Mount students embrace the science of viral discovery

January 27, 2017

First-year Mount Saint Mary College students delve into the inner workings of viruses in the Science of Viral Discovery course. The students, all non-science majors, found, isolated, and studied their own undocumented virus last year, and will continue their studies in the second half of the course during the Spring 2017 semester. 


At Mount Saint Mary College, a lab class buzzes with about 20 first-year students, clad in goggles, examining slides under microscopes, and taking notes.

Each student has discovered a previously undocumented virus and is diving deep into its RNA and beyond to see what makes it tick.

And not a single one of the scholars is a science major.

The Science of Viral Discovery is a classroom-based undergraduate research experience that introduces students to concepts and methods involved in scientific discovery. Using state-of-the-art technology, the students isolated, identified, and characterized viruses known as bacteriophages – viruses that infect bacteria.

“The overarching purpose of the class is to give students a research experience that they otherwise wouldn’t have had,” explained Evan Merkhofer, assistant professor of biology, who teaches the course. “Doing true research really gives students a better understanding of the nature and process of science.”

Many of the problem-solving skills learned in the Viral Discovery course can be applied to any field of study, not just the natural sciences, he noted.

Students taking the course were tasked with obtaining their own samples, which came from soil samples taken on campus. Because viruses mutate so often, explained Merkhofer, two students could take a sample only a few feet away from each other and wind up with completely different specimens.

Although we tend to think of them as a health risk, most viruses only infect bacteria, noted Merkhofer. “If it weren’t for viruses, bacteria would overrun the planet,” he said.

As the course progressed, the students utilized a variety of microbiology techniques to isolate a single virus, winding up with a test tube full of exact copies. They named their unique virus and uploaded their findings to a database at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in New York City, so that others may browse the data – or even continue the students’ research.

The Science of Viral Discovery gives students a good idea of what parts of a virus infect its host bacteria, and why some viruses are better at that than others. By answering these questions in the lab, the Mount students might be building the framework for other discoveries down the line. For example, scientists might be able to discover a cure to bacteria-based illnesses by studying the viruses that infect them.

“You never know what the full implication of these discoveries could be,” Merkhofer said. “They could change the world one day.”

In the second part of the course, which began with the Spring 2017 semester, students will use the genetic information they discovered last time to identify the genes present in their viruses. Then, the students will compare these genes with those of viruses that have been previously discovered.

About 14 of the 19 students who took the first part of the course have elected to take the second. “They really have ownership of this project,” Merkhofer said. “It’s great to see non-science majors taking such an interest in this course and developing their skills.”

At least one student in the course is considering becoming a biology major, he said.