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Student Research: The Senior Thesis

The Senior Thesis, which is now such a fixture at the institution, was not formally designated in the catalog as a course called "Thesis" until 1933. In the early years there was a course called Seminar in Biology, limited to seniors, and may have been devoted to a single subject (one year, for example, a penciled notation in an early catalog indicated it was to be on "Endocrine Organs"). The first Biology theses, however, (1915) did not show evidence of any particular subject for the Seminar. One was on the behavior of animals with respect to light, another on physiological salt solutions, one on the origin of the blood vascular system in chicks, and finally one on fish culture and the salmon industry.

In the 1930-31 catalog the following appeared: "Seminar. 4 units. Thesis on a subject involving some original research and a considerable amount of reading of sources. Ability to read both French and German is needed". This was originally a one-semester course and only became expanded at a later time; although it is still possible to register for "Thesis, one-half or full course for one year." From the beginning, however, the requirements for graduation included a thesis and an oral examination. The earliest date on a biology thesis in the library is 1915 because the entering class in 1911 consisted of all freshman. As successive classes were admitted the class structure evolved and by 1915 the first senior class graduated. I have examined the four Biology theses submitted in 1915 and it is clear that very little if any experimental work was undertaken. In one of the three there is evidence of one or two simple experiments with Drosophila, and in another evidence of observations of developing chick embryos. The form of the writing is essentially a narrative essay and was 12-18 pages long, and in two cases the bibliography is hand-written.

The connection between the research interests of faculty members and the subject matter of senior theses is evident when one reads thesis titles over the years. Good examples can be found in any period, but going back to the 40s and 50s. When Ralph Macy, a parasitologist, was Professor of Biology there were many theses done on parasitological topics - surveys of parasites, life histories of parasites, descriptions of a new species or two. In 1947, when L.H. Kleinholz joined the faculty, there was the immediate appearance of theses dealing with various aspects of crustacean endocrinology, a field in which Kleinholz was internationally known. Thesis research also often took advantage of certain local features such as the salmon/steelhead migrations in the stream that runs through the "canyon" on the Reed Campus . The canyon, incidentally, is a state game preserve. There were also a number of theses that utilized the larvae of the lamprey that accompanied those runs at a time when there was great interest in the structure of "primitive" vertebrates. It was at about this time also that it becomes apparent that the senior thesis became a more substantial experimental undertaking than was true in the early years. Senior theses often form the basis for a joint publication with the thesis adviser (see below).

Opportunities to engage in thesis research even beyond the expertise of the resident faculty is provided by ad hoc arrangements with other institutions in the city. Biology theses have been pursued at the Oregon Health Sciences University, the Oregon Regional Primate Center, the Neurological Sciences Institute (now associated with OHSU, but formerly part of the Good Samaritan Hospital and Medical Center), and the Oregon Graduate Institute. In such cases, the student has an on-campus adviser as well as the thesis director at the off-campus site.

Another feature of the college that is somewhat unusual is the Junior Qualifying Examination administered in the Spring of the Junior year. The purpose of the exam (and it takes various forms in different Divisions and Departments) is to assess the readiness of the student to begin the thesis in the following year. It is seldom used to refuse a student advancement to senior status, but is useful in identifying areas that need improvement and can be used by the academic adviser to guide the student into some additional study.

For many years the examination in Biology consisted of a written part of several hours duration, followed by an oral examination in which the entire departmental faculty participated. That aspect of the examination was discontinued as the number of biology majors grew too large. Currently the Junior Qualifying Examination is a "take home" and is in two parts. The first is identified as "quantitative and methodological" and consists of 8 questions, four of which must be answered. The material is drawn from the courses that are currently being offered and may require some fairly sophisticated calculations of some sort. The second part is the "essay" part, also consisting of 8 questions or problems, with essays to be written on two. The exam is normally done over a weekend, and any of the resources available to the student may be used - notes, texts, primary literature. The student's ability to seek out and organize material in an appropriate way and write a coherent account of the subject is an important element of the evaluation.

The Faculty
The Curriculum
The Research Paradigm
Research Time—The Principles and Expectations (1997)
Student Research: The Senior Thesis
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