Dissertations and Research Projects (Master’s)

Brocks Illuminations 1906 postcard
Brocks Illuminations 1906 postcard

Postgraduate taught students in UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS) undertake summer research projects resulting in dissertations or research reports. Professor Joe Cain supervises some students in this work, as do all academic staff in STS. The formal UCL module codes include:

Role as supervisor for research projects

Professor Joe Cain’s role as supervisor involves assisting students in their research endeavours, from start to finish. This includes more than 15 years experience supervising at the postgraduate level and nearly 50 postgraduate projects.

Getting started

This involves project definition and scoping potential. What’s the research idea? How can this idea be translated into doable research (i.e., work that meets the expectations of the module)? How can this idea be stretched or restrained to meet the time constraints available for work? There’s no sense attempting the impossible.

It also involves knowing how to break into existing literature and knowing who might be contacted to offer more guidance and information.

Connecting dissertations to careers is important. Depending what a student wants to do, projects can be adapted to serve portfolio needs and to develop experience in specific areas. We discuss this from the start. In recent years, some students want to publish their work. A supervisor can advise of outlets that might be suitable given the work.

Making connections

Synthesis is the key to research projects. It’s not enough to write a mass of descriptive material. And it’s not enough to show analysis and critique. A mark of distinction will come from a project that builds new structures based on solid foundations. Add original content and novel conclusions. Add sculpting skills. Integrate your work with those already published in the same area and reflect this against the subject’s theoretical literature.

This is a lot of work for research projects. A supervisor’s role involves gently pushing you forward with questions, encouragement, and guidance towards more material.  

Milestones and project management

Deadlines must be met. Research projects are undertaken in an unstructured setting. It’s the student’s responsibility to make time for their project, but this happens within the context of busy academic calendars. Time management is a skill, and supervisors help in this area by setting expectations for what is reasonable at any given point of a project timeline. They keep work in perspective, too. Work in these projects tend to follow a predictable timeline. An experienced supervisor knows this, and knows how to anticipate needs. If bumps occur, supervisors can help students keep their balance, stick with their plan, and adapt to conditions warrant.

Academic rigour and criteria for assessment 

Supervisors mark research reports. Of course, supervisors will read drafts and offer advice. But that’s the least important part of discussions about academic rigour. The top goal is to put you into an academic conversation with the best researchers in the world in one particular topic. Preliminary goals focus on the basics: clarity, organisation, style, and substance. How is evidence used? Is an argument being assembled? Is the use of literature substantial? How does the work provided match up to the criteria for assessment?


Dissertations and research projects aren’t simply one more module. These are capstone modules. They are meant for students to show what they can produce when working at their very best as an independent and experienced expert. Life as a researcher is different from life as a student. Mentors work to guide students through the transition. At the end of a project, most students look back at the start of their projects and see something hard to recognise. That’s evidence of real growth and learning.

Ideas for research projects in history of science

In fact, Professor Joe Cain supervises projects across the whole range of history and philosophy of science (HPS) and science and technology studies (STS). If you’re looking for a supervisor, ask for a conversation. If he’s not right for it, he’s likely to suggest someone who is.

Projects related to these areas are welcome with special enthusiasm: 

  • history and philosophy of palaeontology, historical or contemporary, including palaeontology as science communication
  • history of science at the seaside, such as history of aquariums, natural history collecting, zoology and oceanography
  • history of evolution, including Darwin, Darwinism, and the synthesis period in evolution (such as researching the contributions of individuals working in 1930s-1950s, such as George Gaylord Simpson, Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky, G. Ledyard Stebbins, E. B. Ford, Julian Huxley, and so on)
  • history of biology
  • science and the publishing industry, historical or contemporary

Recent Taught Post-Graduate Supervisions

Professor Joe Cain has supervised nearly 50 taught post-graduate research projects in his career. Some research projects have gone on to publications of one kind or another. For example, 

  • Steel, Emily. 2011. He is no loss: Robert McCormick and the voyage of HMS Beagle (London: British Society for the History of Science), 74 pages. ISBN: 978-0-906450-18-5. (link) (also won 2008 Friends of Wellcome Trust Centre for History of Medicine Prize).
  • Buttolph, Michael. 2008. One hundred and one Mendelians (London Centre for History of Science, Medicine and Technology) (link).
  • Waring, Sophie. 2009. Margaret Fountaine: The Life of a Lepidopterist (published in Notes and Records of the Royal Society 69:53-68 (2015) with slightly revised title (link).

Here are some of the past research projects I found most exciting:

  • Peter Lincoln. 2015. Identity, Patronage and Civic Pride: Science in Ipswich, 1841-1861 (awarded STS Best Dissertation Prize)
  • Ruth Wainman. 2012. ‘Engineering in Miniature’: Promoting Engineering and Invention in Toy Construction Sets 1901-1936. (awarded 2013 London Centre Dissertation Prize)
  • Kate O’Sullivan, Kate. 2010. The Fossil Case: Thomas Hawkins and the metamorphosis of fossils (awarded 2010 London Centre Dissertation Prize)
  • Elizabeth Haines. 2010. Let’s Talk about Science: A critical analysis of oral history practices in HSTM
  • Owen Davies. 2008. To the Honour and Advantage of the Navy” – Exploring the Admiralty Manual of Scientific Enquiry
  • Susannah Gibson. 2007. Robert Edmond Grant, Sea Sponges, and Parisian Philosophical Anatomy (2007 Friends of Wellcome Trust Centre for History of Medicine Prize)

And there are many other pieces of fascinating work:

  • Laura Kemp. 2011. Dredging the Narratives of the Challenger Expedition: An Exploration of how Historical Accounts and the Significance of Historical Events come to be Constructed and put to use
  • Frances-Catherine Quevenco. 2011. A proposal for effective public engagement in a Neuroscience Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications programme
  • Lucia González Pacheco Sosa. 2009. A Perfect and Truthful Record: Photography and Objectivity in Science
  • Paula Botero. 2009. The “Philosophical Travel” to Brazil: shaping the role of the naturalist in the Amazon [on Alexandre Rodrigues Ferreira]
  • Camille Roux. 2008. A communication of a singular fact in natural history [on the Quagga]

(If I’ve left you off this list, please get in touch!)