Virus Hunters

First-year students' hands-on research adds to national genome database

First-year students became hands-on virus hunters as part of a yearlong research project at Gettysburg College in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Science Education Alliance (SEA). 

Sixteen new students captured viruses found in soil on campus. In biology courses stretching across two semesters, they isolated some of the viruses that prey on a certain strain of bacteria and analyzed the viruses’ genomes. The students will be listed as authors of new genome contributions to the National Center for Biotechnology Information database.

“I never thought I’d get to do something like this,” Danny Zeng said as he tended to a sample of his bacteriophagic virus — or “phage” — which he dubbed “Uncooperative” because of its voracious appetite. “If I don’t check it every 24 hours, then there’s no more bacteria,” he said. Virus names chosen by other students ranged from “Avani” to “Melvin.”

“Compared to other colleges, we’re way ahead of the game,” Warren Campbell said, noting that as a first-year student he has used tools like an electron microscope and processes such as gel electrophoresis, and has been able to collaborate closely with professors.

Such opportunities are what led Joe Robinson to enroll at Gettysburg. “I looked at other small liberal arts colleges, and I didn’t hear about anything like this,” the first-year student said. “The idea of doing research was definitely a motivating factor.”

The phage courses also helped Mike DiCandia choose Gettysburg, and the experience helped him land his dream internship for this coming summer. He’ll be working at the Navy Medical Research Center in Maryland.

“I was very surprised” by the high level of hands-on experience provided by the phage classes, said Aden Lessiak. “I was really scared at first, but the professors were very helpful.”

Though the phage courses are for first-year students, “they’re more like what juniors and seniors do,” said Prof. Véronique Delesalle, who chairs Gettysburg’s biology department.

“During their first week of college, we threw them into the deep end, but students rise to the level of expectation,” said biology Prof. Greg Krukonis, an expert on the evolution and ecology of viruses. “First-years need to be launched. The most important thing for them is a sense of possibility, of pursuing what you want to pursue. We’re engaging them in a life of the mind that’s fun as well as studious. We’re having a blast. This is the best teaching I’ve done.” Students and professors also bonded through field trips and barbeques.

Robinson was especially appreciative of the research’s long-term and collaborative aspects. In high school, he said, experiments were very short-term and felt predetermined step-by-step. In the phage courses, by contrast, students worked together for a year to make real discoveries: “We would say, ‘Hey, look at gene 105. There’s something weird there.’”

Like working scientists, students had to develop and defend their ideas in a collaborative setting. In analyzing the viral genomes, Delesalle said, each student had to create a complete annotation: “Where does each gene start and stop? And what is its function?” Then, each team had to come to a consensus based on its members’ individual annotations. And finally, the class as a whole had to review all the teams’ findings and hammer out a unified position. “It took us two class meetings to do that,” Delesalle said.

The rigorous process paid off. After Delesalle submitted the students’ results, a research professor at the University of Pittsburgh sent the following to schools participating in the SEA: “If you would like to see an example of a great annotation, here is Avani from Gettysburg College. I was able to check this entire genome in an hour because the biological decisions behind the annotation were both sound and very well documented. Congratulations to Gettysburg.”

Gettysburg College is one of 26 new schools that joined the SEA this year. Ranging from large research universities to small colleges, they joined 36 other schools in offering the yearlong course. Faculty from member institutions received training in course implementation.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute plays a powerful role in advancing scientific research and education in the United States. Its scientists, located across the country and around the world, have made important discoveries that advance both human health and our fundamental understanding of biology. The Institute also aims to transform science education into a creative, interdisciplinary endeavor that reflects the excitement of real research.

The Science Education Alliance represents an innovative way by which the Howard Hughes Medical Institute can significantly impact science education across the education continuum. It creates the opportunity to bring leading scientists and educators together to develop, implement, and/or disseminate vetted and novel methods, technologies, and practices that can broaden scientific understanding and participation.

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Posted: Fri, 6 Apr 2012

Next on your reading list

Discovering her resilience: World traveler to future Marine

Celebrating the Class of 2018

Cultivating a first-class faculty: Prof. Allen Guelzo receives prestigious award

Share this story: