Posted March 31, 2011, at 8:33 a.m.

The University of Maine at Fort Kent has been selected as a member of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance (HHMI SEA), an honor which will allow UMFK Biology faculty to attend National Genomics Research Initiative training sessions this spring and summer, and to adopt a course curriculum for implementation next fall.


The new genomics course will be offered as a general biology class at UMFK during the 2011-12 academic year.


First-year biology students at UMFK will work on a real scientific research project developed and coordinated by the NGRI.  Students will learn the process of doing science while they explore a new microscopic life form – called a mycobacteriophage – which they isolate from Fort Kent soil.  By the end of the course, students will have used modern molecular biology and computer-based DNA analysis methods to study their own unique organism. They will submit their findings to a national database.


UMFK is among 14 institutions nationwide joining     the SEA as an associate member, and is part of a four-school consortium in Maine.  The consortium

includes the University of Maine Honors College, the University of Maine at Machias, and Southern Maine Community College.  A total of 26 schools, nationwide, join SEA this year as full or associate members.


The opportunity to apply for membership in SEA was offered to Maine institutions participating in the IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Infrastructure (INBRE), a state-wide coalition funded by the National Center for Research Resources at the National Institutes of Health. 


The goal of the INBRE program is to enhance research capacity and competitiveness in Maine by expanding student training opportunities, supporting infrastructure improvements, and funding scientific research.


INBRE involvement affords UMFK the opportunity to submit a proposal under the INBRE umbrella, funding assistance for implementing the HHMI SEA curriculum, and logistical and technical assistance with course implementation.

Dr. Kimberly Borges is the lead UMFK faculty member in the project.  Dr. Borges wrote the SEA proposal, and will teach the new lab curriculum.  The lab curriculum will be a part of UMFK’s general biology course, which is taught by Dr. Steven Selva and Dr. Borges.   Drs. Borges and Selva will team-teach the lecture part of the class after receiving training at the HHMI Janelia Farms Research Campus in Virginia in June, and will collaborate to integrate the new materials into the class.


Since 2008, almost 1,700 students at 40 colleges and universities have spent a year discovering organisms hidden in the dirt. As part of an innovative course from HHMI’s Science Education Alliance (SEA), the students—primarily freshmen—have isolated at least 1,400 soil-dwelling bacterial viruses, called phage, and analyzed the DNA sequence of almost 100 different phage.


Many participating students report that their discoveries have led them to realize something new: science is not the facts you glean from textbooks, but a dynamic process that leads to new knowledge. Faculty say the course has changed how they think science should be taught.


“This experience makes excellent students that much more excited,” says Sean B. Carroll, HHMI’s vice president for science education. “And it makes students who weren’t sure about their degree of interest in the life sciences a lot more engaged.”


HHMI created the SEA in 2007 to develop resources that enable undergraduate

science educators to present innovative courses and programs. Since then, participating faculty have worked together to roll out the course and bring the excitement of experimental research to students in a novel, collaborative way.


The National Genomics Research Initiative is the alliance’s first program, and HHMI has committed $4 million to the course. With these new schools, the course is now being taught in 29 states and Puerto Rico


Participating schools usually offer the course as a substitute for their introductory biology laboratory. In the first term, the students isolate phage from locally collected soil. Given the diversity of phage, each one is almost certain to be unique, and the students get to name their newly identified life form. They spend the rest of the term purifying and characterizing their phage and extracting its DNA.


Between terms, the DNA samples are sequenced at one of several research centers across the country. In the second half of the course, the students receive digital files containing their phage’s DNA sequence. The students then learn to use bioinformatics tools to analyze and annotate the genomes.


In the first two years that the SEA course has been available, students completed the process for 37 phage and deposited the DNA sequences into the national GenBank database.


The Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Salisbury Cove, Maine is sending staff through the SEA training program so that it can support other Maine colleges that might want to get involved in the future.


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