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Brandt’s Research Yields Great and Unexpected Results

Brandt’s Research Yields Great and Unexpected Results

One way Carnegie Mellon University sets itself apart is the extraordinary research opportunities it provides for students. There is no reason to wait to be an upperclassman to get involved as first-year women's soccer player Alyssa Brandt found out during a visit to campus.

An aspiring biopsychology major with a pre-medical track in mind, Brandt applied for a freshman-only research class named Phage Genomics after meeting with a professor while attending the women's soccer program's summer camp.

"I met with Dr. G [Eric Grotzinger] to talk about the biology department and he introduced me to the class," said Brandt. "I realized the class would help me further my learning in research and in biology so I applied for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to research at a world-class university as a freshman."

The class is centered on introducing students to biological research through bacteriophage (or phage) genomics. Phages are viruses that infect bacteria and phage research is a relatively untouched branch of research as there are relatively few phages in the phage database. The main goal of the class is to identify a new bacteriophage species and to analyze its genome to get a better understanding of the phage.

Once Brandt was accepted into the class, which only enrolls 20 first-year students, she was asked to collect five soil samples from outside the Pittsburgh area.

"I collected my samples in mid-August as I traveled to Pittsburgh to begin preseason," said Brandt. "Three of my samples came from my hometown in the suburbs of Chicago, while the last two came from Indiana and Ohio."

Once on campus, Brandt kept her samples in a refrigerator to keep the potential phages cool and moist until class began.

Brandt embarked on the stages of research with the goal of class defined to find phages that either infected the bacteria Rhodococcus globerulus or the bacteria Arthrobacter sp.

"After incubating plates of my samples containing Arthrobacter and Rhodococcus, I found my sample from Indiana had phages that attacked Arthrobacter (hence an Arthrobacter phage)," said Brandt. "I was in disbelief. I was so sure that I hadn't picked the right spots where phages could potentially exist. After I began to believe what I was seeing, I was beyond ecstatic. I had my own phage to work with that I had discovered on my own!"

Brandt actually found she had two different types of phages from the same sample and over the course of a month, isolated and purified it in an attempt to separate the two from one another.

A trip to Mellon Institute on campus with classmates and her professor resulted in a science professional performing Electron Microscopy (EM) on her sample. The process produced pictures, which allowed Brandt to see what her phage looked like for the first time.

Once EM was done, there was more to be completed before Brandt would know if she found a new species of phage.

"I preformed DNA isolation and then combined samples with known RNA primers to see which class my phage belonged to," said Brandt. "However, my phage didn't show up on a gel produced through electrophoresis, indicating it may be a new species."

My favorite part of class has been the actual naming of my bacteriophage," Brandt continued. "Over Christmas break I received an email confirming 'KevinG's' acceptance into the database where my name is listed as the founder."

Brandt just completed sequencing her phage genomes and will enter the results in the Phage Arthrobacter database soon.

"This class has been such a surreal experience," said Brandt. "I still cannot believe I'm a part of something so world class at such a young age."