I just wanted to add my $.02 to this discussion, though since I'm a first
year grad student, I'm not sure how much good it will do.
If you are quite serious about research (and it seems that you are) then the
absolute best place to go is a relatively small research university with
an emphasis on undergraduate education. Of course, I'm biased, because that's
exactly the kind of school I went to. I can think of (off the top of my
head) a number of schools like this -- Caltech (which has already been
mentioned on this thread), Brown, Dartmouth, Princeton, Duke, Washington
St. Louis. At all of these schools, (with the exception of Caltech, where
one has to actively work at it) you also get a liberal arts education, almost
I know that you've been warned away from large schools, but I would like to
add other factors in their favor. Although the intro classes are huge (you
get that anywhere, even a small school) there is a wide diversity of courses,
and at a land-grant university, many different biological departments, which
give you multiple perspectives on the field (ecology as taught by the
forestry department has some new and exciting twists). And, at least here at
Penn State where I'm a grad student, there is money specificially set aside
to fund undergrad research. Students take research credits and can do honors
projects, and some of the funding comes from the department. At any of the
better large universities, such programs probably exist. If you really want
to do research, it's relatively easy to get invovled.
Small liberal arts schools are wonderful, but.... (watch me ask for flames
here), they are two problems that I've seen so far (my little sister is
a freshman heading for biology at such a school). First of all, the courses
are TAed (the lab ones) by undergrads. This can be a problem, because some
of them really don't care, and would much rather do their own work than
do their job -- it's much more important to teach well when you're continued
existence at grad school hangs on it than when it's just a job you get paid
for. The other thing that she's seeing is that research money is very scarce,
much more so than at the larger schools, which do have a graduate program.
Now of course, there are many schools which do not have these problems, but
these are things to watch out for.
Anyhow, I'll get off my horse now, and just mention, that should you
be interested in Princeton (my alma mater), I'd be happy to discuss
the pros and cons of life and biology there.