April 22, 2022

Undergraduate students conduct hands-on research: Soil-dwelling bacteriophages may hold the future of medicine, honor President Daniels

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — At Purdue University, undergraduates get to get their hands dirty in the lab. Metaphorically, of course – their hands and labs are clean, but their understanding of the in-depth complexities of the research process as an organic and opportunistic process is richly rooted in lived experience. Even during the pandemic, students and their professors adapted to ensure that students continued to get hands-on practice, discovering new, potentially therapeutic viruses – including one light-heartedly named for President Mitch Daniels.

Undergraduate courses, ABE (Agricultural and Biological Engineering) 22600 Biotechnology Laboratory I and ABE 22700 Biotechnology Laboratory II typify that learning experience.

“Without this course, I would have never been able to fully understand the vast effort behind making scientific discoveries,” said course graduate Ekta Singh.

The courses are designed for undergraduate students of any major who want research experience. Students work with mycobacteriophages. Also called “bacteriophages,” or simply “phages,” they are types of viruses that destroy bacteria cells by infecting them and reproducing inside them. Selected and wielded strategically, bacteriophages can help treat bacterial infections in humans that have become resistant to antibiotics. Students in the class recently named one of their bacteriophages for President Mitch Daniels.

bacteriophage-burns-singh Undergraduate Ben Burns (left) and Ekta Singh were among the group that helped isolate and study the bacteriophage named “DaddyDaniels” in honor of President Mitch Daniels. (Purdue University/John Underwood) Download image

During the fall of 2020, professors weren’t even sure if the class would be possible while keeping everyone safe. Student leaders within the class stepped forward to work out ways for lab partners to cooperate safely on studying bacteriophages.

One lab group honored its Boilermaker pride by naming its bacteriophage after a uniquely Purdue pillar. They have given the bacteriophage his colloquial nickname “DaddyDaniels,” in recognition of both Daniels’ reputation of open-handedness in freezing tuition 11 years in a row and homage to “Annie’s “Daddy Warbucks.” They formally presented their research to him in person recently.

The research course begins by having students sample their environments – everywhere they can think of, but primarily places with soil – to find bacteriophages that have adapted to attack one of their target viruses. The phage that became known as the DaddyDaniels phage was found in a raised mulch bed outside of an apartment building off campus. Students then isolate, study and catalog the bacteriophages including mapping their genetic code.

The professor emphasized that the trial-and-error nature of research is both a vital part of the process as well as an important lesson the students learn: Not every experiment comes out “right” the first time.

bacteriophage-daniels During the pandemic, a class of undergraduate researchers officially named a bacteriophage for President Mitch Daniels, shown here with the students. (Photo provided) Download image

“This course is an excellent way to engage students in what we know from the literature and to help them learn these kind of skills and capabilities from an authentic science perspective,” said Kari Clase, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering in the College of Agriculture and one of the course instructors. “It’s an opportunity to practice and explore where it’s safe to fail. We teach them that failure is part of the process and how to learn from it and thrive.”

The research started in this class can also directly affect students’ careers and futures. Many alumni credit the course with enabling them to pursue internships and careers in the pharmaceutical field. For those who don’t pursue a research field, the experience enriches their outlook and offers them insight as they pursue careers as engineers, doctors, health professionals and more.

The course began with a partnership with Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Education Alliance, initially enrolling fewer than 20 students. Now, nearly 90 enroll each semester, and the university continues to work to support and foster these courses.

The discovery and the naming of the DaddyDaniels bacteriophage drew accolades from both Boilermaker students and parents, especially given that it happened in the heart of the pandemic, when Purdue was working tirelessly to promote learning in innovative ways while protecting the health of Purdue’s people and community.

“The ABE 226 and 227 courses gave me a supportive space to explore all and any of my academic curiosities,” said former course student Rebecca Slaughter. “Because of my research and teaching roles in the course, I was able to conduct research in other Purdue laboratories, gain technical laboratory and computational skills and learn how to effectively share my knowledge with my peers. From these courses, I was able to obtain two research-based internships in the biopharmaceutical industry and multiple job offers. I am forever grateful for the experiences I was able to gain from this course.”

Purdue University’s Agricultural and Biological Engineering Graduate Program has again ranked #1 in its category in the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings of Best Graduate Schools. The ABE graduate and undergraduate programs have consistently received top ranking over the last decade.

About Purdue University

Purdue University is a top public research institution developing practical solutions to today’s toughest challenges. Ranked in each of the last four years as one of the 10 Most Innovative universities in the United States by U.S. News & World Report, Purdue delivers world-changing research and out-of-this-world discovery. Committed to hands-on and online, real-world learning, Purdue offers a transformative education to all. Committed to affordability and accessibility, Purdue has frozen tuition and most fees at 2012-13 levels, enabling more students than ever to graduate debt-free. See how Purdue never stops in the persistent pursuit of the next giant leap at https://stories.purdue.edu.

Media contact: Brittany Steff, bsteff@purdue.edu

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