All His World's a Phage
Graham Hatfull remembers when he was an undergraduate at the
University of London. "I thought scientists were incredibly clever
people, intimidating and inaccessible, the academic elite," he says. "I
never thought I could be one of them." Then he stumbled into an
undergraduate research project. "I ended up staying in the lab over the
summer, because I just couldn't stop at the end of the school year," he
Now, as an HHMI Professor and Eberly Family Professor of
Biotechnology at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studies
mycobacteriophages—viruses that infect mycobacteria such as the
kind that causes tuberculosis—Hatfull is dedicated to putting
students in research labs as early as possible in their academic
careers. "They should be doing science," he says, "not just
reading about what others have done."
He's not just talking about science majors, either. "There is a
general problem with our entire educational system," he says. "People
aren't learning how science is done or how scientists think, and that
is important no matter what career they end up in. It's time for
universities and research faculty to stand up and say that educating
people about science is vital, and to do something about it. That's
what HHMI is doing with these professorships. They are the first to put
their necks on the block, and they are in a position to have an
enormous impact on science education in this country."
Hatfull plans to attract students as early as their freshmen and
sophomore years into his research laboratory, where they will isolate
and sequence new bacteriophages and learn to analyze their genomes. He
also plans to involve high school students in the research. Eventually,
he hopes to have an entire high school class working on the initial
stages of phage isolation.
Everyone will be teaching as well as learning. Graduate students and
postdoctoral fellows will mentor undergraduates, and the undergrads in
turn will mentor high school students.
"It is a great mistake—and one often repeated—to think of
teaching as being separate from research, from doing science," says
Hatfull. "It really isn't a matter of a professor teaching students.
We're all in the same boat as students and researchers, desperately
trying to discover something that we didn't know before."
Hatfull expects to learn new and potentially useful things from the
students' research. "This is science at the cutting edge," he says,
"not just a laboratory exercise."
In his research, Hatfull often collaborates with HHMI investigator
William R. Jacobs at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Jacobs
will work with Hatfull's students, as will the University of
Pittsburgh's HHMI-supported undergraduate biological sciences