Barry McNamara  |   Published September 10, 2019

Early Start, Early Success with Research

As she preapres for medical school, biochemistry major Sarah Poirier presents research about phage at national conference.
  • Sarah Poirier ’22 works with a phage sample last fall. Over the summer, she was selected to represent Monmouth at a national conference on phage. “We’re a small part of a great big project, but while attending the conference, I thought, ‘Wow, we really did find something pretty interesting,’” she said. 

MONMOUTH, Ill. – Just one year into her studies at Monmouth College, Sarah Poirier ’22 of Lombard, Ill., has already conducted research for two semesters and presented it at a national conference.

In June, Poirier and biology professor James Godde traveled to the 12th-annual SEA-PHAGES symposium at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus near Ashburn, Va. SEA-PHAGES is the acronym for Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science. Poirier and Godde presented a poster and the College’s research findings on phage, which is a virus that affects bacteria.

Poirier and other select members of last year’s freshman class were the first Monmouth students to study phage, which they did for their introductory biology course.

“Phage is essentially viruses we find in the environment that can be used for a variety of things,” said Poirier. “Right now, the possibilities are limitless.”

A real life-saver

Phage’s uses include serving as a “last-ditch effort” when other cures have failed because an illness has become resistant to antibiotics.

Poirier said a famous case involving phage occurred in England, where a teenage patient with cystic fibrosis “was dying of a secondary infection of the lungs.”

“Phage don’t cure cystic fibrosis itself, but they can help patients who are prone to infections that are resistant to antibiotics,” said Poirier. “That patient was 14 and dying when she was given the phage therapy, and now she’s 18.”

Poirier said another case involved a U.S. traveler who acquired a “superbug” while on a trip in Egypt. After more than a year in the hospital with no progress, he was given phage therapy and recovered.

Monmouth is part of a five-year, nationwide discovery-based undergraduate research initiative to learn more about phage. Other schools participating range from community colleges to larger research institutions such as Johns Hopkins University.

“We’re a small part of a great big project, but while attending the conference, I thought, ‘Wow, we really did find something pretty interesting,’” Poirier said, referring to abnormalities in the genome sequencing of one of the four samples gathered around campus last fall. “It was neat to see that we hung in there with some bigger schools. We’re all very new in this, and we’re seeing what else we can do with phage and how far we can take it. The more you know about phage, the more interesting it gets.”

Start ’em early

Poirier’s friends who are attending large universities are surprised – and perhaps a little bit jealous – when she tells them how much experience she already has with research. That also includes research that Poirier conducted just prior to the start of her freshman year through Monmouth’s Summer Opportunity for Intellectual Activity (SOFIA) program.

“I’ve known for a while that I wanted to go to medical school,” said Poirier, who aspires to become a pediatrician. “I came here as a biology major, but two days into SOFIA, I became a biochemistry major. It became pretty clear to me pretty quickly that it would be more beneficial to be in biochem.”

Poirier’s research opportunities will continue throughout her time at Monmouth, and she is slated to begin working soon with Monmouth chemistry professor Laura Moore.

The success experienced by Poirier and her dozen or so classmates last fall helped convince the College’s biology department to continue its freshman phage lab. Fifteen students are currently enrolled in the lab, and Godde reports it’s again going well.

“The focus for us is on the students,” said Godde of the department’s philosophy. “We get them going on research as a freshman, which is pretty unusual. At the beginning, I’m sure some of think, ‘What are we doing?’ but the more they work on it, it all starts to come together for them. This year’s group is off to a good start.”

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