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Intellect

New underclassman research program for microbiology majors kicks off this fall

Freshman and sophomore microbiology majors at Brigham Young University have a new opportunity this fall to participate in an innovative research program recently initiated by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to collect, analyze and possibly publish data on previously unknown viruses.

BYU is among 12 universities selected this year to be part of the Science Education Alliance aimed at preparing future scientists through hands on science education. Twelve others began the program last year.

Each of the 25 students in the program will collect a soil sample, isolate a virus from it, and after DNA sequencing, will analyze how his or her virus infects bacteria and how it compares to other virus strains. Such bacteria-infecting viruses are called "bacteriophages," which explains the program's name: "Phage Hunters."

"These students are going to see the project through from the very start," said Sandra Burnett, microbiology professor and co-organizer of the program at BYU. "From dirt samples to a sequenced virus genome, they will see images of their virus, and get to name it."

The techniques and strategies of the program have been tested at the Howard Hughes Institute facilities to streamline students' learning. Schools that began the program in fall 2008 reported that 90 percent of the students succeeded in isolating their own virus.

"What I love about this is that we can take a freshman clear through the scientific method in a relatively small amount of time," said Don Breakwell, professor of microbiology and the other organizer of the program at BYU. "They get a feel for how science really is."

Howard Hughes Medical Institute provides materials and training for the program. It also offers a network for students and professors at different universities to connect, share results and help each other solve problems. Such collaborative research with freshmen and sophomores is unprecedented, Burnett believes.

"It's not like a lab class where you have a cookbook and go through and know how the experiment ends," Burnett said. "These are going to be viruses that potentially have never been seen before."

Students will have the opportunity to present their findings at conferences, and if they discover previously unidentified virus strains, some of their findings may qualify for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Students who will be freshmen or sophomores in fall semester 2009 can apply for the program by clicking on the "Phage Hunters" link at http://mmbio.byu.edu.

Writer: Camille Metcalf

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