Five Questions: Erika Kurt, Small World Initiative

We were so pleased to be introduced recently to the Small World Initiative® (SWI). SWI encourages students to pursue careers in the sciences and increases scientific literacy while addressing the global public health threat of antibiotic resistance and the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics. SWI has trained instructors at more than 300 undergraduate institutions and high schools across 42 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, as well as 15 countries. We interviewed SWI’s President & CEO, Erika Kurt, and were excited to learn about their work and thought you would enjoy learning more about them too!

1) Can you tell our readers how SWI got started?

The Small World Initiative originated in 2012 at Yale University in a six-student class as an innovative discovery-based introductory research course to retain students in STEM disciplines and increase scientific literacy in response to the growing economic need for more STEM graduates. Based on recommendations from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other experts, SWI’s founders were convinced that interest in STEM could be ignited in otherwise disengaged and uninspired students if they had the knowledge and tools to address a pressing real-world health threat. Antibiotic resistance was the perfect focus because, even though it is one of the greatest and most urgent global challenges of our time and there have been numerous calls for action from the United Nations and governments around the world, pharmaceutical companies have been abandoning their antibiotic discovery and development programs due to the broken funding model and to focus on more lucrative ventures.

Through SWI’s introductory microbiology course, “Microbe Hunters: Crowdsourcing Antibiotic Discovery,” students around the world perform hands-on field and laboratory research on soil samples in the hunt for new antibiotics. As most medically-relevant antibiotics come from soil bacteria, SWI’s approach provides a unique platform to crowdsource drug discovery. In comparison to traditional courses, initial data align with research from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and NSF showing discovery-based programs early on in a student’s academic life increase motivation, learning, and retention. Through weeklong intensive workshops at host institutions, SWI trains instructors and provides them with the support necessary to teach this innovative course at their home institutions. Participating students and faculty have the opportunity to present their original research and share their findings.

Since its launch in the six-student course at Yale, SWI has enjoyed success in equipping undergraduate professors with the skills necessary to inspire and retain their students in the sciences through discovery-based research experiences. The success of SWI’s program generated the need for a dedicated organization. As a result, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit was formed in 2016 to maintain and coordinate the collaborative work of participating schools in SWI’s network, develop collaborative partnerships, and expand SWI’s impact both inside and outside of the classroom to further its educational and scientific goals. While the nonprofit was forming, SWI piloted its program at the high school level at The Hockaday School in Dallas, Texas and has been including more high schools each year to act as a feeder into undergraduate STEM programs and reach students when they are more impressionable regarding their interests in STEM fields.

2) How many schools do you work with each year? Can you give our readers an idea of the projects students and faculty work on and how they come about?

Through our intensive weeklong trainings, we have provided instructors at more than 300 undergraduate and high school institutions with the skills necessary to implement our program. We estimate that trained instructors are impacting about 10,000 students each year. The lab component of our program is very flexible and adaptable and can be condensed to six weeks to fit within another course, taught over a semester, or expanded over the course of a year and beyond. Our guide and protocols encourage a series of student-driven experiments in which students collect soil samples, isolate bacteria, test strains for inhibitory activity against clinically-relevant microorganisms (i.e., safe relatives of the ESKAPE pathogens), characterize those showing inhibitory activity, and upload data into our online soil sample database.

In addition, depending on individual interests, students may wish to examine the impact of how and where soil is collected, the implications of different media and lab techniques, and other questions of inquiry. Participating faculty can develop and incorporate new scientific techniques and additional assays, and they are invited to share these innovations with the larger network. For example, faculty have adapted protocols for different soil types (like marine antibiotic-producing bacteria), included assays related to research of personal interest, and developed high throughput screening techniques, which are useful for efficiently working with large classes. To learn more about this, click here. In addition, each year, we team up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, and Sociedad Española de Microbiología for our November Do Something About Antibiotics Challenge™ in which we ask students to do something about the antibiotic crisis beyond the classroom and impact local, national, and global communities. Our students around the world are extremely creative when given the chance and have done everything from studying and changing the beliefs of their peers, making short movies and animated videos, recording catchy songs, hosting citizen science projects, and organizing awareness runs and superbug-themed bake sales to incorporating important messages through the built environment, developing educational tools, creating viral online quizzes, and working with local experts and medical professionals.

3) Your students like to get their hands dirty — literally! Can you tell us about some of the projects your students take on that involve looking for microbes in soil?

Yes, our students definitely like to get their gloved hands dirty — literally! As your readers may know, most medically-relevant antibiotics come from soil bacteria and fungi. Soil is Earth’s natural pharmacy. With microbes competing for resources and battling with one another, it is possible to hijack nature and see what microbes are already producing that kill pathogenic bacteria. So, it is a great place to look for new ones. Some researchers estimate that there are millions of microbes present in just one teaspoon of soil. Yet, while soil is a great place to look for new antibiotics, it increasingly requires the ability to test and curate a massive quantity of samples. For example, Selman Waksman processed 10,000 samples before identifying streptomycin, while Pfizer went through 130,000 samples before finding terramycin. One of the last resort antibiotics on the market, Cubicin, came from a soil sample on Mount Ararat in Turkey and was discovered through an Eli Lilly program that had employees collect soil samples while on vacation. Students are quite capable of conducting this type of research, and it benefits them in the process.

With news this month of Archaogen filing for bankruptcy and ongoing exits of big pharmaceutical companies from this space (e.g., Novartis, AstraZeneca, Sanofi, Allergan), we need innovative approaches as well as better financial incentives. Our approach provides a scalable platform for an inexpensive early-stage drug discovery crowdsourcing model that leverages the efforts of thousands of student and faculty researchers around the world. All students participating in our program look for new antibiotics that could be hidden in their own “backyards”…some literally look in their backyards and others investigate campus, parks, marine environments, and other locations. On the horizon, students will be testing additional techniques for examining bacteria and reducing the rediscovery rate, including the use of iChip for in situ cultivation since only about 1% of soil bacteria is culturable under standard laboratory conditions.

4) Your international reach is impressive. Given that educational systems and manifestations of the antibiotic crisis vary from country to country, does implementation of your program differ in this regard? For example, the antibiotic-resistance trends in high-income countries is quite different than those in rising economies; in the U.S. a big problem is overuse of the drugs, whereas in Nigeria, the issues may be lack of access to antibiotics and counterfeit drugs.

Our program is very flexible and adaptable. In countries with different educational systems, it is possible to adapt the program even further. For example, our partners in Spain have university students visit and work with high school students over a few weeks. This is advantageous because students in Europe must pick their field of study prior to applying to and entering the appropriate university. With regards to the global problem of antibiotic resistance, we believe in a One Health approach because we are all in this together, and superbugs don’t need passports to travel the world. A problem in one country today is ultimately a problem for all countries tomorrow. Further, while problems vary, most problems, whether it is misuse or squandering of precious resources in humans or agriculture, lack of access to antibiotics, lack of funding for new antibiotics and treatments, behaviors that spread infectious diseases, or lack of rapid diagnostics, are shared problems that exist to some degree in most countries while varying in severity. It is important to understand how all of these issues interact, accelerate the problem of antibiotic resistance, and lead us towards a post-antibiotic era.

5) What’s next for SWI?

Our vision for the future prioritizes expanding the depth and reach of our impact on the growing global antibiotic crisis and transforming STEM education around the world. Projects on the horizon include:

  • Changing Behaviors Outside the Classroom – developing new interactive and citizen science projects and partnering on global campaigns to build awareness on the growing global antibiotic crisis and to change behaviors related to antibiotic resistance
  • Building Collaborative Pipeline – partnering to advance promising candidates into the drug discovery pipeline
  • School Expansion – growing the program nationally and internationally through weeklong intensive instructor trainings (our next training will be held July 15th-19th in Dallas, Texas)
  • Curriculum Development – developing follow-on modules in new techniques and disciplines
  • Advancing Women & Other Talent Pools – promoting projects that close the gap for women, minorities, and other talent pools historically underrepresented in STEM fields

We are always on the hunt for new partners. If you would like to get involved or partner with us, please email us at and follow us on Twitter (@Team_SWI).