Safely and effectively preparing a sample for cryo-electron microscopy involves a series of precise steps that result in samples being frozen at around minus 180 degrees Celsius. If performed incorrectly or inaccurately, the scientist can obtain inaccurate results, ruin expensive equipment, or even be injured.
The technique isn’t often available to young researchers, but students in the Protein Structure and Function class recently had the opportunity to experience the process using virtual reality (VR) headsets as part of a collaboration with the Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI). . .
The class will be led by Elizabeth Kellogg, Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the College of Arts and Sciences.
Excitedly, the students donned the headsets and concentrated on completing the tutorials, which immersed them in a virtual world where they used hand controls to grab tiny samples with tweezers, manipulate a pen to enter information, among other things lifting and refitting lids of appliances .
“I’ve never done VR before. You feel very much like somewhere else, not in this room,” said Daniel Eweis-LaBolle, a first-year doctoral student in the Biochemistry, Molecular and Cellular Biology graduate program. “I think that would help you remember the steps.”
The idea for the VR session came from Vinh Truong, a teaching assistant for the class and a graduate student in Kellogg’s lab. Truong tried out the VR software developed by Purdue University during a spring school and wanted to bring it back to students.
“Preparing these protein samples can take weeks and weeks, and you have a very limited amount of material. Also, they’re very sensitive to temperature, so you try to move fast,” Truong said. “There are multiple steps and a lot of things can go wrong, so this VR training provides a really safe environment to try everything and get used to the instructions and steps.”
CTI staff helped Truong obtain the headsets from the Milstein Technology and Humanity program and Andrea Stevenson Won, Assistant Professor of Communications at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Director of the Virtual Embodiment Lab. CTI staff also loaded the software onto the headsets and handled the logistics for the teaching session.
Kellogg said cryo-electron microscopy is “taking over the field of structural biology. So many people are trying to get into it due to a lack of equipment and training.”
Cryo-electron microscopy gives researchers the ability to look at the atomic arrangement of proteins to better understand how they work.
“People think proteins are in your food, but they’re actually the molecular machines that make our cells work. They distinguish living things from inanimate things,” Kellogg said. “When you have cancer or a genetic disease, in many cases it’s caused by proteins that aren’t working properly, so studying protein structure is one of the most important things we can do to understand how diseases are cured be able.”
This semester’s class learned about other techniques for studying proteins, including X-ray crystallography and magnetic resonance imaging. The students also used machine learning to predict the structure of proteins, Kellogg said.
Andrew Rhee ’23, a bioscientist specializing in computational biology, said the combination of techniques and information he learned added to his knowledge of how computation and biology work together.
“I feel that combining the fields can make things easier for scientists and open up many possible applications for research,” he said.
Kellogg said she hopes to add VR training to her class when it’s offered again.
“We will also work in the classroom to give them a sense of how to translate your VR experience into the real world,” she said. “VR environments are increasingly being used to train practitioners in this area.”
Kathy Hovis is a writer at the College of Arts and Sciences.