Bacteria are everywhere. There are hundreds of thousands on your phone and keyboard. Millions more on the door handle to the coffee shop. Every day, new species are created, with more and more of these new species becoming resistant to antibiotics. These “antibiotic resistant superbugs” are a growing public health threat. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that annually some 2 million Americans experience antibiotic-resistant infections, with 23,000 dying as a consequence.
Enter eight seniors from Garrison Forest School. These talented young scientists are engaged in Garrison Forest’s new Small World Initiative (SWI) course in hopes of discovering new species of antibiotic-producing bacteria — a discovery that just might save the world.
Throughout the spring semester the students have been collecting soil samples that are teeming with bacteria, which they grow in petri dishes in the school’s custom-built SWI lab. Each sample is run through a series of tests to see if students have discovered new strains. The goal is to identify the best producers of antibiotic chemicals.
It’s high-level lab work, rare at the high school level. In fact, Garrison Forest is one of only six high schools nationwide — and the only high school in the Mid-Atlantic — selected by the nonprofit SWI to pilot this unique course at a small handful of secondary schools. Since SWI’s inaugural session at Yale University in 2012, over 170 colleges and universities worldwide have adopted the novel, crowdsourced vision for engaging students in the work of discovering new antibiotics and fueling the pipeline of critically-needed STEM majors and graduates.
“We are recreating real science the way it actually occurs at research institutions,” says Dr. Brian Blair, Garrison Forest’s SWI teacher. “Our students are doing original, unique research to discover something that could very well save our lives one day. Unlike most high school lab experiments, we don’t know what the results should be, and the results of their work could have a global impact.”
The goal is to grow new bacteria in hopes of creating antibiotic chemicals. In an effort to fend off competition, many bacteria produce antibiotic chemicals, which are the basis for the drugs used to treat most infections. From 1928, when British bacteriologist Dr. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, until the mid-1980s, researchers discovered numerous new classes of antibiotics, mostly from bacteria themselves. For the past three decades, though, science has been in the midst of a “dry spell” with no new antibiotics discovered.
Last June, Dr. Blair, who has taught at GFS since 2013, spent a week at SWI training at the University of Connecticut. His previous lab experience — he spent 12 years conducting breast and ovarian cancer research, most recently as a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine — is immensely helpful.
GFS student researchers, though, are no strangers to the rigor of a university-level lab. Most of the SWI students in the Garrison Forest pilot course have spent dozens of hours in a Johns Hopkins lab as a Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) student on a Hopkins research team. For the past 12 years, Garrison Forest’s WISE program has placed students in Johns Hopkins’ labs for in-depth, research mentorships.
The bacteria they are testing came from soil samples they collected around campus and the Baltimore region, with the precise coordinates of each location logged with SWI. “Soil has billions of bacteria in it,” explains Dr. Blair, who extracted a sample during his summer training from a pizza parlor parking lot in Connecticut.
Kayla Boswell ‘17 chose to sample soil from a creek near her aunt’s house in Eldersburg; she reasoned that darker, richer soil near a water source would be teeming with bacteria. It was, but so far, Kayla’s catalogue of germs hasn’t produced an antibiotic. Ever the experienced scientist, she remains undaunted. “With the Small World Initiative program, we are making our own choices and seeing where our research leads,” says Kayla, whose WISE project included making biomimetic 3D structures that may permit innovations in drug delivery and biopsies. She’s excited to combine lab experiences this fall at college where she plans on majoring in pre-med or mathematics with a goal of becoming a pediatrician.
For senior Chloe Keller, who plans to study biomedical engineering, the opportunity to discover a new antibiotic was hard to pass up. “The soil right beneath our feet could save millions of people, and we’re the ones who have the chance to make that happen,” she says. “This is a completely unique experience. The entire class is hands on every day — no sitting in chairs or listening to lectures. We learn and discover new things as we work.”
Garrison Forest’s SWI class meets three to four times a week in a new lab made possible through grant funding and the generosity of an SWI donor and a GFS alumna. In addition to standard lab equipment, the lab is outfitted with university-level equipment, specialized to analyze and test bacteria, sequence DNA and extract the antibiotic chemicals the students will discover. Having a lab of this caliber is both necessary for and symbolic of the level of research these high school students are conducting. “This type of research is usually reserved for upper-level college and graduate student labs,” says Dr. Blair. “It’s not very different from the molecular biology lab I worked in at Hopkins.”
GFS students are running their bacteria through a series of experiments, including testing against pathogens for antibiotic specificity, isolating interesting drug-producing candidates and extracting and analyzing found antibiotics, before creating their own investigations to identify, classify and sequence any possible isolated antibiotic producing bacteria. They have lab meetings, poster presentations and write up their findings. If the students discover a new species, they will publish their findings in the same outlets as university-level academic researchers.
Plans are underway for a team of GFS’s SWI students to attend the 4th annual SWI Symposium, part of the American Society for Microbiology’s annual conference, this year in New Orleans.
The GFS group won’t wear its matching lab costs to the symposium, but the coats are pretty cool. The students created them in Garrison Forest’s Creative Co-op maker space, monogramming the SWI logo on the front and a little bacterial humor on the back with “Microbiology Lab Staph Only.”
While each investigator is working on discovering her own antibiotic-producing bacteria species, students collaborate with and support each other to share their knowledge, progress, failures and discoveries. Margaret Hyde, WISE veteran and future pre-med major, loves the individual and collective learning the course offers. “This class is much more independent than any I have ever taken. You learn as you go,” says the senior who studied nanostructures for use in drug delivery in her WISE work and was part of a 60-person-plus team of JHU science practitioners who tackled the Zika crisis last spring in a university-wide four-day hackathon.
In September, Garrison Forest plans to pilot a two-semester SWI course, building on what was discovered this semester by identifying antibiotics and testing them further against more pathogens. Each student will also begin the process again, extracting her own soil sample, etc. Juniors already have begun filling Dr. Blair’s inbox with requests to be in next fall’s SWI course.
“I’ve mentored students in labs before, but this is the first time I have had eight students doing independent research in a lab setting like this,” Dr. Blair says. “In addition to discovering new antibiotics, the goals of this program are to change the way lab courses are taught at high school and to nurture a lasting interest in STEM. My students come to this project with exceptional lab experience already. It’s exciting to see the passion they are bringing to the work.”
The SWI course is part of a broader effort supported by Garrison Forest’s James Center, in partnership with Johns Hopkins, SWI and others, to introduce students to content and experiences in public health. “Students have a natural passion for Public Health’s focus on saving lives on a global scale,” notes James Center director Andrea Perry, “and through opportunities like our Women’s Global Health course, WISE and SWI, they are learning that their ideas and talents are needed and that they can make a contribution now.”