More Hands in the Dirt

February 01, 2011

Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) created the Science Education Alliance (SEA) in 2007 to develop resources that enable undergraduate science educators to present innovative courses and programs. Since then, participating faculty have worked together to bring the excitement of experimental research to students, primarily freshmen, who have isolated at least 1,400 soil-dwelling bacterial viruses, called phage, and analyzed the DNA sequence of almost 100 different phage.

WolyniakParticipating schools offer the course over an entire academic year.  In the first term, the students isolate phage from locally collected soil. Given the diversity of phage, each one is almost certain to be unique, and the students get to name their newly identified life form.  They spend the rest of the term purifying and characterizing their phage and extracting its DNA.

Between terms, the DNA samples are sequenced at one of several research centers across the country.  In the second half of the course, the students receive digital files containing their phage's DNA sequence. The students then learn to use bioinformatics tools to analyze and annotate the genomes.

Fourteen institutions, including Hampden-Sydney College, are joining the SEA as associate members.  Faculty from associate schools attend training sessions that allow them to implement all or part of the phage course. Dr. Michael J. Wolyniak, Assistant Professor of Biology (above), and Dr. Kristian M. Hargadon '01, Assistant Professor of Biology, are the Hampden-Sydney faculty members who will be trained to implement the phage course.

Hargadon"Both full and associate members have some really wonderful ideas about how the course can be transformative, not just within biology but connecting it potentially to other disciplines like chemistry," says SEA's director, Tuajuanda Jordan, "I think that is a good sign that people really think this course can make a difference."

2011 Science Education Alliance Members and affiliates include Brown University, The Johns Hopkins University, Gettysburg College, Illinois Wesleyan University, Miami University, Morehouse College, Smith College, and Trinity College (CT).