Undergrads Land Scientific article in a prestigious journal

In an important achievement for undergraduate students and crowning three years of work, two biology students from La Sierra University published a scientific paper under the direction of professor and virologist Arturo Diaz, in June 2022 in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

The article, entitled “Characterization of YuuY, KaiHaiDragon and OneinaGillian phages isolated from Microbacterium foliorum», appeared on June 14 in a special issue of the journal entitled « Bacteriophages as Tools in Applied Sciences ». The article covers the research of students Uylae Kim and Elizabeth Paul and details the characterization of three bacteria-infecting viruses that have been discovered in Microbacterium folioruma bacterium present in organic matter.

The work was initiated during Diaz’s SEA-PHAGES course with Kim’s discovery of one of the viruses and continued in Diaz’s research lab. It has potential implications for the treatment of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in humans and foodborne pathogens.

“This project meant so much to me, and being able to make an impact in the bacteriophage field is a blessing,” said Kim, a former pre-doctor who wrote the first draft of the manuscript. In his final year, he put together the numbers that were based on two previous years of research. He, Paul, and Diaz edited the manuscript until it was ready for submission in May.

An award-winning student, Kim graduated summa cum laude five days after the article was published and will enter medical school at Loma Linda University this year. “I hope to conduct research even after going to Loma Linda School of Medicine to further my medical education. I am extremely grateful to Dr. Diaz, my lab members and the Biology Department for allowing me to do this research,” he said.

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For Paul, also a pre-med student, who joined Diaz’s lab in 2020 as a teenage volunteer assistant, the experience confirmed her lifelong interest in scientific research, which she plans to incorporate into a future medical career. “Especially because of the research we did, I realized that the lab is one of my happy places,” she said. “I think what I’ve realized about research is [that] it’s almost therapeutic in a way, because it allows you to really focus on something that you know matters.

Diaz, an associate professor of biology, said the publication of his students’ work in such a prestigious journal was a little-known highlight among the ranks of most undergraduates. “I was incredibly excited and proud of Uylae and Elizabeth for publishing their work in a high-impact journal, something undergraduate students rarely get to do, let alone without the help of ‘graduate students or postdoctoral fellows,’ he said.

The article in the journal Molecular Sciences details their findings on the analysis of three bacteriophages, also called phages. A bacteriophage is a virus that infects and kills bacteria. Phages only attack bacteria and are not harmful to humans. They are simply compounds and are abundant throughout the Earth’s biosphere in places where bacteria are abundant, such as in soil and water. For this reason and because of their important role in fundamental biological concepts such as the definition of a gene and the discovery of messenger RNA, as well as their wide applicability to human life, the journal of molecular sciences has devoted a special edition to their study, the journal editors indicated in a description of the special edition.

“As natural enemies of bacteria, phages are an effective alternative to antibiotic-based treatments for bacterial infections,” the journal’s editors wrote. “Nowadays, phages are used in food preservation and in decontamination processes”, while playing a key role in biological processes.

The three phages at the heart of Kim and Paul’s work, YuuY, KaiHaiDragon and OneinaGillian, were discovered respectively by Kim and two former students of Diaz’s SEA-PHAGES class. The students isolated, named and sequenced the phages they found in soil samples taken from the area.

The SEA-PHAGES course was launched in 2017 after Diaz’s Department of Biology at La Sierra was accepted into the Science Education Alliance administered by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It is designed to replace introductory biology courses for high-achieving first-year students interested in hands-on scientific research. Students who complete the two-quarter SEA-PHAGES course move on to its SEA-GENES suite, which guides students in the study of gene function.

The mentorship factor

The authors of an article published in 2011 cited the importance of integrating teaching and research in undergraduate biology education. “The National Academies and the American Association for the Advancement of Science recently emphasized that undergraduate teaching could be enhanced by a higher level of student engagement in authentic research,” they wrote.

Diaz estimates that between the SEA-PHAGES and SEA-GENES programs, more than 50 undergraduate students have co-authored five publications.

He compares himself to a basketball coach in the lab. “I help train students in the different techniques they will need to develop their projects. We meet weekly to review the progress they have made and plan the experiments for the following week, and in general [I] advise and encourage throughout the project. It’s then up to the students to go out and execute the game plan,” he said.

And one research project usually leads to others. For example, in addition to his phage work with Kim, Paul analyzed corn chlorotic mottle virus, which is spread by beetles and infects, deforms and kills corn plants. It is based on preliminary research conducted by other biology students at La Sierra.

“I work on this virus because it has been so devastating to many cultures in sub-Saharan Africa,” she said. “And so by understanding the replication process, we can really open up our knowledge and expand it to have more resources to really fight this virus and its replication zone.”

The original version of this story was published on La Sierra University news sites.

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