Seton Hill University has been selected to participate in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Science in Education Alliance (SEA) phages course. The Westmoreland County university is one of 80 colleges nationwide selected to administer the course.

The HHMI phage course, developed in 2008, is a concept based on work by HHMI professor Graham Hatfull at the University of Pittsburgh. Students isolate novel viruses that infect bacteria, known as bacteriophages or phages, from soil, and then purify them, isolate their genomic DNA and send it away for DNA sequencing. When the sequence comes back, the students employ tools to annotate and characterize their new-found phages. From start to finish, there are no guarantees of success or right answers. HHMI notes that students endure the pitfalls of true research, such as contaminated bacterial plates and inscrutable results, along with the thrill of discovery and ‘eureka’ moments.

Kristen Butela, Ph.D., assistant professor, biology, established the program at Seton Hill and will supervise it. Butela, who worked with the Hatfull lab in various phagehunting educational outreach projects as a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, will attend the training workshop for the phages course at the HHMI Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Va., July 22-27.

“The phages course lends itself well to a liberal arts curriculum,” said Butela. “It is a creative, hands-on way to introduce students to science and have them take ownership of a project. The course promotes mentorship and is structured for the students to administer the labs.”

The results of the students’ genome discoveries will be published in the national genome database and these new discoveries will assist HHMI in understanding the relationships between viruses and their hosts.

The phages course will be implemented in fall 2012 and Butela noted that she hopes to extend the class beyond the Biology program into the Seton Hill liberal arts curriculum. “Through the HHMI program, we are able to conduct true scientific research on our campus that students will present at conferences and continue in graduate school. It is ultimately our hope to take this program to the local high school laboratories,” said Butela.

“We are pleased to participate as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute cohort. This research further strengthens our Signature Degree Programs in the Natural and Health Sciences,” said Sister Susan Yochum, S.C., Ph.D., professor, chemistry, and chair, Division of Natural and Health Sciences. “We are pleased to join Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, College of William and Mary, Providence College, the University of Maryland, among others in offering the distinctive program.”

Kristen Butela, Ph.D., assistant professor, biology, joined the Seton Hill faculty in Fall 2011. She teaches microbiology, medical microbiology and genetics and continues her research with Seton Hill students. Butela earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology, Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology and a certificate in women’s studies from Seton Hill University. She received her training as a microbiologist at the University of Pittsburgh Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Program. Her doctoral dissertation was entitled, “Physiological Basis of Predation Escape in Salmonella.” Butela has served as a volunteer instructor for the Phagehunting Program at the University of Pittsburgh and a curriculum designer for Science Mission 101, a program designed by the University of Pittsburgh in cooperation with WQED. She is a member of the Seton Hill University Alumni Association Board of Directors.