By Andrea Gaul
Just about any incoming freshman who has tacked “pre-med” or “prehealth” onto his or her major has likely braced themselves for the challenging introductory biology classes and labs they will face at the start of their college career. These demanding classes can be tedious, and are sometimes known as “weed-outs,” which end up separating students into two groups –– those who excel and will likely continue pursuing a prehealth degree plan, and those who struggle with the material and eventually seek new majors.
“There’s been some data that show that students, especially in introductory sciences classes, get bored out of the major because they are not experiencing the true process of science,” said Dr. Tamarah Adair, senior lecturer in biology.
In an effort to nip this apprehension among students in the bud, Baylor University has implemented a new kind of introductory biology lab that has proven successful in keeping students excited and engaged through hands-on research.
Engaged and retained
The biology lab program is called Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science, or SEA-PHAGES, and Adair serves as its director at Baylor. It’s an initiative of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and to help the program get started here in the fall of 2010, the Institute provided lab materials for the first three years and made it possible for two Baylor faculty members to attend week-long training workshops.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has continued their support of the Baylor program by facilitating DNA sequencing for students and giving two students each year the opportunity to attend the SEA-PHAGES Symposium at Janelia Farms Research Campus in Ashburn, Va.
“The traditional route for freshmen entering as science majors is to take BIO 1305 with a lab and BIO 1306 with a lab,” Adair said. “These labs are very traditional. They don’t require inquiry or research skills, and have known outcomes. With the SEA-PHAGES program, we get students involved in research during their very first semester.”
In SEA-PHAGES, freshmen selected for the program spend their first two semesters of biology completing hands-on research, which begins by digging in the soil to discover and isolate bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria). The ownership of their research helps keep students engaged.
“So far, national studies have shown that retention is higher and the four-year graduation rate is much higher in these types of classes than in the traditional biology classes,” Adair said. “If you engage students in research, they’re either going to be really excited to be science majors, or have realistic evidence to help them decide if a career in science is for them.”
At the present time, the Baylor program is limited to 24 students each year. All incoming freshmen that have indicated an interest in pursuing a science-related major are sent an application prior to entering the university and given a chance to be selected.
Getting students excited
“In high school, I wanted to be a journalist. I took AP Biology during my senior year because I wanted to get science out of the way,” Connor said. She explained that after watching a documentary in that same biology class about cracking your personal genetic code, she was shocked and inspired –– forever changing her career path.
“I had always perceived medicine and science as very systematic, but with research, there is a lot of room to grow and be creative,” Connor said. “The ability to make a difference that initially attracted me to journalism was what eventually attracted me to biology.”
In the SEA-PHAGES program, Connor’s interest in research was given space to blossom. She now serves as president of Baylor Undergraduate Research in Science & Technology (BURST), an organization for students interested in scientific research.
“I had some minor lab experience from high school and was eager to apply for the program,” Lucas said. “During the summer before attending Baylor, I was informed that I secured a spot in the lab.”
Under the instruction of Dr. Adair, Lucas fell in love with the program and wanted to continue his involvement in the lab, particularly through independent projects. He now serves as one of two teaching assistants for the SEA-PHAGES program. In addition, Lucas was one of the two students chosen to attend the Janelia Farms Research Campus in Virginia for the SEA-PHAGES national symposium in 2016.
Searching for viruses
Though exceptional students such as Connor and Lucas help illustrate the success of SEA-PHAGES, Adair said every participant is able to boast of one achievement in common –– working to isolate their own bacteriophage virus. When asked about this signature component of the program, Adair can produce more than six pages of bacteriophages isolated by Baylor students. She said observing students going through the somewhat tedious isolation process is extremely rewarding for her.
“A lot of times science students think they should always have an answer, and they’re just frustrated when they don’t,” Adair said. “I like seeing that change from novice to confident expert when they’re able to give a presentation at a scientific meeting, for example. Students are becoming scientists as they learn to deal with negative results and uncertainty.”
For Jade Connor, isolating her bacteriophage was one of her favorite memories of the program. Due to the substantial diversity of the bacteriophages that infect the soil bacteria that the students investigate, some students isolate their bacteriophage in a few months, while some might not ever be able to isolate one, and will then “adopt” one from another student.
After two months of searching through more than 10 soil samples, Connor finally “found her phage.”
“I named it Kenneth,” she said. “It was such a cool moment, because it is all very abstract and you hope something is there, but then you finally get to see it by using the electron microscope.”
Connor has found incredible value in her participation in SEA-PHAGES.
“I would definitely recommend it to freshmen because this course really allowed me to connect the dots,” Connor said. “In other classes, the lecture doesn’t always correlate directly with the lab, so it’s harder to see the big picture.”
In her SEA-PHAGES lab, Connor was able practice what she learned in the lecture in a very helpful and practical way.
“It makes learning more fun because you actually have an incentive –– because it’s actually your own and you want it to work. You want to learn as much as you can in the lecture because it aids you in lab and helps you succeed,” she said.
Connor said her hard work in SEA-PHAGES has already paid off.
“The course helped me on the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), because all of the test questions are formatted as research articles,” Connor said. “The very first passage I read on the MCAT was about a protein I actually worked on in the lab –– that helped me calm down a little.”
Because Connor felt so prepared from her experience with the SEA-PHAGES lab, she felt ready to take the MCAT the summer before her junior year, which is earlier than usual.
Adair hopes to one day be able to follow the lead of SEA-PHAGES and incorporate research into all traditional introductory biology labs at Baylor.
“Because of this experience –– this model of inquiry-based labs –– we are confident that we can put the model into all of our freshman biology labs,” Adair said. “It might take three or four years, but that’s the great outcome of this grant. It has transformed the way in which we are developing new curriculum for our lab courses. Our goal is to eventually offer all students the chance to gain invaluable research experience during their freshman year.”
UPDATE: Jade Connor graduated from Baylor in May 2017, and was selected to receive a prestigious Fulbright study grant. In fall 2017, she will begin studies at Maastricht University in the Netherlands for a master’s degree in governance and leadership in European public health.