UMaine Accepted into Howard Hughes Medical Institute Initiative

Contact: Charlie Slavin, (207) 581-3262 or; Keith Hutchison, (207) 581-2827 or

The University of Maine has been selected to take part this year in the Science Education Alliance, a national program of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that seeks to develop resources for undergraduate science educators to present innovative courses and programs.

First-year students in UMaine’s Honors College will have an opportunity during the 2011-12 academic year to take part in the National Genomics Research Initiative, during which students will isolate and analyze the DNA sequences of soil-dwelling bacterial viruses known as phage.

“We are extremely happy to have been accepted to participate in the SEA,” says UMaine Honors College Dean Charlie Slavin. “The National Genomics Research Initiative is a tremendously exciting opportunity for our first-year students to engage in authentic scientific research, perfectly in keeping with the Honors College mission of igniting a passion for learning. UMaine students and faculty members will collaborate across campus and across the country in an enterprise with local and global impact.”

Among the goals of the project are to introduce research to students at an early point in their college careers, retain students in the sciences, and help faculty gain experience in presenting experiment-based science teaching.

UMaine is one of 26 educational institutions to have been accepted this year through a competitive application process. There are 12 full members and 14 associate members. UMaine was chosen as an associate member, as were UMaine System campuses in Fort Kent and Machias, raising the possibility of collaborations between institutions.

“UMaine has an enormous opportunity to provide outreach to the other institutions because we have the needed infrastructure, starting with having the facilities to support a microbiology degree program,” says UMaine professor of biochemistry and molecular biology Keith Hutchison, who attended a Jan. 20-21 SEA orientation meeting at HHMI headquarters in order to learn details of how to run the program. “I believe that this program can serve as a model for establishing both teaching and research collaborations between the educational institutions, including those within the UMaine System and beyond.”

For full members, the project is fully funded by HHMI. Associate members receive partial funding from HHMI.

The opportunity to apply for membership in the Science Educational Alliance was offered to Maine institutions participating in the IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Infrastructure (INBRE), a statewide coalition funded by the National Center for Research Resources at the National Institutes of Health.  The goal of the INBRE program is to enhance research capacity and competitiveness in Maine by expanding student training opportunities, supporting infrastructure improvements, and funding scientific research.

Slavin adds the new initiative will complement INBRE-sponsored opportunities already provided for third- and fourth-year students at UMaine.

At UMaine, the program’s physical home will be the Department of Molecular and Biomedical Sciences, which will provide teaching lab space and access to the microbiology teaching and research infrastructure. Students will use the electron microscope in Murray Hall under the direction of Seth Tyler, a UMaine biology professor who studies invertebrate organisms.

Southern Maine Community College is also joining SEA as an associate member. The Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Salisbury Cove, Maine, is sending staff to the SEA program in order to support other Maine college programs that might want to get involved in the future.

The Maryland-based HHMI has committed $4 million to the SEA program since it was founded in 2007. Institutions in 29 states and Puerto Rico are involved in the project.

The course begins in the institution’s first term, when students isolate phage from locally collected soil. Given the diversity of phage, each one is almost certain to be unique, and the students get the name their newly identified life form. They spend the rest of the term purifying and characterizing their phage and extracting its DNA.

Between terms, the DNA samples are sequenced at one of several research centers across the country. In the second half of the course, the students receive digital files containing their phage’s DNA sequence. The students then learn to use bioinformatics tools to analyze and annotate the genomes. At the end of the academic year, students attend a national symposium to present their work.

In the first two years the course has been available, students have completed the process for 37 phage and entered the DNA sequences into the national GenBank database.

Other New England educational institutions accepted this year include Brown University, Southern Connecticut State University, Providence College, Smith College and Trinity College. For a complete list of schools involved and for more information, go to