SEA Change in Education
Many students see “real science” as the province of professors and graduate students. But thanks to HHMI’s Science Education Alliance (SEA), hundreds of undergraduates, including first-year students, have done original research on widespread viruses, called bacteriophages, that infect bacteria.
Furthermore, in a major milestone for the students, the results of their work were published in PLoS One, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal. The 192-author article was published in January.
The journey began in 2008, when SEA launched the National Genomics Research Initiative (NGRI) for students and faculty at 12 colleges and universities under the guidance of program director Tuajuanda Jordan.
The goal was to offer an introductory science course that gave students authentic, meaningful research experiences, says Graham Hatfull, an HHMI professor and University of Pittsburgh scientist. “Students are keenly aware of the differences between an exercise and discovery,” he says. “When students are doing something that matters to someone, it really engages them.”
Bacteriophages presented a tantalizing opportunity for the first SEA project. Because the viruses are so numerous, they provide a vast amount of unexplored territory. In addition, the process of uncovering and describing new phages was straightforward enough that undergraduates with little or no lab experience could still play a vital role in the research.
Students who enrolled in the course collected local soil and isolated phages from it. They then purified and characterized the phages and extracted DNA from them. Once that process was finished, they used bioinformatics tools to analyze and annotate the genomes. Although most of the phages discovered fit within previously described genetic “clusters,” students from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., found a phage that was entirely unique, which they dubbed LeBron.
In all, 18 phages (including 6 from Hatfull’s pre-SEA classes) were presented in the PLoS One paper, which not only showcases the diversity of such phages, but also suggests how they might compete in the wild. David Asai, director of HHMI’s precollege and undergraduate science education programs, says the work gives a glimpse of how much more can still be done.
“We’ve only just touched a tip of the iceberg, yet we can begin to see how complex this group of viruses is,” he says. “Students’ work contributed new information to the world, and that’s what science should be about.”
Because the paper represents only the work done by the first group of 12 schools and not the dozens of schools that have since been added to the project, additional papers are likely to be published in the coming year. This fall, 12 new schools (the fourth cohort) will be added to the NGRI project, bringing the total to 70 schools in 33 states and Puerto Rico.
Although Hatfull is thrilled that the students’ work has been published, he says he’s more excited about the potential of innovative projects like these to spark the interest of students who might otherwise pursue different paths.
“I’ve had students tell me that the program inspired a passion for biology and new career goals,” he says. “It’s mind-boggling to think about the impact that a program like this can have on a large number of students.”
In future years, SEA’s leaders plan to build on what they’ve learned from NGRI about how to scale up the work of a single grantee to have that kind of impact, whether it be through the development of new lab courses, teacher training, mentoring, or other avenues.