The scientific discovery process is infectious, and getting students hooked early is one of the aims of the K-RITH Mycobacterial Genetics Course.

Now in its eighth year, the course sets a group of University of KwaZulu-Natal students working to identify unique bacteriophages at the Westville campus during the June/July holidays. Put simply, a bacteriophage is a small parasitic virus that can infect and kill bacteria. This means that there is potentially one out there that could target the bacteria that cause TB and its drug resistant strains.

The two week long course begins with students digging in their back yards or on the university campus for a soil sample. Once identified, the genetic makeup of each ‘phage’ is analysed, and the findings ultimately published in GenBank – a public database which is accessed by scientists the world over. With the knowledge that their bacteriophage might be the one that helps change history – and all 23 participants on this year’s programme discovering unique bacteriophages – instructors Michelle Larsen, from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Graham Hatfull and Deborah Jacobs-Sera, from the University of Pittsburgh, feel confident that the science discovery bug has bitten.

The students also get to see how the phages they have isolated and characterised are related to those discovered by university students across the United States as participants in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute supported Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science course. Comparing the various phage genomes provides critical insights into how phages isolated in different parts of the world are related to each other, and how they have evolved.

Because the course aims to provide a research experience, Teaching Assistants and students are all referred to as ‘scientists’ from day one. A highlight for the instructors this year was being told by a Teaching Assistant – who had done the course in 2014 – that when she first started out she hadn’t really believed this was true for her. At the end of the two weeks, she did. In fact, Larsen and Jacobs-Sera stress that the course also involves discovery for them. “We’re trying to impart that there isn’t a right answer, there’s just a best answer,” says Larsen.

A number of students found their way to research and ultimately to K-RITH via the Mycobacterial Genetics course. Among them is K-RITH Lab Technologist Vanisha Munsamy. Munsamy was a student on the course in 2011, and went on to pursue her own phage project at K-RITH in collaboration with Einstein University. She also assists in planning and coordinating the running of the course every year.

“I would encourage students to participate in this course because it gives them a platform to engage with such brilliant minds in the scientific research community,” she said. “I took away the value and strength of a great team.”

*The generous support of the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation make the annual Mycobacterial Genetics Course possible.