A Simulated Cell Culture Laboratory for Student Training on Aseptic Techniques

Investigator: Jyothi Menon, University of Rhode Island

Scientific Theme: Environmental Health Sciences

Abstract: Early biomedical research experiences are critical for generating enthusiasm, especially among students from underrepresented backgrounds, to consider a STEM career. However, opportunities for student training on essential lab skills like aseptic cell culture techniques in traditional in-person settings are limited due to many reasons including the selective nature of research opportunities, high cost of reagents, and unavailability of sufficient resources and workspaces to train large numbers of students. The current COVID-19 pandemic poses an additional challenge to providing experiential learning opportunities on laboratory procedures to the students. There is therefore an urgent need for interactive opportunities that can be used to simultaneously train large numbers of students on essential lab techniques. The long-term goal of this project is to develop a simulated cell culture lab environment that can be used to familiarize large groups of students to important lab techniques from the comfort of their own home, thus equipping them with the knowledge and skills to engage more actively with the cutting-edge research taking place at the University of Rhode Island. Such virtual and hands-on opportunities have been found to be strong motivators in encouraging young students to consider a career in STEM. To achieve our goal, we propose to develop a virtual reality (VR) app and gaming website in which students will be taught key terms and protocols used in aseptic cell culture including how to prepare reagents, how to maintain a sterile environment in the cell culture cabinet, how to culture, transfer and count cells and how to use different equipment (e.g. microscopes, centrifuges, incubators) commonly seen in a cell culture lab. Students will be assessed using quizzes (on the app and website) and reward points (on the website). Feedback from the students will be used to further develop the app before release. The two specific aims of this project are: (1) To model the cell culture laboratory and essential techniques in the VR app using the Unity platform, and (2) To beta test the app with high school and undergraduate students, and transitioning job seekers, before it is released in the Fall of 2021.

Human Health Relevance: Despite being a core lab skill that is heavily used in drug development, cell culture is only sparingly taught in university curriculums, with most students gaining exposure only during research internships. We are developing a simulated cell culture laboratory to provide exposure to aseptic cell culture to large numbers of students, to give them a competitive advantage in biomedical industries upon graduation.