Interview with Dr. Amanda Freise, PhD


Tina Zhou

Dr. Amanda Freise is a professor and lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics (MIMG). She and her students are involved in the Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) national virology research program, which enables undergraduates nationwide to conduct studies on newly-discovered viruses.

Finding a career in collegiate teaching

Prior to her professorship, Freise studied genetics with a minor in women’s studies as an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine. While she mentored students and served as a Resident Advisor in student dormitories, she never thought she would pursue teaching and mentorship as a career. As an undergraduate, she enjoyed working in science communication and considered careers in science writing, science media (such as TV show consulting and scriptwriting), and museum work.

As a fourth year undergraduate, she applied to PhD programs and started graduate studies as part of UCLA’s Molecular Medical Pharmaceutical department where she began immediately after receiving her bachelor's degree. The first time that Freise taught in front of students was during graduate school as a teaching assistant. She enjoyed working with students and speaking in front of a room more than working on her doctoral thesis. While preparing for her dissertation, a teaching position opened in the MIMG department and she took up the position rather than applying for other jobs.

Since her graduate specialty was in biology and genetics, Freise found a natural transition into teaching virology. As a full-time professor, Freise loves interacting with students in the classroom and out, working with them to develop both academic skills as well as career goals and professional skills. In her classroom, she encourages a highly collaborative environment for her students to help them develop teamwork and communication skills.

Working alongside students: SEA-PHAGES

            The SEA-PHAGES program is the focus of her teaching curriculum as part of the MIMG department. Beginning eight years ago as the vision of educators to expand research accessibility for undergraduates, SEA-PHAGES is run by the Howard-Hughes Medical Institute, a national organization that supports biomedical research. The program helps engage undergraduates in real biomedical research, allowing them to conduct novel research, ask unique research questions, and contribute to the larger goals of biomedical science.

Freise emphasizes the program’s focus on authentic student research rather than “cookbook style” lab classes that expect results and predictable answers to experiments. As part of the program, Freise teaches her classes how to design and conduct their own research, which is exciting since unexpected results and surprises are frequent.

Participation in SEA-PHAGES provides students with the unique experience of isolating and discovering a new virus, while Freise acts as facilitator to their research process. She and her team teach students standard microbiological techniques such as plating bacteria, using microscopes, conducting plaque assays, and implementing bioinformatics to study viruses.

Students have the opportunity to use expensive, state-of-the-art electron microscopes to image their novel viruses while designing their own experiments and testing out creative ideas and questions. By studying the new viruses alongside her students, Freise keeps up with the latest research in virology, and helps students publish papers on their findings. Throughout the process of studying new viruses, she encourages her students to be open-minded and be on the lookout for unexpected findings.

According to Freise, research is full of challenges and requires patience, as frustration may arise from repeatedly failed experiments and poor results. She asserts that scientists must pay meticulous attention to detail, practice good communication with collaborators, and stay organized with large volumes of data. Dr. Friese elaborates on the hardships of scientific research:

“Science isn’t just a linear one-way direction to success,” Freise said. “There’s going to be twists, turns, often things don’t work. But when something does work, you get the rush of having discovered something, and that rush of discovery is what drives people to do research.”

Dr. Freise wants her students to see what real scientific research entails—from being in the laboratory to troubleshooting when things go wrong, to staying flexible throughout the scientific process in order to achieve quality results and data. She emphasizes developing critical thinking skills, independent work habits and collaborative work ethic, organization skills, and realistic goal-setting skills for her students in the program.

Ultimately, the SEA-PHAGES program helps students realize if they enjoy doing research work, without the mission of convincing everyone to do research. The program is great for participating schools because it provides access to resources, support, and teaching infrastructure. Interested schools can become involved by submitting a request to HHMI, since creating a class of this scale without additional support or help is a huge endeavor.

Beyond the science

Aside from teaching, Dr. Freise believes that professors should be willing to accommodate students who struggle inside of the classroom and out and be keen to listening to student needs.

“I would like to see more support and visibility for careers beyond medical or graduate school,” Freise said. “The current environment for graduating students is very limiting for students who want to pursue science—interest in science doesn’t require pursuit of higher education. It is important for students to know that there are plenty of other career options available.”

While campus resources cannot always accommodate the large volume of students seeking effective and thorough academic counseling, there is also a lack of sufficient mental health support. Dr. Freise takes matters into her own hands—knowing that all of her students work hard, she gives extensions on deadlines to allow students additional time, which is valuable for those that are going through difficult periods in their lives.

To help students in need, she provides additional office hours to meet with students upon requests and helps direct students to campus resources such as counselors and programs that can assist students with managing stress. Seeing students struggle constantly is one of the biggest things that has stood out to her throughout her years of teaching. As a result, she tries her best to create an academic environment that is accommodating, supportive, and inclusive for all students, and she would like to see more funding and resources for student mental health support to minimize long wait times for counseling and limitations on counseling appointments.

“I encourage my students to see that we are all working hard and that we all face challenges, and to try to support each other through these things,” Freise said.