Students Hunt for Knowledge

Students Alex Benedict and Devin Sabin collecting soil samplesPhage Hunter students Alex Benedict (left) and Devin Sabin (right) collect soil samples and record GPS coordinates and other vital sample information.
For students enrolled in MMBio 194A and 194B, the first day of class is unlike a first day in any other class. Instead of spending time going over the syllabus and course requirements, the students get into three different vans, each of which drives in a different direction away from campus. Each student is armed with a tube and a tool for digging in the ground, which they will use to collect a soil sample that they hope contains a previously undiscovered phage (a type of virus that infects bacteria).
Students in this class are participating in Phage Hunters, a national undergraduate research program sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Phage Hunters at BYU is codirected by Professors Sandra Burnett, Julianne Grose, and Don Breakwell. In this pro- gram, students work to isolate, identify, and name new phages. The class is geared toward freshmen and sophomore students, who will have the opportunity to conduct mentored research, practice laboratory research skills, and possibly even publish their results.

After the exciting first day collecting phages, the class for the rest of the semester centers on those phages. Each student uses his or her own phage to infect bacteria, procure a pure sample of the phage, and extract DNA samples, which are then sent to the laboratory for sequencing. Upon receiving the laboratory analysis, students use computers to annotate the DNA sequences, identifying sections of the DNA sequence that code for proteins, and attempting to determine what the protein of the gene is actually doing.

The research is exciting because the students are venturing into uncharted territory with their phages. As Dr. Burnett said, “In this class, we’re actually conducting a research project instead of just practicing research protocols. In many labs, the experiments are set, and everyone knows what the outcome should be. With the phage hunters, because it’s a real research project, we don’t know what’s going to happen.” This uncertainty makes the class both exciting and challenging for the students.

Many students have been recognized for their re- search conducted in this class. Groups of students in the class prepare abstracts for the American Society for Microbiology branch meeting each April. This year, a BYU Phage Hunter’s poster was awarded one of only five top awards. Alicia Brighton, a star student in the class, will travel to the Howard Hughes Symposium in Washington, DC, to make an oral presentation of the classes’ research.

Joshua Fisher scraping a point on the agar in a petri dishPhage Hunter student Joshua Fisher scrapes a point on the agar in a petri dish to select a plaque of the phage he captured in a flower bed in front of the library on BYU campus.
The students love the class and are fascinated by the discoveries they make. “It was exciting just to see how it works—-how the genes assemble in order to create more
phages or what’s going on in a cell when a phage infects it,” explained Chris Kiser, a student from Portland, Oregon.
Students also recognize the value of the opportunity to do original research so early in their education. “The coolest part is not necessarily the results I’ve found, but how to do the research,” said Marshall Sheide, a student from Arlington, VA. “I’ve figured out how it’s done, and that’s helped me learn to trust other people’s conclusions and to make my own.” Bryce Lunt, one of the teaching assistants for the class, offered this praise: “In my opinion,” he said, “this class is the most valuable class you can take in this college.”