Editor’s note: With Virginia Tech Giving Day 2022 beginning at noon, Feb. 23, a series of stories highlighting the impact of donations are featured on VTx this month.

With an investment in two automated scientific instruments, the Department of Biochemistry, which is in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is bringing state-of-the-art industry technology into the classroom to bolster student experiential learning. With help from generous gifts, including from Virginia Tech’s 2021 Giving Day, an open-source liquid handling robot and a qPCR machine allow the department to further train and prepare students for their careers in the industry.

Despite how ordinary automation is in the industry, it’s unusual in university research labs or teaching lab settings. It’s far more common for students to perform research tasks by hand and the prevalence and significance of automated technology are often lost on students, as upfront costs are high.

Biswarup Mukhopadhyay, a professor of biochemistry, saw the robot as a great opportunity to introduce an automated system in a research lab setting, where both undergraduate and graduate students can be trained in popular industry technology. With this goal in mind, Mukhopadhyay recruited Colin Short, an undergraduate biochemistry student from his lab, to develop and write protocols for the robot during the summer of 2021.

“The robot addresses problems of human error and efficiency,” Short said. “A professor I worked with over the summer was doing a serial dilution, which involved a lot of clear liquids that were difficult to see. It took four hours to pipette all of the liquids by hand. The robot performed the same experiment in about [one-fourth] of the time.”

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The robot is able to cut down on time because of its precise measurements. The robot has three axes, which allow the pipettes on the arm of the robot to move in three dimensions. The robot is controlled via an application for computers and, through this app, Short was able to upload protocols to have the robot transfer liquid, mix a solution, or pause for a designated amount of time.

All of these actions could be performed while the person running the experiment can work on something else, saving time and allowing scientists to conclude their research earlier.

“When we do tedious things, sometimes we make mistakes and these mistakes can be eliminated altogether with the use of an automated system such as this,” Mukhopadhyay said.

Jim Tokuhisa, assistant professor of practice in biochemistry and biological sciences, intends to use the robot in conjunction with the qPCR machine. A qPCR machine measures the synthesis of DNA in real-time and has been used most recently in health districts across the country to conduct PCR tests for coronavirus. Researchers use the qPCR machine to count the number of copies of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in an individual from a nasal swab to determine if a person is infected. More commonly, though, researchers use qPCR machines to quantify the mRNA of a gene or protein of interest.

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“The qPCR machine’s importance during the pandemic can’t be overstated and having one of these in our department is a great opportunity to demonstrate its utility,” Tokuhisa said. “The two instruments connect because we need precise pipetting from the robot to have the qPCR machine yield accurate results.”

Both instruments will be used in future experiments in research labs across the department as well as in teaching labs to show students real-world examples of automated systems within the scientific industry. Tokuhisa and Mukhopadhyay will showcase both instruments in the department’s capstone laboratory course that all biochemistry majors have to take before graduating.

“I think it’s very beneficial for students to use something similar to what is used in industry,” Short said. “If they’re exposed to these kinds of instruments, they can walk into a potential career opportunity and feel more confident because they’ve seen these things before.”

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