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Miami joins HHMI Science Education Alliance

01/28/2011

Miami University is one of 14 institutions selected this year to join the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's (HHMI) Science Education Alliance as an associate member. The Science Education Alliance (SEA) is a national experiment in both research and education that revolves around a research course in genomics for undergraduate students.

Through the alliance, Miami will participate in the National Genomics Research Initiative course, a two-part yearlong course that enables students to make real discoveries by doing research on bacterial viruses, called phage, according to the SEA.

HHMI created the SEA in 2007 to develop resources that enable undergraduate science educators to present innovative courses and programs. The National Genomics Research Initiative is the alliance’s first program, and HHMI has committed $4 million to the course. Twelve institutions were selected as alliance members this year.

In the phage genomics course, students isolate phage from locally collected soil. Given the diversity of phage, each one is almost certain to be unique, according to the SEA. Students spend the rest of the term purifying and characterizing their phage and extracting its DNA.

Between terms, the DNA samples are sequenced at one of several research centers across the country. In the second half of the course, the students receive digital files containing their phage’s DNA sequence. The students then learn to use bioinformatics tools to analyze and annotate the genomes.

The SEA celebrated a major milestone with a scientific publication in the open access, peer-reviewed journal PLoS One. The 192-author article, published in the Jan. 27 issue, is based on the work of students and faculty at the first 12 schools that offered the National Genomics Research Initiative course, said Tuajuanda Jordan, SEA director.

Faculty from associate schools attend training sessions that allow them to implement all or part of the phage course. At Miami, the phage course will be implemented in fall and spring semesters of the next academic year, said Luis Actis, professor and chair of microbiology. He is coordinator of Miami’s implementation of the phage genomics course, along with Mitchell Balish, associate professor of microbiology, and Gary Janssen, professor of microbiology.

“This is a great opportunity for first-year students to be introduced to science and biology. They will be part of a national science experiment sponsored by HHMI with the ultimate goal of training the next generation of scientist and citizens,” Actis said. “The exciting part of this course is that they will be part of a national research project in which students will contribute primary scientific information that will be used to understand the contribution of bacteriophages to biology and their potential use as therapeutic tools.”

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