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STC Biology Course Carves Out Paths of Scientific Excellence

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STC’s SEA-PHAGES course is an honors class where students conduct research on viral species that attack bacteria. Students gain a unique opportunity by getting research experience, achieving academic excellence and collaborating as young professionals. STC Image
STC’s SEA-PHAGES course is an honors class where students conduct research on viral species that attack bacteria. Students gain a unique opportunity by getting research experience, achieving academic excellence and collaborating as young professionals. STC Image
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By Sara Reyna

The esteemed Biology department at South Texas College first introduced Science Education Association-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomic and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) course in 2019 to serve STC Dual Enrollment Medical Science Academy (DEMSA) students, but now, for the first time, it has expanded and opened its doors to traditional college students.

STC’s SEA-PHAGES course is an honors class where students conduct research on viral species that attack bacteria. Students gain a unique opportunity by getting research experience, achieving academic excellence and collaborating as young professionals. 

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STC Image

SEA PHAGES is a nationwide research program, initiated by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Maryland, that fosters student interest and retention through hands-on scientific research, publication opportunities and professional conferences.

Elizabeth Gonzalez, STC Biology instructor, professionally trained by HHMI, expressed her passion for the unique hands-on experience students are receiving with the exploratory research program that has been a unique scientific adventure for the department.

“This course is the first and only of its kind for our South Texas region and it is geared towards students who are interested in STEM and want to pursue research or any higher-level science or health care degrees. It is not often that there are research opportunities like this one available or accessible to students,” said Gonzalez.

Marking a new milestone, as of fall 2023 the SEA-PHAGES course is now available to traditional students interested in exploring bacteriophage research at STC’s Pecan campus.

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Jose Moralez, 29, first-ever traditional student in the honors course, described the experience as inspiring to see the younger students pursuing big goals, something he never believed was attainable for himself until starting the class. 

“I’ve always had the desire to study biology, but it never seemed like I would have the opportunity to do it, until I received an email about this class,” Moralez shared. “I was persistent to join because I’m passionate about science and I always have been even as a young child, participating in this level of extensive research has been pivotal to my educational journey. I’ve walked away inspired by my younger classmates because they are getting the experiences I wish I had at their age and I’m so grateful to be a part of it as one of the first traditional students.” 

Maria Cervantes, Ph.D., Biology department program chair, explained why partnering with Howard Hughes Medical Institute was crucial to strengthening the program to provide students at STC with a life-changing opportunity.

“When I became the program chair, I made it my goal to collaborate with my team to enhance our biology program. I immediately recognized a gap with our hands-on research experiences for our students. Drawing from my own research background I knew how transformative it could be for our department,” Cervantes said. “After weeks of searching I came across the SEA-PHAGES course, it was ideal for our departmental needs. Through a huge collaborative effort, we successfully introduced the course at STC.”

Daniella Gonzalez, 16, DEMSA student and junior from Sharyland High School, was attracted to the course after learning about it at a student orientation meeting. She believed the honors course aligned with her goals of going to medical school in the future.

“When I heard about the course, it immediately piqued my interest, so I decided to enroll because my dream is to be a doctor one day,” Gonzalez said. “To pursue a degree in medicine, I felt like it would be crucial to enhance my curriculum and learning experience especially in a male dominated field. I feel empowered by this experience, and I hope others don’t shy away from their passions. Participating in this honors course is a way to show others that even if your aspirations feel intimidating, you can do it.”

Achieving five years of innovative research excellence, the honors course has expanded to the Mid-Valley campus as of fall 2023. With a significant surge in interest, the STC’s Weslaco campus has worked diligently to accommodate the influx of students.

Cervantes reflected on where this journey started and how it has unraveled throughout the years. She said the goal was to have the ability to expand the course across various campuses and to encourage other students to participate in accessible, challenging and invigorating research. 

“The pandemic may have changed our trajectory with having to scale back our outreach, but we’re moving forward stronger than ever as we’ve expanded to Mid-Valley, eventually to the Starr campus and now with the availability to traditional students,” she shared. “Life-changing opportunities seldomly fall into our lap, we must put ourselves out there and work hard and, believe that our students deserve opportunities that will set them up for success. I want students to know that many others have been able to succeed in life by trying something new or challenging, and it ends up being the experience of a lifetime, why can’t that be them?”

For more information on STC’s Biology program, visit https://www.southtexascollege.edu/academics/biology/ or call 872-1994.

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