On a warm July afternoon, a small group of high school and college students huddled around a high-powered microscope in a cool basement-level room at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) campus. They were hunting for a virus in a soil sample, and this was the moment of truth. One student took to his tiptoes to peer over a friend’s shoulder while another leaned forward, hands on her knees, eyes fixed on the microscope’s monitor. They knew what to look for – these viruses, or bacteriophages (a.k.a. phage), have characteristic shapes and structures that would be revealed as the microscope beamed electrons at a tiny copper mesh grid holding their sample.
That day, twenty-one students, all Native American Indian or Mexican-American, took turns walking in groups across campus from the wet lab to the tiny microscope room, chatting excitedly along the way. The students had bonded over the course of a three-day workshop hosted by HHMI’s Science Education Alliance program. Though the students were all National Institutes of Health (NIH) summer interns, their appointments were in different institutes, so this workshop gave them a unique opportunity to connect, in addition to learning about some cool science.
Like many of the students, Alexandra Hanson, from the University of California, San Diego, and member of the Acoma Pueblo tribe, didn’t know much about bacteriophages before the workshop. So, when she asked HHMI Program Officer Vic Sivanathan to explain the difference between phage and other types of viruses, he gave the group a simple definition: “All viruses need a host to reproduce. A phage is a virus that uses bacteria as its host.”
As the students found out, scientists have much to discover about bacteriophages, by identifying and characterizing newly discovered phage, understanding how they are related to one another, and exploring how they might be clinically useful. “Learning about phage and phage therapy has definitely been a highlight,” said Connor Whitten, of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in California. “The implications for the clinical field are phenomenal, and the [possibility] that if you have resistance to antibiotics and a phage cocktail can potentially eradicate those bacteria is actually really cool to think about.”
This program isn’t all about phage, though. As some of the students from Washington and South Dakota explained, the NIH summer internship and HHMI phage-hunting workshop provided them with hands-on research experience they might not otherwise get: “Our [high school biology] labs don’t compare to what we are doing here,” said Marilyn Frank, a high school student and member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. “We’re learning key techniques that you really have to learn and practice on your own, like pipetting,” said Cole Dittentholer, a Yakama tribe member and one of three students from White Swan High School. JoAnne Compo, also Yakama and an alumna of White Swan, agreed: “This experience is really beneficial for native kids because of the hands-on aspect,” she said. “And pipetting is fun,” added Connor Richards, an undergraduate at Brown University from the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge reservation.
While boosting their scientific acumen, the HHMI workshop also encouraged students to build networks. “We want them to be connected when they go back to their home institutions,” said HHMI Science Education Fellow Joslynn Lee.
Once home, the students become science ambassadors. JoAnne Compo, now a college student and second-year NIH summer intern, said, “When I first heard about the internship in high school, it seemed too good to be true. No one from our reservation had done this.” She spread word of her experience when she returned to White Swan High School. Maria Ortiz, a Mexican-American student who now attends White Swan, said, “Last year [when JoAnne and Cole Dittentholer were interns] was the first time any kids from our school got to come to Washington, DC, and after they had that experience, they talked to me about it and that’s when it started [for me] – I knew I had to get to NIH.”
A group of students swapping personal stories over lunch agreed – “if you can see it, you can be it.” This made it particularly meaningful that Lee, who studied organic and computational chemistry for her PhD, grew up on a Navajo reservation. “Joslynn knows what it’s like to come from a reservation and take those next steps [to being a scientist],” said Cherella Hughes, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and recent graduate of Fort Lewis College in Colorado.
Most of the students expressed interest in STEM careers, and considered the internship and workshop as good opportunities to “test the waters” and experience professional life in the lab. Cole Dittentholer was among those feeling inspired. “At the moment, I want to go into the biomedical sciences,” he said. “The more involved I am in science, the more I fall in love with it.”
Inspiration wasn’t the only takeaway from the workshop. Before the students hopped on the shuttle bus back to the NIH campus for the last time, they were handed a printout of their discovery – a phage! They had successfully isolated and identified a phage in a sample JoAnne Compo collected from a compost pile on the UMBC campus. The students decided to name their phage “DevineCompost,” to recognize the location of the discovery and to honor Rita Devine, who coordinates the NIH summer internship program and encouraged the students to attend the workshop.
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