Two WCU students to present work at HHMI’s SEA-Phages Symposium June 10-12

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.

Two Western Carolina University students will go to the eighth annual SEA-Phages Symposium, from Friday, June 10, to Sunday, June 12, at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia.

Rising sophomore Erin Cafferty of Monroe, who is majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry, and rising sophomore Reliza McGinnis of Indian Trail, a biology major with a minors in computer science and chemistry, will represent their class in presenting a poster. They were also part of a small group chosen to speak about their poster.

“The students will be presenting the work that the entire class has done over the course of last year,” said Megan Eckhardt, WCU adjunct professor in the Department of Biology, who will accompany them to the symposium. “The poster and presentation will be essentially presenting all the work that the whole class did, in addition to some projects that our honors students and some other students who were wanting to do some extra research have done, and also some work an upper-level biology class contributed to it.”

This was the first year WCU participated in the SEA-Phages program, or Science Education Alliance – Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science. 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.

The class, called “Phage Hunters,” is funded through a grant from HHMI. In addition to Eckardt, the two-semester course is taught by Jamie Wallen, assistant professor of biochemistry, and biology instructor Maria Gainey.

During the fall semester, students discovered and named their own phages, a virus that infects bacteria. In the spring, three phages were chosen to have their genomes sequenced. The entire class worked to annotate the genome of the three phages and learn more about each phage, Eckardt said.

WCU was one of 106 colleges and universities nationwide to participate in the SEA-Phages program. Each will present a poster at the symposium, but only about 15 were chosen to talk about their entry, Eckhardt said.

“We had all of the students who wanted to be considered write a personal essay about why they wanted to go (to the symposium), how it would help them in the future or impact their future,” Eckhardt said. Cafferty and McGinnis were chosen by Eckardt, Wallen and Gainey.