SJU Chosen by HHMI to Expand Science Education

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

PHILADELPHIA (February 10, 2009) – Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance (HHMI-SEA) recently announced that SJU’s biology department was chosen to join the second cohort of 12 universities and colleges teaching genomics to freshmen students through an innovative research program. Beginning in fall 2009, a class of 18 to 20 students will engage in the authentic inquiry-based study of genomes - also commonly known as genomics - rather than perform conventional "cookbook-type" experiments. A genome is a complete set of DNA or hereditary material in an organism or virus.

Christina King Smith, Ph.D., professor of biology, and Julia Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, will team-teach the yearlong course. Both professors anticipate that the experience will immerse students in the uncharted nano-territory of bacteriophages, which are constantly evolving viruses that attack bacteria, are abundant in the environment and are miniscule in size. For instance, it is estimated there are one million phages in one-quarter teaspoon of seawater.

“In essence, there are more phages on the planet than all organisms added together, yet scientists have only completely sequenced the genome of 60 phages,” says King Smith. “Our students’ research will contribute to the body of scientific knowledge about mycobacterium (tuberculosis) phages, and they may have the opportunity to present their findings in professional venues.”

King Smith adds that the course will teach SJU students how to engage in real scientific research and how to think like scientists. “I am thrilled to be involved in this unique approach to teaching science.”

Students will become “phage finders” in the fall by collecting soil samples from the environs of Saint Joseph’s. They will isolate, purify and characterize the bacteriophages of non-disease causing mycobacterium by using a variety of techniques, including electron microscopy and DNA analysis. At the end of the fall semester, a single purified DNA sample will be sent to the Joint Genome Institute–Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico for sequencing.

During the spring semester, students will download the genome sequence from the National Laboratory and will use bioinformatics tools to annotate its DNA. They will also have the opportunity to name the fully sequenced and decoded phage.

According to Lee, the course will be open to entering biology and chemical biology freshmen, and students will be asked to submit a short essay for admittance to the class. “This is a great opportunity for SJU students to participate in a national research initiative, and we hope to attract freshmen with a demonstrated interest in original research,” she says.

HHMI, which is located in Chevy Chase, Md., and is the nation’s largest private supporter of science education, began the program in 2007, with the first courses offered at 12 universities this past fall. Faculty members who teach the course attend training seminars and workshops, and the consortium universities and colleges are networked through the SEA. Video and Web conferencing allows students and faculty members among the participant schools to collaborate on research. Near the end of the spring semester, HHMI hosts a symoposium for faculty and one student from each institution to report on their research.

In total, 36 universities from across the country and Puerto Rico will eventually participate in the initiative. All costs associated with teaching the course – including faculty orientation and training; the purchase of reagents, solutions and microorganisms; and sequencing and computing costs – will be covered by HHMI. The estimated cost per student is $300. HHMI will support this novel mode of teaching genomics at SJU for up to three years, after which, if the University wishes to continue offering the course, it must provide for the costs from its own resources.

Media Contact

Patricia Allen, Associate Director of University Communications, 610-660-3240,

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