Cell Biology Preliminary Exam Format


The Cell Biology preliminary exam is comprised of a Historical Review and Research Proposal component. As detailed below, the review essay component of the exam will comprise a 10-15 page written historical review of your field of interest. For the oral component of the exam the student will choose one of two assigned papers, prepare a 2-page mini- grant proposal, and defend the proposal before the thesis committee. The form linked here will need to be brought to the exam. The examining/thesis committee is identical to your thesis committee, and will be comprised of at least five faculty members, including the mentor. The mentor, though present at the exam, does not participate in the exam questioning. The mentor can provide valuable feedback to the student regarding their performance at the exam afterwards. The committee is selected by the student and their mentor, and is expected to include faculty whose interests and expertise are a strong compliment to the research topic. The committee can include faculty from outside Cell Biology: ALL THESIS COMMITTEE MEMBERS MUST BE MEMBERS OF THE DUKE GRADUATE FACULTY.


Historical Review:

The review needs to have a historical perspective, tracing the current project from the key, founding observations to the present, and should highlight the most important discoveries, models and paradigms, detailing why they are significant and how they advanced the field. A rote, historical overview that offers an uncritical trudge through a voluminous literature is NOT what we are looking for. Rather, your charge is to bring your personal perspective, views, and yes, biases, to the forefront. In other words, this is your opportunity to (re)write the history of your field. Your review should:

1〕Make clear what scientific question(s) you are addressing.

2) Note the key findings that brought the field to its current state.

3〕Offer a critical perspective - if you feel that the field needs redirection, say so. If you feel that the field is embracing important but untested assumptions, say so. If you feel that particular groups or individuals have made particularly remarkable contributions to the field, say so. If you can identify landmark studies that you feel greatly influenced the field, highlight them and note why they are (were) significant.

4) Conclude with an introduction to your field of study and a short paragraph describing why the research you intend to do is significant.

Format: 10-15 pages, Arial size 11 font, 0.5" margins, single spaced. References are not included in the page count. Reviews are to be submitted electronically to Dr. Lechler, as PDFs. E-mail to: terry.lechler@duke.edu.

Deadlines: Consult with the departmental DGS: Terry Lechler.


Research Proposal:

The oral component of the qualifying exam will be in the form of a short (two page) research proposal (See  Tips and Guidelines for writing this). Students will be given a research article one week prior to the exam; the proposal should be a proposition for study of new research questions extending from the paper. The proposal should include a title, a brief abstract, background and proposed research. The background section should introduce the research topic, highlight the key observations that are guiding the proposal, and make clear why the question that is being posed is significant. The proposed research should include specific aim(s), a description of the experiments and relevant control experiments, a statement of expected results and a brief discussion of pitfalls - what you would do if your experiments fail. The oral exam begins with the student's presentation of the paper and the proposal and is scheduled to last 2 hours. The oral portion of the exam will primarily focus on a critical evaluation of the research proposal and may include questions related to the paper as well as the historical review.

Research Proposal Tips and Guidelines: 

Within the confines of the two-page limit, you will not be able to address all of these points, and you are not expected to. That said, it is a valuable exercise to conceptualize your proposed project using these guidelines and to be prepared to discuss your project in these terms. In this context, your two-page written proposal will be more of a framework document, which you can then expand upon, in detail, in your presentation. So, in your presentation, you will want to briefly summarize the paper you chose and highlight what you thought was the most important point(s) of the paper, and why. From there, you will develop your project proposal, as a PowerPoint presentation, and here the guidelines noted below are very helpful.

Specific Aims
State concisely the goals of the proposed research and summarize the expected outcome(s), including the impact that the results of the proposed research will exert on the research field(s) involved.

Research Strategy
(a) Significance
     Explain the importance of the problem or critical barrier to progress in the field that the proposed project addresses.

     Explain how the proposed project will improve scientific knowledge, technical capability in one or more broad fields.

     Describe how the concepts, methods, technologies that drive this field will be changed if the proposed aims are achieved.

(b) Innovation
     Explain how the application challenges and seeks to shift current research paradigms.

     Describe any novel theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies,instrumentation or intervention(s) to be developed or used, and any advantage over existing methodologies, instrumentation or intervention(s).

     Explain any refinements, improvements, or new applications of theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation or interventions.

(c) Approach
     Describe the overall strategy, methodology, and analyses to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project. Discuss how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted.

     Discuss potential problems, alternative strategies, and benchmarks for success anticipated to achieve the aims.