When John F. Ramirez enrolled in Del Mar College the week before classes started in August 2014, the only open Biology I course was highlighted as the "phages" section.
Ramirez had no idea what phages were. But he figured if the labs were too complicated for him, the instructor would let him know it. Instead of washing out, Ramirez excelled with the encouragement of Professor J. Robert Hatherill. Students in the "phages" section learn basic biology concepts by conducting research on bacteriophages, which are viruses that live on bacteria.
During 2016 Ramirez's independent research on "interesting tidbits" about bacteriophages earned him a first place in the cellular and molecular biology category of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) student poster competition. In a separate competition, Ramirez was selected to attend The First World Congress on Undergraduate Research in Qatar in November.
"It has been an amazing two years," Ramirez said. He has also had summer internships in the geosciences lab at the University of California, Berkeley and at the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, California.
While internships are required for Del Mar's biotech students, and their participation in competitions is strongly encouraged, Hatherill proudly points out that it is unusual for someone midway through an associate degree program to win in the AAAS competition against undergraduates and graduate students from doctoral universities.
Ramirez said his selection by the scientists who served as judges at the AAAS meeting, known as "the largest and most widely recognized global science gathering," boosted his confidence. "I felt a lot more, a lot more comfortable with my research," Ramirez said.
During his 20-minute presentation at the conference in Qatar, Ramirez said he enjoyed fielding questions from the audience. The Council on Undergraduate Research announcement about the international meeting stated it was organized to bring together the best undergraduate researchers from around the world "to focus our collective minds on some of the most significant challenges facing the global community."
Inclusion in Science Adds to Sweet Victory
As exciting as the conferences (including the 2015 ATE Principal Investigators Conference) and international travel have been, Ramirez said, seeing his research abstract published in Science with the other AAAS poster winners "blew my mind."
His poster focused on his isolation of the novel bacteriophage called Chupacabra. Ramirez identified 322 regulatory structures called putative riboswitches within four bacterial species and 110 putative riboswitches across the genome of one specific phage called actinobacteriophage. This led to his theory that riboswitches "functioned as metabolic sensors in primitive organisms, and actinobacteriophage and modern cells still retain some of the ancient regulatory control systems." He further postulates that riboswitches regulate phage gene expression and, therefore, control transitions within the cells.
Ramirez Hopes to Enroll in MD-PhD Program
Ramirez enrolled at Del Mar College, a public two-year college in Corpus Christi, Texas, as a first step toward medical school. He had been working in a psychiatric hospital for five years and decided he wanted to have a larger role in determining patients' care. However, he had taken just one chemistry course for his bachelor degree, and knew he would need a stronger science background to gain admission to medical school.
Thanks to the various research projects the 30-year-old Ramirez has been involved in and the scientific conferences he has attended as a Del Mar student, Ramirez's goal has shifted. He now wants to earn a PhD along with a medical degree.
He credits Hatherill and Daisy Zhang, a biotechnology professor at Del Mar College, with his success and enthusiasm for scientific research. Both Hatherill and Zhang participate in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Science Education Alliance (SEA) PHAGES program that blends biology instruction with actual research. An Advanced Technological Education grant from the National Science Foundation that Hatherill received to implement authentic research and use podcasts to reinforce laboratory techniques facilitated the college's inclusion in SEA-PHAGES.
"The Howard Hughes Medical Institute protocol is very, very hands on," Ramirez said, explaining that rather than having students memorize concepts, they "are able to see and understand and have something in their hands ... and it's really, really powerful." Ramirez now works as a biology teaching assistant while attending classes full time to complete three associate degrees. He will graduate from Del Mar College in May 2017.
He recalls that Hatherill's teaching style made a big impression on him from his first day in class. Unlike any instructor Ramirez had while earning a bachelor's degree in human resources development, Hatherill's teaching was not limited to a textbook. Also he didn't lecture so much as guide students' learning and listen carefully to their questions. "It was kind of off to the races from that point onward," he said.
Hatherill Honored for Excellent Teaching
In September 2016 Del Mar College recognized Hatherill's outstanding pedagogy and development of the biology and biotechnology programs with the Dr. Aileen Creighton Award for Teaching Excellence. Hatherill also conducts his own research projects and has had multiple appointments to faculty internships at U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratories.
At the Creighton Award ceremony Hatherill began his speech about his teaching philosophy and why he embeds research in his courses with a quote from hockey great Wayne Gretzky: "A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be ... I want to be where the educational community is going to be."
When Hatherill was asked for the ATE@20 Blog how Del Mar College biology and biotech students manage to do so well in scientific competitions—Ramirez is just the most recent high achiever—he replied via email, "I think we have students that are like diamonds in the rough and we just add many facets! It takes some magic and dedication.
"My colleague Dr. Daisy Zhang and I work synergistically with the students. We use other students that are more advanced as peer mentors. I think the students aspire to the greatness of the peer mentors when they see the potential they think—hey I can do that!! But I believe there is some magic, yet I am not sure of the origin! Daisy and I do rigorously prepare the students for competitions!"