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Dec. 12: Carnegie Mellon Students To Participate In "Nationwide Science Experiment"


Jocelyn Duffy                     

Carnegie Mellon Students To Participate
In "Nationwide Science Experiment"

University One of 12 Selected To Offer Research-based Genomics Course to Freshmen

PITTSBURGH — Beginning next fall, a group of Carnegie Mellon University students will be among the first freshmen to take a nationwide genomics course in which they will conduct authentic research and possibly impact human health and the environment.     

The Mellon College of Science's Department of Biological Sciences is one of 12 programs selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to be part of the Phage Genomics Research Initiative, the first major effort from HHMI's Science Education Alliance (SEA).  The course, which HHMI is calling a "nationwide science experiment," intends to teach college students how to approach science problems creatively, while encouraging them to pursue further study and careers in science.

According to HHMI, a number of studies have shown that students rank undergraduate research experiences as the most important factor in deciding whether or not to pursue graduate studies or a career in science. Most undergraduates conduct research during their junior or senior year, or during summer programs, but the SEA program will catch them early. The HHMI also hopes that the SEA program will help students select majors.    

Jonathan Jarvik and Javier Lopez, associate professors of biological sciences, will lead the course at Carnegie Mellon.

"This new course will give freshmen at Carnegie Mellon the opportunity to do important research early in their college careers, " Jarvik said. "Their efforts will surely yield interesting new data, and may very well lead to new insights into the most fundamental biological questions, which is exciting to us both as teachers and as scientists."

The students' research has the potential to impact human health and the environment. They will focus on bacteriophages - viruses that infect bacteria.  Phages can be found naturally anywhere bacteria live, including water sources and the soil.  They are among the most abundant and most diverse organisms on Earth, reproducing quickly and leading to extreme genetic variability. 

"Bacteriophages touch on the deepest questions of evolution.  Every time you look, you see something new," Lopez said. "Students will have the opportunity to discover things about the organisms that could never have been predicted."

Beginning with the fall 2008 semester, approximately 20 Carnegie Mellon students selected from several of the university's colleges will begin the two-semester course.  They will isolate bacteriophages from local soil samples, characterize their structure by electron microscopy, clone and sequence their DNA, and use computational methods to analyze the genomes and compare them with those isolated by groups at other participating institutions. Ideally, the SEA students' work will result in the complete genome characterization of multiple new bacteriophages each year.  The findings could shed new light on the evolution of these organisms and their interactions with bacterial hosts. Ultimately, the findings will be published in scientific journals with the students listed as co-authors.     

Being chosen to participate in the Phage Genomics Research Initiative is the latest in a long, productive relationship between HHMI and Carnegie Mellon's Biological Sciences Department. The HHMI has awarded the department a number of grants supporting undergraduate research, faculty appointments and infrastructure.

"Over the years, HHMI has provided Carnegie Mellon with extensive and invaluable support," said HHMI Professor Elizabeth Jones, the Dr. Frederick A. Schwertz Distinguished Professor and head of the Biological Sciences Department. "Being selected to participate in the SEA program and be a part of their first project that directly impacts science education is truly an exciting endeavor for our students and faculty."

The founding father of the Phage Genomics Research Initiative is the University of Pittsburgh's Graham Hatfull who piloted the course and created much of the curriculum.

Along with Carnegie Mellon, institutions participating in the inaugural year of the SEA program include: The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va.; Hope College, Holland, Mich.; James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va.; Oregon State University, Corvallis, Ore.; Spelman College, Atlanta; University of California, San Diego; University of California, Santa Cruz; University of Louisiana at Monroe, La; University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, Va.; University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Md.; and Washington University, St. Louis.