It’s not just about learning facts — it’s about the process of discovery. If students can learn that early on, we’ve whetted their appetites for doing future research.
Professor Marie Pizzorno was just a seventh-grader when she discovered her love for biology. So as a molecular virologist trying to inspire her own students' interest in research, she understands the importance of captivating them early. Thanks to headlines, the subject often sells itself.
"I teach a course on viruses, and last year we talked about the Ebola epidemic," she says. "We learn all the nuts and bolts about how the virus operates. Emerging viruses and the cause of infection is something students always find fascinating."
Long intrigued by viruses, Pizzorno studied Cytomegalovirus, or CMV, a herpes virus that can only replicate in differentiated cells. But when a Bucknell colleague studying bees asked her to take a look at what might be making them sick, Pizzorno found a new passion.
"It turned out they had deformed wing virus, DWV," she says. "It's a very different virus than any I researched before, so I had to really switch gears to work with a different virus that has a very different genome."
Pizzorno doesn't expect to be credited with saving bees. Hers is a labor of finding one piece of a complex puzzle while others do their part.
"DWV is a big problem, but it's not the only thing out there causing problems," she says. "I really want to understand the virus. Then someone who understands the virus can help the bees. That's my hope. Most of the medical advancements that are made in treating viruses happened because we understand a virus better."
Pizzorno wants to ignite that same passion for research in her students. She co-teaches Phage Hunters, a popular sophomore course that is part of a national experiment in which students collect soil samples to find bacteria-attacking viruses. In this class, student phage hunters use research methodologies usually reserved for advanced students and research scientists. They discover and isolate new phages, analyze their DNA and submit results to a University of Pittsburgh phage databank. Students can contribute to publications and present their research, just as research scientists do. The course has taken off, and now dozens of students compete for its 16 spots.
"This program was started to get students excited about doing research," Pizzorno says. "It's real research with viruses that no one has seen before. It's not just about learning facts — it's about the process of discovery. If they can learn that early on, we've whetted their appetites for doing future research. We're turning our sophomore students into real scientists."
Posted Dec. 1, 2015