Program to fund research by Northwestern biology students

Northwestern College has been chosen to participate in a program funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that helps colleges provide research opportunities for undergraduate students.

The program is part of the institute’s Science Education Alliance and involves the study of phages, which are viruses that infect bacteria. It provides training for Northwestern faculty who will teach the SEA-PHAGE courses and will pay for the cost of sequencing the DNA genomes of those phages, as well as other necessary supplies. Just 20 colleges and universities across the nation were selected to join the program in 2016–17.

“We’re fairly unique among the schools that are part of this project,” says Dr. Sara Tolsma, the Northwestern biology professor who led the application process for the program. “Rather than have a single SEA-PHAGE course, we’re embedding it into three sequential courses so that our students will have this experience over the course of three semesters.”

Northwestern students taking General Biology from Dr. Laurie Furlong will be introduced to the SEA-PHAGE project and then strategically plan and collect soil samples from a variety of sites—such as from traditionally farmed agricultural land, organically farmed land, native prairie and restored prairie. In Microbiology, taught by Dr. Byron Noordewier, they will isolate bacteria from the soil samples and isolate the bacteriophages, or viruses, from the bacterial samples. They’ll then use an electron microscope at the University of South Dakota to image the phage before isolating and analyzing the phage DNA in Northwestern’s science labs.

After the DNA has been sent away for sequencing, students who enroll in Genetics will complete the project. As part of that course, they will put the DNA sequence information into a national database and conduct experiments to compare the diversity of the bacteriophages collected from different sites.

According to Tolsma, Northwestern students have already been isolating DNA, cutting DNA with restriction enzymes, and using the bioinformatics database. The SEA-PHAGE courses will provide a unified use of those techniques directed at a specific goal.

“The more opportunities students have to participate in research—and the earlier they can do it—the better,” she says. “The SEA-PHAGE courses will be taken by first- and second-year students, so by the time they get into upper-division courses where we already have opportunities for students to do research, they’ll be better trained to do additional research.”