Reavelyn Pray is spending the summer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, before starting classes at the University of Houston in Texas.

Courtesy Reavelyn Pray

Competition helps college students find a place in science

Reavelyn Pray was taught that students like her didn’t become scientists. But thanks to a lot of hard work and timely help from heavy hitters in the scientific community, Pray is a lot further along toward her goal than the naysayers ever thought possible.

As a poor, Hispanic student growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, Pray found school to be a refuge from an unstable family situation that resulted in her becoming homeless at age 16. And although math and science were her favorite courses, she and the other low-income minority students in her classes were repeatedly told that “becoming a scientist or an engineer are jobs that are too big for us.”

For a while it seemed they were right. After graduating high school, Pray enrolled in a bioinformatics course at the local community college. But a year later she dropped out after becoming pregnant with her daughter, Emma, now 6 years old.

Determined to succeed, she returned to Del Mar College in 2015. And she’s never looked back. Instead of the standard introductory class in biology, Pray benefited from an initiative funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) that gives students a chance to do genuine lab science. The two-course sequence helped propel her and three other students into a competition for young entrepreneurs sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Last month they won first place in the Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC) for their project, which uses tailormade viruses called bacterial phages to help hospitals combat the growing issue of antibiotic resistance. She’s now an intern at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. And this fall she’ll build on her associate’s degree by transferring to the University of Houston in Texas, where she plans to major in bioinformatics and computer science.

“These programs have allowed me to gain skills and to realize I can do so much more,” Pray says. “I’ve always wanted to. I just felt it was impossible.”

Begun in 2014, CCIC is cosponsored by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). Each member of the winning Del Mar team—Pray, Danial Nasr Azadani, Julianne Grose, and John Ramirez—receives $1500 and an opportunity to network with scientists, politicians, and business owners who could advance their careers. “This competition gives students national recognition from NSF, their state representatives, and the AACC, as well as an opportunity to travel to the nation’s capital,” says Ellen Hause, a program director for AACC, based in Washington, D.C.

Their week-long trip includes an “innovation boot camp,” in which students from the 10 teams chosen as finalists learn about innovation, entrepreneurship, and strategic communications. For many of these students, Hause adds, the trip is also their first time out of their home states.

The team’s faculty adviser, biologist J. Robert Hatherill, says the Del Mar students wouldn’t have won without the skills they learned in the Hughes program, called Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomic and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES). Begun in 2007, SEA-PHAGES now supports students at 110 institutions in 39 states. In 2011 Del Mar was one of the first three community colleges to be accepted into the program, which now includes 11 2-year schools.

“The program is meant to provide authentic research experience to students with little to no background knowledge in science,” says David Asai, senior director of science education at HHMI, based in Bethesda, Maryland. “We’ve been encouraging more community colleges to apply for the program because they don’t have large research facilities. Students get the opportunity not just to learn science, but to do science.”

HHMI provides the materials, course manual, and training for up to three instructors, and year-round technical support. Colleges must supply the microscopes, software, and a staff member to manage the program. Hatherill said he and Daisy Zhang, an assistant professor of biotechnology, obtained federal grants to purchase the necessary equipment.

Students in the program learn to isolate and characterize bacteriophages, annotate the phage genomes, and then submit the sequences to a national database. “The students at Del Mar have isolated and characterized over 100 unique bacterial phages,” Hatherill says.

The team laid the groundwork for their winning project when Nasr Azadani isolated the phage “Chi.” It targets Enterococcus faecalis, a bacterium that has developed resistance to many antibiotics. Once Hatherill told them about the innovation challenge, the students decided to develop an antiseptic spray they dubbed EnteroSword, which targets pathogenic bacteria acquired in hospitals and other clinical settings.

Ramirez was responsible for the team’s business plan, Pray took the lead on the scientific paper that is part of the application, and Nasr Azadani produced a video and business cards. “We had different skills that complemented each other perfectly,” Pray said.

Bouyed by her success in the innovation challenge, Pray has her sights set on graduate school and an academic career. Finding out that her graduate work is likely to be subsidized was a huge relief. “Many students don’t even realize graduate school in a [scientific] field is typically paid for,” she notes. And she believes that programs like SEA-PHAGES and CCIC have given her the necessary skills to take the next step on her scientific journey.

“All I needed was a chance,” she says. “All any of us need is a chance.”