Finding Viruses One Hunk Of Dirt At A Time

As Tiffany Jeanite and fellow UNLV senior Sophia Nhan huddled over a Bunsen burner they reviewed their 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 right now. From the minute I heard about the SEA-Phages program I jumped on it,” Jeanite said.

At a current lab session in White Hall, the two undergrads, together with 17 other fellow classmates, used white lab coats and blue latex gloves as they filtered out bacterial particles and soil from a test tube in order to isolate a bacteriophage, or an infection that infects germs.

Jeanite and Nhan become part of the inaugural SEA-Phages class, a two-semester, discovery-based undergraduate research study course. It begins with trainees digging in soil to discover phage infections and advances through a variety of microbiology research study techniques in the fall resulting in complex genome annotation and bioinformatic analyses in the spring.

Life Sciences teachers Philippos Tsourkas, Kurt Regner, and Christy Strong applied 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 described, “students will experience the accomplishments and tragedies of real-life research study, where experiments do not constantly yield the results that one hopes. They are going to stop working, stop working, fail, and stop working, before they experience the victory of success. There are no canned experiments and trainees are required to manage their own jobs.”

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

At the end of the very 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 trainees will conduct computer-based analysis of the genome utilizing complex mathematical algorithms.

Part of the coursework will include the students preserving an electronic notebook of their work and providing spoken discussions of their discoveries.

Strong feels this will go a long way in helping the students get tasks in research study fields or motivate them to go on to making graduate degrees. “This hands on research is exactly what employers are searching for. This gives them a taste of the world of research. It’s fun and it’s challenging,” she said.

Strong and her colleagues first found out of the program when a visiting teacher from Brigham Young University recommended they obtain it. When their application was approved by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the professors received a crash course on how to teach the program throughout a weeklong journey to the University of Maryland in June.

For his part, Regner appeared taken with the idea of his students getting all this hands on research study experience as undergraduates. “When I was an undergraduate, I sat in lecture halls and the teachers didn’t even inform jokes. I believe this is a lot more intriguing for the trainees,” he stated.

Regner said the plan for the 200-level class, which integrates extremely well with other biology courses including genetics, microbiology and virology, is for it to be offered every year.

Back in the lab, Jeanite, who is planning on a career in pharmaceutical research study, said she found her soil sample in an organisation park near the airport. “I’m wanting to discover a phage that has actually never ever been found prior to,” she explained.

And she has a good chance of doing so.

The amount of phage viruses on the planet cannot be quantified. Researchers can only speak in estimates when it pertains to the variety of phages and it’s a big price quote: Ten million trillion (not a typo) phages, or 10 to the 31st power.

Meanwhile for Jeanite, doing this type 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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