By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–IU Southeast biology students will now benefit from membership in a national research community.
That community is called SEA-PHAGES, which is short for Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science.
It is jointly administered by a research team at the University of Pittsburgh and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education division.
The program is a two-semester, discovery-based undergraduate research course that begins with simple digging in the soil to find novel bacteriophages (or “phages”–viruses that replicate within bacteria), but progresses through a variety of microbiology techniques and eventually to complex genome annotation and bioinformatic analyses, according to the SEA-PHAGES website.
In the current academic year, the program brings together nearly a thousand undergraduate students at 75 institutions including Drexel University, George Mason University, Gonzaga University, Howard University, The Ohio State University, and UCLA.
Dr. Pam Connerly and Dr. Beth Rueschhoff, associate professors of biology, are the two faculty members steering IU Southeast’s involvement. Connerly has worked with phages since the early 2000’s, using them to give undergraduates an early taste of original research and a sense of accomplishment.
But that work had limitations, as it does for all institutions–not enough faculty to go around.
“Several faculty members conduct research with individual students outside of class, or as part of independent study classes, but it’s not practical for more than a couple of students to work with a faculty member each semester,” Connerly said.
Membership in the larger group will enable more IU Southeast students to take part in research than previously.
“Now the full class of students in these pilot SEA-PHAGES sections will each get to do hands-on, publishable research over the course of a year – many of them as first-year students.”
This is a game-changer within the biology program, giving students access to a broader community of fellow researchers and research methods.
“They will gain practical hands-on lab skills and experience in the importance of recording their work in detail, have opportunities to present their work, and be part of a team that depends on one another,” Connerly said. “Students who like the process of research will be a step ahead in pursuing additional research experiences with faculty in the department or through summer programs off-campus.”
For their part, Connerly and Rueschhoff will be part of a cohort of new members joining an active community of faculty who are already engaged in the SEA-PHAGES program. These colleagues can provide advice and best practices on everything from research to the logistics of social distancing and reduced class sizes, should those still be necessary in the fall. The pair will also participate in two training sessions and yearly symposia to present their findings. In this way, the students’ individual findings will be joined to those at other institutions and laboratories engaged in phage research, allowing for large-scale publications analyzing massive data sets.
This level of collaboration will be new to IU Southeast, increasing its voice in the partnership and the value of the partnership for IU Southeast students.
For Connerly, one of the most important effects of student involvement in research is the likelihood of greater student retention and persistence.
In a study on the impact of the program published in mBio, an American Society for Microbiology journal, SEA-PHAGES researchers were able to demonstrate that freshman students participating in the SEA-PHAGES program at a set of 20 institutions matriculated into the second year at much higher rates than STEM majors and all other students.
“There is great potential for students to make great connections with each other as well as with science in the process,” Connerly said. “Undergraduate research is a high-impact practice that has been linked to student success, and conducting that research over the course of a semester or year with the same group of people is sure to build a sense of belonging, which is also linked to student retention and success.”
Homepage photo: Transmission electron microscope (TEM) image of a purified bacteriophage (unnamed) collected by an IU Southeast student. Image by Barry Stein at the IU Electron Microscopy Center at IU Bloomington. Courtesy of Dr. Pam Connerly.