Undergrad on a mission expands research capabilities in Biology lab
Rebecca Batstone had a problem. Sierra Vaillancourt came up with the solution.
Rebecca, an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Science’s Department of Biology, wanted to start working with phages in her lab. Phages are viruses that selectively hunt and kill bacteria. Phages aren’t easy to work with and require special skills to properly handle. No one in Rebecca’s lab had those skills.
“If we had phages, we could start running experiments that explore fundamental questions in evolutionary biology,” Rebecca told her team.
Sierra took up the challenge. She’s a fourth-year science student working in Batstone’s lab. Sierra made it her mission to stock the lab with phages.
Rebecca recommended Sierra read up on phages research by Alexander Hynes, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences and a member of the Farncombe Family Digestive Health Research Institute. They’d first met at Memorial University where Rebecca was starting her master’s and Alex was finishing his PhD.
After reading the research, Sierra emailed Alex. He agreed to meet Sierra and then extended an invitation. Alex runs a phages bootcamp for students in his lab. Sierra would be the first undergraduate student from outside his lab to enrol in the bootcamp. Alex also tapped graduate student Felix Croteau to be Sierra’s guide into the world of phages research.
“The work I’m doing in Dr. Batstone’s lab wouldn’t have been possible without the bootcamp and Felix’s help,” says Sierra. Over the course of nearly two weeks, she learned how to amplify phages and conduct both plaque and adsorption assays.
Sierra then returned to Rebecca’s lab with protocols on everything from growth curves and phage titrations to phage DNA extraction procedures. “Because of Felix, I started working on a research project in Dr. Batstone’s lab that I’m passionate about. Everyone in Dr. Hynes’ lab was incredibly welcoming, I can’t say enough about how grateful I am for all their help.”
Felix says he was happy to lend a hand. “Supervising Sierra was a great experience. Science is at its best when it’s collaborative across departments and disciplines. I think phages are some of the coolest things in the microbial world and I’m always happy to see other scientists develop an interest.”
Along with sharing her newfound knowledge with her labmates back, Sierra connected with a PhD student at the University of Toronto who’d begun researching the same bacterial species that’s the focus of her undergraduate thesis project. She offered up advice, protocols and phage stock. ”I got to pay it forward,” says Sierra.
Rebecca’s lab is now stocked with phages. How the viruses got there underscores the drive and curiosity of undergraduate students and the spirit of collaboration at McMaster, says Rebecca. “Sierra took the initiative. Dr. Hynes welcomed Sierra into her lab. And Felix did an outstanding job of showing her the ropes. Because of Sierra, Alex and Felix, our lab’s ready to begin working with phages. I’m quite excited. I study the evolution of cooperation so it’s fitting that scientific progress in my lab relies on cooperation with other labs and researchers. It’s great that Mac fosters these types of interactions.”Graduate students, Research excellence, Students