Students From Around the World Are Joining Forces to Tackle the Antibiotic Crisis Through the Small World Initiative's Novel Crowdsourcing Approach

An innovative program formulated at Yale University is allowing students from around the world to take part in the discovery of the next generation of antibiotics. The Small World Initiative ( was created by Jo Handelsman, currently on leave from Yale while serving as the Associate Director of Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and is led by Erika Kurt, who comes from the field of venture philanthropy. Kurt describes the program as “a unique crowdsourcing approach for the 21st century to tackle pressing global health challenges while inspiring the next generation of scientists.”

Launched at Yale in 2012, the Small World Initiative (SWI) is an innovative program that encourages students to pursue careers in science while addressing a worldwide health threat – the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics. It centers around an introductory biology course in which students conduct original hands-on field and laboratory research in the hunt for new antibiotics. Through a series of student-driven experiments, students collect soil samples, isolate diverse bacteria, test their bacteria against clinically-relevant microorganisms, and characterize those showing inhibitory activity. This is particularly relevant since over two thirds of antibiotics originate from soil bacteria or fungi. SWI’s approach provides a unique platform to crowdsource medical breakthroughs by tapping into the intellectual power of many people concurrently addressing a global challenge and advances promising candidates into the drug development pipeline.

"The solutions to our current health challenges are just waiting to be found in the world around us and could even be discovered in the soil in your own backyard."

Erika Kurt, President & CEO, Small World Initiative

Antibiotic resistance and the resulting diminishing supply of effective antibiotics are two of the biggest threats to global health today. Antibiotic resistance currently accounts for an estimated 700,000 deaths worldwide annually. If allowed to continue unchecked, the number of annual deaths would balloon to 10 million by 2050. For comparison, that is more than the number of people who die of cancer and diabetes combined. Yet, for most, this problem and proper antibiotic usage remain relatively unknown. This problem is further compounded as pharmaceutical companies have shifted away from the development of new antibiotics.

SWI is addressing this worldwide health threat by promoting proper usage of current antibiotics and crowdsourcing new antibiotics. To expand its reach, SWI is partnering with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and joining efforts with the World Health Organization and others to combat antibiotic resistance through the first-ever World Antibiotic Awareness Week (November 16th-22nd). SWI Partner Instructors and students around the world will be shining a bright spotlight on the antibiotic crisis, what they are doing about it, and how you can take action.

While helping to pave the path to antibiotic discovery, SWI is also inspiring the next generation of scientists. “Students’ attitudes on science are transformed, and they are engaged through research with real importance,” asserts Nichole Broderick, Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut. SWI’s biology course is now in 109 schools in 32 states, Puerto Rico, and nine countries, including Belize, Canada, Iraq, Jordan, Malaysia, Nigeria, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This year, the course is being piloted at the high school level at The Hockaday School, an all-girls school in Dallas, Texas to focus on reaching girls, tapping into a talent pool that is underrepresented in STEM fields.

According to Kurt, “the solutions to our current health challenges are just waiting to be found in the world around us and could even be discovered in the soil in your own backyard.”

Take Action with the Small World Initiative

Please consider taking action by sponsoring the Small World Intiative’s efforts. To donate, please visit or contact Erika Kurt at 347-762-4818. To participate in the global Twitter chat on November 18th, follow @Team_SWI and use #AntibioticResistance and #smallworldinitiative.