Freshmen biology students at UNT will collect soil samples, isolate bacterial viruses called phage and analyze the DNA sequence of the phage's genome as part of an innovative higher education program designed to involve college freshmen in scientific discovery.
UNT is the only university in Texas chosen to join the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Science Education Alliance, which is in its second year.
The new approach will be incorporated into the lab components of next year's fall and spring Principles of Biology I and 11, a freshman-level course. The initial offering of the research laboratory section will enroll 24 students.
Biology professors Lee Hughes and Robert Benjamin, who will teach the class, say they hope the experience encourages students to continue to be engaged in science throughout college and their careers.
"When students start college-level science courses, they can easily get bogged down by all the information," says Hughes, an assistant professor of biology. "This class will show the research and investigative sides of science. It will give students a better idea of what science is about."
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute will provide research and laboratory materials as well as training and support from their staff. So far, HHMI has selected 24 universities for the Science Education Alliance and eventually plans to increase the number to 36 schools.
In the fall semester, the students will isolate phage from locally collected soil samples, purify and characterize the phage and extract its DNA. During winter break, the purified DNA will be sent to the Joint Genome Institute-Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where it is sequenced. In the second semester, the students will use bioinformatics tools to analyze and annotate their phage's genome — a portion or all of which may be previously unknown to science.
"It's really exciting that our students will be involved in this high-level project," Hughes says. "The research and learning opportunities they will have are not typically given to undergraduates, and definitely not to freshmen."
Sarah Bahari with UNT News Service can be reached at Sarah.Bahari.@unt.edu.