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Honors Program in Biological Sciences

What is Honors?

Participants in the honors program conduct original, independent research in the biological sciences and write an honors thesis formatted as a scientific paper in the field of study. All students in the program are mentored by a Cornell faculty member on the Ithaca campus. After successful completion of the honors program students graduate with special distinction. Students in CALS are awarded “Distinction in Research” and Latin honors (e.g. Summa cum laude, etc.) are awarded based on GPA. Biological sciences majors in CAS must complete an honors thesis to be awarded Latin honors, and the level of Latin honors is determined by GPA of the students penultimate semester.

Students Interested in Honors

Students interested in applying to the Honors Program are strongly encouraged to begin their research project in their junior year. Information on faculty research activities is available on our searchable faculty database or through department directories. Students should meet with their research advisor in their junior year to discuss becoming an honors candidate.  Interested students are welcome to attend an honors information meeting held twice during the spring semester. View the Honors Timeline for important submission dates. Details pertaining to information meetings, expectations for Honors research, and other requirements can be found below.

Who Can Apply?

Students with an intended graduation date of December 2021 or May 2022 who are:

If you have any concerns about whether BioSci Honors is the right program for you, schedule a meeting with Dr. Laura Schoenle.

What Forms of Scholarship are Eligible for Honors Theses?

All honors students conduct original, independent research in the biological sciences and write an honors thesis formatted as a scientific journal article in the field of study. There are several ways to accomplish this, all of which involve time-intensive, rigorous studies. Because on-campus undergraduate research might not be at full capacity (depending on your research lab), you might wish to consider a few different options. For all cases, plan on completing data collection by December 2021-January 2022. Options for scholarship include:

  1. Planning a study, collecting data in a laboratory and/or field setting, analyzing these data.
  2. Analyzing a dataset collected by your lab and made available to you by your research mentor to answer a novel research question.
  3. Using a publicly available dataset (e.g., eBird) to answer a novel research question.
  4. Performing a meta-analysis using published data.
  5. Writing a systematic review.

What if undergraduate research is further disrupted by COVID-19 in Fall 2021?

  • If your project does not rely on substantial additional data collection or access to specific on-campus facilities, continue with your thesis as planned.
  • If the disruption only mildly changes the scope of your project, work with your research mentor and honors group leader to discuss any appropriate changes and continue.
  • If a disruption at any point during the semester prevents you from completing the proposed honors thesis you can work with your research mentor to either:
    • Change your honors project to one of options 2-5 above.
    • Transition the composition of your thesis from that of a scientific journal article to a comprehensive research proposal, similar to the format that faculty submit to NSF or NIH (this lets you incorporate preliminary/incomplete datasets!). This option will only be made available if on-campus research is disrupted in Fall 2021, and for students whose thesis research depends on on-campus research. If this option becomes available, the honors committee will provide specific details regarding requirements and formatting.

Please note that as always, there are never any consequences for exiting the honors program. If personal, academic, or other circumstances lead to your inability to continue with honors, you simply need to let us know.

Program Requirements

The requirements of the Honors Program include: 

  1. Coursework and GPA
  • Completed at least 30 credits at Cornell or be Junior standing for transfers.
  • An overall Cornell cumulative grade-point average of at least 3.0 at the time of application submission. A 3.0 GPA must be maintained throughout the honors program.
  1. Honors Application
  • Submit your honors application/thesis proposal online
  •  Proposals must be submitted between April 15 – July 26, 2021.Students with exceptional circumstances can submit a late application with permission of their faculty research mentor and the OUB. If you would like to be considered for the extended deadline for honors, email as soon as possible – no later than July 15th. Note that exceptional circumstances do not include being unable to conduct research on-campus over the summer. No applications will be accepted after September 15, 2021.
  • Given the nature of science, we understand that some aspects of your project might change after proposal submission. As long as you continue to work with your mentor, there is no need to report changes until your progress report (due in Fall 2021 for May graduates).

  • More details on the content of proposals.

3. Mentor Agreement & Letter of Recommendation

  • After you have submitted your research proposal, it will be sent to your research mentor for approval. Note: your research mentor must be a current Cornell faculty member based at the Ithaca campus and in Ithaca the spring semester of thesis submission.
  • Mentors must complete an online form indicating that they
    • agree to mentor you as an honors candidate, including:
      • supporting and evaluating your progress as you work towards your thesis
      • reviewing and providing feedback on your progress report
      • reviewing and providing feedback on your thesis before you submit the thesis for formal review
    • will be on the Ithaca campus during the semester you submit your thesis (i.e. not on sabbatical)
    •  approve your thesis proposal and state that the proposed project is sufficient for obtaining honors in biological sciences
    • will serve as a reviewer for 1-2 other theses
    • will cover the costs of printing a poster for the honors poster session
  • The letter of recommendation from your faculty mentor should include 1) why the applicant is a good candidate for the honors program and 2) an assessment of the feasibility of the proposed honors project.

BIOG 4990

Honors candidates usually enroll for credit in BIOG 4990 under the direction of the faculty member acting as an honors supervisor, although it is not a requirement of the Honors Program. Students choosing to earn credit for honors research must register in BIOG 4990 using the enrollment process for that course (separate from the Honors Program application process). Students with questions about BIOG 4990 can email

The Program

Research Groups

If your application to the honors program is accepted, you will be assigned to a research group with other students working in similar branches of biology. A faculty member leads each research group (see table below for contact information) and will be one of your primary contacts throughout the honors program. The faculty member will organize a mandatory meeting in the fall semester at which they will review program logistics and all students will give an overview of their project. The group leader will provide additional information as the meeting approaches. In the spring semester, you will submit your thesis to the group leader, and they will coordinate the review of your thesis.

The 2019-2020 Honors Faculty Committee

Research Group             Group Leader Phone  NetID
Animal Physiology  Dr. Mark Roberson 3-3537 msr14

Dr. Linda Nicholson

5-7208 lkn2
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Dr. Willy Bemis 607-342-3260 web24
Genetics and Development Dr. Tudorita (Doina) Tumbar 5-6542 tt252
Microbiology Dr. John Helmann 5-6570 jdh9
Molecular and Cell Biology  Dr. Yuxin Mao 5-0783 ym253
Neurobiology and Behavior

Dr. Laura Schoenle ( interim )

Plant Biology  Dr. Wojtek Pawlowski  4-8745 wp45
Honors Coordinator  Dr. Laura Schoenle 5-5233 las86
Honors Program Assistant  Ms. Kristy Long 5-6859 kll25

Honors Thesis

BioSci honors theses follow the format of a manuscript being prepared for submission to a scientific journal in the research discipline. Students should work with their research supervisor to identify a journal in their field and follow the guidelines for that journal along with the general thesis formatting guidelines available at the end of this document. In general, theses consist of an abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, and literature cited. There is no length requirement for the thesis because the length required will vary with the content. Throughout the writing process, you should work closely with your research mentor(s) to ensure you are meeting the standards of the field. Although your faculty research supervisor must decide if your results are sufficient to justify their presentation in an honors thesis, the ultimate responsibility for the thesis is yours. Examples of previous honors theses are available online at

The Bio Sci Honors theses are reviewed using a model similar to that of a scientific paper submitted for publication to a journal in the field. You will submit your thesis to the research group leader who will send it out to two anonymous reviewers (other Cornell affiliated researchers, often faculty). The reviewers will provide feedback on the manuscript, including whether or not they believe the work is suitable for honors. Based on these reviews and their own assessment of your thesis, the research group leaders will make a recommendation as to whether or not you should be awarded honors. If you are recommended for honors, you will be able to edit your thesis based on the reviews and submit a final version to Canvas.

Honors Presentation

You must publicly present your research to be eligible for honors. May graduates can present their research at poster sessions for the honors program which are typically held early in May. December graduates or May graduates that cannot attend the honors poster session can present their research at: 1) a national or regional conference, 2) a campus-wide research event such as the CURB research symposia, or 3) at a lab meeting open to members of the public. If you choose option 1 or 2, email the abstract and meeting schedule to and if you choose option 3, invite Dr. Laura Schoenle to attend as a member of the public.

Level of Honors

Latin honors, as recorded on the diploma (cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude), is assigned differently for students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and students in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS). In CALS, the level of Latin honors is determined exclusively by the student’s grade point average (GPA). More details on CALS academic honors requirements. If the CALS honors candidate has written an acceptable honors thesis, the further words "with Distinction in Research" are added. In CAS, Latin honors requires a student to write a thesis. Once the thesis is accepted, the level of honors for CAS candidates is also determined by GPA of the students penultimate semester. In CAS, “distinction in all subjects” is awarded to the graduates who achieve a GPA in the upper 30 percent of their class at the end of the seventh semester or next to last semester for transfers.


Visit our FAQ! If you have further questions about this program, please contact the Office of Undergraduate Biology, at