Students in interactive course look to discover, name phages

Biology instructor Maria Gainey (right) gives instruction to junior Yorel McKenzie, of Chapel Hill.

Biology instructor Maria Gainey (right) gives instruction to junior Yorel McKenzie, of Chapel Hill.

Western Carolina University student Sean Kent didn’t pick the course, but when he saw he was registered for it, the name “Phage Hunters” immediately got his attention.

Brooke Burns also found she was placed in the course. After hearing so many other freshmen at orientation say they were excited about WCU’s newest biology/chemistry course, she, too, decided to keep it. Now she says it’s by far her favorite.

For Yorel McKenzie, a junior, it sounded interesting when her adviser described it. But she had reservations after learning there would be mostly freshmen in the course. Now, she says she can’t get enough of it.

What is this new course at WCU that has students so excited about science? “Phage Hunters” is an interactive lab class like no other, where each student will discover and name his or her own phage (a virus that infects bacteria) that has never been found before, and study it.

The course is funded through a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant program called Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science, or SEA-Phages. The program, which has been around for several years, is designed to increase undergraduate interest and retention in the biological sciences through immediate immersion in authentic, valuable and accessible research.

Freshman Brooke Burns, of Winston-Salem, was one of the first students to discover a virus.

Freshman Brooke Burns, of Winston-Salem, was one of the first students to discover a virus.

WCU was among 17 new higher education institutions selected to receive the grant out of 44 that applied last year. There are currently 106 colleges and universities in the nation offering the program. WCU, along with Durham Technical Community College, which also received a grant this year, join North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T State University and North Carolina Central University as the only schools in the state to offer SEA-Phages.

WCU’s two-semester course is taught by three instructors – Jamie Wallen, assistant professor of biochemistry, biology instructor Maria Gainey and Megan Eckardt, an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Biology.

“We wanted a program like this here because the idea is to increase student retention in the sciences,” Wallen said. “As soon as they come to campus, we put them in this program and the idea is to get them excited about science, doing hands-on research.”

Prior to teaching the course, Wallen, Gainey and Eckardt attended a one-week training in Baltimore to learn how to conduct the experiment involved, as well as teach the fall semester course. In December, they will return to learn how to implement the spring semester course.

Twenty-one students are enrolled in the initial fall course. It begins with an introduction to phage biology, followed by instructions on the techniques that will be used in the lab. From there, students work independently as they conduct experiments that will lead to the discovery of their virus from a locally collected environmental sample.

As the course progresses, students will be in different stages, depending on when they find their virus. Burns was one of the first to discover one.

“I like how you have your own unique virus,” said Burns, a freshman biology major from Winston-Salem who is in the pre-veterinary medicine program. “You take pride in that. You feel a sense of independence. It’s definitely a unique class and I love it. I look forward to coming here every time.”

One stipulation from the Howard Hughes Institute is that each school must turn in DNA from two of its phages by Friday, Nov. 20, for sequencing – a process for figuring out the genetic code of the virus. A “Phage Olympics” will be held to determine which two phages are selected, Wallen said. Students will present their case in front of the class on why their DNA should be sequenced. The class will then vote on which ones will be submitted.

Sean Kent, a junior from Franklin, said he's learned procedures he never heard of.

Sean Kent, a junior from Franklin, said he’s learned procedures he never heard of.

“It almost feels like we’re discovering a new frontier,” said McKenzie, a biology major from Chapel Hill in the pre-medicine program. “It’s very different than most labs. It was a little frustrating in the beginning when I didn’t get a phage, but that just motivated me to keep going, and it was fun finding the samples, too.”

Each phage discovered at schools in the SEA-Phages program is kept in a database at the University of Pittsburgh.

The WCU class meets on Wednesdays and Fridays in the Stillwell Building. Students say the lab-based nature of the class is what they have enjoyed most.

“I’ve learned a lot,” said Kent, a junior from Franklin majoring in biology. “It’s a whole new experience – new procedures that I had never heard about. It can be interesting to have someone talk to you and learn stuff, but if you’re not learning it yourself, then you’re not learning it at all. When they give us directions on what to do and we do it, it’s just me learning.”

After all the students find their virus and name it, they will go in small groups to Wake Forest University to have their viruses placed under an electron microscope, which will give them a picture of each virus. “I’m really excited about that,” Gainey said.

Next June, one student and one faculty member will be selected to go to the annual SEA-Phages Symposium in Virginia to share WCU’s findings. There also have been discussions about holding a similar symposium for the state universities. “That would set up more opportunities for students to get out there and present their work,” Gainey said.

Wallen said the Howard Hughes grant will be available for as long as WCU offers the “Phage Hunters” course once a year. He would like to see more sections offered in the future.

For more information on SEA-phages, visit