Students Combat Superbugs Through New Microbiology Course

In Agnes Irwin’s recently unveiled Biosafety Level 2 lab, students enrolled in Research in Microbiology are working to combat antibiotic resistance and “superbugs” through hands-on research — joining peers at high schools and universities around the world in the antibiotic discovery process.

This new program is part of a partnership with the Small World Initiative, an innovative program that provides real-world laboratory and field research experiences to students while also addressing the worldwide health threat posed by the diminishing supply of antibiotics effective against drug-resistant bacteria. Students at more than 330 participating schools across 45 U.S. states and 15 countries report their research findings to SWI, who will use the data to seek alternative vaccines for antibiotic-resistant diseases like typhoid and tuberculosis.

“It’s essentially crowdsourcing research, where there are institutions — both high school and collegiate around the country — that are doing this work,” Science Department Chair Rosann Westmeyer explained.

The collaborative nature of SWI aligns with Agnes Irwin’s focus on experiential learning, and allows students to seek solutions to authentic, real-world problems — a key aspect of how girls learn best. Taught by science teachers Cheryl Ellis and Katie Cooper, the new Research in Microbiology class builds on what students learn through courses like Emerging Infectious Diseases, and takes that knowledge to the next level.

As part of the course, students collect soil samples from local environments and isolate the bacteria — a key feature of the program, since ⅔ of antibiotics originate from soil bacteria or fungi, according to SWI — then  test their findings against clinically relevant microorganisms, and report their findings. The 12 seniors enrolled in the course this year also learned about the requirements and procedures for operating the school’s new Biosafety Level 2 lab in the science wing, and set the space up themselves for optimal efficiency and efficacy. In addition to biosafety cabinets donated by Lafayette College, the Biosafety Level 2 lab contains a sub-20 freezer, incubators, centrifuge, and a miniPCR, which allows students to observe the genetic makeup of different organisms.

To prepare to teach this new course, Mrs. Ellis and Ms. Cooper received curriculum and professional development support from SWI. The partnership and training from SWI Research, as well as some of the equipment in the Biosafety Level 2 lab, were made possible by a generous financial gift from a member of The Agnes Irwin School community.

Incorporating this experience into AIS’s existing academic schedule provides meaningful and accessible research opportunities for students beyond summer internships or programs, while preparing them for the next step as they consider a career in STEM.

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