The virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, has changed many things: grabbing a coffee with a friend, stopping by a store quickly after work to buy dinner ingredients, or working out in a gym. University and college campuses have also experienced change.

Virginia Tech’s first cohort of biomedical engineering majors began their second year this fall in the middle of the global pandemic. Yong Woo Lee, associate professor in biomedical engineering and mechanics and instructor of the cohort’s biomedical engineering cell course, knew it was important to offer experiential learning methods to enable these students to understand cell growth and cell replication. So he designed the course to allow for both hands-on work and respect for safety protocols.

Throughout the course of the semester, students have opportunities to grow cancer cells, cyropreserve (freeze and thaw) them, and proliferate – or replicate - them. Each week, they actively participate in cell passaging, a technique of splitting up cells to maintain and continue the cells’ growth.

Dr Lee of BEAM observes students work in the biomedical cellular engineering course, fall 2020
Yong Woo Lee, associate professor in biomedical engineering and mechanics, teaches and mentors students as they learn about cells throughout the semester. Photo by Spencer Roberts of Virginia Tech.

Students begin the week with an online lecture to learn about what they’ll be doing in the lab and the components behind the experiment. Then, they have the opportunity to come into the lab in small groups to apply what they learned in lecture. To keep everyone safe, students take turns going into the lab on different days. Not every student has to be there every time, yet they each have multiple hands-on opportunities to apply what they have learned, such as cell culture basics, cell viability assays, gene and protein expression analyses, and even engineering 3D tumor models, while adhering to safety protocols like plexiglass dividers and masks.

“It felt a little weird at first,” said Jenna Sims, a third-year student in biomedical engineering and mechanics. “None of us have been in a class with giant plexiglass dividers. We couldn’t hear each other at first, but now we’ve figured it out and are able to laugh about it. I think we have all learned to be patient and to look out for one another.” 

Picture of a female Student in the biomedical cellular engineering course getting hands-on experience during the fall 2020 semester
Students in the biomedical cellular engineering course get hands-on experience in a biomedical engineering and mechanics lab. Photo by Spencer Roberts of Virginia Tech.

The cohort’s students have had hands-on learning opportunities in their first-year courses, such as dismantling medical devices. In just their second year, they have this hands-on opportunity in cellular engineering.

Cell culturing is not easily done, requires many "trial and error" experiences, and can result in dead cells. This, in itself, provides learning opportunities for students. Students assess the reasons the cells died and start again, re-applying their knowledge to new cell growth.

“This has been a really good structure,” said Jessie Whitmore, a third-year student in biomedical engineering. “We’re all there at different times, so it feels safe. Working with cells like this is not something I would have imagined I’d get to do. My mom is a biomedical engineer and she never had this opportunity. When I told her what I was doing, she exclaimed, ‘No way!’ In lab, we each basically get a one-on-one experience, and I’ve learned so much already.”

Before coming to class, students complete the Hokie Ready App. Communication has remained open between Lee and his students, and keeping the course on-track relies on each person acting safely. “I am very impressed with the students’ behavior,” Lee said. “Virginia Tech students are not reckless. They have been responsible, and this is why we have been able to continue in-person. I believe direct contact between both teacher and student and between students is so important. As a teacher, I learn from students, too. Due to these circumstances, this is the best we can do.”

The cell engineering lab course is required in the new biomedical engineering major at Virginia Tech, as it lays the groundwork for a deeper understanding of cell biology and provides the tools necessary for future experiments and research. By the end of the semester, students will have the knowledge for conducting various cell-based in vitro experiments.

“I've seen a lot of improvement in students' lab techniques over the past few weeks, which tells me the students are gaining good experience needed to succeed as a biomedical engineer,” said Barath Udayasuryan, a graduate student in biomedical engineering and a graduate teaching assistant for the course. “These lab courses build on one another, so it's critical to gain hands-on experience as early as possible. Although we miss some expressions of awe and curiosity when introducing students to brand-new microscopic worlds, due to face masks, we can still see the excitement in their eyes and that’s enjoyable. We prioritize safety, and that is what has brought us so far this semester and will help us continue our class for the rest of the semester.”  

Written by Laura McWhinney