Biosciences and Healthcare: Disease Diagnostics Laboratory
Lifesciences, medicine and healthcare is a vast and complex sector whose impact cannot be understated. Beyond employing a large and skilled workforce and driving vast sums of inward investment, life sciences researchers and professionals have wiped out once-common diseases and increased life expectancies globally, and their continuing activities take the sting out of conditions that might otherwise be fatal.
The life sciences workforce is a highly educated one, with sectoral workers holding advanced degrees that entail years spent in a Higher Education (HE) setting, learning complex skills and research methodologies. Teaching these methodologies and skills entails a large undertaking on the part of learners, teaching staff and teaching institutions – the gold standard for this kind of training remains laboratory-based, but Edify’s Virtual Reality (VR) solution can provide an important new training modality both for HEI-based learners and in-work skills training.
Who is the client and what do they do?
Dr Nicola Veitch is Senior Lecturer in Life Sciences Infection Biology at the School of Life Sciences, University of Glasgow. Dr Veitch co-designed the research-led Disease Diagnostics Laboratory in collaboration with Dr Claire Donald in the Centre for Virus Research, CMVLS
Dr Veitch and Dr Donald worked with a number of other collaborators from the University of Glasgow and other Scottish HE providers:
- Dr Pam Scott, Senior Lecturer, School of Life Sciences, University of Glasgow
- Dr Sonya Taylor, Lecturer, School of Life Sciences, University of Glasgow
- Dr Leah Marks, Senior Lecturer, School of Medicine, University of Glasgow
- Dr Avril Edmond, Senior Learning Designer, University of West of Scotland
Dr Veitch teaches Molecular Methods - a practical molecular biology laboratory course. The course is taken by more than 700 students annually across both Undergraduate and Postgraduate levels in several University departments.
Goals before partnering with Edify?
Global epidemics of infectious disease require accurate diagnosis for successful monitoring and control. Molecular methods are currently used to diagnose infection caused by infectious agents, such as Zika and Ebola viruses.
Dr Veitch’s goal for the Molecular Methods course is to provide students with hands-on experience in cutting-edge molecular research techniques, such as qPCR (quantitative polymerase chain reaction). This practical-based training provides experience of diagnostic methods including key molecular techniques and employability skills important for careers in scientific research, industry and medical diagnostic labs.
The main learning objectives of the Molecular Methods course are:
- Learning how to work safely in an aseptic laboratory setting with dangerous pathological specimens.
- Learning and applying the techniques and processes involved in diagnosing viral infections using molecular methods.
- Learning how to work independently in a sterile laboratory setting
What was the need the Edify project fulfilled?
Due to the volume of students and their diversity in experience and course level, the Molecular Methods course is run several times a year to meet demand. Due to space, cost and safety issues, there are limits to what Dr Veitch and her colleagues can train students to do in physical laboratory settings.
Here are some of the challenges encountered in the disease diagnostics lab:
- As a student, gaining experience working with such pathogens is challenging due to associated safety concerns, as well as the requirement for specific equipment not being available for large cohorts to use.
- qPCR is a costly experiment and difficult to deliver as a ‘real’ practical lab - without the opportunity for students to repeat techniques due to limits on time, consumables and equipment access.
- Students have varying knowledge and experience of molecular biology and can find the course challenging due to the specialised language and complicated laboratory techniques.
- Students set up the qPCR in the lab, but their experimental results are obtained the following week, thus disconnecting the two elements resulting in loss of learning.
How did Edify satisfy those needs and help them meet its goals?
Edify’s virtual Disease Diagnostics Laboratory greatly improved students’ access to training opportunities in molecular disease diagnostic techniques. The virtual lab provides an exclusive opportunity to enhance student understanding of a complex process, while offering repeatable training with unique additional virtual tools that cannot be provided in a university laboratory.
The Edify VR lab is used before the students start in-person lab work to consolidate their understanding, extend their knowledge and to gain unlimited opportunities to practise aseptic techniques safely, prior to entering the laboratory.
Students supplement their in-person lab experience by immersing themselves in a safe research environment to experiment with virtual viral pathogens, whilst continuing to develop key laboratory skills learned in the real lab.
Real-life lab concerns around safety, logistics and the availability of consumables and equipment evaporate in a virtual training environment. Using VR superpowers to accelerate time, students can also gain the experience of the process end-to-end without waiting a week for results.
Edify’s VR lab is not designed as a complete replacement for in-person training, but it provides an important new training modality both for learners in HE settings and for in-work skills training undertaken by professionals already in the sector. The VR lab ensures that the next generation of life sciences, medicine and healthcare researchers and professionals develop key laboratory skills safely, levelling up the sector’s skills and productivity.