Project Description for Students

Genetic Engineering Proposal Project

As you consider a career as a biologist it is vital that you recognize what it is that biologists do. It would be understandable if you thought your primary goal as a biologist-in-training is to master a large body of facts – to become encyclopedically informed about what biologists have learned over the years. It would also be understandable if you thought that learning the wide array of laboratory techniques should be your objective. While both of these are worthy objectives, they are arguably should not be your primary objective. Rather, you should aspire to learn to think like a biologist, to see the world around you and ask what you can do to understand it more clearly and to make a contribution of insight or technology to the current state of the art, to the body of knowledge and biotechnology of this era.

While we, as instructors in this course, could try to convey this biological thought process to you in lecture or discussion, we think the most effective way is to give you a project that requires you to think like a biologist does. That we learn best by doing something ourselves and by communicating what we know to others is clear. Our challenge has been to create an experience that allows you exercise your creative, analytic, and expressive faculties. To this end we are asking each student in the course to work in teams to identify a hypothesis that they would like to test or a problem that they would like to solve that involves the creation of a genetically engineered organism.

You will choose the specific question or problem that interests you, select the gene and organism that you’d like to modify, find and present the background information needed to explain the rationale and justification for the work proposed, state the specific aims of your project and a plan to achieve those aims, explore issues of safety, ethics, and efficacy presented by your project, and work collaboratively to generate both a written proposal and a graphical / oral version of your genetic engineering proposal. 

In the course of completing this semester-long project you will work independently, collaboratively with members of your group and with others in the class, and receive detailed written feedback from us, your instructors. You will have opportunities to dissect a research proposal, explore the scientific literature, evaluate and you’re information sources, brainstorm, analyze data, evaluate the merits of alternative aims and approaches, provide constructive criticism and meaningful feedback to others, selectively incorporate the suggestions of others, and present your ideas in a logical and articulate way. You will make and give effective visual and oral presentations of your proposal and evaluate the effectiveness of the proposals of your classmates.

This project will require about 30-35% of our class time as well as many additional hours of your time outside of class. Why do we devote such a large amount of time to this project when we could use that same amount of time instead for lecture? Simply because the cognitive skills that you have the opportunity to develop by pursuing this project will be longer lasting and more valuable than the facts that we could tell you.

Project topic

Your aim is to choose something to work on that is:

  1. Reasonably likely to succeed – based on established methods and reagents. It is not reasonable to first propose to discover a gene from some trait that you are interested in and then make changes in an organism with that to-be-identified gene. Neither is it reasonable to first propose to develop a new method of gene delivery and then use that method to get your gene construct into the recipient organism. A large part of your background and significance section addresses the earlier work by others that provides the foundation for your work
  2. Novel – not a direct lift of a project published or described elsewhere. This is very important. You should build on the foundation of current scientific knowledge but there needs to be something different (and better?) about what you are setting out to do. Part of your background and significance section addresses the issue of originality / novelty of what you propose to do.
  3. Of sufficient benefit to be worth the risk to human health, animal welfare or the environment. While the issue of risk is mostly addressed in later sections of the proposal, the issue of benefit is central to the background and significance section.


You need to identify sources that are relevant to each of the sections of your proposal: background on your process of interest, the gene you plan to modify, the organism you plan to transform/transfect, the method of DNA transfer, your methods for assessing success. You need to be able to explain to others in your group why a particular source you found is worth including (and citing) in your paper. Each paper you cite has a small or large evidential role. Nothing extraneous is included.

Background and Significance

You need to address the following questions in 1000 words:

  1. Why is the work being proposed new and interesting or important? What is the unmet need, unanswered question or commercial opportunity that your work would address?
  2. What is the published work that provides the intellectual and technical foundation for each of the aspects of the project?

As in all scientific writing, it is important to organize your thoughts, write precise sentences that follow each other in logical progression, and to cite appropriate sources. Clarity, organization, and use of active voice wherever possible contributes to strong, effective writing. Inclusion of graphics, especially ones that would be suitable for inclusion on the poster version of the project, can enhance clarity and persuasiveness.

Research Plan

This begins with a brief statement of your specific aims (enumerated 1., 2., 3.), an outline of the methods / technical procedures you plan to use [not full protocols!], your experimental plan (where you describe the process of accomplishing each specific aim), and a description of the kinds of results (positive and negative) you might expect. This is where you sketch what you plan to do so your reader understands in detail how you intend to achieve your specific aims. It is inherently a detailed section, a place for you to present maps of the gene construct you plan to introduce into a recipient organism, for example. This section must be no more than 1200 words. Figures [such as a flow chart of procedures] or tables can be added without their legends being included in the word count.


In this section you will explore the alternative plans that you would take up if the main approach doesn’t work, future studies (follow-up questions that the work proposed would enable you to answer in the future), and a statement of the safety and environmental issues that the project presents. The section should end with a summary of the main elements of the proposal as a whole, echoing the background and significance section. This is your last chance to argue the importance and interest of the work you propose. This section has a 800 word limit. Again, figures can be included without their legend being included in the word count.

Draft for Peer Review

Here you assemble the elements you’ve written after getting feedback gotten feedback on the various parts from the instructors. It involves collaborative editing, incorporating comments from people within your team. Putting together this draft for peer review is also a chance to check your draft against the grading rubrics that will be provided to you. 

Peer Review Comments

You need to give the same careful reading of another team’s proposal as you have given to your own team’s. As participating in the scientific community and being both a supportive and critical colleague is so important to a successful career in science, we also place great weight on this part of the project, even though it does not directly pertain to your proposal. We are looking for thoughtful, helpful, detailed, accurate, (astutely) critical, and respectful comments/feedback from you to others in the course. You will find that careful reading of another proposal will also help you in thinking about how to improve your own proposal. You also will find that the comments that others give you will help your group make a much stronger proposal.

Full Revised Proposal

At last! This is where you incorporate the best of the feedback/comments of your peer reviewers. The challenge is to evaluate their suggestions, deciding whether to incorporate a suggested change or not, and to choose between potentially conflicting recommendations. It is particularly important that you ensure you proposal flows well and has a consistent voice at this stage as it has had many authors and suggestions have come in from many of your peers. This is your chance to make your proposal “bulletproof”, ready for a critical reading by a demanding “study section” or “panel” that will decide whether and how enthusiastically to recommend your proposal for funding. In this case your instructors will be your final readers. The final proposal has a 3000-word limit.


Here you accomplish a remarkable transformation of your written proposal into a very different format – a mostly graphical 4’ wide x 3’ tall poster. While you have done most of the heavy lifting already by gathering together the diverse intellectual threads of your project, making a poster is not pasting your proposal onto a poster board. Posters are designed for visual appeal, graphical display of data for efficient communication of what you have proposed to do, and must be easy to read (large enough font, well organized). You needn’t spell everything out on the poster as one of your team members will often be standing by the poster to explain it to passers-by. You can think of your poster’s content as prompts for discussion. Enough of a content outline should be there to make it intelligible to someone who looks at the poster when you aren’t there. A rule of thumb is to make the poster as graphical / image-rich as you can and to make whatever remaining text that people should read have large font. Any material that will be of interest to few (perhaps acknowledgments & references) can be much smaller.

Presentation of the Poster

You need to be able to communicate the essence of your proposal in 10-15 minutes using your poster as the visual aid. It is the place to direct your listener’s visual attention while you talk, and the place to which you return your visitor’s attention when there are questions. It is important to be clear, accurate, and moderately enthusiastic about what you are presenting, and in sufficient command of the material that you feel comfortable fielding questions.

Intellectual Property Notebook

This document is created throughout the semester. It needs to include a detailed description of what each individual contributed to the success of the project. It can start with the team accountability sheets that your team fills out each Friday. Here is your chance as an individual to claim credit for whatever part of the project you contributed, contributions as small as a source article or as big as being the primary writer of the Research Plan section. In part this serves as a valuable opportunity for self-reflective writing for you. Also, as you review this notebook you will have some documentation/ evidence to help jog your memory regarding what other members of your team contributed, too. When you evaluate your teammates at the end of the semester, this will enable you to combine your gut instinct/ memory with something closer to fact.

(Biology 2002)