There’s no doubt about it, coming up with a research topic that’s original, interesting and scientifically valid is tough for experienced researchers, as well as students hoping to compete in the SBC. Here are some helpful hints. Coming up with an idea for a project is a collaborative event. Ideas are not born in a vacuum; they originate from interactions and discussions with peers, teachers, parents and others, such as professionals in academic institutions and the biotech industry. It is a common mistake to refuse outside input out of fear of losing ownership of the idea.

Finding Inspiration

The search for a research topic can begin with students making an inventory of personal interests and gaining a basic understanding of biotechnology. What you are interested in should drive your topic selection. List some of those interests and, with that in mind, begin some background research into biotechnology — what it is, what sciences it involves, most recent advances, controversies, and the like. There’s a wide variety of sources such as your local newspaper, industry newsletters, magazines like Scientific American and Discover.

The PubMed® database of scientific literature on the NCBI website provides free searchable abstracts of all medical publications from approximately 1970. Here is a PubMed® tutorial that will guide you through its use. (Tip: Including “review” as one of the keywords pulls out articles of a more general nature.)

Some regions offer help in the form of project or general writing workshops. The national coordinator will be able to propose the appropriate workshop and/or direct you to someone who can help you further formulate your idea.

Proposal Development: A Case Study

For example, you might be concerned about pollution and have found out that certain types of bacteria consume or absorb some of the chemicals polluting our local water supply, rendering them harmless to humans. Armed with this knowledge, you might develop a research proposal that would investigate how these bacteria could be used to improve water quality in your community. (Note that several students’ projects have already dealt with this topic; the following is for illustrative purposes only.)

The next step is to specify what you plan to investigate in the form of a problem and possible solution. Remember that all research begins with a question and ends with an answer. In some cases, you might come up with several questions that will require you to obtain experimental data to support the corresponding answer.

For example, your question might be “How much of bacteria X is needed to remove chemical Y from Toronto’s water supply?,” or “How can enough bacteria X be produced to treat all of Toronto’s waste water?”.

From among many possible solutions, you will have to choose which one you think is most correct and can realistically be investigated by you (the two may not always coincide). Then, identify the type of experiment(s) you would need to carry out to test your solution. In addition to the experimental methodology, the research design should include:

  • the kinds of equipment and supplies you might need to buy or borrow
  • funding required for experimental and display materials
  • access to expert advice from a mentor at a local university, government agency or biotechnology company

Remember that you are not looking to repeat an experiment that has already yielded specific results. Instead, you are attempting to answer a specific question of your own choice that will require the application of scientific investigative processes and experimental techniques. The method or research experimentation you choose may be original or may follow a pre-described methodology. In either case, the rigour of good scientific method should be followed, both in the experiment and in the analysis of data yielded from the investigation. Your teacher and mentor can advise you about proper procedures and techniques.

Many good projects have failed because students simply ran out of time to complete their experiments and the analysis of the resulting data. It’s essential that you develop a realistic project schedule that allows you sufficient time to complete your project.

On a final note, make sure that your proposed topic falls within the definition of biotechnology as “the use of the knowledge of biological systems” (in this case, chemical-eating bacteria,) “to produce goods and services,” (e.g. waste water treatment.) For example, if you proposed using an inorganic chemical rather than bacteria to treat the polluted water, the project would not involve biotechnology and would not be approved.

While this process may seem a bit intimidating, you should be aware that students in previous years have come up with some excellent and intriguing research proposals. Take a look at the sample projects from past competitions to get some ideas about what kind of project you might be interested in doing.

Most often, proposals submitted are too ambitious to be carried out with the time and resources available to students in this competition. Through consultations with a mentor and other experts, modifications are made to offer students a realistic chance of success.

Sample Proposal

Here’s an example of the first step in the evolution of an idea. This original proposal by Calgary student, Harry Zhou, is posted here with his permission. While it was accepted in principle, the project was modified after much consultation with researchers in the field. Harry did not work on producing a gene therapy vector nor testing it, but rather, studied radiation-induced cell death with different levels of the tumor suppressor protein p53. A gene therapy project is simply not feasible.

Download Harry Zhou’s Sample Proposal.

SBC Proposal Requirements

Ready to get started? Ensure your proposal covers each of these requirements.

  • Title: A scientifically informative title. The proposal must be 1,200 words or less and must be submitted online. What is hoped to be accomplished in the investigation?
What question is trying to be answered? (1 or 2 sentences).
  • Introduction: Background information on the organism(s) or process(s) that will be investigated. (1 or 2 short paragraphs).
  • Relevant Application: Explanation of how the idea was arrived at, or justification of why such an investigation is worth doing.
  • Experimental Design: Detailed description subject groupings; explanation of variables being controlled, manipulated and measured; phases of experiments if they are to be done in stages.
  • Results and Interpretation: Explanation of the form of results and suggestion of possible mechanisms.
  • Appendices: Materials and Methods. Detailed explanation of the methods and techniques required for proposed research work; list of materials, instruments and equipment that your school will be able to provide toward this project.
  • Timeline of Project: Indication of plan of progress toward the SBC competition.
  • Mentorship Support: Name and contact information for supervising teacher; name and contact information for mentor(s) or indication that suggestions for possible mentor(s) are required.