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USciences Expands SEA-PHAGES Research Program for First Year Students

By Jenna Pizzi

sea phagesDue to its popularity among students, the SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science) program at University of the Sciences will expand in the 2017 school year to allow more first-year students to participate in the hands-on, research-based course.

“Students learn extremely valuable skills and techniques during the program,” said Dr. Nicole Sunnen, assistant professor of biological studies and the primary faculty for the program. “Students learn science by actually doing science.”

During the program, which spans two semesters and is only open to first-year students, the research begins with the students extracting viruses from soil samples. Student then analyze and discover the virus using complex genomic annotation and bioinformatic analyses. USciences was selected last year to join the nearly 100 institutions that are a part of the consortium

“The students are contributing significantly to the larger scientific community through this research,” said Dr. Sunnen. “Each phage identified is archived, catalogued online and made available to researchers around the world for further analysis.”

This year USciences students found 16 novel viruses and studied them to determine their properties, cataloguing their findings in a national database for other researchers to access when studying the bacteriophages. Two of the bacteriophages—Porcelain and Audrick—were chosen for additional student-driven research projects.

In addition to research skills, two students who completed the program in the 2015-16 school year traveled to the 8th Annual SEA-PHAGES Symposium. The meeting of approximately 84 institutions who have SEA-PHAGES programs was held in June 2016 at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farms Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia.    

Samantha Donovan BMS’19 and Shivsai Gongalla BMS’19 were selected to give an oral presentation on the research.

Donovan said in addition to research skills she learned a few public speaking skills at the symposium, too.

“I felt so lucky to be at such a prestigious institution and to meet so many interesting people from across the nation,” said Donovan. “Being surrounded by so many students who understood the research we had done was indescribable.”

The ability to participate in a hands-on research opportunity during her first semesters in college was a big draw for Donovan, who said she first heard about the SEA-PHAGES program at accepted students’ day.

“The class helped me see my passion for research and my desire to continue with it into my academic career,” said Donovan, who is studying biomedical science and hopes to eventually go to medical school.

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