Investigating phage ecology: A new summer research experience
In 2015, Dr. Reid Schwebach was awarded a collaborative 4-VA grant to investigate phage ecology as a three week research experience for both Mason undergraduates and high school students at George Mason University. The major component of the institute was to investigate bacteriophage, specifically how their genome changes in response to climate change. With the help of his two learning assistants, Lindsey Cundra and Caroline Benzel, Dr. Schwebach taught the course in July of 2015—an endeavor that focused on providing an environment fostering close mentorships between students, teachers, mentors, learning assistants and future collaborators.
At the beginning of the course, the students collected numerous soil samples that would later be used for phage isolation and extraction. Using the USDA’s online soil type data base called Wed Soil Survey, Melissa Fuerst, one of the GMU student mentors, pinpointed the GPS locations of 6 different soil types at Environmental Studies on the Piedmont, a field station non-profit in Warrenton, VA. The students came to the field station to learn about soil sample collection and to gather their own soil samples for bacteriophage testing. As a team, they braved the high heats of July and gathered three samples from each of the six sites, totaling 18 samples in all! The sampling sites can be viewed on the course’s own blog. The daily blog, which includes an inventory of the samples, sampling locations, experimental procedures and written discussions by classmates, was created and maintained by phage student Jennifer Jones.
After collecting the samples, ArcGIS, a form of geographic information system (GIS), was presented as a way for the team to better organize and display the sampling sites and data. On having to learn GIS for the first time, one of the phage students Brianna Nielsen commented, “It was very simple and easy to use, having no previous knowledge. We were able to create maps and import data collected from our research.” ArcGIS allowed the research team to compare climate factors (soil type, precipitation, and elevation) to the collected phage data. This step allowed the team to speculate the dynamics of how climate affected the types of phage that were discovered.
Upon summation of the course, the team recognized how valuable bioinformatics would be in identifying the phage. Consequently, phage students Brianna and Jennifer initiated their own research endeavor and will be working closely with Dr. Patrick Gillevet at George Mason University’s Science and Technology Campus in Prince William. The impacts of the course encompass not only future endeavors but the personal impressions of all those involved. Upon consideration of her experience, Jennifer reflected,
“The Phage Ecology Research Program not only provided me with valuable laboratory and research skills, but also encouraged me to further explore many of the vast fields that Biology encompasses.”