‘Virus Hunters’ Get Hands Dirty in UConn Class

PhD student Rishabh Kejriwal helps UConn undergrads observe their bacteriophage concentrations in an electron microscope in the lab during a ‘Virus Hunters’ class. (UConn Photo)
PhD student Rishabh Kejriwal helps UConn undergrads observe their bacteriophage concentrations in an electron microscope in the lab during a ‘Virus Hunters’ class. (UConn Photo)

University of Connecticut students involved in a unique learning experience are getting their hands dirty — literally.

Six UConn freshmen pursuing science-related majors enrolled in a brand-new course this semester titled “Virus Hunters.” The aim is to get an up-close perspective on working both in the field and in a laboratory.

“I don’t think a lot of freshmen get that opportunity,” freshman Callie Burke says. “We have two professors and six students. Being at such a big school, that’s not something we’re going to get very often, especially as freshmen.”

Led by Carolyn Teschke and Simon White, professors in the UConn Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, students were tasked with hunting for new viruses, according to Jessica McBride, manager of research communications for the UConn Office of the Vice President for Research.

“They start out by simply digging in the dirt, then examine samples to find new viruses, and eventually progress to a variety of microbiology techniques, complex genome annotation, and bioinformatic analyses,” McBride says.

Burke says different techniques, like direct isolation and enriched isolation, were used to see if there were any bacteriophages present in the collected samples.

“We’re putting a concentration of the phages onto really tiny electron microscope (EM) grids, then putting them into the EM so we can see them in high resolution and actually get pictures of our phages,” freshman Presley Bird says.

While college students typically spend the first day of class reviewing the syllabus with the professor, that wasn’t the case for this course.

“On the first day, we went out to get soil samples and then tested it for phages,” freshman Humza Rashid says.

The course structure is one these students hadn’t seen before and they’ve found the curriculum to be more engaging than the typical science class.

“We have two labs a week — both three hours long — and in every single lab we’re actually doing science,” freshman Rachel Grella says. “It’s a cool, ongoing experiment. It’s not like you’re doing one thing one class and another thing the next. Throughout the entire semester, you have one goal.”

“We each have our own phages that we found in the dirt and they’re each different, so you get really invested in it,” Bird says. “You’ve found it, watched it through purification and now seeing it in the EM. It’s just really cool to follow something all the way through and work with it for so long.”

The course is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science) program, which serves to better engage students in introductory courses.

In this particular course, according to McBride, students learn by doing.

“While the program is still new at UConn, other institutions with SEA-PHAGES classes show that this hands-on, experiential learning is not only more fun for students, it launches them into science (and) research-based careers as academics (and) doctors,” McBride says.

The in-depth learning experience has encouraged the students to deeply consider pursuing further research endeavors during their undergraduate and potential graduate careers in college.

“This is the first time I actually feel like I’m doing real science,” Grella says. “I’m wearing a lab coat. I’m using a pipette. It’s really cool.”

“The aspects and the perspectives of being in a lab is interesting,” Rashid says. “It’s a different experience and it’s something I’d want to pursue.”

Originally published in The Chronicle.

Follow the “Virus Hunters” @pphinders, Brett Donovan @BDonovanTC, and UConn Research on Twitter & LinkedIn.