PRESS RELEASE (March 21, 2011): College to Offer First-Time Genomics Research Course Through Science Alliance

Providence, R.I.–A select group of entering freshmen will engage in the year-long National Genomics Research Initiative  (NGRI), which is being offered for the first time ever at Providence College this fall through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Science Education Alliance (SEA).

PC joined the fourth cohort of this unique research initiative after recently being named an associate member of the SEA, thus becoming one of 26 new schools nationally to be chosen to join the alliance.

The HHMI created the alliance in 2007 to develop resources that would enable undergraduate science educators to present innovative courses and programs. With a commitment of about $4 million, the NGRI is the institute’s first program. Participating schools usually offer this course as a substitute for their introductory biology laboratory.

Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., assistant professor of biology, and Dr. Kathleen A. Cornely, professor of biochemistry and chemistry led the College’s efforts in the NGRI application process and will oversee the instruction of the course in the 2011-12 academic year. Under their direction, the “Friar Phage Hunters” will be comprised of 16 to 20 General Biology I and II students who will be enrolled in a separate laboratory section.

The NGRI course requires students to isolate phage, which are viruses that infect bacteria, from the local environment with samples usually–but not exclusively–limited to the soil. This isolation will take place during the first semester. With each phage almost certain to be unique, the students have the opportunity to name their newly identified life form.

Students will spend the rest of the year isolating and characterizing their phage and extracting its DNA. They will use bioinformatics tools to compare the sequence of their phage DNA with other known phages. Ultimately, the students will deposit the DNA sequences into the national GenBank database–a database of all the genes discovered since the birth of molecular biology 50 years ago.

Accepted biology and biochemistry students of the Class of 2015 recently were reevaluated for the program on the basis of the strength of their original application. Father Austriaco and Cornely worked with the Office of Admission to identify students who would be invited to apply.

In preparation for the program in the fall, Father Austriaco and Cornely will attend a training course at the HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia this summer. As members of the network of faculty and students nationally who are participating in this project, they will be trained in the teaching methods and provided with reagents that are not commercially available.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for our students to be part of a national network of scientists,” said Cornely.

Accepted students would engage in what Father Austriaco calls “most exciting” research. “Eighteen-year-olds will be doing research with scientists, and they will have their original research published,” he said.

Rare academic opportunity
The Friar Phage Hunters will join an exclusive group of ambitious students. Since 2008, only about 1,700 students at 40 colleges and universities have spent a year discovering phage, according to Dr. Cindy Fox Aisen of the HHMI.

All course participants and SEA staff will be connected via the Internet to share and analyze data, trouble-shoot, and discuss results. Near the end of the 2012 spring semester, the HHMI will host a research symposium for course faculty and one student from each institution to report on their discoveries and experiences.

With the HHMI using the NGRI as a 10-year study in which students will be tracked to assess a potential change in teaching science, Father Austriaco said, “I hope students discover that they are passionate about science and that it’s something to give their lives to.”

Genevieve Marie Ilg ’14

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