WSU professors create virtual lab on cell development

A 3D model of a cell in the anaphase stage of mitosis as captured by the Allen Institute for Cell Science.

Hundreds of Biology 107 students have taken part in a virtual laboratory exercise developed by two WSU professors in collaboration with the Allen Institute for Cell Science.

The exercise takes students far beyond traditional lessons of cell reproduction by giving them access to highly detailed 3D cell models, demonstrating the true complexity of cells that can’t be depicted in textbooks. And because the lab doesn’t require an advanced microscope, it’s ideal for a time when education is being delivered remotely.

“Students typically have a difficult time learning the material, largely because it is not connected to anything real to them,” Eric Shelden, an associate professor in the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences, said.

Traditionally, students are required to visualize the difference in size of microscopic objects, which is extremely difficult, Erika Offerdahl, an associate professor who co-developed the lab with Shelden, said.

“The difference in size between a cell and its inner components is like seeing a baseball on a football field,” Offerdahl said.

This virtual exercise provides the needed perspective to understand the scope of these differences.

It was after talking about the problem with fellow scientists at the Allen Institute for Cell Science that Shelden realized he could build an experiment using their vast array of detailed 3D cell models. These fluorescence microscopy images are visible at the level of detail obtained by the Allen Institute from powerful microscopes, something students in large lecture classes seldom have access to, let alone now while attending class remotely.

This lab exercise comes at a time of reflection within biology and biochemistry circles.

A 3D cell in the prophase stage of mitosis, as captured by the Allen Center for Cell Science.

“Nationally, there’s been a dramatic call for reforming how undergraduate life science education is taught,” Offerdahl, who also serves as the school’s associate director for Undergraduate Education, said. “Part of that reform effort is emphasizing core concepts and competencies, rather than all the factoids that show up in a biology textbook, so they leave a class understanding not only the big ideas in biology, but also develop authentic scientific skills.”

Shelden wrote a Java application that allows a faculty member to generate a personalized list of 3D cells for each student in the class, eliminating the need for either group to manually comb through the Allen Institute’s massive collection. Shelden, Offerdahl and Graham Johnson of the Allen Institute published their work along with an array of instructional resources for download in the peer reviewed online journal “CourseSource” where it has become one of the top most accessed resources for cell biology instruction.

By and large, the experiment went over well with BIO 107 students earlier this spring, said John Hinz, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences.

“The students had positive things to say about the lab, particularly how useful it was in showing them, microscopically, the different phases of mitosis. These phases have very distinct features that we teach them in class, with graphics and charts, but are not appreciated until actually seen on a microscope,” Hinz said.  “After the assignment, many of the students felt they had a better understanding of the process of mitosis, including their ability to discern each particular phase.”

The Allen Institute for Cell Science was founded by Paul G. Allen, who attended WSU prior to co-founding the Microsoft Corporation with Bill Gates in 1975. It aims to create dynamic and multi-scale visual models of cell organization, dynamics and activities that capture experimental observation, theory and prediction to understand and predict cellular behavior in its normal, regenerative, and pathological contexts.

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