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Student Research Shows Diversity of Bacterial Viruses

Jillian Walton entered the College of William & Mary intent on becoming a history major. Now on the verge of graduation, she is reading up on interdisciplinary molecular biology graduate programs and talking about the scientific paper she’s authored with students from around the country.

Walton’s change in direction resulted from her participation in an HHMI-sponsored genomics research course as a freshman. That year-long course—created by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance (SEA) and participating faculty—introduced Walton and her classmates to experimental science. Instead of plowing through textbooks, the students learned about biology by doing hands-on research on bacterial viruses called phages.

The SEA is celebrating a major milestone with a scientific publication in the open access, peer-reviewed journal PLoS One. The 192-author article is based on the work of students and faculty at the first 12 schools that offered the National Genomics Research Initiative course, the first project launched under the SEA umbrella. The SEA seeks to serve as a national resource for undergraduate science education through the development, implementation, evaluation, and dissemination of novel teaching approaches aimed at broadening scientific understanding and participation.

The research paper, published in the January 27, 2011 issue of PLoS One, offers a look at the genetic diversity of phages uncovered by students who took the course. “I can’t believe work that I completed in an [introductory] laboratory course is being published,” says Walton, now a senior. “That one course has had such an impact on my life.”

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