Biology 125 and 126 “Phage Hunters” are a research course sequence designed for freshmen using a “learning by doing” approach to introductory biology. It is a hands-on, discovery-based course with an emphasis on critical thinking. Meant especially for first-year students in the honors program, this course that has been a feature of the UMW Biology program since 2008 cultivates research skills in students that they continue throughout their 4 years at UMW.
What is a Phage, and how and why are students hunting it? A “bacteriophage” is a type of virus that can infect (and frequently kill) bacteria. During the Phage Hunters course students isolate these viruses–called phage for short –from soil, prepare the viral DNA for sequencing and annotate and compare the sequenced genome to other bacteriophages and bacteria. Student work in the course has real-life impacts beyond their classroom experience. UMW was one of the first schools in the nation to be selected to participate in this genomics research initiative, which is funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance. Real world applications include alternative treatments for bacteria which are resistant to antibiotics. Students from the Phage Hunters course present their work at campus symposiums, including Mary Washington’s annual Research and Creativity Day Symposium, and student representatives also get to present the class research every year at the annual National SEA-PHAGES symposium.
The opportunity to engage in research as early as their first semester in college has really been transformative for many students. Several students who have been part of UMW Phage Hunters pursue independent research projects, and have gone on to top medical and biology graduate programs as a result of their experiences, including George Washington University, Temple University, and Harvard.
Students who have been through the Phage Hunters course sequence often continue their research with biology faculty for their honors capstone projects or independent research. Currently senior Jay Boudreau is working on a project titled “Counteracting Antibiotic Resistance in Bacillus Bacteria with Phage Therapy.” Working with Assistant Professor of Biology Swati Agrawal, Jay is characterizing a novel Phage “JackRabbit” which Jay isolated during their freshman year exploring its potential for phage therapy against pathogenic Bacillus strains like Bacillus cereus (causative agent of gastrointestinal infection) and Bacillus anthracis (potential weapon for bioterrorism). Jay has presented at several local and national meetings and recently won the poster award at the Virginia Academy of Science.
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