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July 30, 2010

Howard Hughes Medical Institute hosts ULM biologists at Sabbatical

Two University of Louisiana at Monroe biology professors and a biology graduate student are traveling next week to participate in a research sabbatical hosted by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Science Education Alliance at the Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Va.

Drs. Christopher Gissendanner and Ann Findley, and graduate student Jeremy Harmson, will design lessons and test experiments for use in existing courses based on the research conducted in conjunction with the HHMI-funded National Genomic Research Initiative since 2008. The modules will enhance the molecular biology and genomics components of ULM courses and further incorporate discovery-based learning, according to Gissendanner.

“One module will be based on determining the function of novel genes in viruses that infect Mycobacterium, called mycobacteriophages,” explained Gissendanner. “We will develop gene knockout strategies that students will perform in an advanced genetics laboratory and they will determine the role of these genes in phages (viruses that infect bacteria).”

Gissendanner said the team will incorporate a second module into a general genetics lab or bioinformatics course that will involve using DNA fingerprints to assign phages to specific related clusters. A third module will be incorporated into a sophomore microbiology lab and will use a molecular biology approach to determine the mode of reproduction of a particular phage.

The sabbaticals are another step toward HHMI’s goal of making the SEA a valuable resource for science educators nationwide. When HHMI unveiled the SEA program in 2007, it committed $4 million over four years to the alliance’s first course, the National Genomics Research Initiative, through which about 50 ULM freshman students were participants during the last two academic years. The year-long course has enabled the freshmen to make discoveries by doing research on newly isolated phages.

But SEA officials said it soon became apparent that one set of courses would not be enough to continue challenging students as they progressed through college. They invited the 27 schools participating in the SEA to apply and only three, including ULM, were chosen to design a research-based curriculum that will pick up where the viral genomics class leaves off.

The new experiments will be evaluated during the next academic year. If promising, the laboratory modules will be refined for broad adoption and dissemination by the SEA; some could be available to the larger science education community as early as the 2011-2012 academic year, according to SEA officials.

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