Del Mar College researchers
Daiyuan “Daisy” Zhang, PhD and John “Rob” Hatherill, PhD, professors in Del Mar College’s Department of Natural Sciences.
How does it feel to discover a virus that previously was unknown to the world of science? A bit like becoming a new parent, according to John Ramirez.
“It’s kind of your little piece of history,” said Ramirez, a biotechnology student at Del Mar College. “I keep the pictures on my computer at home. It’s my baby.”
Under the guidance of Daiyuan “Daisy” Zhang and John “Rob” Hatherill, both PhDs and professors in Del Mar’s Department of Natural Sciences, student researchers like Ramirez have discovered more than 100 previously unknown viruses, called bacteriophages, which infect bacteria and often destroy them.
“When students discover something that’s new to science, it’s really transformative to them,” Hatherill said. “They just 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.”
Because they attack bacteria that live around us and inside us – some of them harmful, such as E. coli, Vibrio and antibiotic resistant “superbugs” – the discovery of new bacteriophages could lead to significant advances in science and medicine.
Before Zhang and Hatherill came along, it was a rarity for students at Del Mar to conduct authentic laboratory research. Now, they’re exposed to research on the fast track, starting in Del Mar’s state-of-the-art lab.
“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 very unique story for a two-year school.”
Students’ names are forever attached to the bacteriophages they discover, and they give them names like “Chupacabra,” “Scorpia” and “Draco.”
They also take pride in posting their discoveries on a website, phagesdb.org, along with scientists and researchers from around the world. The site currently contains information on 106 bacteriophages discovered by Del Mar students.
Through a network of friends, fellow professors and mentors at labs across the country, Zhang and Hatherill help their students garner competitive research internships that are historically snapped up by students from four-year and Ivy League universities.
The internships may take place at Del Mar, nearby schools such as Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and at prestigious institutions like the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.
Last November, Ramirez presented a compilation of the research he’s conducted at Del Mar – including his bacteriophage discoveries – during the World Congress on Undergraduate Research in Doha, Qatar. It was his first time travelling to the Middle East, and Hatherill was by his side.
Like most students who come under the wings of Zhang and Hatherill, Ramirez plans to pursue a career in scientific research.
“We give students these opportunities, they light on fire and take off, and at that point we stand back because suddenly they’ve got this career track in front of them,” Hatherill said. “We love to see that.”
“When they’ve found something they love to do and they can make a living doing it – a very decent living – that’s the best part,” Zhang said.
For more information on the biotechnology program at Del Mar College, call the Department of Natural Sciences at 361.698.1229 or visit www.delmar.edu/Biotechnology/biotechnology.aspx.