Elizabeth Connor, associate dean for undergraduate education and development in the College of Natural Sciences (CNS), reports that the college is now in Year 3 of its UMass Inclusive Excellence (IE) Initiative. The initiative was funded by a five-year, $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to increase the university’s capacity for inclusion of all students, especially for students traditionally underrepresented in the sciences.
In order to improve the academic success of students majoring in STEM disciplines, UMass IE aims to provide authentic research experiences to science majors, especially those majoring in the life sciences, as part of a student’s first year curriculum and continuing into their upper division courses, she explains. As part of this initiative, the college launched the Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) program in the introductory biology laboratory experience.
SEA-PHAGES is a two-semester, discovery-based undergraduate research course that begins with students digging in soil for new viruses. It teaches a variety of microbiology techniques that lead to a better understanding of biological data and genetic codes.
Connor says, “We are delighted with our students’ progress and the power of SEA-PHAGES to excite and engage students in research regardless of their prior experience and background.” She adds, “Courses like SEA-PHAGES teach research skills as part of the curriculum, offering a much more inclusive approach to STEM fields and engaging students early in research experiences.”
Now launching its first full program year, CNS’s SEA-PHAGES began with a pilot Phage Discovery course taught by CNS faculty member Sloan Siegrist, microbiology, with Randy Phillis and Jessica Rocheleau, biology. Undergraduates who completed the course became mentors for first-generation, first-year students in the second offering of the course. “Both groups successfully completed the phage discovery semester. Each lab partner pairisolated and characterized a unique bacteriophage from soil samples taken on campus,” Rocheleau recalls.
In addition to mentoring the first-year students, the second-year students completed the second course in the SEA-PHAGES curriculum, Phage Bioinformatics, by annotating the sequenced genome of one of the phage isolated in the fall semester and publishing it in GenBank. This course was developed and taught by Peter Chien, biochemistry and molecular biology, and other members of the SEA-PHAGES team.
In finding and naming their own bacteriophages, students develop project ownership and have a personal research project at a fraction of the cost of traditional apprentice-based research programs, SEA-PHAGES organizers point out. It is jointly administered at the University of Pittsburgh and HHMI’s Science Education division.
Students gain experience with a range of microbiology techniques, electron microscopy for phage imaging, and DNA isolation and characterization. Their newly isolated phages are archived in the National Actinobacteriophage database at the University of Pittsburgh.
Team member Phillis says, “Feedback from students about their experiences was very positive with the vast majority of students reporting that they learned much more from this course than from traditional first-year biology lab courses.” Students were more motivated to understand lab procedures and appreciated the opportunities to master technical skills, that is far more difficult to achieve in a traditional lab course setting, he adds.
Also, “Students clearly understood that the work they were doing in the course was part of a real, national research project and said that they felt they developed a solid appreciation for the rigor and effort required for research success.”
Now in Fall 2020, CNS has enrolled 260 first- and second-year students in the program’s bioinformatics course. As course capacity expands, Connor adds, “it puts us on target for our goal of replacing the traditional introductory lab experience in biology with the SEA-PHAGES curriculum for all 1,200 students who participate each academic year.”