Undergraduate Research

Research Requirements

Independent research is a key component of the Johns Hopkins biophysics major. The research requirement for the major in biophysics is 6 credits. It is usually scheduled as a series of formal courses: 521/522/597, entitled “Research Problems in Biophysics”. These three courses are offered in the fall, spring, and summer terms. Note that research during Intersession is not accepted for credit.

Typically, the above courses are taken for 3 credits per semester, for which a student is expected to work 10-12 or more hours per week in the lab. Students are only allowed 6 research credits per year, but can repeat 521/522/597 (for a total of 6 credits) in subsequent years, if they choose. Over the course of four years, a student could therefore earn a maximum of 24 research credits.

Read the Undergraduate Research Guide for Biophysics Majors on how to obtain the necessary paperwork for signing up for undergraduate research, and to learn about important writing and presentation requirements for research coursework.

Research Philosophy

Undergraduate biophysics research is pursued in active research laboratories and constitutes an apprenticeship. To initiate this apprenticeship, students must search for and initiate a relationship with a research supervisor, who is willing to work directly with the student.

In the initial phase, which may last for as long as a semester, the student may simply learn techniques, become familiar with the research problem and relevant literature, and learn and understand the questions and goals of the overall research project.

By the beginning of the second semester, the student is expected to become a semi-independent researcher able to perform experiments and come up with improvements in procedures and experimental design. Repetitive tasks that require little or no initiative or intellectual input from the student, such as plate scoring or bottle washing, do not, by themselves, constitute a suitable research apprenticeship.

By the end of the second semester, most students are able to obtain publishable data. Many students who complete more than two semesters of Research Problems in Biophysics become co-authors of abstracts and papers published by their research supervisor. Therefore, it is strongly encouraged that students participate in research for two or more years.

Although effort should be constant, productivity is likely to be low at the start of the apprenticeship, increasing with time. Students and supervisors both benefit from the significant training, experience, and discoveries that come from years two and beyond. Along these lines, students are strongly encouraged not to switch labs from semester to semester, but rather to pursue one research project during their time at Hopkins.

When to Add Research to Your Schedule

It is a good idea to start thinking about undergraduate research as a freshman or sophomore. Many students who enter JHU with AP credits start their research projects early their sophomore year, but starting in your junior year is also fine. Although it is not forbidden, waiting until senior year to start research is strongly discouraged.

Research Supervisor vs. Faculty Sponsor

The “research supervisor” is defined as the head of the laboratory in which you carry out your research. The “faculty sponsor” must be a full-time faculty member in the Jenkins Department of Biophysics. This person will normally be your academic adviser, and he or she will assign your research grade in close consultation with the research supervisor.

You must always register for the biophysics research courses using the section of your faculty sponsor. The faculty sponsor must be confident that the research supervisor is qualified for and committed to this apprenticeship program. The research supervisor must be able and willing to observe and evaluate the performance of the student.

Moreover, the research topic should be appropriate to the biophysics major, broadly defined. If you are conducting research under the supervision of a full-time faculty member in the Jenkins Department of Biophysics, the research supervisor can also serve as the faculty sponsor.

Biophysics Research Topics and Locations

The biophysics major allows undergraduate research experiences in a broad range of topics; however, clinical research and survey-type investigations are not allowed. With these restrictions in mind, students can initiate an apprenticeship with a research supervisor in any laboratory in the Johns Hopkins schools of Arts and Sciences, Medicine, Engineering, and Public Heath. A vigorous and wide-ranging search for potential research supervisors is the best way to ensure a successful apprenticeship.