Students present findings at prestigious science conference

Two rising Merrimack College juniors presented their class research on viruses that infect bacteria at the Eighth Annual SEA-PHAGES Symposium sponsored by the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Alison Hanlon ’18 and Kathryn Wisniewski ’18 presented the research done by associate professor Janine LeBlanc-Straceski’s freshman and sophomore biology classes during the last academic year.

“The conference itself was a great experience for an undergraduate to be exposed to,” Hanlon said. “You have to work hard to get to these things so the earlier you start in college, I think it will build a better foundation for your future.”

LeBlanc-Straceski had her freshman class visit the banks of the Shawsheen River in Andover to collect soil samples in September 2015. The freshmen then isolated the phages, also known as viruses, and the sophomores in the genetics class catalogued the bioinformatics on the phages, Hanlon said.

Hanlon, who is interning with Pfizer in Andover this summer, and Wisniewski volunteered for extra work on the project throughout spring semester and into June, with the reward of taking part in the symposium. HHMI paid all expenses for the trip to Virginia.

They spent 10-12 hours each week looking at sequencing data for the genomes and figuring out the functions of genes that were identified.

“The extra work we put in was refining the work done by those (freshman and sophomore) classes and putting it in presentation style and determining what was unique about Merrimack’s phages,” Hanlon said.

“All the sophomores who annotated the genome can claim co-authorship when the work is published,” said LeBlanc-Straceski, “which they can put on their resumes.”

Hanlon and Wisniewski lectured on a rare mechanism in two of the phages the classes studied that allow the viruses to remain dormant for an extended time until conditions are appropriate for them to wake up and consume bacteria.

LeBlanc-Straceski knew the research was special from the start. 

“When we were writing the abstract I turned to the two of them and told them this topic is very hot right now. so don’t be surprised if they invite you to give a talk,” she said.

In addition to the lecture, Hanlon and Wisniewski took part in the symposium’s poster session. To view their poster visit