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The quality of those thinking skills and the significance of the science produced was on full display in the January 27, 2011, issue of the peer-reviewed journal PLoS One where 192 coauthors composed of students from the first cohort of SEA schools and from the University of Pittsburgh identified and characterized 18 previously unknown phages. At the time, their work represented a fifth of all bacteriophage genomes characterized.
The ability to adapt the course to best fit the students and curricula of an individual school is part of what makes it so effective at institutions ranging from elite universities to regional colleges, according to Jordan.
While the course has been built around phages that infect Mycobacterium smegmatis, a cousin of the bacterium that causes tuberculosis, some schools are switching to different organisms because they are less expensive or easier to work with or represent “uncharted” territory. For example, the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, through a collaboration with the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Dahlgren, will look for phages that infect spore-forming bacillus bacteria—common and easily maintained organisms that could inform the Navy’s work on anthrax bacteria.
At the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, the biology department will institute a Helicobacter pylori genomics lab course and the environmental science and neuroscience departments will explore the effect of mercury on embryonic development in frogs.
One of the most exciting ways the phage course is evolving takes the effort to upper classmen. The first cohort of schools faced a “problem” when students were eager to continue pursuing questions arising from the phage course work and the schools had nothing to offer them.
“Once you've sequenced and annotated a phage genome, this is just the beginning of discovery,” says associate professor Aaron Best of Hope College in Holland, Michigan. The annotation process sheds light on new avenues of exploration that truly engaged students want to pursue. “We had a student at the end of the course throw up her hands and ask if this was IT?” laughs William & Mary biology professor Margaret Saha. Like most of the first cohort of schools, Hope and William & Mary are developing courses for upperclassmen designed to explore gene expression patterns in the phages they’ve annotated.
“People always ask how we afford to offer this experience,” Saha says. “It’s really not that expensive when you consider what it gives the students and the institution. It’s mostly time and it just works so well.”