Tomorrow’s scientists

Hands-on research proves beneficial for undergraduate learning and is key to science education and research training

Share this story

A hands-on, up-close-and-personal laboratory experience can be transformative – boosting student grades and keeping undergraduates interested in a future career in scientific research, according to an analysis at 20 participating universities nationwide, including Virginia Commonwealth University.

Retention of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students at universities nationwide lags significantly compared to non-STEM students. Science educators and funding agencies are looking for novel approaches to increase retention and persistence of students in STEM.

In an attempt to address this problem, the Howard Hughes Medical Center Institute and Graham Hatfull, Ph.D., Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Pittsburgh and HHMI professor, created the Science Education Alliance PHAGES (SEA PHAGES) program.

The program, which launched in 2007, is a nationwide genomics research course for freshman students at institutions across the country. The course  provides a unique opportunity for hands-on learning. In the past 5 years, approximately 4,800 students at 73 institutions have participated in the program.

Since 2009, Virginia Commonwealth University has been part of the two-semester, yearlong research course designed to give first-year science undergraduates a taste for scientific research. The students discover and characterize their own bacterial viruses called phage, and then use bioinformatics tools to analyze and annotate DNA from those viruses. The data collected is shared across institutions – allowing students to contribute to a national study.

“The course works because students are learning science by doing science,” said Allison Johnson, Ph.D., course instructor at VCU for the Phage Discovery Lab, and assistant professor and assistant director of the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity at VCU.

“The ’hook’ of the class is highly engaging – the students get to discover and characterize their own virus, they even get to name it. They get to make mistakes, solve problems, perform experiments, analyze and share results. They are also participating in a real research project with real research outcomes.”

The students present results at a variety of symposia and receive co-authorship on GenBank sequence database submissions and publications.

“All of these aspects are highly motivating and require students to be actively engaged in their own learning,” Johnson said.

Survey says
A study, published Feb. 4 in mBio, an online journal of the American Society for Microbiology, examined gains in understanding viral diversity and impacts on student education and retention. The study was led by Hatfull and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh. Data was collected through the Survey of Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) and the Classroom Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) – both before and after student participation in the program.

“The data shows a significant increase in retention of students who took the SEA PHAGES course compared to a traditional introductory biology laboratory course,” Johnson said. “We learned that giving students an opportunity to participate in an early, research-based laboratory course increased retention, and that this increase in retention is observed across a variety of institutional types and student backgrounds.”

Additionally, according to Johnson, the data shows that the SEA PHAGES students performed better in their introductory biology lecture courses and the same as control students in a biological concepts survey.  

“These results suggest their learning of general biology is the same despite the fact that the SEA PHAGES students learn a lot about a fairly narrow subject area- bacterial viruses- compared to a broad range of topics covered in introductory laboratories,” Johnson said.

VCU has hosted a SEA PHAGES course (BNFO 251/252) since fall 2009, the second year of the SEA PHAGES program. More than 100 students have participated in the course at VCU.  
Each year, the students were asked to participate in pre- and post-course surveys to measure learning gains, and the faculty teaching the course collected data for an Institutional Annual Survey describing student retention and lecture course grades.

Anecdotally, Johnson has also seen changes with students following the course. She said it has stimulated an interest in research early on among the students she has worked. In many cases, students begin working with faculty on research projects during their sophomore year. They are seeking these opportunities earlier than a typical student.

“It has also helped to build a community of students who wouldn’t otherwise know each other as freshmen,” Johnson said. “I’ve watched these students stay friends through their time at VCU and have to imagine the resulting social support is important to persistence. I track my past students and see retention of more than 80 percent from the second to the third year, compared with about 60 percent average retention nationwide. I hope that is the real impact.”

Hands-on learning in VCU curriculum
The course series has become a permanent course in bioinformatics, and the preferred introductory biology lab requirement for bioinformatics students. Typically most of the students in the course are bioinformatics and biology majors, with a few other students from a variety of science majors.

“Course-based research provides an opportunity for a large population of students to participate in authentic research at a relatively lower cost compared to the traditional model of a one student to one faculty member mentor relationship,” she said. “This is a great model for a high enrollment school like VCU.”

The course was initially supported by HHMI and is now supported by VCU Life Sciences. Johnson said that they are continuing to look for external funding to support additional sections of research-based courses to provide opportunities for more students.


Images courtesy of Allison Johnson, Ph.D./VCU

Subscribe for free to the weekly VCU News email newsletter at and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Thursday. VCU students, faculty and staff automatically receive the newsletter. To learn more about research taking place at VCU, subscribe to its research blog, Across the Spectrum at