Expanding the research experience

Columbia State Community College student Ximena Leon participated in the Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science undergraduate program. (Photo: Columbia State)

Columbia State Community College in Tennessee has partnered with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Education Alliance (SEA) to broaden undergraduate research opportunities for students.

This fall, Columbia State will offer its first Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) undergraduate program. SEA-PHAGES is a nationwide program that involves more than 100 universities and colleges across the country that annually serves about 5,000 students. Columbia State is among 12 community colleges that are participating.

The discovery and course-based, research experience is aimed at undergraduates who are new to college-level science and have had little or no research skills, according to Columbis State officials.

The course is divided into two consecutive components. The first is a phage discovery “wet lab,” during which students isolate “bacteriophages” — viruses that are specific to bacterial hosts — from local environmental samples and extract DNA for further analysis.

In the second semester, students will use bioinformatics to annotate their phage’s genome sequences. After quality control checks, the students’ sequences will be submitted to the National Center for Biotechnology Information database.

Appreciating the scientific process

The SEA-PHAGES course will be taught by Columbia State biology professor Elvira Eivazova, an advocate for collaborative undergraduate research at the college. This past academic year she introduced an undergraduate biology research course that included 40 students. She said she observed an increase in overall appreciation of the scientific process and an increase in the level of engagement among students.

“The undergraduate research experience represents a great opportunity for students to effectively learn science in a non-traditional setting,” Eivazova said. “It makes the STEM experience more engaging, stimulating and less intimidating, particularly when it comes to non-science majors.”

Two-year college students can benefit from research projects

For biology majors, the research experience at a community college creates a unique early start opportunity for learning scientific methodology via independent project-based activities. This prepares them for a smooth transition towards their bachelor’s degrees and beyond, making them competitive candidates during four-year school application processes.

Recently, one of Eivazova’s students, Ximena Leon, attended the SEA-PHAGES collaborative pre-course workshop at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she purified bacteriophages, characterized them using electron microscopy and isolated genomic DNA for sequencing.

“I learned so much in just a week and I am very excited to bring back all the information to Columbia State,” she said.

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