Connecting the Strands of Music, Magic and Genetics

By Barbara McBreen

Play is an important part of learning, and for Jered Stratton learning is magic.

That’s the message Stratton, a senior in genetics, presented in a seminar he co-taught for students in the Honors Program. The topic is focused around a 20 year-old game called Magic: The Gathering.

“They convinced me strategizing was a byproduct of this game and told me the game made them better students,” says Susan Yager, English professor and faculty director of the Iowa State Honors Program.

The seminar introduces students to game-based learning, which Stratton points out, is observable in nature.

“Some biologists say bear cubs play and wrestle and it’s how they learn to protect themselves,” says Stratton.

Yager says the students who met with her about the seminar represent the Honors Program at its best.

“They exemplified everything we want the program to do,” Yager says.“Have students meet like-minded people, challenge each other, grow together and have fun.”

Magic is a card game, but Stratton says it doesn’t matter if it’s chess or another game—playing helps develop critical thinking and strategizing skills. Those critical thinking skills are apparent in his job at the National Animal Disease Center.

There he analyzes the genetics of swine influenza viruses. Amy Vincent says the research is an important part of the USDA ’ s influenza prevention efforts to identify and investigate viruses.

“The public databases have thousands of viruses with DNA sequences and what Jered does is look at relationships among these sequences to find differences in the patterns,” says Vincent (’97 animal science, ’02 veterinary medicine, ’04 PhD immunobiology) a National Animal Disease Center research veterinary medical officer. The research helped Stratton win national recognition as a Goldwater Scholarship Honorable mention awardee. It’s a nationally recognized award for students who plan to pursue doctorate degrees. His research focused on identifying which parts of the hemagglutinin protein are recognized by the immune system in swine H1N1 and H1N2 viruses.

“We looked at how viruses similar in DNA sequences were able to evade antibodies. Using these associations we could find the specific amino acids, or parts of the protein, that caused the majority of antigenic difference, or ability to avoid the immune system,” Stratton says.

Music is another talent of Stratton’s. He plays mostly classical guitar music, but also mandolin and electric guitar. “No matter what I’m dealing with at the time, I instantly feel better once my hands start playing,” Stratton says. “My fingers do the work and I just enjoy the music.”

Stratton plans to attend graduate school and pursue his interests in genetics, magic and music.