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Professor Amy B. Sprenkle Establishes Two CUREs (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences) at SSU

Interview with the Center for Research and Creative Activities

Professor Amy B. Sprenkle of the Biology Department at Salem State is celebrating the end of three years of establishing two CUREs (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience) at SSU. Sprenkle had been teaching in the Biology Department at SSU for 15 years and determined that the only way to carry out research in microbiology and involve students in meaningful biology research would involve joining a larger group of scientists working together to contribute authentic data to an important problem: antimicrobial resistance. To that end, she sought out training to enter two international research experiences, Tiny Earth and SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance–Phage Hunters Advancing Genomic and Evolutionary Science).  

The first CURE course, the SEA-PHAGES program, is supported by Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and is a two-semester, discovery-based undergraduate research course. There are three components to the program. First, in semester one, students take the BIO 132: Introduction to Cells Laboratory. For this class students bring in soil samples and look for viruses (phage) that will kill bacteria.  One approach to dealing with the rise of antibiotic (drug) resistant bacterial infections is to use viruses that will infect and kill the infection, but cause no ill effect to the patient’s own cells. 

During the course, students discover viruses, purify and amplify them to be able to have enough DNA to send to the University of Pittsburgh for full genome sequencing. Sprenkle has done three years of Phage Discovery as a laboratory section in this class during the fall semester and hopes to eventually expand it into all of the lab sections for this course. 

The second component of the SEA-PHAGES course is during semester two, when students take the BIO 318 Virology and Bioinformatics class. The sequence of the phage genome students submitted in the fall are returned as a data file of ATCG from the University of Pittsburgh. Then the students use computer tools to look at the letters and predict where protein coding sequences will be, and then by comparison with other phage genomes, what the function of the proteins might be. 

The third and final component of the program is the SEA Symposium, where the students can communicate the results of their research. The symposium happens once a year during the Spring semester. Though the symposium was virtual this year, a poster of the student’s findings was still presented. The same poster was also presented at this year’s Research Day Symposium at Salem State.  

Sprenkle says for the course, “there is a discovery component, a data analysis component, and a high-level communication component.”  

For the second CURE course, the Tiny Earth program, students again begin with a soil sample, this time, Sprenkle says, “looking for bacteria that show growth inhibitory effects on other bacteria.” Since the use of penicillin to treat bacterial infection in the 1950’s, the number of antimicrobial drugs discovered has increased, but bacteria have also evolved to meet the assault on their growth and has become a severe problem confronting human health. Drug discovery by pharmaceutical companies has declined in recent decades, informing the goal of the Tiny Earth program, according to the organization’s website; “studentsourcing antibiotic discovery from soil.” At SSU, the Tiny Earth program is introduced in the course BIO 304, Microbiology and its applications lab. The course was formerly only open to nursing students; however, it is now open to any student that has had a semester of biology and a semester of chemistry. The website also says that the goal of the program is to address both “the antibiotic crisis and the shortage of science trainees.” Sprenkle says a big part of the CURE philosophy is also to “make the course accessible by removing pre-requisites and also including AJEDI components: Anti-racism, Justice, Equality, Diversity, Inclusion into the curriculum.” In June, students of the program participated in the annual Tiny Earth symposium where they were able to present their research. 

Sprenkle says that through the two programs she has, “learned incredible amounts of new things, both pedagogical and scientific,” and wants to encourage faculty that it they are interested in learning more, to reach out to her directly.  

Congratulations Professor Sprenkle on this incredible accomplishment!

Learn more about the Center for Research and Creative Activities. All Salem State University students, faculty, and staff are invited to email their research to be featured by the CRCA:


Evea Raye
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