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Learning Biology Through Research

Tribal colleges join an innovative program that makes research the centerpiece of introductory biology courses

By Paul Boyer

Howard Hughes Medical Institute Program Officer Dr. Viknesh Sivanathan with student Emily Davis. Through the HHMI program, Davis began studying phages as a freshman at James Madison University and later worked as a lab assistant at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Several tribally controlled colleges will soon begin developing their own SEA-PHAGES programs. Photo courtesy of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Many colleges and universities now promote undergraduate research opportunities, but they are, too often, offered to a select few. While juniors and seniors pursing STEM degrees might, in small numbers, benefit from this enriched form of learning, most students enrolled in lower division science courses still encounter conventional 100-level lecture and lab classes.

Since 2008, however, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland has pioneered an innovative biology curriculum that makes original research the centerpiece of even introductory biology courses. Called SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science), the curriculum developed by HHMI focuses on the collection, isolation, and analysis of bacteriophages.

Bacteriophages, also called phages, are viruses that infect bacteria. They are abundantly present in the environment, both in soil and water, and are a highly diverse. This makes them an ideal subject for undergraduate research; every phage is a new discovery and its identification is a genuine contribution to the biological sciences.

According to HHMI Program Officer Dr. Viknesh Sivanathan, however, the larger goal of the SEA-PHAGES program is to enrich undergraduate education. Applying research methods to the isolation and analysis of phages allows lower division college students “the opportunity to engage in authentic research early in their academic career,” he said. “Not many students have the opportunity to do so, as most mentored research is typically offered to a small number of students.”

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Conducting Fieldwork in the Shadow of DAPL

Sitting Bull College’s Linda Black Elk leads an environmental impact study on plants at Standing Rock, and works to decolonize medicine through Medic and Healer Council.

By Katie Scarlett Brandt

The Dakota Access Pipeline under construction in Iowa. Photo by Carl Wycoff. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADakota_Access_Pipe_Line%2C_Central_Iowa.jpg

The Dakota Access Pipeline under construction in Iowa. Photo by Carl Wycoff. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADakota_Access_Pipe_Line%2C_Central_Iowa.jpg

Sitting Bull College instructor Linda Black Elk isn’t the easiest person to get a hold of—and with good reason. As an ethnobotanist who studies the way people use plants for food and medicine, her research interests have led her to become actively involved in the ongoing Dakota Access Pipeline opposition movement at Standing Rock.

Black Elk now spends much of her time out of the classroom, traveling between two protest sites–Sacred Stone Camp and the Oceti Sakowin Camp. Both are within a few miles of Sitting Bull College on Standing Rock Reservation, and Black Elk has two active research projects unfolding there.

“I want to show the wider public that this isn’t just about water. Water is the foundation of life, but more than water will be impacted by this pipeline,” she says.

The projects grew out of a conversation Black Elk had back in April. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, who lives on Standing Rock Reservation, told Black Elk that a construction company was planning to run a pipeline through the area near Allard’s land and under the Missouri River.

“She knew that I gathered food and medicine right in the path of the pipeline,” Black Elk says. “When I found out the buffaloberry was going to be gone, I said we have to do something.”

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