Finding Infections One Hunk of Dirt at a Time

As Tiffany Jeanite and fellow UNLV senior Sophia Nhan huddled over a Bunsen burner they reviewed their very first undergraduate class that took science from the lecture hall and into their hands.

“I believe it’s the coolest thing I could be doing today. From the minute I became aware of the SEA-Phages program I got on it,” Jeanite stated.

At a recent laboratory session in White Hall, the two undergraduates, in addition to 17 other fellow schoolmates, wore white laboratory coats and blue latex gloves as they removed bacterial particles and soil from a test tube in order to isolate a bacteriophage, or a virus that contaminates germs.

Jeanite and Nhan are part of the inaugural SEA-Phages class, a two-semester, discovery-based undergraduate research course. It starts with students digging in soil to find phage viruses and progresses through a range of microbiology research techniques in the fall resulting in intricate genome annotation and bioinformatic analyses in the spring.

Life Sciences professors Philippos Tsourkas, Kurt Regner, and Christy Strong used to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to bring the SEA-Phages program to UNLV. SEA-PHAGES represents Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science.

Strong explained, “students will experience the accomplishments and catastrophes of real-life research study, where experiments do not constantly yield the outcomes that one hopes. They are going to fail, fail, fail, and stop working, before they experience the victory of success. There are no canned experiments and students are needed to handle their own tasks.”

The program began with students discovering a soil sample to look for phages. Some used their yards, others the Clark County Wetlands Park, Regner stated.

At the end of the first term, after discovering their phage, the outcomes will be sent to the University of Pittsburgh where the DNA of the phage will be sequenced and emailed back. In the spring, the students will perform computer-based analysis of the genome utilizing complex mathematical algorithms.

Part of the coursework will include the trainees preserving an electronic note pad of their work and delivering spoken presentations of their discoveries.

Strong feels this will go a long way in helping the trainees get tasks in research study fields or inspire them to go on to earning graduate degrees. “This hands on research is what companies are trying to find. This provides a taste of the world of research study. It’s enjoyable and it’s tough,” she said.

Strong and her associates first found out of the program when a visiting teacher from Brigham Young University suggested they apply for it. When their application was authorized by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the teachers received a refresher course on how to teach the program during a weeklong journey to the University of Maryland in June.

For his part, Regner seemed taken with the concept of his students getting all this hands on research experience as undergraduates. “When I was an undergraduate, I beinged in lecture halls and the teachers didn’t even tell jokes. I think this is a lot more fascinating for the students,” he said.

Regner said the prepare for the 200-level class, which incorporates very well with other biology courses including genetics, microbiology and virology, is for it to be used every year.

Back in the laboratory, Jeanite, who is intending on a career in pharmaceutical research study, said she found her soil sample in a business park near the airport. “I’m wanting to find a phage that has never ever been discovered before,” she described.

And she has a great chance of doing so.

The quantity of phage infections on the planet can’t be quantified. Researchers can just speak in estimates when it concerns the variety of phages and it’s a huge quote: Ten million trillion (not a typo) phages, or 10 to the 31st power.

Meanwhile for Jeanite, doing this kind of research is something she never ever pictured being able to do as an undergrad. “This is a dream class for me. It has actually far surpassed my expectations.”

And it’s only week 2.

Students examining plates.

Trainees examining plates.

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