Graham Hatfull knows from personal experience that straight A's are not the only path to a research career. "I was the kind of kid who was average academically, to put it nicely. I didn't worry that much about it," he says. But that changed when, as an undergraduate at the University of London, Hatfull became intrigued by an independent study project on the peculiar properties of blue-green bacteria. In fact, he was so enthralled that he spent the next two summers living in the dorms and surviving on cheese sandwiches to complete the unpaid project.
Years later, as a professor and department chair at the University of Pittsburgh, he finds that experience still shapes his educational philosophy: Science should be open to any student of any age or potential whose imagination could be ignited by doing research.
In 2000, when a high school teacher from nearby Latrobe, Pennsylvania, asked him if two of her students could be involved in his research, Hatfull didn't give it a second thought. He put them to work isolating new bacteriophages—viruses that can infect mycobacteria, the type of bacteria that can cause human diseases such as tuberculosis. "I saw no reason why they shouldn't be fully involved in a research project" rather than washing test tubes, he says. And with that, the Phage Hunters program was born.
In the PHIRE program (Phage Hunters Integrating Research and Education), students isolate phages from soil, purify their DNA, and then sequence it to reveal the organisms' genome. Hatfull says that PHIRE works for any novice scientist—student, teacher, or politician—because it doesn't require academic brilliance as defined by academic test taking, just a desire to follow where curiosity leads. He hopes this type of introduction to research will expand the diversity of the people who do science.
PHIRE offers high school and undergraduate students a chance to get their hands dirty—literally—and find out if research interests them. Starting with tactile tasks like collecting soil, adding buffer, and plating phages on Petri dishes gives students a concrete foundation. Then, when the research transitions toward the more abstract concept of a genome, the rush of genomic letters coming out of the computer isn't as intimidating, Hatfull says. "The toughest part of education is teaching concepts that are abstract and hard to understand."
Hatfull's PHIRE program has provided the framework for the first nationwide effort by HHMI's Science Education Alliance, which the Institute hopes will become a resource for science educators nationwide. The National Genomics Research Initiative will have introduced phage hunting to college freshmen at 44 universities around the country as of fall 2010 through a year-long, research-based course. Hatfull serves as lead scientist for the project, which has been popular with students and faculty alike.
During the next four years, Hatfull proposes taking PHIRE to the next level—letting students' projects evolve to testing hypotheses about how interesting genes found in the phage genome might operate. Advances in DNA technologies now let phage hunters ask questions about which genes are most important to the phage, what those genes control, and whether a particular gene affects the mycobacterium host in some way.
"If this works well, we'll have the best of both worlds: the initial discovery part, which levels the playing field among students, and a foundation for doing hypothesis-driven experimentation," he says. "The PHIRE program is very much about lighting fires and inspiring kids to do science."