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Can Virtual Labs Produce Real Scientists?


In attempting to answer the question posed, I am going to limit my discussion to the teaching of pharmacology and thus rephrase the question as to whether a Virtual Lab can produce a Real Pharmacologist? Like all other biomedical scientists, pharmacologists function in different capacities-as teachers, research workers, administrators, and consultants. It is clearly impossible to train the young student to fulfil all these roles and much has to be learned on the job. There are however certain components that must be appreciated by anyone wishing to fulfil any of those roles.

Pharmacology is an experimental science and proper training requires that the student is able to acquire the required knowledge and skills required to appreciate the essence of the discipline and function effectively. The essence of learning is to produce changes in knowledge, attitudes and skills. Of the three elements, knowledge is not only the easiest to acquire but also the easiest to evaluate. That unfortunately is the major concern of most departments teaching pharmacology.

Amongst the skills required for a practising scientist are the abilities to seek, synthesise and critically evaluate information; the ability to frame hypotheses, design and conduct experiments, interpret data and communicate that information clearly orally and in writing. Although didactic teaching is not entirely satisfactory, such instruction can transmit information to large groups of students, but whether a student can effectively transfer that learning to novel situations is difficult to ascertain. It is far more difficult for the student to acquire the other skills through such means. More interactive systems such as problem-based learning can help students the skills at finding information, critically analysing the information gathered and communicating it. However, they have their limitations and cannot impart training in the manipulative skills needed to carry out experiments. Laboratory instruction alone can fulfil that aim.

Merely providing a laboratory course is not an adequate solution. The objectives have to be carefully considered. Unfortunately most lab courses are of the cookbook variety and are better classified as "activities". Often in such courses the students enter a lab, open up the manual, follow blindly the procedures outlined, write up a report and then submit it. This is a mere parody of the scientific process.

If laboratory instruction is to be effective, the course must be designed to balance effectively the components-process (HOW to obtain information in the laboratory setting), knowledge (the theoretical understanding of the relevant concepts) and skills required to operate equipment and interpret data obtained (Crankshaw 1998). The laboratory course designed for a 3rd year undergraduate course in the Honours Biology Pharmacology Coop Programme at this university attempts to do all of these. Students perform several kinds of experiments (organ bath experiments, ligand binding to microsomal membranes, cardiac electrophysiology, HPLC analysis of acetylsalicylic acid and studies on platelets using an aggregometer) . In the current version of the course, the platelet lab has been replaced with one where students are required to design a cell-based assay for drug screening.

Students acquire not only manipulative skills (abilities to make up physiological solutions, use micropipettes accurately, set-up Millipore filtration manifolds, operate liquid scintillation counters and make microelectrodes), but the ability to write clear, scientific prose. In addition, they are required to complete a mini-research project within a short period. Students are permitted to use the equipment available or contact faculty members who may be able to provide the required resources. The research report is written in the conventional IMRAD format and students present their findings in a mini-seminar.

Students show a tremendous amount of initiative in putting together a project and completing it within a short period. In the last cycle of this course which was completed in April 98, a group decided to assess the ergogenic effects of pseudoephedrine. They wrote up the protocol, obtained ethics approval, contacted faculty who had the required equipment, obtained help from a pharmacist in making capsules containing the placebo and the drug, found willing subjects and completed the project. The written report of Chen, Fergenbaum, Jedrzkiewicz and Mistry (1998) was submitted for assessment and the work presented to their peers. They learned a great deal about the process of research and recognised the many details that have to be considered. No amount of theoretical discussion could have given them this experience.

The major problem in instituting appropriate laboratory courses is in terms of resources. Laboratory instruction is expensive and arguments can be made for replacing the conventional cookbook lab entirely by computer-aided instruction. Current materials are highly sophisticated and can serve to introduce the student to a variety of issues. They can be made sufficiently interactive so that the students can learn profitably to manipulate data sets and learn from the mistakes they make. Virtual labs, however sophisticated, can never teach students manipulative skills. Students who simply change the settings on a computer or play with the menu options can never learn the virtues of precision and accuracy.

Real laboratory experiences are valuable for another reason. Students in our laboratory courses realise that dealing with problems in an experimental situation is far from easy. Amongst the attitudes that are crucial to progress in experimental sciences are the willingness to learn from mistakes and errors and not to hide them or bury them. Cookbook labs as well as their pedagogic counterparts, the so-called objective tests, foster the attitude that not being right is wrong. Learning from ones mistakes is a positive attitude that proper laboratory courses can instil. Woodhull-McNeal (1992) expresses this particularly well:

"Students make mistakes, and mistakes are instructional. When they do things wrong or sloppily, their mistakes have consequences that they can see plainly, so they must learn care and technique. Also they have to figure out what they did wrong, and troubleshooting is a technique and mind-set important in medicine and life as well as research."

Virtual labs can also be designed so those students "learn" from their mistakes. However such learning is relatively facile. At a recent meeting, a microbiologist told me that students trained on virtual labs in his discipline could not understand the problem of fungal contamination of culture plates. They pressed the delete key. The contamination that pervades our lives resists such easy solutions.

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  1. Chen T., Fergenbaum J., Jedrzkiewicz S. and Mistry, J (1998) The Ergogenic Effects of Pseudoephedrine: A Randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over study. PMCOL 3B06 Research Project.

  2. Crankshaw, DJ (1988) Methods in Pharmacology, A Laboratory Manual developed for PMCOL 3B06, McMaster University.

  3. Woodhull-McNeal , A. (1992) Project labs in physiology. Am. J. Physiol., 263 (Adv. Physiol. Educ. 8): S29-32.

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