The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Phage Hunters: Biology class gives students hands-on lab and research experience with real-world applications

5 min read

Phage Hunters is one big continuous lab that works toward the same end goal. | Hans Reniers,


Staff Writer

As a freshman honors student at UMW, I was given the opportunity to take an honors-designated science course titled BIOL 125: Phage Hunters. Taught by Assistant Professor of biology Swati Agrawal, the course is research- and lab-based, allowing students to isolate and characterize phages, which are bacteria-specific viruses. In addition to fulfilling more than one general education requirement and also serving as an honors-designated course, the class allows you to develop necessary skills that can be used in any major—especially when it comes to research—while having fun. Any student interested in gaining hands-on lab experiences to accompany their learning should definitely look into this course. 

“This class is my favorite class to teach because it is incredibly rewarding to see students get excited about research and see them being confident and successful at the end of the semester,” said Agrawal. 

This semester has been a thrilling journey, especially during the lab portion of this class. From starting with just a mere sample of dirt, we now have isolated, purified and amplified our phages, and we are currently in the process of characterizing them as we near the end of the semester. At the end of the course, one selected phage will be sent to Pittsburgh to have its DNA sequenced, and one student will present the information discovered at an international meeting. 

Not only is the class interesting, but what we’re learning also serves a practical purpose. 

“The ever-increasing rates of antibiotic resistance combined with slow discovery of new antibiotics means we have to find new and creative ways to tackle these infections,” said Agrawal. “The bacteriophages students discover in this class can have therapeutic potential and offer a solution to the above problem.” 

During the class, I’ve learned that there are other additional applications of phage in biotechnology, such as in bacterial detection and display systems, vaccine development, natural antimicrobials to prevent food spoilage and more. Being able to work on this kind of research as a freshman has been an incredible experience. 

For me, one of the best parts of the class is that it enables students who are interested in pursuing further research on this topic a chance to do so in their upperclassmen years. This was true for senior biomedical sciences major Abby Delapenha. 

“Phage Hunters gives students foundational laboratory skills necessary for conducting research,” she said. “I took phage hunters my freshman year and I use many of the skills I learned in class in my own research.”

Phage Hunters is one big continuous lab with different procedures that all have the same end goal. Part of the biology program at UMW since 2008, the course fulfills the beyond the classroom general education requirement for undergraduate students. 

While the class is technically reserved for honors students only, faculty can make exceptions for students who show a genuine interest in the course, which was the case for freshman biology major Lillie Burbulis.

“When I initially saw this class, I wanted to take it but it was an Honors class,” said Burbulis. “Thankfully, because the faculty are so willing to work with you, I was still able to take the class. Phage Hunters has been an amazing experience for me because of the opportunity to conduct independent research and form a close connection with my professor in the process.”

The class attracts a lot of interest from students, especially those in the Honors Program due to its honors designation, but the popularity and fascination surrounding the class are well-deserved.

“Phage Hunters is exactly what I imagined college bio to be like,” said freshman biology major Eleni Kepler. “The lab portion gives students the opportunity to use advanced equipment and techniques used by professional lab researchers in microbiology and provides hands-on and engaging look into cellular biology.”

When it comes to workload, there is a significant amount of content to learn, which may be overwhelming at first, but it’s doable when the topics are broken down into parts. The lab portion of the class also ties into what we’re learning, which helps us develop a stronger understanding of content. Other than that, the only actual assignments are some mastering assignments, which consist of a series of content-specific multiple choice questions and a couple worksheets here and there. 

Though Kepler says the workload is heavy, the class has helped her gain a deeper understanding of concepts that can be hard to grasp without such hands-on experience.

“I feel like I’ve finally started to understand how certain bacterial and viral processes genuinely function,” said Kepler. “It is a bit of a heavy course load sometimes, but I truly think the experience is worth the extra work.”

The way that Professor Agrawal instructs the class invigorates students to look forward to research in the future, especially due to the confidence she instills in the students. 

“I have grown so much throughout this class and I feel prepared for future research opportunities because of the content, confidence, and connections this class has given me,” said Burbulis.

I’ve seen and experienced this growth as well. At the start of the semester, we were pretty lost and didn’t have much confidence in our ability to perform lab tasks necessary for the class. I even once poured top agar into the wrong side of a petri dish. Since then, however, we’ve consistently worked through lab procedures and improved our skills. Typical labs often involve key practices like micropipetting and aseptic technique, which I, along with the rest of the class, am now proficient in. Now, I feel much more prepared for future courses with lab, and I am much more excited to conduct my own research. 

Phage Hunters has been an awe-inspiring course to learn more about various lab procedures and perform very hands-on lab work that feels so relevant in the real world. There are many practical applications of isolating phages, particularly in the medical field, and it’s an excellent course that inspires both intellectual interest and confidence in students’ abilities.