Recently, I had the chance to get an inside look at Virginia Tech’s new class, Phage Hunters: BIOL 1135 & 1136, housed in the College of Science.

Dawn Wright, a junior majoring in neuroscience, shared some thoughts from the year now that she’s a bona fide Phage Hunter. Thanks, Dawn!

Q: How did the second semester of doing the genome annotations change your thinking after the first lab-based class? 

DW: I’m a more hands-on learner, so the change of pace for me was slightly uncomfortable at first. However, you have to develop the mindset that what you are doing in the second semester is taking a specimen that was isolated and looking at its most fundamental parts. Every codon in the genome of the bacteriophage is used to examine the greater functions of the gene products, and this information is necessary to further the applications of these viruses in future research and medicine.

Q: How did the second semester change or contribute to your thinking as a student studying science? 

DW: The second semester really elaborated on the more analytical side of biological sciences. I think that the common misconception is that research is a series of experiments that yield results that are then published. This is more often than not the case – there is a lot more to research than just performing experiments, and the second semester exposed us to the critical thinking that is necessary to accurately annotate a genome. As a neuroscience student, this taught me that you have to examine all the small pieces that make up a bigger picture.

Dawn Wright (right) is pictured here with Neil Feste, a junior biochemistry student and fellow phage hunter.
Dawn Wright (pictured right) presented her findings at the spring course poster session in Fralin Hall. She’s pictured here with Neil Feste, a junior biochemistry student and fellow phage hunter.

Q: What was it like getting to be involved in the research from start to finish (from finding the phage to annotating it over both semesters)? 

DW: Having the experience from both semesters really developed a sense of pride, as we were able to watch the project evolve from a mere soil sample to a fully sequenced genome. Since we got to name our bacteriophages, we were given a sense of identity since we were associated with our findings. It was truly surreal to see the pictures of our phages on the computer screen next to the electron microscope and each of its constituent parts mapped out on the software that we worked on for fourteen weeks.

Because of Phage Hunters, I was able to secure a research position in a microbial genetics research lab that would eventually lead to me receiving a fellowship to continue this research. While this research project is not close to the finish line, I fondly reflect on all of my mishaps in the wet lab portion of Phage Hunters and remember to persevere because the end result is well worth the frustration in the middle of the journey.

Q: Do you have a different perspective of research now that you’ve completed the whole year of work? 

DW: After completing a full year of work in the lab, my interest in conducting research has increased drastically. I was strictly pre-med track before taking the course, but after becoming involved with this project, I am now more aware of the close relationship between research and medical applications. I think that research is a very rewarding experience to become involved in, because you never know if you are going to walk into the lab someday and discover something that has yet to be seen. There is so much out there that we do not know the answers to, and I find it magical that research allows you to be a part of finding the solution.

Q: What advice would you give now to fellow undergraduates who don’t have any research experience and who haven’t taken the class?

DW: For the fellow undergraduates, I highly recommend reaching out to professors and becoming involved. Research experience provides you with technical and teamwork skills that are invaluable in the workplace. There are plenty of opportunities at this institution that are geared towards providing experience to students who are interested. In addition, keep an eye out for special study (SS) programs that are offered through the Biological Sciences major and can be seen in the timetable of classes when the time to create your schedule comes around.

Learn more about the course here.