Getting high school students into phage labs

Issue 34 | June 27, 2019
8 min read

This week, we’re showcasing a story we received from Karen Adler, an MSc student in Dr. Ronen Hazan’s lab at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She tells us about the phage work their lab is doing with high school students, some of the results the students have achieved, and provides her tips on inspiring these students. Thanks Karen!

Some of our early Capsid & Tail readers will remember when we wrote about our Phage Directory Classroom Initiative. We went out and spoke to a few classrooms full of middle-schoolers about phages, and then we wrote about it. Then we encouraged the phage community to do the same or similar, and to share their stories with us.

Now that the school year is done, we want to showcase some of the phage researchers we heard from who are inspiring the next generation of phage enthusiasts!

What’s New

Mian Li Ooi and colleagues at the University of Adelaide and Ampliphi Biosciences published a paper on their use of phage therapy in a phase I clinical trial to treat patients with chronic rhinosinusitis caused by Staphylococcus aureus. They found that intranasal irrigation with phage cocktail AB-SA01 was safe and well tolerated, and they saw promising preliminary efficacy results.

Phage TherapyClinical Trials

Nicolas Dufour of the Institut Pasteur and colleagues have shown that lysis of E. coli by phages in mice (as a treatment for pneumonia) did not increase innate inflammatory responses compared to an antibiotic treatment.

Phage-Immune Interactions

The International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya has partnered with the Université Laval in Canada to develop phage products against Salmonella to treat poultry in Kenya. The project is funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre and the UK’s Global AMR Innovation Fund.

NewsCollaboration

The winner of the Microbiology Society’s 2019 Fleming Prize for outstanding research is Prof. Peter Fineran, Associate Professor at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Watch Prof. Fineran’s award talk on phage resistance systems here.

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Latest Jobs

No new jobs this week. If you’d like to add one, please post one here

Community Board

Anyone can post a message to the phage community — and it could be anything from collaboration requests, post-doc searches, sequencing help — just ask!

Seeking phage research opportunity

Golestan University of Medical Sciences

Mahsa Yazdi Gorgan, Iran

I recently graduated with a Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of Isfahan, Iran. My thesis was entitled “Isolation and characterization of lytic bacteriophages against some of the most common bacterial causes of urinary tract infections” under the supervision of Prof. Majid Bouzari. During my Ph.D. project, I learned almost all the necessary techniques and methods for phage study and gained useful experience in phages and phage therapy. I currently work as an independent researcher at the Department of Microbiology, Golestan University of Medical Sciences, Gorgan, Iran. I am looking for a postdoc or research scientist position to pursue my interest in phages and related topics. Please email me at [email protected] if you have any openings or would like to discuss further!

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Getting high school students into phage labs

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MSc Student
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel

Karen Adler is an MSc student in the lab of Dr. Ronen Hazan at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.

The Alpha program

As part of their biology matriculation exams, gifted high school students in some schools in Israel have the option to join a program called Alpha, which allows them to join university research laboratories and take on little research projects of their own, even presenting a miniature thesis at the end of 1.5 years.

How it works

The program essentially takes gifted high schoolers, asks them what interests them, and sends them to interviews at the beginning of the academic year in labs that deal with relevant subjects (can be physics, chemistry, or biology).

Each student is given a PhD student mentor (I’m the only MSc student who has them, but that’s just because I’m almost done with my project and am starting my PhD soon). Then the mentor, together with the Principal Investigator of the lab, chooses a project for each student that goes alongside/supports the mentor’s PhD project. Each student has to have their own individual project, and throughout the year and a half of the program, they submit a research proposal and parts of a thesis for approval, with the final thesis sent to the Ministry of Education at the end of the project.

Current students

I am currently mentoring two 10th graders who just started their project in November and already found (on their own - I swear!) 16 phages for Pseudomonas! I wish I had an opportunity like this when I was their age!

Student successes

We’ve had several students over the past few years, working on a variety of phage-related topics ranging from anthrax, to food contamination, to phage-antibiotic synergy, one of whom, Sarit, even got second author on a publication in 11th grade. So, we thought you’d like to hear about our young stars – Sarit, Itamar, and Noa.

Sarit’s anthrax phages

Sarit Sternberg finished her project in 2018. She worked alongside PhD students Sivan Alkalay and Leron Khalifa on anthrax, and at age 16 discovered two phages for it on her own; the phages were named after her, the other high school student who helped, and the Alpha program, SNα300 and SNα320. The phages were isolated from soil samples from the Golan Heights (plains in the north of Israel). After this discovery, she was invited to present her work to the Board of Governors of the Hebrew University, and consequently invited to Sydney, Australia by the Australian Friends of the Hebrew University to present her work there at schools and fundraising events.

Itamar and Noa’s Pseudomonas phages

Itamar Gatt and Noa Yoffe are in 10th grade, aged 16 and 15 respectively, and just started in the lab in November with me. Before they started their individual projects (Itamar is working on phage-antibiotic synergy, and Noa is working on lysogenic phage mutagenesis), I wanted them to get a feel for their new buddy Pseudomonas aeruginosa and phage work in general. So, I set them a task – go read about P. aeruginosa, find out where it likes to live, and bring samples. They came back with 18 samples ranging from rotten orange and grapefruit, to wormy mud, to flowers – they grew and screened them on their own using a protocol I developed for P. aeruginosa, and lo and behold – 16 of the samples were positive (the rotten orange and rotten grapefruit didn’t work out)!

Out of those 16 samples, a few even had multiple morphologies (i.e. multiple phages)! I’ve included some photos we took when we plated serial dilutions to see what was environmental antibiotic and what was phage. They were super pumped – we celebrated with cookies shaped like bacteria and phages!

We separated, grew and sequenced the phages, did electron microscopy, and they presented all of this on a poster at the annual Israel Society for Microbiology convention in March. Of course we will also be testing all 16+ on our current potential patient samples!

Tips on inspiring high school students in the (phage) lab

When it comes to getting kids excited about phage research, I think the most important thing is that you have to be excited yourself! Show your enthusiasm, it gets them going right away – “guys, I am working on the coolest project ever, I kill bacteria by infecting them with viruses!” (showing a picture of what a phage looks like always works too). Explain to them why phages are so cool, tell them about the main idea of your research, why it will change medicine today.

Show them results like plaques on a petri dish – explain what they’re seeing there (“See that dot? It started from a single virus.”) There’s no need to go into details, they might get lost and lose interest – but on the other hand, while they may not have all the background science knowledge you do, that doesn’t mean they won’t appreciate being shown real science at work.

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