Undergraduate Research Propels Student into Science
The background image on Lydia Flores’ phone is a symbol of hope. It has a large head and a short, contracting tail, and it kills bacteria. The treasured photo is a bacteriophage virus which Flores hopes may one day play a role in the cure for tuberculosis. She and two classmates discovered the bacteriophage, and she named it “NoodleTree” because they found it under a “tree” at Collin College where she grows her brain or “noodle.”
They may be microscopic, but bacteriophages pack a powerful punch. In a world of superbugs, which are resistant to traditional antibiotics, phage therapy can be the difference between life and death. NoodleTree has already made an impact in Flores’ life by leading her step by step into the exciting world of science.
“It’s one thing to learn about what other people have done, but discovering something on your own is really a cool experience,” Flores said.
“NoodleTree’s capsid, or head, is where the DNA is stored. Its short tail attaches to bacteria, and it contracts and pumps its DNA into the bacteria. The phage DNA takes over the bacteria to produce more viruses, and that is how the cycle keeps going,” she explains.
Flores was planning to earn a psychology degree when she opted to take a biotechnology class for her required biology credit. Scarred from just scraping by in high school science, Flores had no interest in pursuing a biology degree before discovering NoodleTree. Today, however, she plans to earn her associate degree, a bachelor’s in biology with a chemistry minor, and she hopes to study phages and virology in graduate school.
Flores’ discovery is part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomic and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) project. Students are not the only ones that are excited about this endeavor. Collin College Professors Donna Cain, Bridgette Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Lawson and Carole Twichell discovered their own phages and worked with students on the phage project in microbiology and biotechnology classes and as part of the college’s Center for the Advanced Studies in Mathematics and Natural Sciences undergraduate research program.
“In response to the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education Chronicling Change, Inspiring the Future report, we are developing teaching technologies and strategies to engage students at Collin College,” said Kirkpatrick, who named her phage Bonstermonster after her horse, Bonnie.
According to Lawson, tuberculosis kills more people than any other infectious disease.
“One SEA-PHAGES program goal is to better understand viral evolution by sequencing the genomes of students’ phages. Having students analyze the genes and predicted protein functions allow them to contribute to these important steps within this massive scientific study. The success of this program demonstrates the need to adopt this approach for all Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) labs,” said Lawson, who named his phage Phannahbanana after his daughter, Hannah.
The Third Time’s a Charm
The phage discovery process was not easy for Flores and her team. On two separate occasions, they dug up soil samples, diluted them, filtered out the bacteria and plated the samples, hoping to see the Swiss-cheese design of success on their petri dishes.
“They look like Swiss cheese holes when the phage is killing the bacteria,” Flores said.
Flores and her team selected their final soil sample from a tree that had been freshly mulched and finally hit pay dirt.
Looking back, she remembers the moment she began to envision herself as a scientist.
“We used a spectrometer to test absorbance, and if the concentration is not high enough you have to do it again. It got to the point that I didn’t have to look at the protocols anymore. I was sure of myself.”
Flores was hooked.
“I fell in love with research. I thought, ‘this doesn’t have to stop. It is not just a once in a lifetime process.’ I switched to biology because I enjoyed it so much.”
Flores took the next biotechnology class so she could learn more about NoodleTree. She used software and databases to discover the phage’s genes and probable gene functions. She submitted this information to The Actinobacteriophage Database for other researchers to use. During the annotation process, Flores learned that her phage has novel genes that code for toxin and antitoxin which typically only show up in bacteria. She wrote a phage announcement which her professors will submit for publishing. Flores also had the opportunity to present her poster at the SEA symposium in Washington D.C.
“My boyfriend told me he was proud of me, but he didn’t understand what I was doing. Being able to talk to other students, just like me, about the research and what worked for them was great,” she said.
Flores met Dr. Lee Hughes at the symposium. He invited her to visit his bacteriophage lab at the University of North Texas (UNT). Today, Flores is taking classes at Collin College and UNT and performing experiments in Dr. Hughes’ lab.
“I plan to annotate the phages they found and sequenced. I know how to do that because of Collin College. I am ahead of the curve on that. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity at all if I hadn’t done it at Collin first. I am really glad I came to Collin. They care as much about education as you do, and you save so much money. My books cost more than my tuition at Collin,” she said.
One, tiny virus changed Flores’ career trajectory.
“It is special to me because it is mine, and it is a symbol of what this research could accomplish. It is almost like NoodleTree is my child. I discovered it and am now sending it out into the world to help in the tuberculosis efforts. You really can help change the world if you try hard enough.”
For more information about classes at Collin College visit https://www.collin.edu.
Reprinted with permission of Allen Image