A New Frontier

Guided by passionate professors, Del Mar College students discover viruses that are new to science.

By: Michael Bratten

John Ramirez’s talent for scientific research has taken him from Del Mar College to the Middle East. Last November, he was selected to present his research – some of which has led to the discovery of new viruses – during the World Congress on Undergraduate Research in Doha, Qatar.

“It was a rollercoaster of emotions,” said Ramirez, 30, a biotechnology major and teaching assistant at Del Mar. “It was bright and hot, and I was there with students and professors from all over the world.”

Ramirez credits his scientific achievements to a dream team at Del Mar: Daiyuan “Daisy” Zhang and John “Rob” Hatherill, both PhDs and professors in the department of natural sciences. Under their guidance, students who may have never considered careers in scientific research are doing just that.

One area that’s really getting students hooked on science is the search for previously unknown viruses. Zhang and Hatherill’s students have discovered more than 100 so far.

“When students discover something that’s new to science, it’s really transformative to them,” Hatherill said. “They just show this excitement that you never see in a traditional classroom. They’re the first person to look at that virus. It’s a new frontier, almost like landing on the moon.”

The invisible viruses, called bacteriophages, attack bacteria that live around us and inside us. Some of those bacteria can be harmful, such as E. coli, Vibrio and antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” so the discovery of organisms that affect them could lead to significant advances in science and medicine.

Last fall alone, Zhang and Hatherill estimate their students discovered about 22 new bacteriophages. Students’ names are forever attached to their discoveries, which they give names like “Chupacabra,” “Scorpia” and “Draco.”

“What we’re doing is turning students on to science before somebody else turns them off,” Zhang said. “In their first class, we’re doing graduate-level research. It’s a unique story for a two-year school.”

Before Zhang and Hatherill came along, it was a rarity for students at Del Mar to conduct advanced laboratory research. Now they’re exposed to research on the fast track, starting in Del Mar’s state-of-the-art lab.

Other opportunities come in the form of research internships, which can take place at Del Mar, nearby schools such as Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMUCC) and at prestigious institutions like the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.

The research can potentially benefit the local community. Last summer, during an internship at TAMUCC, Del Mar biotechnology major Danial Azadani discovered a bacteriophage associated with Enterococcus faecalis, a bacterium that can cause infection in humans. It is also sometimes found in elevated levels in coastal waters.

“I’ve been to different universities in Canada, and I’ve never seen something like this research program,” Azadani said. “Del Mar has the potential to be one of the top biotechnology schools in the country.”

After further studies, Azadani’s discovery could lead to the development of treatment for Enterococcus faecalis, as well as the improvement of water quality in the Coastal Bend, Zhang said.
“Any (bacteriophage) they discover is a contribution to the scientific community. The viruses will be archived in three different locations in the United States, and studies on them will continue.”

With the recent rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it’s more important than ever to find new tools to fight them, according to Jeff Turner, assistant professor of marine biology at TAMUCC, who supervised Azadani’s research.

“Bacteriophage represent a new frontier in the search for treatment of antibiotic-resistant (bacteria) strains,” he said. “This isn’t looking at colored water in a tube. This is something that can have an impact on society.”

Students typically author papers on their research that appear in scientific journals, Zhang said. They also take pride in posting their discoveries on a website, phagesdb.org, along with scientists and researchers from around the world. The site currently contains 106 bacteriophages discovered by Del Mar students.

Like most students who come under the wings of Zhang and Hatherill, Ramirez plans to pursue a career in research. “I originally started college to be a mental health counselor. I’m now planning to do cutting-edge research to help treat some of the problems we have in society, like antibiotics being overly used and improperly diagnosed.”

“We give students these opportunities, they light on fire and take off, and at that point, we stand back because suddenly they’ve got this career track in front of them,” Hatherill said. “We love to see that.”

“When they’ve found something they love to do and they can make a living doing it – a very decent living – that’s the best part,” Zhang said.

For information on the biotechnology program at Del Mar College, call the department of natural sciences at 361-698-1229 or visit www.delmar.edu/biotechnology/biotechnology.aspx.