Published: Jan. 8, 2009

The University of Colorado at Boulder is one of 12 colleges selected today by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to participate in the Science Education Alliance, an ambitious higher education program designed to involve freshmen in scientific discovery on a national scale.

The 12 schools participating in the Science Education Alliance, or SEA, join a dozen other colleges and universities HHMI selected to kick off the SEA program in 2008, said Nancy Guild, a faculty member in the molecular, cellular and developmental biology department and principal investigator on the HHMI grant to CU-Boulder. HHMI has committed $4 million over four years to SEA, which allows faculty to work together to bring relevant scientific research to students in a novel, collaborative way.

SEA's first project is the National Genomics Research Initiative, or NGRI, a yearlong laboratory research course aimed exclusively at first-year college students. In the course, students will have the opportunity to study viruses known as bacteriophages that infect bacteria, said Guild. During the first semester of the lab, which begins in fall 2009 at CU-Boulder, each student will isolate and characterize bacteriophage from soil samples, and then purify and clone the DNA of their individual, unique bacteriophage, also known as phages, she said.

"Students are going to find phages that have never been studied or classified, so the students will also have the opportunity to name their phage," Guild said.

In the second semester of the course, each student will receive DNA files of his or her phage genome that will have been sequenced during CU-Boulder's 2009-10 semester break by the Joint Genome Institute-Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The students will use the DNA sequence information to analyze and compare the genomes of their individual phage with the genomes of phages isolated by other students in HHMI's nationwide SEA network.

About 20 to 25 incoming CU-Boulder students will be selected to participate in the 2009-10 SEA genomic research project, according to Guild. "We are very excited to offer this opportunity to undergraduates," said Guild, who collaborated with co-investigator and MCDB faculty member Christy Fillman on the proposal to HHMI. "The students are getting the chance to participate in cutting-edge research, analyzing and characterizing genome sequences, which is a very hot area of scientific research right now in the world."

The 12 new SEA colleges and universities were chosen by HHMI from 33 applicants and range from small private colleges to large research universities. The SEA program is headquartered at HHMI's Janelia Farm Research Campus in northern Virginia. HHMI is headquartered in Chevy Chase, Md.

The first 12 SEA schools began offering the genomics course in fall 2008. "When you visit these schools, you can see that institutional transformation is occurring," said Tuajuanda Jordan, director of the SEA program for HHMI. "We have given these educators ammunition to show their colleagues that research courses are a viable way to engage students and possibly retain them in the sciences."

Guild said the goal is to involve freshmen in "engaging and important research" in hopes they will become more interested in biology and the research process during their college careers and more proficient in critical thinking throughout their lives. "Once we have the initial lab course up and running, we plan to use it as a model to transform our large introductory lab courses into a unique research opportunity for students at the beginning of their science careers."