Students visit virtual world to learn research technique



The safe and efficient preparation of a sample for cryo-electron microscopy involves a series of precise steps, resulting in samples frozen to approximately minus 180 degrees Celsius. If done out of order or inaccurately, the scientist may get inaccurate results, ruin expensive equipment, or even injure themselves.

The technique isn’t often accessible to young researchers, but students in the Protein Structure and Function class recently had the chance to experiment with the process using virtual reality (VR) headsets, as part of a a collaboration with Cornell’s Educational Innovation Center (CTI).

Kim Benowski, left, a staff member at Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation, helps a student use a VR headset as she learns a complicated microscope technique in a molecular biology and genetics class.

The class is taught by Elizabeth KelloggAssistant Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Students enthusiastically donned the headsets and focused on completing the tutorials, which immersed them in a virtual world where they used hand controls to grab tiny samples with tweezers, manipulate a stylus to input information, and lifting and replacing covers on equipment, among other duties. .

“I’ve never done virtual reality before. It really feels like you’re somewhere else, not in this room,” said Daniel Eweis-LaBolle, a first-year doctoral student in the biochemistry graduate program. , molecular and cell biology.” I think it would help you remember the steps.”

The idea for the VR session came from Vinh Truong, a teaching assistant for the class and a PhD student in Kellogg’s lab. Truong tried out the VR software, created by Purdue University, during a spring training session and wanted to bring it back to students.

“These protein samples can take weeks and weeks to prepare, and you only have a very limited amount of material. Also, they are very temperature sensitive, so you try to move quickly,” Truong said. “There are several steps and a lot of things can go wrong, so this VR training provides a really safe environment to try everything out and get used to the instructions and steps.”

CTI staff helped Truong obtain the helmets from the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity and from Andrea Stevenson won, assistant professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of the Virtual Embodiment Lab. CTI staff also loaded the software onto the headsets and took care of the logistics of the class session.

Kellogg said cryo-electron microscopy “is taking over the field of structural biology. There are so many people trying to get into it that there is a shortage of equipment and training.

Cryo-electron microscopy gives researchers the ability to examine the atomic arrangements of proteins to better understand how they work.

“People think protein is in your food, but it’s actually the molecular machines that make our cells work. They are what distinguishes living things from non-living things,” Kellogg said. “When you have cancer or a genetic disease, it’s in many cases caused by proteins that don’t work properly, so studying the structure of proteins is one of the most important things we can do to figure out how to cure diseases.”

This semester’s class learned about other techniques for examining proteins, including X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance imaging. The students also used machine learning to predict protein structure, Kellogg said.

Andrew Rhee ’23, a biological scientist focusing on computational biology, said the combination of techniques and information he learned contributes to his knowledge of the interplay between computation and biology.

“I feel like combining the fields can make things easier for scientists and open up a lot of applications for research,” he said.

Kellogg said she hopes to include VR training in her class when it’s offered again.

“We’ll also be working in the classroom to give them a sense of how you translate your VR experience into the real world,” she said. “VR environments are going to be increasingly used to train practitioners in the field.”

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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