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Greg Lindberg

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Kevin Szafran ’22, Biology

Several months ago, Kevin Szafran scooped up a soil sample from an apartment complex in Dade City, FL. Little did he know this dirt would contain a bacteriophage to be included in a global database.

Szafran, who graduated from the university in May 2022, had the opportunity to participate in the Science Education Alliance (SEA) Phages program, a project the university joined several years ago. Since 2008, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Pittsburgh have collaborated to facilitate this bacteriophage research initiative for biology students attending more than 150 colleges and universities. Szafran, a biology major focusing on biomedical science, has been part of the two classes specific to phage discovery and analysis.

“We had to collect three environmental samples from three different locations,” Szafran said of the project. “The phage I discovered was from the soil of a flowerbed with fertilizer. I collected it the day after it had rained, so it was moist and seemed like a viable location. For me, only one out of my three samples contained a phage.”

Szafran explained the steps following the sample collection.

“We then go through rounds of amplifying, purifying, and isolating a bacteriophage, which is essentially a virus that infects a bacterial host,” he said. “We send off the sample to the University of Pittsburgh for further analysis in which they sequence the genome to determine which family of bacteriophage it belongs to.”

Phage process

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This image shows the dimension of the capsid and tail of the phage. It was produced using electron microscopy.

Some phages can cause benign bacteria to become pathogenic (disease-producing) by transferring in pathogenic genes. Other phages use the bacteria as a host to make more viruses before killing them.

The two Saint Leo courses focused on practical research in the use of bacteriophages are BIO 100: Intro to Research – Phage Hunters and BIO 200: Phages II. In addition, a third course related to phages was introduced to biology students in the 2021-2022 academic year. In BIO 300: SEA-Genes, students clone phage genes and express their proteins, ultimately trying to assign a function to those genes.

Szafran named the phage he discovered “Upsilon” in recognition of Saint Leo’s Upsilon Theta chapter of the Kappa Sigma fraternity to which he belongs.

Student Emily Katz uses a pipette to transfer liquid in a Saint Leo biology laboratory classroom.

“Jovita” is a phage discovered by junior Gabby Fonseca. She took her sample from an area near a tree stump on the banks of Lake Jovita at University Campus. Among the other Saint Leo phages are “BlueRugrat,” found by Kaishon Showers, and “Katzastrophic” found by Emily Katz.

“It has been a rewarding experience,” Szafran said. “The work I’ve put into this and getting my name on a nationally recognized website is definitely an amazing opportunity. Publications are the epitome of research and are so instrumental in helping me pursue further education.”

Dr. Iain Duffy, an associate professor of biology in the Department of Natural and Applied Sciences, brought the courses to the university four years ago. Duffy teaches all three classes related to phage discovery and analysis.

“Only a small number of phages have been discovered, but how they function has yet to be determined in many cases,” Duffy explained. “These are not your typical college classes. This is real research being done on viruses that nobody has ever seen before. Plus, we have many freshmen and sophomores taking these courses, giving them a leg up as they advance in the program.”

Along with hands-on experiential learning, students’ names are published on a dedicated database webpage hosted on the PhagesDB website. They also may present their findings at the national SEA Symposium and the Florida Academy of Sciences’ annual conference, as well as during Saint Leo’s Academic Excellence Day.

Dr. Iain Duffy explains the study of phages.

According to Duffy, numerous Saint Leo graduates have applied their experience with this project to their careers. Several have gone on to work at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL. A few alumni now work in the cancer center’s cell therapy lab where they are helping to develop cancer treatments, while others have participated in the SPARK internship program at Moffitt.

“The students are becoming much more confident in their lab techniques and are using this experience in their careers,” Duffy said of completing the phage classes.

As for Szafran’s future plans, his goal is to attend medical school and become a physician, potentially specializing in cardiology.

Nicholas Finch with his partner, Ann Marie, their 3-year-old son, Wallace, and their rescue dog.

It’s hard to cram a graduate degree program, a full-time teaching job, and caring for a little one into one schedule, but Nicholas Finch ’20 managed to do it. And along the way, he nurtured his love of writing.

The 26-year-old, originally from Whitchurch, England, credits the flexibility of Saint Leo’s low-residency creative writing program to making his educational goals possible. Finch, who enjoys a career as a teacher, lives in St. Petersburg, FL with his partner, Ann Marie, 3-year-old son, Wallace, and a rescue dog.

Educational Journey

Finch began his higher education career at the University of Tampa (FL) where he majored in English and writing. It was a former professor who convinced him to enroll with Saint Leo University.

“I had Dr. Steve Kistulentz there (UT) and volunteered in the residency program,” Finch said.

While he was accepted into a few full-residency creative writing graduate programs and even started in one of them, he just didn’t feel comfortable.

Kistulentz became director of Saint Leo’s new low-residency Master of Arts in creative writing program in 2016. “I was following Dr. Kistulentz on Facebook and knew about Saint Leo starting its new graduate degree program,” Finch said. “He encouraged me to apply.”

Finch joined Saint Leo University in the summer of 2018, enrolling in the university’s creative writing graduate degree program, choosing the fiction track.

“With the full-residency programs, you pretty much can’t work anywhere else and have to be totally committed and invested in them,” Finch said. “I also wanted to start a family, and it just wouldn’t have been practical for me to be tied down with a program like that.”

The Online Format of this Creative Writing Degree Program

At first, Finch had some trepidation about enrolling in a low-residency degree program in which the coursework is primarily conducted online.

“Before starting this program, I had never taken an online course in my life,” Finch said. “I admit I was a little hesitant because I’m not the most tech-savvy person, and the idea of an online degree program was fairly intimidating to me.”

But thanks to the availability of his professors and the summer residency aspect which enabled him to meet his instructors and classmates in person at University Campus, his concerns were quickly alleviated.

“I’d say I actually felt closer to my professors in this program than I did in traditional classroom-based programs I’ve been in,” Finch said.

The Summer Residency

Each summer, students in this program gather at University Campus for one week. During this event, several accomplished authors are on hand to read from their works and offer advice to students on their respective writing projects.

“Some of the most exciting aspects of this program included listening to these writers read from their work and the craft workshops they do,” Finch said. Hearing their stories about their life experiences as writers has been invaluable.”

Getting to meet Pulitzer Prize-winning author Adam Johnson was a true thrill for Finch. “I actually shared a cheeseburger with him, which was a very interesting and unexpected experience,” Finch said. “I had led a book club on one of his books when I used to work at a bookstore.”

Connecting with his fellow students was also a big perk.

“It’s surprising how well you get to know the other students in just a week during the residency and through our online discussions,” Finch said. “You really learn so much from your classmates.”

Students must complete a book thesis project in their coursework. For Finch, he started out with a short story that he has expanded into a much longer project. The story is about two brothers in which one is left to care for the other brother’s child and the drama that ensues from this situation. It is loosely based on his personal experiences.

Career Highlights

Finch currently teaches ninth grade English and print and digital media at Jesuit High School in Tampa, FL. And when not in the classroom, his other job is his writing career. Already, Finch has had about 30 of his works—short stories and poetry—published in small literary and online journals.

Some of these print publications have included Avis MagFlash: The International Short-Short Story MagazineThe Level Crossing, and Haiku Journal.

Finch said there are three primary ways in which he comes up with the ideas for his creative writing.

“When something happens that intrigues or confuses me and I don’t have words for it, I immediately want to write about it and find the language to express it,” Finch said. “Also, any time someone tells me a story and I retell it and people take the time to sit down and listen, then I want to share it with more people in writing. Finally, I like thinking about memories I have from my own life and preserving them in writing.”

Despite his achievements as a young writer, he knows he can always get better at his craft.

“I want to keep getting better at it,” Finch said. “With creative writing, I want to craft better sentences, more nuanced characters, and find the best ways to perfect memories I already have in my mind.”

He has some advice for anyone who wants to grow as a writer:

“No matter what stage you’re at, don’t be afraid to take risks,” Finch said. “Don’t be afraid to write a story that is solely yours because people out there just might be interested in reading it. When you start writing stories with a specific audience in mind, it can hold you back from expressing yourself as far as who you are as an individual. Also, don’t be dissuaded by criticism because it’s only going to make you a better writer in the end.”


Learn More

Read one of Nicholas Finch’s works entitled, “What They Give Children” and learn more about the Master of Arts degree in creative writing.