Viral Discovery

Play with dirt. Earn college credit.

Freshman Carly Starke and Dr. Louise Temple conduct research side-by-side in an ISAT lab.

College students typically have to wait until they are upperclassmen or graduate students to participate in substantial research projects. This is not the case at James Madison University, where the Departments of Integrated Science and Technology and Biology teamed up to offer the groundbreaking Viral Discovery Course, which provides opportunities for students (even as first-years) to identify unique viruses infecting soil bacteria, educates them about the life cycle and ecology of the viruses, and allows them to conduct meaningful research that can lead to publication. This early introduction to research motivates students to continue to pursue additional research throughout their academic career and receive internships at a higher rate than the traditional college student.

Collaboration Breeds Success

“It gave me the opportunity to learn basic research skills and to discover something no one else discovered before. I would not currently be doing research if not for the Viral Discovery Course.”
- Jonathan Barrett (‘12)

The Viral Disovery course (BIO203, ISAT203) and Viral Genomics (BIO204, ISAT204) are extentions of an initial partnership between the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and colleges and universities throughout the nation, including JMU. More than 90 universities are now participating. The two-semester course, which consists of approximately 15-20 students per section, involves finding and identifying viruses during the fall semester. The following spring semester, students return to analyze the genomic sequence of phages (bacteria-infecting viruses that can be found almost anywhere in nature). To date, JMU students have discovered brand new phages of four different bacterial hosts. Discoveries like this led to a publication in the Public Library of Science journal, PloS One, which featured 14 JMU students as co-authors.

For the past two years, over 90 students have participated in this program each fall.

What Will I Learn?

microscope view of viral bacteria

These courses follow a single experimental system for the entire academic year.  This means that there is continuity from week to week, month to month, and you will have a chance to get to know a subject in considerable depth.

The first course is called “Viral Discovery” for a reason.  You will have a chance to isolate a previously unknown virus from the environment, grow it in the lab, see it using an electron microscope, and purify its DNA. During the winter break, at least one of our students will have the entire genome of their virus completely sequenced by a sequencing center.

In “Viral Genomics,” we will explore the genome of the virus in detail.  During the semester, we’ll learn how to identify where the genes are in the genome and make hypotheses about what those genes do.  We will also learn about the biology of the virus and how it compares to other viruses that have been previously studied.

If you’re worried that you don’t know enough to succeed in a course like this, relax.  We will assume that the subject matter is new to you, and we’ll teach you everything that you need to know in order to succeed.  All we need from you is a positive attitude, and a willingness to work hard and learn new things about the microscopic world.


An honors section of ISAT203 will be taught by Dr. Stockwell in the Fall 2014 semester.

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