Biological SIGNALS: Information Flow, Storage, & Exchange

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About Signals


How to Apply

Frequently Asked Questions

Historical List of SIGNALS Projects


About the Program

2019 Program Dates: May 28 - August 3, 2019

The application period will open November 1st, 2018 and close February 15th, 2019. 

Interested in a research career? Experience of the richness of the research environment at a premier research university with this hands-on summer program. You'll get an invaluable glimpse of what graduate-level study and research careers might entail, while being surrounded by a supportive community of peers and stimulated by extra activities that help add meaning, encourage critical thinking, and allow you to explore and prepare for your post-graduate future.

SIGNALS is designed to be accessible to rising juniors and seniors who might not otherwise have this kind of undergraduate opportunity. There is no cost for program participation. In addition, a stipend is provided to each student, and housing and travel costs are covered. Underrepresented minority, low-income, and first-generation college students are strongly encouraged to apply, as are students from smaller institutions without broad research facilities.

Program participants live close to campus and perform full-time research for 10 weeks within a discipline-based research group led by a faculty member. A seminar series taken alongside allows participants to learn from each other's experiences and contextualize their research projects within the overarching theme of biological information flow, storage, and exchange. Additional events and activities build community, support career and graduate school exploration, and help students build useful skills, such as science writing. Students present their projects at a final symposium and write research reports to summarize their findings.

The Theme: Information Flow, Storage, and Exchange

Understanding information flow, storage, and exchange is essential to decoding the cellular mechanisms of growth, development, and reproduction of organisms, as well as their interactions within populations and interrelationship with the environment at the ecosystem level (AAAS, 2009). These concepts are at the core of research questions across biological sciences disciplines. The diverse research projects that SIGNALS participants undertake—which may involve any scale from molecules to ecosystems—will each explore a research question related to understanding the many forms of information or signals in biological systems, how information moves within and across biological scales, and/or how signals from the environment can impact cellular processes and thus affect organismal and population activity. 

You may have already wondered about information-related questions such as...

  • How do bees and other pollinators know which flowers to go to?
  • How do viruses communicate with host cells?
  • How can toxins in the water change the development of aquatic organisms?
  • How do cells control the flow of proteins and membranes between different cellular compartments?

Come explore how an understanding of biological information flow, storage, and exchange can help you answer your research questions.

Eligibility Requirements

  • Strong career interest in biological science research
  • Undergraduate student status, between the sophomore and senior year; must have student status when the program session starts (see Frequently Asked Questions for more info)
  • U.S. citizenship or permanent resident status
  • Grade point average of at least 3.0 (see Frequently Asked Questions for more info)

Students who are African American, Hispanic, Native American, Southeast Asian, Native Alaskan or Native Pacific Islander OR who are from low-income homes OR who are the first in their family to attend college OR who attend small liberal arts institutions without broad research facilities are strongly encouraged to apply.

How To Apply

The application for the next year's session will be available from this web site starting November 1st, 2018. The "Apply" button at the top of this page will take you to the online application.

During the application process you will need to provide:
  1. Names and email addresses for two people who will provide letters of recommendation
  2. Electronic version of your college transcript (scanned hard copies if electronic transcripts are not available); unofficial transcripts are acceptable.
  3. Three short personal essays on the following:
  • How your participation in SIGNALS would contribute to your future goals and career plans.
  • Which area(s) of research are of interest you.
  • Any previous research experience you've had, if any.

Selection and Placement

Selection and laboratory placement of students will take place in January, February, and March. Applicants who are not placed will be notified by the end of April.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why should I come to UW-Madison for a summer research program?

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has one of the strongest biological research communities in the U.S. It offers graduate training programs in over 40 areas of biological research. Participants report that SIGNALS has helped them determine whether graduate school is right for them, check out UW-Madison for grad school, and learn particular research techniques.

Housing costs are covered. What does that mean?

Participants in the summer research program are housed in the Regent apartment building, which is within walking distance of laboratories and State Street (i.e., downtown Madison). Participants from other summer programs are housed in the same building. 

I noticed there are other summer research programs in the biological sciences at UW-Madison. Can I apply to more than one?

All of the biological sciences summer research programs at UW-Madison share one application. When you apply, you will rank your choice of programs. You can be considered for multiple programs with one application.

How many students do you accept?

Each year SIGNALS accepts 12-20 students into the program from a pool of about 350 applicants. The size of the 2019 program is contingent upon funding.

Is SIGNALS open to minority students only?

No. The National Science Foundation (NSF), has endorsed opening Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) programs like SIGNALS to non-minority students who attend small liberal arts colleges as well as to minority students. Both minority students from all universities and non-minority students from small universities (without broad research opportunities) are encouraged to apply.

What are the ethnicity/gender ratios for SIGNALS?

~87% underrepresented minority and ~70% women

If preference is given to students between their junior and senior years, can I get in if I'm going to be a junior?

We favor students entering their senior year because this is their last chance to participate. However, we accept well-qualified students who will be juniors.

My grade point average isn't quite 3.0. Should I apply anyway?

We occasionally accept promising students whose GPAs are less than 3.0. Be sure to tell us WHY you are a 'promising' student in your essay, and if possible, make sure your recommendation letters indicate that this experience would be worthwhile for you and that you'll perform successfully.

I'm a UW-Madison student. Can I apply to SIGNALS?

Yes. Preference may be given to members of underrepresented minority groups (African American, Hispanic, Native American, Southeast Asian, Native Alaskan or Native Pacific Islander), low-income and first-generation college students, and other underserved groups, depending on funding requirements and other considerations.

How are applications reviewed?

An initial screen of applicants is made by program staff. Files from the best-qualified applicants are forwarded to particular faculty mentors based on research interests expressed by students in their applications. Each mentor reviews the applications and determines which student is the best fit for their research. The progam then contacts the selected student to confirm their interest in a specific project and offer them a summer research position.

Can I enroll in summer school or have a job while participating in SIGNALS?

No. SIGNALS participants do research full-time (at least 40 hr/week). The idea is to enjoy an intensive research experience when you are freed from the schedules and obligations of coursework.

Leadership Team

This program is funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Site Grant.

  • Janet Branchaw, PI
  • David Wassarman, Co-PI
  • Amber Smith, Program Coordinator

Contact us with any questions at or (608) 265-0850

Janet Branchaw

Director of WISCIENCE, Assistant Professor of Kinesiology
Contact Info

(608) 262-1182


Room 109

445 Henry Mall

Madison, WI 53706-1577

Ph.D., 1996, Physiology, University of Wisconsin - Madison
M.S., 1993, Physiology, University of Wisconsin - Madison
B.S., 1990, Zoology, Iowa State University

Past Programs, Projects, and Classes
  • Integrated Biological Sciences Summer Research Program (IBS-SRP)
  • Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research and Mentoring (URM) Program
  • Entering Research course series
  • Entering Mentoring seminar
  • 2009 - 10 Biology Scholars Research Residency Fellow
  • Biocore 323, Organismal Biology
  • Mentor Training Adaptation for STEM Disciplines
  • Ways of Knowing Biology course
  • Creating a Collaborative Learning Environment
  • CALS 388 - Honors in Research Seminar
  • Physiology 335 - Human Physiology
  • Physiology 720 - Medical Physiology
  • Anatomy 437 - Human Anatomy - Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy
Committees, Collaborations, Affiliations
  • UW-Madison Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP)
  • Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation (WiscAMP)
  • CIRTL/Delta
  • College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Honors in Research Committee
Invited Workshops / Selected Publications
  • 2008 – Mentor & Mentee Training Workshop, University of Texas – El Paso
  • 2008 - Entering Mentoring Presentation, National Academies Summer Institutes
  • 2008 – Entering Mentoring Presentation, UW-Madison Symposium on Teaching & Learning
  • 2006, 2007, 2008 – Mentoring Training Workshop, Arizona State University
  • Pfund, C., Maidl Pribbenow, C., Branchaw, J.L., Miller Lauffer, S., and Handelsman, J. (2005) The Merits of Mentor Training, Science 311:473-474.
About Me

When not teaching animal physiology or working to improve undergraduate biology education, I enjoy spending time with my family, swimming, and reading.

Amber R. Smith

Associate Director of WISCIENCE & Director of Research Mentor and Mentee Training
Contact Info

(608) 265-0850


Room 118C

445 Henry Mall

Madison, WI 53706

I earned my PhD in Plant Breeding Plant Genetics from UW-Madison and continued my education with a postdoctoral experience centered on developing first-year transition programs for biology students. After working at the University of Michigan in the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, I joined the WISCIENCE staff as the Director of Mentor and Mentee Training.

I coordinate the Integrated Biological Sciences Summer Research Program, coordinate and instruct the Entering Mentoring and Entering Research courses, and oversee the research peer leadership students.

Outside of work, I love hanging out with family, cooking, and spending time outside.