The Northwestern College biology department has recently been selected to participate in a nationwide research project called SEA-PHAGE. The program, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), is focused on the study of viruses found on bacteria. These viruses are known as phages, and the project is a part of HHMI’s Science Education Alliance program—thus the acronym SEA-PHAGE.
NW is one of just 20 colleges chosen to join the program for the 2016-2017 year and will be working simultaneously with other schools across the nation.
“Schools all over the country are basically doing three things,” biology professor Dr. Sara Tolsma said. “They’re collecting soil samples and isolating bacteria, and then from the bacteria, they’re isolating viruses…the phages. Then they’re analyzing those phages in a number of ways, including DNA analysis, sequencing, and annotating the genome.”
Directors of the program from HHMI provide training for faculty members who are a part of the SEA-PHAGE project. They also negotiate the prices of necessary research supplies and sequence the DNA for free, which is helpful for academic researchers.
“We don’t get any money, but we get a ton of support and opportunity for our students to plug into this project, which is really cool,” Tolsma said.
One of the other exciting aspects of the program is the potential for it to be ongoing. NW has committed to being involved for at least the next five years, if not longer.
“The number of phages they think are out there is ginormous,” Tolsma said. “We’ve still only made a dent in understanding the diversity that’s out there.”
The SEA-PHAGE project will be integrated into three different NW classes—General Biology, Microbiology and Genetics—so that students have the chance to be involved at multiple levels. Because each of these classes is taught by a different professor, this means that the three professors get to work together.
“I do think it’s going to be a really cool opportunity for our students,” Tolsma said. “So I’m excited for our students. Sometimes it’s hard to provide research projects at a small college. Dr. Furlong, Dr. Noordewier and I will be doing this in our classes together, and collaboration is always fun.”
On top of the collaborative experiences the project will provide within NW’s classroom walls, NW students and professors have multiple opportunities to give feedback for the program and share their work with students and faculty at other schools.
“There’s a lot of assessment involved,” Tolsma said. “So we’ll be able to find out if there’s evidence that students learn more, learn better. And that’s collaborative as well—all of the students at all of the colleges involved.”
There will also be a symposium associated with the SEA-PHAGE project in June. As soon as the schools involved in the project have completed an entire round of research, one student and one faculty member from each college will be invited to present at the symposium. There they will be able to connect with and learn even more from students and faculty from other schools.
Overall, the biology department is looking forward to the new experiences this project will bring.
“It’s a really well-designed program, I think,” Tolsma said. “And we’re really excited to be a part of it.”