January 27, 2017
NEWBURGH, N.Y. -
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
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
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
“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
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
At least one student in the course is considering becoming a
biology major, he said.