The Small World Initiative: Crowdsourcing Antibiotic Discovery

by Erin Cullen

Standing by the chalkboard in 102 Clapp Hall, Ms. Jean Schmidt has to practically shout over the radiator’s constant hum. Her 15 students, clad in lab coats and goggles, fidget with anticipation as Schmidt rushes to get through the weekly announcements and assignments. Schmidt and the 15 students are piloting a new, non-traditional research learning experience called the Small World Initiative.

Conceptualized by researchers at the Yale Center for Scientific Teaching, the Small World Initiative is a research-based laboratory course geared towards freshman and sophomore college students. The initiative debuted at the University of Pittsburgh and 25 other schools in Spring 2014.

Unlike most introductory lab courses where students learn techniques by conducting tests with predetermined results, a Small World class allows every student to engage in a unique research experience. The objective of the course is to engage students in a quest to find, isolate, and characterize antibiotic-producing bacteria.

To start, students collect a soil sample from somewhere on or near their college campus. Schmidt was impressed by the diversity of the soil collection sites students found on Pitt’s campus. While some students braved the icy steps down to Panther Hollow Lake in early January to collect the richest soil, others found antibiotic-producing bacteria right outside Clapp Hall. The first batch of soil collections was filled with bacteria of every shape, texture, and color.

In the first few weeks of the course, students master lab protocols for aseptic technique, which keeps experimenters safe and samples free of contamination. The soil samples disappear quickly as students whip through agar plates at a ferocious pace, culturing and classifying bacteria. After testing their “master plate” of soil bacteria against safe relatives of human pathogens like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), each student chooses one promising, antibiotic-producing species to study for the rest of the term.

The latter part of the semester is spent performing tests to determine the properties of each bacteria, including its identity and its antibiotic, using experimental procedures such as organic extraction and Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests. The course finishes with students creating and presenting their work at an undergraduate poster session.

The Small World Initiative not only provides students an inside look at biological research early on in their college years, but it also encourages collaboration between students at different institutions across the country. In May 2014, two Pitt students attended the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) conference in Boston to present their results from the program’s inaugural semester.

The lab techniques and research skills learned in the Small World lab has inspired students to further explore research. One Pitt student, who collected incredible results from his Small World experiment, continued researching his bacteria and antibiotic the following term through the Department of Organic Chemistry. Schmidt was ecstatic that after just the first semester of the course, a student was able to continue his Small World research. She hopes that similar opportunities will be available to all of Pitt’s Small World students in the future.

Schmidt is greatly optimistic about the program’s future. She hopes to extend the course from one semester to one year to allow students to delve deeper into their research. She also plans to add more sections of the class in Spring 2015.

Schmidt believes that the Small World lab presents a revolutionary way of teaching science where students can learn basic laboratory techniques and immediately implement them research that has real-world applications.