New Program Plunges JMU Students Into Real Research

From isolating bacterial viruses and phages from soil, to annotating and comparing sequenced genomes, to preparing viral DNA for sequencing by using colored dye and electronic waves, JMU freshmen and sophomores are immersing themselves in meaningful research. In the inaugural year of the Science Education Alliance, JMU students are learning the essence of scientific discovery.

"[Experiments] do not always go the way we planned for it to go and that is terrific because that is the scientific process and that is realistic. Students not only see the science, but the process," said Steve Cresawn, an assistant professor of biology who teaches the class with integrated science and technology professor Louise Temple-Rosebrook. "It gives them a flavor for what it is like to do science for a living."

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute selected JMU and 12 other universities across the country to participate in the program that gives students real research experience. Nearly 30 JMU underclassman were selected for the year-long program that accounts for three credits and a wealth of hands-on experience. Most students are freshman, but the program accepts all applications. Students from any major are welcome as well. The most common majors this year are biology and biotechnology. Temple-Rosebrook and Cresawn stressed that their one requirement was to find students who had a genuine desire to be in the course.

"We wanted a highly motivated bunch, and we got it," said Cresawn.

The class meets twice a week in the ISAT/CS building and incorporates a combination of hands-on lab and computer work. Students have already uncovered numerous new DNA sequences. Temple-Rosebrook said that 28 to 30 new viruses have been added to the "body of knowledge" with work done in class. Searching for the unknown adds excitement and intrigue to the experience for both students and faculty.

"The most difficult part of the course is that not everyone (found) something because it is real research and you don’t know what is going to happen," said Katherine Sinclair, a freshman biotechnology major enrolled in the class. "I have learned that I can deal with not getting it right the first time. It happened a couple of times when one of my experiments spilled everywhere. You just pick yourself up and do it again."

Sinclair learned about the course through a mass email sent to JMU students. Although unclear on what the course entailed, the prospect of undergraduate research hooked her. Now she is spreading the word about it to her friends and peers. Next fall she will serve as a teacher’s assistant for Cresawn and Temple-Rosebrook.

"The teachers are understanding and they go step by step with us. They too have no idea what is going to happen," said Sinclair. "They are very supportive and will let us come into the lab during the week if something gets messed up."

With a three-year grant from Howard Hughes Institute, the course will be offered for at least the next two academic years. The program may also add two ISAT instructors and expand enrollment to 40 students. Cresawn is confident there will be a need for more slots.

"We have 30 students who are ambassadors," he said. "Our preliminary indicators are that there will be a much higher demand for the class next year."

For some students in the course, like Sinclair, the experience has not only provided research experience, but has crystallized their outlook on their JMU experience.

"I was deciding to go to either JMU or Virginia Tech and I chose here," said Sinclair. "Now I am really glad I came to JMU."


For more information on the Science Education Alliance you can contact Louise Temple-Rosebrook (templelm@cisat.jmu.edu) and Steve Cresawn (cresawsg@jmu.edu).