PROGRESS: Northwestern students gain experience in groundbreaking scientific research

PROGRESS: Northwestern students gain experience in groundbreaking scientific research

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Northwestern College SEA-PHAGES researchers

From left, Sabrina Tarchione, Chris Borchers and Courtney Mithelman are among the Northwestern College students who have benefited from participation in a program that provides discovery-based research experience for undergraduates.

ORANGE CITY, Iowa -- A national program designed to interest undergraduates in scientific research is doing just that at Northwestern College. Students are part of a global effort to discover phages, which are viruses that infect bacteria -- in this case, bacteria that live in soil.

“I learn so much more when I actually do the research myself,” says Courtney Mithelman, a junior from Johnston, Iowa, majoring in genetics, molecular and cellular biology. “I’ve definitely considered what research would be like as a career,” she says.

Chris Borchers, a biology-health professions junior from Sioux Center, says he, too, is open to the possibility of doing research. He also cites another benefit of the program: a more impressive résumé. He and other students enrolled in Genetics last fall will be co-authoring genome announcements for publication in a journal of the American Microbiological Society and posters for presentation at a national symposium and at the Iowa Academy of Science.

"That’s really important because when students apply for internships, graduate school or medical school, the people reviewing those applications are looking for research experience," says Dr. Sara Sybesma Tolsma, professor of biology. "If a student has published research, that shows their work has been peer-reviewed and found worthy.”

Tolsma led Northwestern’s application process for SEA-PHAGES, a program run by the Science Education Alliance (SEA) of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Northwestern was one of just 20 colleges and universities in the U.S. chosen to join the program in 2016-17. Nationwide, more than 100 schools participate. Since the program was launched nine years ago, over 16,000 college students have contributed to the exploration of microbial diversity by discovering nearly 9,000 bacteria-infecting viruses. SEA-PHAGES provides training sessions for faculty and pays for the cost of sequencing the DNA genomes of two phages per institution per year.

Northwestern is unique in its approach to the program. Rather than offer a single SEA-PHAGES course, Tolsma and her colleagues have embedded the research into three sequential courses. Students begin by taking General Biology their first year, where they are introduced to the SEA-PHAGES program and collect soil samples from a variety of sites.

In Microbiology, students isolate the viruses from the soil samples using a host bacterium. The phages are then purified and their DNA isolated and compared. The final step is to image the phages using a transmission electron microscope at the University of Iowa and enter information about the viruses into a SEA-PHAGES database.

The two highest-quality DNA samples are then sent to the University of Pittsburgh for sequencing. When those sequencing results are returned to Northwestern, students enrolled in Genetics, the third SEA-PHAGES course, work in teams to annotate the DNA, identifying the locations of individual genes and determining what the genes’ protein products do.

Estimates place the number of phages on our planet at 1031—a quantity almost impossible to comprehend. Phages are helping scientists understand life and develop new medical treatments. Thanks to the SEA-PHAGES program, Tolsma says, “Not only is science advancing because we know more about these phages, but there’s an army of undergraduates who are getting trained as scientists.”

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