Choosing a topic Bio14

Choosing a topic for a biology research project (or any project) is a crucial first step. A good topic will develop from the following activities:

  • finding a starting point (e.g., reading an article, remembering an interesting lecture topic)
  • asking a well-defined question or questions to be answered in the course of your research
  • refining your topic

Your research project will involve library research only, not experimentation. For this assignment, you'll be using published sources to see what has already been studied. But, assuming your professor isn't going to hand you a topic to research, how do you start?

Starting point

You may get inspiration to do research on a topic after reading an article, seeing a documentary on TV, reading a newspaper story, or from many other sources. Here is one example of an article that might lead you to ask more questions:

Journal article:
Ewald, Paul. 1994. On Darwin, Snow, and Deadly Diseases. Natural History 103 (6):42-48.

Ewald told the story of John Snow, who investigated a cholera outbreak in London in 1849 and suspected that the disease was transmitted by the water supply. Snow wrote up his results in a book entitled On the Mode of Communication of Cholera and is credited with inventing the field of epidemiology. Also in London at the same time was Charles Darwin, writing On the Origin of the Species and inventing the field of evolutionary biology.

Ewald used the ideas of both fields to describe how an evolutionary approach to disease control of say malaria, a vector-borne disease, or diarrhea, a water-borne disease, could improve public health. He hypothesized that diseases that can be transmitted by water tend to be more lethal. He conducted research in the scientific literature to get evidence for this and found a correlation. Ewald then suggested that "understanding the evolution of virulence [of diseases] should allow us to identify interventions" (Ewald, 1994, p. 48). Because Natural History is a popular magazine and not a journal, we don't find in this article sections on method, results, conclusions, and bibliography. But many strands of Ewald's article might be taken as a starting point for further research.

Forming your questions

Your starting point can give you some background information about your general topic. Now you need to ask some investigative questions:
factual: (questions that explore background information)
(Example: What is epidemiology? What is a "vector-borne pathogen"? )
research (questions that say what line of inquiry you will follow)
(Example: What method does Ewald use to discover how diseases spread? Where does a disease like AIDS fit in this scenario? )

After resolving the factual questions you raise for yourself, you can better formulate research questions. Your investigations will be largely bibliographical, using published sources to see what has already been studied about a question. Be flexible in forming your topic in light of the scope of your assignment. As you discover that data does not already exist to answer your questions, be prepared to refine your topic.

Refining your topic

As you can see, identifying your topic is not a step-by-step formulaic process, but is integrated with initial library research. For instance, you may need to consult reference sources, such as encyclopedias, or secondary sources, such as textbooks, in forming your topic. You'll need to ask both factual and research questions. Start with general questions, and focus your questions until you have the thread you want to follow. Some pitfalls in defining your topic include asking questions that are too narrow or too broad. Defining a topic takes brainstorming, coming up with many ideas and rejecting some, and refining your questions. You can then move on to the next stages of your library research, finding and analyzing background (reference) information, primary literature, and other resources.