Students graduate from mud pies

Young researchers happily sift through dirt to isolate viruses at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Biology teacher Sarah Dubeau-Farley and others get training for a research project that also will involve Pittsburgh-area pupils.

PITTSBURGH - Some young researchers are out to prove that digging in the dirt isn't just child's play.

Over the summer and into the school year, students recruited from the Pittsburgh area visit the University of Pittsburgh to sift through samples of dirt to isolate microscopic viruses that infect bacteria.

And it's not just a teaching exercise. These students are doing real scientific work in a professional laboratory.

The goal is to excite students about science - whether they choose a career in the field or not. Organizers say everyone can benefit from thinking creatively and critically like scientists.

"We have to somehow make people or help people understand who scientists really are and what motivates them to do what they want to do," said Graham Hatfull, a biotechnology professor and head of the lab.

Hatfull had long been doing research on tiny viruses when local science teacher Debbie Jacobs-Sera approached him about putting together a program involving high school students.

The Phagehunting program received funding in 2002 from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which has given more than $1 billion in grants since 1988 to researchers and research facilities to come up with innovative ways to teach science. Jacobs-Sera signed on as the coordinator of the program.

Students, from high school and even lower grades, learn how to find and study the DNA of phages - which are thought to be so plentiful that it's virtually impossible to ever find the same one twice.

Hatfull said the science behind the program is pretty basic and seeks to answer two questions: How many of these different viruses are there, and how did they get to be this way? Understanding phages could help in the development of vaccines or new drugs, the discovery of new genes or other therapeutic uses, he said.

Students without a sense of curiosity need not apply.

"You have to be able to see something you've never seen before," Jacobs-Sera said. "They are contributing to real science."

Charlie Bowman, 18, graduated from a suburban Pittsburgh high school in the spring and spent his summer in the lab. On a recent morning, he crouched over several small vials and a lit Bunsen burner on a lab table as he worked to join together DNA molecules.

"I never really got to do anything like this" in school, said Bowman, who will be attending Pitt. "I like the hands-on of it. It's actually my stuff."

High school science teachers also take part in the program. Seventeen science teachers from as far away as Hawaii spent some time in the Pittsburgh lab recently so they can teach the Phagehunting program in their classrooms.