National Biology Experiment Connects NWU Students to World’s Science Experts

The experiment was made possible by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which selected NWU for the program.
Ziomara Jurado analyzes data in a spring semester biology class. She presented her research at a national symposium this summer.
Nick Johnson works in an NWU biology laboratory. His research was part of a national experiment.
The national experiment allowed faculty to flip their classroom and start with hands-on lab experience.

When Ziomara Jurado and Nick Johnson stepped into their very first college biology class last August, they likely didn’t picture themselves presenting their research to the world’s top science professors just 10 months later.

But this weekend, the two Nebraska Wesleyan University students are in Virginia sharing their findings on bacteriophages.

This year the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Education Alliance selected NWU to be an associate member and participant in a national bacteriophages experiment. NWU faculty received special training last summer and implemented the experiment into their introductory biology classes.

During the fall semester, students in the introductory Phage Biology class collected, identified, isolated and extracted DNA from bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria. The data was sent to a national genome sequencing center. The DNA sequence data was returned to students during the spring semester so they could use bioinformatics to evaluate the sequences and prepare their results for the seventh annual SEA-Phage Symposium in Virginia.

“Ziomara and Nick will have the great opportunity to be exposed to the nationwide community of young scientists,” said Jerry Bricker, associate professor of biology. “They will get to network early and experience the top science faculty in the world.”

At the symposium Jurado and Johnson will practice communicating their findings to an audience of scientists, and interact with students who are doing similar research.

“The SEA-Phage program has high expectations of everybody, despite first-year status,” said Bricker. “Each student is a scientist participating in nationwide research.”

The experiment led NWU biology professors to flip the coursework from traditional lecture sessions to immediate hands-on laboratory experiences.  The flip provides students the opportunity to get an early feel for upper-level biology material and discover earlier in their academic careers if the program is right for them.

“The hands-on experience was fantastic because it allowed me to dive into the material that we were discussing, instead of staring at PowerPoints and not doing anything with the knowledge,” said Johnson of Rochester, Minn., who plans to declare a double major in biochemistry and mathematics.

Bricker believes some students would not stay in the biology program if they were in a traditional introductory course. In Phage Biology, Johnson said he struggled with lab experiments but discovered his strengths in informatics when the class began analyzing their scientific material with software and database programs.

Jurado of Bellevue said having this experience as a first-year undergraduate opened many doors for her.

“I had the opportunity to help my classmates with their bacteriophages, and next year I will be a teaching assistant for the course.” she said. “I am also considering expanding on this research to make it my senior research project, and hope to continue the research after graduation.”

Biology professor Angela McKinney is joining the NWU students at the symposium. She is responsible for bringing the SEA-Phage program to Nebraska Wesleyan.

While the experiment is complete, the new format for teaching introductory biology will continue. In addition to allowing students to dive into experiments right away, the format will also shrink class sizes to allow for more semester-long research projects.

“After discussion with other biology faculty and faculty from other institutions, our department agreed that the SEA-Phage biology course fits the goals and mission of our program,” said McKinney. “Instead of having students read about science, we want them to have a hands-on, investigative approach to learning about how science is really done.”