Faculty Innovator: Beth Rueschhoff, School of Natural Sciences

16th February 2024

By Steven Krolak

Indiana University 2030 Strategic Plan icon for student success, showing an outline of the two graduates in cap and gowns.

Beth Rueschhoff, Associate Professor of Biology, has reshaped the lab component of the department’s foundational introductory course to give first-year students an unprecedented early immersion in real research, enabling them to build critical technical skills, improve career readiness and participate actively in the global scientific community.

Breaking the mold

Rueschhoff’s innovation centers on BIOL-L101, Introduction to Biological Sciences, a two-semester course combining lectures and labs. Traditionally, lectures cover key concepts, labs put these into practice. Breaking this mold, Rueschhoff is using her lab to engage in a single authentic research project spanning the entire year.

Dr. Elizabeth Rueschhoff
Dr. Elizabeth Rueschhoff

The project centers on bacteriophages (“phages” for short), viruses that infect, replicate within and ultimately devour bacteria. Phage research has numerous applications, including in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

During the fall semester, students collect soil samples likely to contain phages. They then isolate, purify and amplify the phages they find before sending them to the Indiana University Electron Microscopy Center for imaging. Next, they isolate DNA from the phages, and sequence DNA from two of the specimens. In the spring semester, students annotate the genome of one of these phages. This involves identifying specific genes and their locations, and predicting the functions of the proteins that they produce. The students’ annotation is checked for quality and then submitted to GenBank, a National Institutes for Health (NIH) genome database.

A global community

Besides acquiring lab skills, students learn how to present their research results in discussions, at conferences and in publications.

According to Rueschhoff, over 80 students have participated, producing 18 presentations at the Indiana University Undergraduate Research Conference (IUURC) and the Indiana University Southeast Student Research Conference and Showcase. Three student teams have won awards for their research.

Rueschhoff and student authors have published one manuscript so far, and are currently in the process of revising another manuscript from the work performed in the spring 2023 semester, highlighting the published genome of a phage known as “Soos.”

Beyond the IU-verse, Rueschhoff’s students have access to a global community of researchers. The project is part of an initiative called the SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance–Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science) program, a national research community bringing together undergraduate students at more than 200 institutions large and small. IU Southeast is in the third year as a participating member school, supported by grants secured by Rueschhoff and Pam Connerly, dean of the School of Natural Sciences.

Membership in SEA-PHAGES allows entire classes to explore the full gamut of research activity, from collecting samples to sharing results. For example, two groups of students presented in 2022 and 2023 at the SEA Symposium, a virtual conference that attracts national and international participants.

An invaluable experience

“I like teaching this class because it gives students an opportunity to participate in authentic research very early in their academic career, giving them invaluable experience,” Rueschhoff said. “Many of these students may not otherwise have the inclination or opportunity to participate in undergraduate research, and this course provides them an opportunity that is built into their Introduction to Biological Sciences courses.”

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