Luther College Chips

Biology department starts pilot phage hunting class

Yosbiel Garcia ('20) and Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Melissa Mefford analyze a petri dish.

Yosbiel Garcia ('20) and Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Melissa Mefford analyze a petri dish.

Karl Nycklemoe ('18) | Chips

Karl Nycklemoe ('18) | Chips

Yosbiel Garcia ('20) and Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Melissa Mefford analyze a petri dish.

Karl Nycklemoe, Staff Writer

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The biology department recently added a pilot laboratory-intensive class titled Phage Hunting. This class is designed to provide students with experience in laboratory work.

The class emphasizes laboratory work over lecture, and students taking this class will learn what it means to be a scientist, according to Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Melissa Mefford.

“This course is different because it’s 90 percent lab,” Mefford said. “We don’t sit in a classroom. We’re in the lab doing biology and experiencing being a scientist.”

The goal of the class is for students to isolate and identify their very own bacteriophage, or phage, which is a virus that specifically injects its DNA into bacteria. The phage then multiply inside the bacteria to the point of the bacteria bursting, which releases hundreds of new phage. For students, this hunt began the very first day of class.

“On the first day we actually went out to get some samples of soil,” Sisekelo Mabuza (‘19) said. “I thought that was excellent to introduce a course that way”

After acquiring their soil samples, the students began their work isolating a single type of phage from the bacteria within the soil. According to Mefford, the students have already faced some difficulties while conducting their research.

“Something I don’t think people understand about real science and being a scientist is that there is a lot of failure,” Mefford said. “Things go wrong.”

The issues that the students have faced range from contamination of samples to human error. Lauren Resner (‘18) shared her experience with the challenges of the class.

“So far it’s frustrating,” Resner said. “I’m not used to the sciences, but it’s been fun to learn and to see others have successes.”

While this is the first year the class has been offered at Luther, the course has already been implemented in other colleges and universities across the country. Carthage College uses phage hunting as their first-year science course that all students majoring in the life sciences must take. Another school that offers this type of course is Johns Hopkins, where Mefford had taught this course before. Luther has yet to decide if phage hunting will become a permanent part of the Biology major.

“I’m just piloting it,” Mefford said. “We’re giving it a go here at Luther College so that the biology department can utilize my knowledge and expertise to see how the course runs, and if it’s something they would be interested to put into the curriculum.”

Phage hunting is only being offered as a special topics course this year, leaving its future at Luther ambiguous.

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