The pandemic forced biologists into new ways to conduct scientific training and collaboration. Online meetings, virtual reality, and augmented reality improve the carbon footprint of science. But has science benefited from this transition?
Alone in the lab
In juxtaposition to increased calls for life science innovation during the pandemic, individual biologists and biopharma organizations faced challenging working conditions. Biologists’ rich tradition of hands-on training of scientists in lab techniques was disrupted.
When I trained in research, I watched a post-doc perform a protocol once, they watched me perform it once, and then I was on my own. The Molecular Cloning Laboratory Manual from Cold Spring Harbors was a great resource - but it certainly didn’t replace having an experienced set of eyes at the confocal microscope, on my sterile technique, or interpreting my gel bands.
Pandemic social distancing made this sort of conventional training tricky. Without mentors physically present in the lab, many new scientists were learning techniques in isolation. Experienced biologists often faced time limitations to troubleshoot experiments. New principal investigators missed out on the benefits of peer mentorship. Walking down the hall to hear how experienced colleagues manage lab operations wasn’t an option. The editorial Virtual Meeting Blues in Nature Plants eloquently expressed the lack of serendipity. All of life science experienced a gap in some form over the past few years.
What is interesting is the type of technologies used to bridge the gaps.
Effective use of VR and AR tools in other fields
Familiarity with virtual and augmented reality in games and entertainment is a useful preamble for how alternate reality and virtual reality technologies are put to work. Augmented reality is where the computer provides an interface that overlays information on the real world. Think photo filters, quick response (QR) codes, and Pokemon Go. Virtual reality is complex. VR generates 3D views and enhanced interactivity with the cost of a headset, room view camera, streaming, and high-power computing taking place on servers. VR is more of an energy hog. Some of that energy use can be reduced with lower resolution programs and server provider carbon offsets. The key is that there are many applications where AR and VR work better and are more sustainable than the real-world activities they replace.
AR has proven value for field service technicians. Smartphones and quick response (QR) codes have been used for over a decade for equipment maintenance. Building on that foundation, today’s wearables and smart glasses can replace hefty equipment manuals with videos and checklists in real-time. Smart glasses can also allow hands-free remote communication with experts to remotely advise on-site service technicians by seeing what they are seeing. Augmented reality is a powerful tool for complex maintenance and process validation tasks - as exemplified by astronauts on the international space station. AR saves time with quick orientation.
You might be surprised to find out that virtual and augmented reality is fairly widespread in medicine. A review in Cell Reports Medicine recently covered biomedical education, interactive visualization, surgical training, and live surgery collaboration. (Who would think that the human brain is virtually replicable?) The use of virtual reality in surgical training is the perfect use case example since the number of experts is limited and the learning scenario is such high risk.
VR training programs can also be ineffective. A meta-analysis of virtual reality training programs determined that the strongest indication of effective VR training was task-technology fit. This means VR training works best when it can closely replicate real-world context. Interestingly as more VR training programs have rolled out, overall effectiveness has dropped over time. More realistic graphics and novelty do not make VR work better. The researchers explain that what matters most is that VR programs can show the specific tools and relevant stimuli for the task in real life. Actively exploring and interacting with spatial environments stimulates our brains and streamlines technical communications. The learning outcome of VR training is based on task-technology fit.
Virtual reality improves online laboratory training
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) was an early adopter that made the case for VR lab skills training paired with e-learning courses pre-pandemic and has seen an increase in course registrations for CDC Laboratory Trainings since their COVID-19 response was activated on Jan. 20, 2020. The CDC released a virtual reality (VR) course in August 2019 with good reviews by both novices and experts. The VR course on biosafety cabinet use was designed to augment hands-on skills workshops that require space, supplies, teachers, and other logistics. The training included work setup, decontamination, airflow check, startup procedure, and part identification. Batman glasses were added as an Easter egg to make it fun.
Project lead Kevin Clark explained some of the other added benefits of VR training. It eliminates real-world consequences for mistakes. You can train for emotional aspects. You can test the user’s ability to use information during a stressful situation. For example, VR training can include spills and emergency shutdowns. The presentation creates learning consistency because every variable is programmed. “What makes VR the most compelling is skill increased” shared Clark in his talk Incorporating Virtual Reality into Laboratory Trainings training and workforce Development Branch. The program results indicate that biosafety cabinet training is a good task-technology fit for VR. Most importantly - VR training is deployable.
VR and AR enhance and expand biomanufacturing capabilities
The ways that VR and AR technologies enabled biologics technology transfer and laboratory production scale-up during pandemic travel bans are impressive. According to people and companies responsible for producing the vaccine, these technologies are the new “normal”. "Tandem" Rapid Deployment Kits from Apprentice were used by biopharma facilities around the globe. For collaboration, a VR or AR system is more than just streaming video conferencing that eliminates the time and carbon footprint of air travel. Participants’ view is better than when you are standing in the room because you see exactly where the person showing you is looking. Augmented reality systems are part of the lab digitalization trend insomuch as workflows are easier to learn and log. Again there is the value of remote guided technical support - but also an opportunity for process analytics to predict development needs at a high level. AR is a hedge against supply chain issues for biotech. The industrial use of VR and AR to meet the world’s vaccine and medical drug needs is a big endorsement.
So laboratory technical training can be scaled up fast using VR and AR. Okay, that’s nice to know, but what if your scientific need is not about large production scale-up or basic lab equipment training? Is this all just expensive, inaccessible, tech for the average biologist?
Life science e-learning and data presentation
In the new normal, researchers are receiving sustainability guidance to reduce travel. Online scientific collaboration and training are evolving to fill a vacuum. It’s not perfect. There is no doubt that Zoom fatigue is real. Headsets can be expensive and awkward to wear. Nonetheless, scientists have called for more online tools in the post-pandemic era.
Chemists call for increased development of digital laboratory resources for education Systems biologists argue that VR/AR technologies will be most useful in visually exploring and communicating data; performing virtual experiments; and teaching. The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) is providing a series of practical courses. Illumina offers on-demand courses over live sessions for next-generation sequencing workflows. The door has opened wider for online life science courses, technical workshops, and conferences with interactivity.
Early adopter, Arizona State University (ASU) partnered with Google’s VR project “Daydream” and Labster to develop the first VR biology course in 2018. The idea was a biology degree that can be obtained completely online. The program leverages VR technology that gives online students in its biological-sciences program access to a state-of-the-art lab. Students can zoom in to molecules and repeat experiments as many times as needed—all from the comfort of wherever they happen to be. This spring the ASU School of Life Science expanded to offer Dreamscape Learn to teach scientific thinking.
Scientists are taking advantage of virtual reality for data presentation. VR collaborative prototyping long used by engineers is now used by biologists for teaching challenging concepts in virology, cell culture, and molecular biology. Caltech’s Center for Data-Driven Discovery (CD3) uses virtual reality research in its toolkit to help scientists make sense of increasingly complex data. The virtual aspect of hybrid conferences improves accessibility, diversity, and inclusivity with next-generation conference posters that include animation, augmented reality, and visitor statistics.
Enabling the science
The environmental impacts and the cost pressures of life science work require solutions. As much as scientists like to push frontiers, there is an understandable fear factor with untested systems. Despite this, biologists are forging ahead with technologies that enable the best science. The bar has been raised for data visualization. E-learning strategies have been improved with interactivity. Hybrid meetings and on-demand scientific-technical training are rolling out every day.
It’s a good time to reflect if any part of life science collaborative training tradition has been lost, and what has been gained. There will always be advantages to in-person interaction - so many that it is conceivable that the leap forward in online work may not have occurred this quickly without a push.