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Posted: Monday, September 20, 2010 9:00 pm

The biology department has introduced an innovative phage genomics research program this semester with the help of a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). There are 18 sophomores enrolled in the new lab that has taken the place of Biology 201 lab, Cell Biology.

About 50 other schools aside from Gonzaga are involved in the two-credit program designed to give students an opportunity to work on a real research project in their field of study.

In common language, phage genomics deals with bacteriophages, the most populous life forms on the planet. These bacteriophages, or phages for short, are the microscopic viruses that infect bacteria.

The 18 underclassmen taking the course in its first semester are working diligently on collecting soil samples from Gonzaga's campus and around the city of Spokane.  With their samples they will isolate the phages from the local soil and check to see where a bacteriophage has been destroying cells.

"Science knows almost nothing about these phages and how they influence the rest of life on Earth," said Kirk Anders, associate professor of biology. "The research project aims to begin discovering and characterizing bacteriophage. Our focus is to find bacteriophage that infect and kill a common soil bacterium called Mycobacterium smegmatis."

The HHMI has supplied the department with most of the supplies and tools necessary to complete the lab work. The grant has paid for disposable supplies, solutions, petri dishes, technical services, and travel expenses for faculty conducting the classes.

Although the research is challenging, students are gaining hands-on experience through their individual studies. The goal is to discover their own phage in the soil they collect.

"This is different from traditional labs where students learn a new technique or concept each week, but each lab is essentially independent," said Marianne Poxleitner, assistant professor of biology. "The phage genomics lab offers the students ownership of their project and teaches them how research is conducted in a more realistic lab setting."

The lab research that the students participate in utilizes the methods and protocols tested by HHMI scientists.

The students are able to work at their own pace until they can "achieve the final goal" of determining the presence of a sole phage and "generating enough DNA for sequencing," Poxleitner said.

DNA sequencing will permit students to see the exact order of nucleotide bases in a molecule of DNA. Aside from witnessing their data on paper, students have the opportunity to achieve an even greater goal.

Each year, HHMI will pay travel expenses for faculty and one Gonzaga student to attend the Science Education Alliance (SEA) Phage Genomics Symposium. At the conference, the student will present lab results to the SEA members, including the lead scientist for the project, Graham Hatfull of the University of Pittsburgh.

The phage genomics lab has gotten biology students more involved in their coursework and more excited about the hands-on experience.

"It has provided an interesting alternative to traditional labs," Taylor Oswald, a sophomore biology major, said. "It allows me to learn the fundamentals of biology without relying on a textbook for answers and provides the thrill of working on a relevant research project."

Oswald adds that the project has motivated her peers to work harder to get the results they desire. The lab has given the students a purpose because they will be able to see how their individual work pays off as the results come in.

"This is just one aspect of a bunch of great things that are happening in the sciences at Gonzaga right now," Anders said. "Students are receiving excellent preparation for going on in science and medicine."

This year marks the beginning of a three-year trial for the phage genomics program at Gonzaga. The HHMI and biology faculty will be monitoring and documenting student outcomes closely.

"We know that the best way to learn science is by doing science," Anders said. "And doing science means using the research process to learn something new about how nature works."

With barely a month of the first semester under the biology students' belts, the phage genomics lab has already shown signs of high interest and success.

"I am extremely excited about this lab," Poxleitner said. "I think that sharing the excitement of scientific discovery with these students will give them an understanding of how gratifying and challenging a career in scientific research can be."

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