The Virus Hunters
Del Mar College Students Discover Organisms That Are New to Science
They’re a dream team at Del Mar College. Daiyuan “Daisy” Zhang and John “Rob” Hatherill, both PhDs and professors in the Department of Natural Sciences, are not only inspiring students to pursue careers in scientific research, they’re helping them discover previously unknown viruses — more than 100 so far.
“When students discover something that’s new to science, it’s really transformative to them,” Hatherill said. “They 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 it on the fast track, starting in Del Mar’s state-of-the-art lab.
Research opportunities also come in the form of internships that the duo facilitate through a network of friends, fellow professors and mentors at labs across the country.
The internships may 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.
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 Texas 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, said Jeff Turner, assistant professor of Marine Biology at TAMUCC, who supervised Danial’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.”
Without exception, each of Del Mar’s standout student researchers credit their achievements to Zhang’s and Hatherill’s teaching style.
“The way they teach is handson,” said John Ramirez, a student and teaching assistant in the Department of Natural Sciences. “You don’t stare at a PowerPoint and take notes.
“Rob and Daisy are good at making students feel comfortable and understand that they’re contributing to science as a whole, and that’s really important.”
Ramirez figures he has collaborated with other students on the discovery of about 40 bacteriophages. It’s a thrill, he said, to see a digital image of a previously undiscovered organism.
“You work for months at a time, you have setbacks and then you get this image…it’s like ‘Wow, ok, this is the reason I’ve been working so hard.’ This is honest to goodness research.
“I keep the pictures on my computer at home. It’s my baby.”
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.
Last November, Ramirez presented a compilation of the research he’s conducted at Del Mar — including his bacteriophage discoveries — during the World Congress on Undergraduate Research in Doha, Qatar. It was his first time travelling to the Middle East, and Hatherill was by his side.
“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.