Biochemistry, Genetics, Microbiology
University of Pittsburgh
Graham Hatfull is Professor of Biological Sciences and Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Graham Hatfull knows from personal experience that straight As 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 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.
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 hesitate. 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 Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Sciences (PHAGES) Initiative will have introduced phage hunting to college freshmen at over 75 universities around the country as of fall 2015 through a two-term, research-based course. Hatfull serves as lead scientist for the project, which has been popular with students and faculty alike.
In the future, Hatfull proposes taking PHIRE to the next level—enabling students to design their own independent research initiatives based on their phage discovery expreriences. Advances in DNA technologies 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."