University News

Life, physical sciences yield high honors rates

Students often develop theses from research positions and course requirements

Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
This article is part of the series Pursuing Honors

Students in the life and physical sciences are the most likely to graduate with departmental honors of any academic disciplines, with many of the highest thesis completion rates across all concentrations.

Some concentrations in these fields require students to complete capstone or research projects that can turn into theses, which faculty members and students said partially accounts for higher thesis completion rates.

But 38 percent of neuroscience concentrators in the class of 2013 completed honors despite not having a research-based course as a concentration requirement, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research.

About 35 percent of life and medical science concentrators completed honors requirements last year, compared to 33 percent of humanities concentrators, 25 percent of physical science concentrators and 13 percent of social science concentrators, according to OIR data.


The capstone effect

Daniel DeCiccio ’14.5, a double concentrator in biomedical engineering and chemical physics, said research is an “essential part” of the life and physical sciences. He said he decided to write an honors thesis after committing significant time to research projects throughout his time at Brown. The chance to share what he had learned from his research was critical to his decision, he added.

Though a smaller portion — about 8 percent ­— of computer science concentrators in the class of 2013 completed honors requirements than did those in neuroscience or biomedical engineering, this lower percentage is misleading, said Thomas Doeppner, associate professor and vice chair of the Department of Computer Science.

Because computer science stresses collaborative research, many students do not work on projects that qualify as theses because theses must be individual papers, Doeppner said. Many computer science concentrators choose to do team-based research so they may publish their work rather than focusing on individual honors requirements, he added.


Differing rates

Biochemistry and physics concentrators must complete a research-based course, and these concentrations account for the highest honors completion rates among the life and physical sciences.

About 46 percent of biochemistry concentrators and 41 percent of chemistry concentrators in the class of 2013 received honors. The program only requires one semester of research, but many concentrators continue with three or four semesters of research, said William Suggs, associate professor of biochemistry and chemistry.

Though many biochemistry and chemistry concentrators conduct significant research, their projects may not meet requirements for an honors thesis because many such projects are long-term initiatives spearheaded by faculty members rather than students, Suggs added.

About 44 percent of physics concentrators received honors last year. “Research is one of the most valuable things we offer our undergraduates,” said Professor of Physics Brad Marston, adding that the requirement forces students “to face the unknown.”

Physics concentrators who complete honors after being involved in previous research do so out of interest in the material, Marston said. “The award of honors is just icing on the cake.”

Though research is not required for the neuroscience concentration, the program accounts for one of the highest thesis completion rates among Brown’s largest concentrations. Professor of Neuroscience and Department Chair Barry Connorssaid many students take research for course credit despite not being required to do so.

Chantelle Ward ’15, a neuroscience concentrator, said she intends to write an honors thesis because she has developed an interest in the research area she has worked on so far.


Curricular limits

Some students writing honors theses in physical and life science concentrations said the choice to conduct honors research could limit their engagement with the Open Curriculum.

Pursuing research beyond concentration requirements is a “give and take” situation, Ward said, adding that many hard science concentrators choose research as their fourth course, rather than taking an elective in the humanities. “You have to decide how you want to be spending your time here,” she said.

Claudine Yee ’14, a neuroscience concentrator, wrote in email to The Herald that completing a research-based thesis allows specialization in one field.“But if you think the Open Curriculum is meant to give you the broadest exposure possible to different fields, then pursuing a thesis probably has hindered my engagement” with it, Yee wrote.

Completing biomedical engineering honors requirementson top of a senior thesis “undoubtedly” restricted curriculuar exploration, DeCiccio said. “It’s a huge time commitment.”

Vishesh Jain ’14, a computer science concentrator and honors candidate, said research is an important experience for students to have because it forces them to apply the knowledge they learn in the classroom to a real-world problem.

“But at the same time, the choice to learn whatever way you want should be your own,” he said, adding that students who do not want to complete research should not be required to do so.

“There are two kinds of worlds between science and humanities,” said Mika Siegelman ’14, a physics concentrator who is not completing honors requirements. She added that even if physics concentrators decide not to apply for honors, the program’s required senior thesis makes it hard to take classes outside of the department. “I would love to take humanities classes but don’t have time to put my thesis on the back burner,” she said.


A gap in requirements

Connors said the neuroscience department has considered making research a graduation requirement but has repeatedly decided against it. “It is good for students to have a research experience, but it’s not something I would impose on them,” he said.

But Ward said neuroscience should require some research to allow for hands-on engagement with the material and because many other ScB degree candidates cannot graduate without a capstone or research project.

Some students said writing a thesis in the physical or life sciences offers an opportunity for more independence but less structure than completing a thesis in the humanities.

Siegelman said the amount of time she puts into working on research for her thesis does not directly translate into written progress, unlike in writing humanities theses.

“I can put in hours and not get all the results,” she said, adding that humanities concentrators can set aside a block of time and just “crank out writing.”

But completing a thesis in the physical or life sciences may yield more post-graduation benefits, some students said.

Jain said humanities concentrators will probably not do scholarly research as their first job after graduation, while computer science concentrators may go straight to work in a field related to skills developed while completing their theses.

“Until you have experience in a lab interpreting your own data, you don’t experience being a scientist or learn whether lab science is for you,” said Professor of Geological Sciences Jan Tullis.

Some departments and programs in the life and physical sciences allow thesis writers to construct more interdisciplinary projects for honors.

Gina Roberti ’14, a geology concentrator, wrote in an email to The Herald that she is currently completing a thesis that creates audio guides to geological locations in Rhode Island. Other geology thesis writers have examined interdisciplinary topics such as methods of science communication to non-scientific audiences, Tullis said.

Though most honors theses in the life or physical sciences are directly related to their fields, students also complete theses with real-life applications. For example, a recent biochemistry thesis examined the movement of nutrients across the placental barrier to fetal sheep, Suggs said. Doeppner cited a recent applied mathematics thesis that developed a program that allowed a computer to “listen” to music and produce corresponding sheet music. Siegelman said her senior thesis is related to the physics of oceanography and will model how sand is pulled offshore of Wakiki Beach in Hawaii.