Science & Technology/Genomics Course Gives Freshmen Hands-on Research Experience

Issue Date: 
October 8, 2007

Pilot program created at Pitt goes nationwide next year

A national network of scientists and educators is developing new methods and materials for teaching science—and a pilot course has already been rolled out at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) on Oct. 2 announced the creation of the Science Education Alliance (SEA). It will be based at HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia.

One of the new programs that will be distributed nationally next year through SEA was created at Pitt by Graham F. Hatfull, the Eberly Family Professor and chair of biological sciences in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences.

First-year Pitt students in the two-semester pilot course work at isolating and characterizing previously unknown bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria.

Bacteriophages were chosen for student research because they are plentiful, highly diverse, and easily isolated directly from nature, HHMI officials said. They also have relatively simple and small genomes.

Students first isolate their own bacteriophages, then clone and sequence the DNA.

“This is one example of the kind of innovative curricula and teaching methods that the SEA will disseminate,” said Tuajuanda C. Jordan, HHMI senior program officer and director of the SEA. Jordan was formerly associate vice president of academic affairs at Xavier University of Louisiana.

The SEA initiative is a new direction for HHMI, which for two decades has funded science education programs run by faculty and teachers at institutions across the United States.

The genomics course builds on the work of two HHMI professors—Hatfull and Sarah C.R. Elgin at Washington University in St. Louis—as well as the efforts of Brad Goodner, HHMI undergraduate program director at Hiram College in Ohio, and A. Malcolm Campbell, director of the HHMI-supported Genome Consortium for Active Teaching at Davidson College in North Carolina.

All four are serving as scientific advisors to the SEA.

The research-based laboratory course provides beginning college students with a true research experience and, it is hoped, will solidify their interest in a science career, Jordan said. “We are trying to catch students early—before they have a chance to become bored or overwhelmed,” she said.

After sequencing is complete, students will finish, annotate, and compare the genomes of their bacteriophages against genomes sequenced by other students in the SEA national network. Faculty will be expected to publish or present research findings from the project and deposit final phage sequence information into public databases.

“The outcome of their studies could shed light on various scientifically relevant issues, including virus-host interactions and microbial gene transfer,” said Peter J. Bruns, HHMI vice president for grants and science education.

Based on the pilot-course experience, Jordan and her collaborators will develop a resource guide for the course and design a faculty training workshop to be held during summer 2008.