Biology Graduate Program Student Handbook 1. Getting Started

1.1 Academic Advising

Students should seek advice on coursework, research and career goals from their faculty mentor, their committee (see below) or the graduate coordinator. 

1.2 Choosing a Mentor

Perhaps the most important task that one will undertake is to decide on a faculty mentor. While most of you have already decided on a mentor prior to coming to UNF, it bears mentioning that this is not always set in stone. A Master’s program is a great way of discovering what things you like, and what things you don’t like. Take a lot of time to explore various science trajectories until you discover your own niche of interest. One of the best aspects of a Master’s degree is that there is still plenty of opportunity to explore additional venues. Thus, look around the department, talk to your graduate student colleagues and try to get a feel for everyone.


Once you have decided on a major advisor, you should begin formulating your research agenda so that a graduate committee can be convened. Your graduate committee will help you formulate your hypothesis, provide valuable advice and possibly equipment, and generally assist you in your progress toward your degree. You and your advisor will be the best judges as to who is on your committee, but the committee must consist of at least three members (a major professor and two other members). The other members are often members of the department, but not always. However, the Graduate School must vet all potential members, and thus committee members new to UNF must be approved prior to their instatement.

1.3 Student Orientation

An annual orientation will be held for all incoming graduate students prior to the beginning of each fall term.  This orientation will give all new students a chance to meet the graduate coordinator and to go over all of the policies and requirements of the program, get teaching assignments, and obtain information on getting IDs, keys, parking passes, etc.

1.4 Biology Graduate Student Responsibilities

Biology Seminar Series

The Department hosts the Biology Seminar Series in the fall and spring semesters with invited guest speakers spanning the diversity of Biological Sciences. This is an excellent opportunity for graduate students to see a range of talk topics and interact with the scientists themselves. Thus, attendance at these seminars is mandatory for GTAs and is expected of all graduate students.


The faculty will at times have scheduled lunches or visits with the seminar speakers, during which time graduate student attendance is strongly encouraged. This is not an arbitrary task, but undertaken to allow the students a one-on-one opportunity to interact with other researchers. Plus, guest speakers typically enjoy talking to graduate students a lot more than they enjoy talking to the faculty.


One of the most important activities for a practicing scientist is in the dissemination of data, and graduate school is an excellent place to begin such endeavors. Therefore, all graduate students will give some sort of seminar at least once per year. This may be a full or half seminar (25 minutes or 50 minutes) for students defending their theses, a talk for an upcoming conference (typically 15 minutes) or a brief communication (10 minutes, for example when a student is formulating their proposal and eliciting feedback from the department as a whole). The seminar coordinator will set aside some dates for graduate students, stacking them in the case of multiple talks or singularly based on need.

Departmental Service

Being valuable members of the department, graduate students should nominate one of their brethren to attend departmental meetings, typically held the first Friday of each month.


Also, as the department continues to grow we will continue to recruit and interview new faculty members. An important thing that perspective candidates need is an unbiased view of what is actually going on in the department. Thus, events such as graduate student lunches are of paramount importance, and therefore participation is mandatory. In addition, we faculty are eager to hear the impressions and assessments of putative future colleagues that graduate students provide.


The department will also periodically sponsor seminars or colloquia throughout the semester which will also require GTA attendance.

Hazardous Waste Training

All graduate students are required to complete an on-line Hazardous Waste Training course, available via Canvas. You will only have to complete this course once.

Student Assessment

One of the most important aspects in the educational experience of graduate students is the feedback from Faculty. Further, it is incumbent on departments to continually assess and strengthen their faculty and staff. As such, we take issues related to assessment very seriously.


Graduate students are integral members of any department, and in ours specifically since these students help us in the classroom, laboratories and myriad departmental activates. Just as their roles are numerous, so to are the expectations for their progress and advancement in their graduate careers.


The department recognizes the roles and importance of graduate students, and thus has implemented the following guidelines to assess several components of graduate education in Biology:

  1. Scholastic aptitude
  2. In-class teaching
  3. Proposal Writing
  4. Thesis Writing
  5. Oral Defense

Scholastic Aptitude  
To become a functional biologist, a vast array of biological knowledge needs to be obtained. Many of our MS students go on to Ph.D. programs, and even those who do not often remain in the research fields.


In order to assess graduate student scholastic knowledge, the department conducts two separate exams prior to graduation. The first of these is a written Qualifying Exam.  This exam is multiple choice with questions from the following six subject areas:  Evolution, Molecular and Cell Biology, Genetics, Physiology, Ecology and Biodiversity.  Students are required to take this exam in their third semester and pass with at least a 70%.  Students that do not pass the exam will be given a second attempt that same semester.  Anyone that fails to pass the exam after two attempts will be dismissed from the program.  Upon passing the Qualifying Exam, students will then be given an oral exam that is developed and administered by the graduate student’s committee, and while the format is variable and up to the individual committee, it typically includes questions from:

  1. general biology
  2. field specific knowledge (based roughly on the environmental/ecological and cell/molecular/microbiological tracks)
  3. thesis specific questions.

This test is typically administered during the second year, and often lasts 2-3 hours. If students are found to have an unsatisfactory grasp of the salient knowledge sets, as determined by the committee, several remedies are available: students may be required to take additional courses in areas of deficient knowledge (e.g., Biochemistry, Advanced Evolution, etc.), teach a General Biology I Lab, write review paper(s), etc. Students who show a serious deficiency may be asked to leave the department.


Further, the graduate coordinator evaluates all graduate student transcripts at the end of the semester to ensure satisfactory scholarship. Students who do not meet the minimum standards (letter grade of B) are placed on academic probation; a second below satisfactory grade may lead to dismissal from the department.


In-class Teaching

Part of the educational process for graduate students is becoming good instructors themselves. However, this can be a very daunting task for incoming graduate students. Thus, the department has instituted a Graduate Teaching Assistant seminar; this forum, held before the start of the semester, assists incoming and established GTAs in developing an effective teaching style and eases the anxiety of first-time instructors.


During the semester, the course Lead Lecture Professor will conduct an in-class evaluation of all GTAs during their class periods (forms follow). At the end of the semester they will submit this letter, with any additional comments, to the graduate coordinator. This letter, together with the student evaluations, which all GTAs will administer, will provide an excellent tool for identifying the strengths and weakness of the GTAs.


Proposal Writing

All M.S. students are required to submit and defend a thesis proposal to their committee.  To remain in good standing this should happen by the end of the third semester.  This proposal will be judged by your committee according to a rubric.  Essentially, the proposal must be written well with a clearly defined set of questions and hypotheses and a well-designed experimental method.  Students must defend their proposal a minimum of two semesters before they can defend their thesis.


Thesis Writing

All M.S. students are required to submit and defend a thesis to their committee as the last step to graduation.  This document will be judged by your committee according to a rubric.


Oral Defense

All M.S. students are required to give an oral defense of their thesis to an audience of faculty and peers prior to their private defense of their thesis with their committee.  This presentation will be judged by all graduate faculty in attendance according to a rubric.  


1.5 Program Director Responsibilities

The program director is responsible for ensuring all of the graduate students are making satisfactory progress toward their degree, handling their responsibilities and enforcing departmental and university policies.  The program director will administer the written exam (see below) that each graduate student must pass and will maintain a file on each student in the program containing all documentation in regard to their degree.  Laboratory coordinators report on each of the GTAs that teach lab sections in their classes and the program director will compile this information and meet with each GTA every semester to discuss their performance.  The program director is also the point of contact for any situations that may arise regarding conflicts between a graduate student and their mentor. 

1.6 Offices & Services

Fax Machine

The department has a fax machine available for school related endeavors (904) 620-3885.

Mail and Postage 

The departmental office has mailboxes for everyone, and a photocopier for class use. Items that directly relate to class needs (e.g., quizzes, tests, etc.) or research (articles for advisors, manuscript or grant submissions, etc.) are provided gratis.


Non-departmental correspondence may also be mailed, but must be accompanied by the necessary postage.


The address format for receiving mail is:


Your Name
Department of Biology
University of North Florida
1 UNF Drive
Jacksonville, FL 32224

Office Supplies

The department will provide various supplies (e.g., pens, pencils, paper, etc.), within reason. For other necessary items, please visit the Campus Bookstore. As a University employee, you are eligible for a 20% discount, provided you show your campus ID.

1.7 Graduate Faculty in Biology

Greg Ahearn


Biology, anatomy, physiology, aquaculture, crustaceans, environment, aquaculture and nutrition

Doria Bowers

Associate Professor

Mosquito-Borne Viruses of Public Health Concern, Microbial Intrigues, Integrative Microscopy

Joseph Butler


Wildlife Conservation issues, especially Turtles, Gopher Tortoises, Interests also extend to the Environment, Coastal Biology, Zoology, Ecology
Dale Casamatta

Associate Professor

aquatic ecology, biology, coastal biology, algae, ecosystems

Terri Ellis

Assistant Professor

Human infectious diseases

James Gelsleichter

Assistant Professor

shark biology, hormone function, reproduction, toxicology, pollution

Matt Gilg

Associate Professor,

Graduate Program Director

Invasive species Biology and Genetics

Courtney Hackney


Director of Coastal Biology

Wetlands, Sea Level Rise, general Coastal Ecology and coastal development

John Hatle

Associate Professor

Effects of reproduction and diet on lifespan in insects

Michael Lentz

Associate Professor,

Pre-Med Program Advisor

Viruses, including the human flu virus

Dan Moon

Associate Professor,


Biometry, Community Ecology, Ecology of coastal communities, food web dynamics, insect ecology, coastal biology, butterflies and other interesting insect facts

Judith Ochrietor

Associate Professor,

Biomedical Program Director

Molecular and Cell Biology, Molecular Biology Techniques, Cellular Biology, Cell and Molecular Neuroscience, Immunology, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry

Julie Richmond

Assistant Professor

marine mammology

Cliff Ross

Associate Professor,

Assistant Chair

Cellular mechanisms of stress responses in marine organisms, ecological physiology

Tony Rossi


Applied Ecology, Conservation, local bogs, insects and carnivorous plants, UNF Conserved lands