Not many middle or high school students can say the work they’ve done in science class has helped save lives. The Phage Discovery Program, co-created by Montana Technological University Biology Professor Marisa Pedulla, has enabled thousands of “phage hunters” to contribute to the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
According to Pedulla, the phages—viruses that are small and harmless to humans—that the students discover are proving successful in medical treatments, because they can adapt and evolve alongside the bacteria to destroy it. Since 2005, Pedulla has taught students how to search for these viruses that inhabit soil and water.
“It’s kind of the ideal citizen science project, to discover new viruses, new genomes and enlightenment about how viruses evolve,” said Pedulla.
Many young “phage hunters” are excited about doing this real, hands-on research with Pedulla, and taking a break from memorizing facts from a textbook. Students get to do some field work, gathering samples from dirt and ponds. The discovery sessions presented by Pedulla and her undergraduate students include details on what phages are and how they might help medicine and genetics; lab basics and safety; recordkeeping and care of equipment.
“They are enthused. They ask questions. They tell me where they are thinking of going to get their sample. They’ll ask, can I have another tube?” said Pedulla.
For years, Pedulla would also tell classes about the potential that their research could help patients. But now, she can also give specific details about a sick teenager in Great Britain whose life has been saved, in part, by phage research. In May 2019, Nature Medicine published details of the successful phage therapy of a teenaged patient who had cystic fibrosis. She was suffering from life-threatening complications after a double lung transplant.
“She was dying of a bacterial infection. From the collection of phages to which my students contribute, they found some phages that were specific to killing her infection of Mycobacterium abscessus, and she survived. Which is super, super inspiring,” said Pedulla.
She says she gets a lot of “big eyes” from students when she explains such direct, and dramatic benefits from the research they are doing, which includes fighting “superbugs” that are resistant to antibiotics.
After the younger students discover a phage, they get to name it and enter it into a database. Then, Pedulla’s college students take over the process, purifying, amplifying and extracting DNA from the sample. Electron micrographs of the phage are uploaded so people can see what it looks like. And the students are credited as the discoverers.
For her work in the Phage Discovery Program through Montana Tech, Pedulla has been recognized as a 2019 AAAS Fellow for engaging thousands of students in genuine scientific discovery opportunities.
Many of her students at Montana Tech and in the K-12 programs have not had many traditional role models in science.
”Some of these [rural Montana] communities are so small they don’t have a physician; they don’t have a scientist; of course they don’t have a university. So there is truly no exposure, except for what students see on crime shows or hospital shows about what these professions are like,” she said. “And those are not the most accurate representations.”
So she shows them photographs of young and active former students, hiking, rock climbing and hunting. All of them now scientists. “And I’ll say, ‘Does this look like a scientist? Look in the mirror.’”
Beyond discovering phages, Pedulla hopes her students will also learn to see scientists as people and feel they themselves can become scientists even with diverse hobbies and interests. Pedulla knows this well herself. While a Ph.D. student, she participated in athletic competitions at the highest level – as an Olympic judo competitor in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. She later coached the U.S. team at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
“There is something out there that you want, that you are willing to work hard for, that brings you joy. I see judo as very interrelated to academic and research pursuits. To attain it, there are steps up that ladder, more than just the end goal. It is the process of training, learning, interacting with other people, who are all doing the same thing,” she said.
And teachers can share that passion. Pedulla realizes that many K-12 science teachers are often stymied by curriculum requirements. But many can share scientific methods with projects that are fun, creative and don’t require a lot of materials.
Students can make posters in middle school about germy hands or can ask the question, does bubble gum make your teeth dirtier? “Just have the students ask the question, collect the data, make the charts and graphs and put it on the wall with their conclusions,” said Pedulla. “Teachers who can do that for young students really do illuminate the process of science.”