Virtual Labs Help Sustain Biomanufacturing Program during COVID-19

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Virtual biomanufacturing lab lessons developed by Quincy College faculty with a U.S. Department of Labor grant—and recently updated with an Advanced Technological Education grant— have helped sustain the Massachusetts college’s Biotechnology and Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) program during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For eight years students have accessed the Virtual Single-Use Biomanufacturing Lab from desktops, phones, and tablets, to practice procedures for operating single-use bioreactors before handling expensive equipment and materials in the campus lab. The virtual lab’s tutorial option provides text, audio, and video instructions. Its practice option requires students to move through each step independently, and it points out errors that students must correct in order to proceed.  

The virtual lab is now available on the website of InnovATEBIO, the National Biotechnology Education Center at Austin Community College in Texas.

The Virtual Single-Use Biomanufacturing Lab improves in-person lab efficiency and helps with remote instruction.

The Virtual Single-Use Biomanufacturing Lab improves in-person lab efficiency and helps with remote instruction.

Assessments of students’ performance, which were done prior to COVID-19, found that practicing within the virtual lab made their actual lab experiences about 40% more efficient, according to Bruce Van Dyke, biotechnology chair and principal investigator of the Blended Learning for Biomanufacturing Education and Training in Emerging Technologies (Award #1902673)  project until his retirement in August 2020.

“The advantage of interacting with it is that you are physically doing something. So you are actually locking that piece into your memory as opposed to watching something go by,” Van Dyke said.

When COVID-19 put the college campus lab off limits in March 2020, Isso Bayala, an instructor of biotechnology and good manufacturing practices (GMP) and current principal investigator, consulted with biopharmaceutical industry leaders. They advised him to continue the certificate and degree programs even without the rigorous in-person lab experiences.

So Bayala and Van Dyke reconfigured their in-person lessons on GMP, record-keeping, and regulations using batch records from previous experiments, webinars from industry sources, and video conference calls to scaffold new concepts onto what students had learned up to that point.  

“One of the requirements is batch records, which is a document where you have to enter everything you did, who did it and what time….They [students] have to learn documentation. It is a big deal in biopharma companies,” said Bayala.

In May, all the spring 2020 graduates (8 students earned A.S. degrees, and 12 completed the one-year certificate program) had job offers for entry-level technician positions that paid about $40,000 annually plus benefits.

In October, Bayala said students were again doing the virtual lab modules as part of their homework before coming to the campus lab. Because of COVID-19, students had to be divided into smaller groups to allow for six feet of distance between each person in the lab.

Bayala said if the college has to shift again to entirely remote delivery of courses, he’s optimistic the biomanufacturing students’ use of the virtual lab will help them continue.

Referring to how the Virtual Single-Use Biomanufacturing Lab helped students when the program had to adjust in spring 2020, Bayala said, “We believe it was good preparation to the online.”

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