • Any other concerns?

What possible outcomes might you see in your experiment? Will you need to do additional experiments to clarify the answer to your question?
(top)

CARRYING OUT YOUR EXPERIMENT

Are you following your experimental plan?

Do you need to modify your experimental plan?

When carrying out research, sometimes things happen that require scientists to reevaluate the methods being used. When necessary, you can make changes to your procedure, but make sure you end up with a clear record of what you actually did.

Are you generating enough information to provide a meaningful answer to your question?

Will the planned number of replicates generate the data you need?

(top)

COLLECTING YOUR DATA

What kind of data do you plan to gather? Is it numerical or some other form?

How much data will you have? How will you organize it?

What is the best way to display your data? Is the data best displayed in a table, graph, chart, or some other manner?

Make a table or chart for collecting your data BEFORE you start your experiment.

How will you be confident that your data is reliable? (What’s the difference between “accurate” and “reliable”?)
(top)

ANALYZING YOUR DATA

How will you analyze your data? What methods will you need?

Will you create a graph? A table? A chart? If so, how will you do it?

How will you know the answer to your original question?

What will you do if it’s not the answer you expected?

How will you interpret your findings and reach well supported conclusions?
(top)

TELLING THE WORLD ABOUT YOUR RESEARCH

How will you interpret your findings and reach well supported conclusions?

How will you state and share your results?

  • Paper
  • PowerPoint
  • Poster
  • Publication
  • Other

(top)