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Going viral: C of I students attend HHMI symposium

Jetblade. The name might sound like the newest Marvel superhero to hit the big screen, but it’s actually the newest bacterial virus analyzed by College of Idaho students. 

This summer, freshman Claire Otero, junior Tran Tran and C of I biology professor of Dr. Ann Koga traveled to the Howard Hughes Medical Center research campus in Virginia for the Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) symposium. Try saying that ten times fast.

The SEA-PHAGES project is a research-based laboratory course aimed at undergraduate students who are new to college-level science and have had little or no independent research experience.

“This is a course that is meant for freshmen,” Koga said, though it is open to all students. “It is a way to involve them in authentic research.”

During the first semester, students isolate bacteriophages (bacterial viruses) from local soil samples in Koga’s class. They purify and characterize their phages, and select at least one phage per class for DNA sequencing. In this case, the bacteriophage Jetblade isolated by students Jade Rencher and Betsy West was selected for sequencing.

In the second semester, students annotate and analyze the genome in Dr. Luke Daniels’ class. At the end of the year, faculty and selected students attend the annual SEA-PHAGES Symposium and present their work.

“It’s a two-way street,” Koga said. “The students get a little feedback on their research and they also get to experience talking about their research with others.”

For undergraduate students who go to the conference, it can open their eyes to possibilities available within the field of science, whether it is hearing from professionals or seeing students from other universities who have done extra work to further characterize their viruses.

“I think that was kind of inspirational, particularly to Claire,” Koga said. “She wants to come back and do some follow-up projects next year as an individual research project.”

Otero, who is a biology and chemistry double-major and member of the C of I track and field team, has always had a strong interest in science, which shifted specifically to biochemistry in high school. And she’s enjoyed the opportunity to delve deeper into the field of science during her first year at the C of I.

“I didn't really know what to expect coming to school at The College of Idaho, but research as a freshman wasn't something I would have expected,” she said.

Attending the symposium and hearing the founders talk about the SEA-PHAGES program, Otero realized the work she did in school is contributing to more than just a good grade. Since 2008, approximately 84 schools and more than 7,000 undergraduates have participated, and 350 student-annotated phage sequences have been put into a database that could be implemented in medical research for bacterial infections.

“There are no bounds to science, there are just endless questions,” Koga said. “And I think that becomes very apparent when you go to a symposium like this.”

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. The C of I has a legacy of academic excellence, a winning athletics tradition and a history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.