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Discovering Viruses One Hunk of Dirt at a Time

UNLV welcomes inaugural SEA-Phages class, a two-semester, discovery-based undergraduate research course.

Campus News  |  Sep 21, 2017  |  By Francis McCabe
Students examine flasks of fluid.

Erin Cassin, an undergraduate teaching assistant works with seniors Sophia Nha and Tiffany Jeanite to examine a mixture of dirt and broth for growing phage. (UNLV Creative Services)

As Tiffany Jeanite and fellow UNLV senior Sophia Nhan huddled over a Bunsen burner they reflected on their first undergraduate class that took science out of the lecture hall and into their hands.

“I think it’s the coolest thing I could be doing right now. From the moment I heard about the SEA-Phages program I jumped on it,” Jeanite said.

At a recent lab session in White Hall, the two undergraduates, along with 17 other fellow classmates, wore white lab coats and blue latex gloves as they filtered out bacterial particles and soil from a test tube in order to isolate a bacteriophage, or a virus that infects bacteria.

Jeanite and Nhan are part of the inaugural SEA-Phages class, a two-semester, discovery-based undergraduate research course. It starts with students digging in soil to find phage viruses and progresses through a variety of microbiology research techniques in the fall leading to complex genome annotation and bioinformatic analyses in the springtime.

Life Sciences professors Philippos Tsourkas, Kurt Regner, and Christy Strong applied to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to bring the SEA-Phages program to UNLV. SEA-PHAGES stands for Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science.

Strong explained, “students will experience the triumphs and tragedies of real-life research, where experiments do not always yield the results that one hopes. They are going to fail, fail, fail, and fail, before they experience the triumph of success. There are no canned experiments and students are required to manage their own projects.”

The program began with students finding a soil sample to search for phages. Some used their backyards, others the Clark County Wetlands Park, Regner said.

At the end of the first semester, after finding their phage, the results will be sent to the University of Pittsburgh where the DNA of the phage will be sequenced and emailed back. In the spring, the students will conduct computer-based analysis of the genome using complex mathematical algorithms.

Part of the coursework will include the students maintaining an electronic notebook of their work and delivering verbal presentations of their discoveries.

Strong feels this will go a long way in helping the students get jobs in research fields or inspire them to go on to earning graduate degrees. “This hands on research is what employers are looking for. This gives them a taste of the world of research. It’s fun and it’s challenging,” she said.

Strong and her colleagues first learned of the program when a visiting professor from Brigham Young University suggested they apply for it. When their application was approved by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the professors received a crash course on how to teach the program during a weeklong trip to the University of Maryland in June.

For his part, Regner seemed smitten with the idea of his students getting all this hands on research experience as undergraduates. “When I was an undergraduate, I sat in lecture halls and the professors didn’t even tell jokes. I think this is a lot more interesting for the students,” he said.

Regner said the plan for the 200-level class, which integrates very well with other biology courses including genetics, microbiology and virology, is for it to be offered every year.

Back in the lab, Jeanite, who is planning on a career in pharmaceutical research, said she found her soil sample in a business park near the airport. “I’m hoping to find a phage that has never been found before,” she explained.

And she has a good chance of doing so.

The amount of phage viruses in the world can’t be quantified. Scientists can only speak in estimates when it comes to the number of phages and it’s a big estimate: Ten million trillion trillion (not a typo) phages, or 10 to the 31st power.

Meanwhile for Jeanite, doing this type of research is something she never imagined being able to do as an undergraduate. “This is a dream class for me. It has far exceeded my expectations.”

And it’s only week two.

Students examining plates.