Biotechnology Program Puts DMC Students on Path to Discovery

Article by: Michael Bratten

They’re a dream team at Del Mar College. Daiyuan “Daisy” Zhang and John “Rob” Hatherill, both PhDs and professors in the Department of Natural Sciences, are not only inspiring students to pursue careers in scientific research, they’re helping them discover previously unknown viruses – more than 100 so far.

“When students discover something that’s new to science, it’s really transformative to them,” Hatherill said. “They show this excitement that you never see in a traditional classroom. They’re the first person to look at that virus. It’s a new frontier, almost like landing on the moon.”

The invisible viruses, called bacteriophages, attack bacteria that live around us and inside us. Some of those bacteria can be harmful, such as E. coli, Vibrio and antibiotic resistant “superbugs,” so the discovery of organisms that affect them could lead to significant advances in science and medicine. 

Last fall alone, Zhang and Hatherill estimate their students discovered about 22 new bacteriophages. Students’ names are forever attached to their discoveries, which they give names like “Chupacabra,” “Scorpia” and “Draco.” 

“What we’re doing is turning students on to science before somebody else turns them off,” Zhang said. “In their first class we’re doing graduate-level research. It’s a unique story for a two-year school.”

Research fast track 

Before Zhang and Hatherill came along, it was a rarity for students at Del Mar to conduct advanced laboratory research. Now, they’re exposed to it on the fast track, starting in Del Mar’s state-of-the-art lab. 

Research opportunities also come in the form of internships that the duo facilitate through a network of friends, fellow professors and mentors at labs across the country. 

The internships may take place at Del Mar, nearby schools such as Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMUCC) and at prestigious institutions like the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.

Last summer, during an internship at TAMUCC, Del Mar biotechnology major Danial Azadani discovered a bacteriophage associated with Enterococcus faecalis, a bacterium that can cause infection in humans. It is also sometimes found in elevated levels in coastal waters. 

“I’ve been to different universities in Canada and I’ve never seen something like this research program,” Azadani said. “Del Mar has the potential to be one of the top biotechnology schools in the country.”

After further studies, Azadani’s discovery could lead to the development of treatment for Enterococcus faecalis, as well as the improvement of water quality in the Texas Coastal Bend, Zhang said. 

“Any (bacteriophage) they discover is a contribution to the scientific community. The viruses will be archived in three different locations in the United States, and studies on them will continue.”

Read the full story on the national higher education publication Community College Week’s website: ccweek.com/article-5485-the-virus-hunters.html 

IN THE PHOTO: John Ramirez, a biotechnology major and teaching assistant, is joined by Daiyuan “Daisy” Zhang, PhD, during the Fall 2016 Natural Sciences Student Poster Session at Del Mar College, where students presented results of their research internships. 

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