Of Mice, Men, Professors

As you know if you read Eve’s post, in June there was a symposium celebrating the work of phage hunters from across the country.  The SEA (now PHAGES) program has been holding the annual meeting from its inception.  The students who attend have the goals of meeting each other, telling their phage stories and hearing about some interesting science.  At least I assume so — they’re a diligent and serious lot, and these are the sort of goals that diligent and serious phage hunters would have.  I cannot speak for the faculty as a whole, but I can tell you I have a different goal.  I hope to not look like a dope.

You see, the students in phage lab first work toward isolating and characterizing a phage, then toward annotating a phage genome.  The instructors?  We started off with some big ideas (e.g., this blog) and some of those paid off handsomely (e.g., this blog).  But somewhere there in the middle, I lost focus a little bit.  And then came the end of the year, and then commencement — and then I looked up directly into the oncoming headlights of the symposium.  What had been aspirations of organizing the work of two dozen freshmen around some grand central theme were pretty quickly downsized to providing Eve with feedback on her practice talk — feedback that she would have been fine without.

Ahhh — but this is a new year. We would start off with a theme.  We arranged for Davis Bookhart, Director of Sustainability for the campus, to give us a tour of one of the community gardens at Hopkins.  We’d get the students out on the campus, we’d talk about sustainability and community, the students would get some phage, and we’d have a theme — the diversity of phage in a small garden plot.  Winners all around.

But we also wanted to get the students doing bench work on the first day.  There wouldn’t be time to cover course policies, get a sample and plate any samples in one day —- especially the first day.  The students would have to bring in samples.  But what of my precious theme?  The students would be bringing in dirt from just about everywhere but the little garden just off Charles Street.  Wouldn’t that kick the stuffing out of my theme?  Not to worry, I figured.  The first day, we’ll do a direct plating.  (In direct plating, you in effect mix soil and water; filter out the rocks, worms, and bacteria; and combine the resulting filtrate with M. smeg and plate.)  Direct plating almost never works.  Last year, only one of our students got plaques out of direct plating, and that was from super-rich compost, not from just any old dirt lying around waiting to be picked up by a freshman.  Nope —- my theme was safe.

And so, on the second day for Section 2, we stopped briefly in lab to check what would undoubtedly be plaque-free plates, the results from the initial direct plating, before we headed out to the garden to collect some decent, phage-ridden soil.  And there, in the lab, as I’m making some announcement, I interrupt myself mid-sentence with an involutary “whoa” as I notice — from 10 feet away, mind you — that one student has a pair of plates covered with plaques.  All told, 4 of the 20 students in that section (and, improbably, that same number from the other section) saw plaques from a first-day direct plating.

Wow.  These guys are good.

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About Joel Schildbach

Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Biology, Johns Hopkins University. Entered school at the age of 4 and has been there ever since. Graduated from Hillsboro (OR) High School (1982; Go Spartans!), Oregon State University (B.A., Microbiology, 1986; Go Beavs!), and Harvard University (Ph.D., Immunology, 1992; Go Massive Endowment!). Huge fan of Ivan Doig, Molly Ivins (R.I.P.), Adele, and working at the lab bench. Can bake a mean chocolate chip cookie, and can hold my own in Crazy Eights marathons against my daughter.
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