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.
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!
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.