SEA-PHAGES Engages First-Year Student Researchers

June 28, 2018

Brooke Koebele
Brooke Koebele ’19 presented the findings from her SEA-PHAGES study at the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) Microbe Meeting in Atlanta.

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Illinois Wesleyan University students who have participated in Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) exemplify the program’s ability to ready students for successful careers in the sciences, as shown in a national study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Offered to first-year biology majors, SEA-PHAGES is a yearlong laboratory course in which students discover, isolate and analyze bacteria-infecting viruses called bacteriophages, numbering approximately 1031 on Earth today. This program to collect data on these vastly diverse phages, with application in the development of medical treatments like phage therapy, began in 2008 and now encompasses over 100 colleges and universities nationwide. Collectively, over 16,000 “phage hunters” have contributed to this collaborative research effort by identifying over 8,000 bacteriophages.

“SEA-PHAGES gave me, and I'm sure my classmates could say the same, important laboratory experience that will benefit us in our many years of science ahead of us,” said first-year pre-med biology major Rosemary Josenkoski ’21, who represented IWU’s phage hunters at the 10th Annual SEA Symposium in early June at Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia. “Being able to do research so young and to get actual results is something truly exciting, and has given me confidence to start more research in the fall.”

This year’s 15 phage hunters at IWU discovered and named 25 bacteriophages, 16 from the host Mycobacterium smegmatis and nine from the host Rhodobacter capsulatus. During the fall semester, students isolated the bacteriophages and their DNA from soil and water samples, then spent the spring semester annotating their genomes to draw conclusions about their evolutionary relationships to other phages. The students compiled and presented their results at the John Wesley Powell Student Research Conference on April 21, in addition to submitting their work to the SEA Symposium, a national conference dedicated specifically to SEA-PHAGES.

“It's interesting to study such an unknown yet abundant biological entity,” Josenkoski said. “In addition, phages have potential applications in treating bacterial infections, revealing the possibility for promising medical breakthroughs. But we really studied phages for the thrill of the biological hunt.”

The mycobacterium phage "Morrison" was discovered by Rosemary Josenkoski ’21.

This rare undergraduate opportunity to pursue research interests by taking ownership of a scientific discovery with real-world applications makes the SEA-PHAGES program more than a traditional biology course. A 2017 PNAS study, “An inclusive Research Education Community (iREC): Impact of the SEA-PHAGES program on research outcomes and student learning” of 2,850 student responses from 67 institutions concluded that SEA-PHAGES instills in students competency and confidence as scientists. The study emphasized the value of introducing a research component early on in students’ scientific careers, rather than reserving the opportunity for select graduate and doctorate students.

“In my mind, this program does an excellent job of immersing our biology undergraduate students in a real research project that very much reflects the kind of projects typically conducted by biology graduate students,” said Adjunct Assistant Professor of Biology Richard Alvey, who instructs the SEA-PHAGES course at IWU and was a contributor to the PNAS study along with Miner Linnaeus Sherff Endowed Professor of Botany David Bollivar. “A number of students who have caught the ‘research bug’ have continued pushing their projects forward in novel ways that are likely to lead to publication in scientific journals and contribute to a more in-depth understanding of this vastly diverse and fascinating microbial world we exist in.”

One such student is Brooke Koebele ’19, who presented the findings of her study involving two bacteriophages discovered by IWU SEA-PHAGES students at the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) Microbe Meeting held during mid-June in Atlanta. A pre-med biology major, Koebele conducted her research in the summer of her sophomore year through an American Society for Microbiology (ASM) Undergraduate Research Fellowship, a prestigious award of up to $6,000 for students who wish to pursue graduate careers in microbiology.

Koebele’s study, “Determination of Host Range Variation between Highly Related Members of a Novel Cluster of Rhodobacter capsulatus Bacteriophages,” examined the genomes of two bacteriophages with virtually identical genes but significant variations in the bacteria they can exploit as hosts. By pinpointing the gene or genes responsible for this variation – a mystery Koebele hopes to decipher by the fall – she will add to the growing body of data surrounding these phages and their role in our ecosystems.

“I hope to use my passion for research as I become a physician by participating in clinical research while practicing medicine,” Koebele said. “By combining my enthusiasm for research and my desire to help others, I believe becoming a physician is the perfect fit for me.”

Participating in the SEA-PHAGES program as a first-year student marked Koebele’s first impactful experience in the laboratory, and since then she has had the opportunity to watch other IWU students catch the same “research bug” she did by working for two years as a SEA-PHAGES teaching assistant. “I am so grateful to serve as a mentor for those students,” said Koebele. “Using my skills in the lab to help other students succeed has been extremely rewarding and beneficial to me.”

Koebele finds that her valuable experience of making a scientific discovery as part of her introduction to collegiate-level science is what set her on the path of a researcher.

“By participating in this course and microbiology research, I developed a real passion for science,” Koebele said. “I realized during my summer working in the lab that I did not want a career that is educationally stagnant. I enjoy how science is an ever-changing field. There will always be a new finding or a new observation, and that is exciting to me.”

Rachel McCarthy ’21