For the past two years, a handful of freshman biology students at the College of William and Mary have jumped directly from high school into hands-on research on dirt-dwelling, bacteria-infecting viruses called phage.
Many of the students enrolled in the year-long course, part of HHMI’s Science Education Alliance, come to William and Mary without a strong high school science background but find themselves inspired by science by the end of the experience, says HHMI program director Margaret Saha. “It’s authentic research,” she explains. “They know that what they are doing has never been done before and that it will be used by other scientists.” As a result, more participants remain science majors and go on to conduct research with faculty than do students in the traditional introductory biology labs.
William and Mary will use part of its new $1.2 million grant to spread the enthusiasm to more students. The school is designing several new courses modeled on the phage research but incorporating the scientific pursuits of their own faculty members. That means interested students can continue their research at William and Mary after the course. “After a year they don’t want to drop it,” Saha explains. “They could do this for four years and publish their findings.”
In one course, students will venture deep into a mature forest called College Woods, where they will sample and analyze the bacterial communities that live in the soil. The students will also compare the College Woods bacterial community with another forest’s to identify the differences in the soil. Another course will focus on the effects of mercury on the environment—the subject of research by an interdisciplinary group of William and Mary faculty. Students will test samples from a contaminated site for the presence of mercury and then examine how exposure to mercury alters gene activity in laboratory animals.
The college will also partner with nearby Thomas Nelson Community College to adapt the new courses to the community college curriculum. Thomas Nelson faculty will participate in the research in William and Mary labs before returning to their campus to introduce the courses to their students.