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Students discover the CURE
A first-year research initiative
9 April 2020
Students annotate genes collected by earlier CURE cohorts. Here Greg Broussard (right) works with a first-year student to properly annotate a phage sequence.

An educational staple, Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy lays out a hierarchy of learning, beginning with the basic recitation of memorized facts and extending to synthesis, independent thinking, and application of concepts at the most advanced level. The Eberly College of Science focuses on helping new students achieve the latter stages of Bloom’s hierarchy early on in their academic experience. Case in point: first- year research initiatives (FRIs) in the college that provide opportunities for first-year students in chemistry and biology to engage in actual laboratory research under the watchful eyes of teaching assistants charged with letting students problem solve and learn by doing as opposed to following step-by-step procedures.

Among these FRIs in Eberly Science is the unique Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) run by Gregory Broussard, assistant teaching professor of biochemistry and molecular biology. During the summer before their first official fall classes, each student is assigned research that involves isolating, purifying, and extracting genomic DNA from phage viruses that infect bacteria found in oysters. Students also use an electron microscope to capture an image, called a micrograph, of their phage. If they choose, they can continue their research over the following two semesters. Since 2015, 157 first-year students have worked in phage- discovery CURE laboratories at Penn State. “The one thing that makes this course unique is that we get the students in the lab over the summer,” said Broussard. “This gets them used to working in the lab, and by the fall semester they can really begin to work independently. The summer experience also gets them used to college life, which is a big factor in a student’s success.”

Genomes generated by the CURE students are sequenced and held for the next cohort to annotate—to identify the location of the genes and their functions. Students make the genomes and annotations available to other scientists by submitting their phage-genome data to GenBank, the National Institutes of Health's genetic sequence database. To date, the CURE students have sequenced 67 genomes, annotated 8 genomes, and submitted 5 fully sequenced genomes to GenBank. Momentum is building, and an expected 18 annotated genomes will be ready for submission after fall semester 2019.

“In this lab, the work that you do actually contributes to the science community,” said Natalie Giacobe, a first-year biology student. “Specifically working with phages is exciting because our work could contribute to phage therapy, the use of bacteriophages to treat bacterial infections.”

Because their work contributes to a greater body of research, many of the students are more enthusiastic about the science classes they take in their first semester. It also helps students decide if they want to continue in the sciences.

“The experience can help some students envision a career in the lab,” said Broussard. “But for others, they may realize that a research career is not the path they want to take, and they can begin looking for other pursuits early on in their academic career.”

Near the conclusion of the fall semester, some students develop a research project that they can work on in the spring. Still others become teaching assistants in the lab after their first year.

Cory Lestochi, a 2019 graduate of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) program, was one of those students who was inspired by the CURE curriculum. He became a teaching assistant in the CURE lab and now works as a microbiologist for High Performance Product Engineering, a startup company based in Columbus, Georgia.

“From about the second day in the class, it felt like I was performing real experiments,” said Lestochi.“Still to this day it is a memory I’ll never forget. It’s one of the things that inspired me to switch to Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for my major.This course had a dramatic effect on how I approached lab work and the rest of my undergraduate career.”

First-year research initiatives like the CURE course in BMB help students make a critical linkage between the lab bench and applied science. They open students’ eyes and inspire them to consider other research opportunities to pursue, which can lead to internships or work in other labs during their time at Penn State. These laboratory experiences help students extend their learning along Bloom’s taxonomy toward analysis and synthesis, and in the end make them excellent scientists—the kind that the Eberly College of Science has trained for decades.