Virtual vivisection? Not really. Roy Meyers is no mad scientist, but he is mad about the value of IT in teaching lab sciences.
Many years ago Skidmore biologist Roy Meyers wanted to make a virtual human-physiology model more user-friendly for his students (see Skidmore’s upcoming fall ’08 Scope Quarterly), so he enlisted the help of Leo Geoffrion, an info-tech staffer who specialized in academic support. (Both a gearhead and an egghead—with a PhD as well as software and programming savvy—Geoffrion was long a favorite resource for faculty in a wide range of fields. He’s now a Skidmore retiree but still lives in Saratoga and works in the IT world.)
The 1980s-vintage simulator that Meyers wanted to adapt was designed for Unix and then microcomputers; inputting wasn’t easy and the output was just text in tabular format. Meyers and Geoffrion created a Web-based “wrapper” or interface. The output was made more dynamic, featuring time-series plots—that is, color-coded line graphs tracing the effects of a drug or treatment on blood pressure, pulse rate, core temperature, and other functions. The wrapper was a hit. Meyers remembers a time when the Web went down and he had the students use the modeling program without it: “They were pretty dismayed. It really wasn’t easy.”
In fact, the simulator is now so welcoming—plus Meyers has attended professional conferences and given how-to workshops—that “WebHuman” is used by people and institutions all over the world. (Click here to take it for a spin.) Of the roughly 30,000 simulation sessions run in a typical year, Meyers says, most are done from outside Skidmore—recently including the University of Seville’s med school and Australia’s University of Adelaide.
Although WebHuman is based on a narrowly drawn “average” person (without much variation for age or gender or fitness taken into account), Meyers appreciates its wide testing range: “You can track many more responses at once—for example, neural and vascular and renal physiology—than you could in a ‘wet’ lab unless it had a staggeringly complex setup.” Another advantage over real-world labs is that users can save their simulations, share them with others, and refer to them later.
He says, “I used to hear physicians or researchers sometimes say, ‘No simulation can suffice; to really understand and appreciate cardiac physiology you must hold a beating heart in your hand.’ I don’t hear that so much any more, because the models are really useful and comprehensive.” Nevertheless, he adds, “I make sure my students get experience in a live lab as well as with a model. In fact, it’s great to have both together—students can run a lab on themselves and then do the same on the Web model and compare outcomes.”
How does Meyers like other IT resources? Let him count the ways. “Just doing our data collection digitally is a huge improvement. Data can be saved, measured, compared, manipulated much more easily. The only downside is the cost, since computer hardware and software keep changing so fast.
“Digital imaging nice too—no longer having to attach a camera to the eyepiece of a microscope! In fact, digital technology is what lets a confocal microscope even be a confocal microscope. And now, from all the microscopes, you can save the image, manipulate it, share with others…
“I’ve found video helpful too. in my ‘Biology of the Mind’ course, I used to discuss the language disorders that result when particular areas of the brain are injured, and I would act them out, demonstrating how the various aphasia patients would talk. But recently, just on a whim, I searched for these aphasias on YouTube and there they were! I found some excellent videos of actual aphasia patients, so now I can provide students with a genuine, true demonstration. And I found YouTube videos of university experiments with brain-impulse sensors implanted in a monkey, some MRI imaging, a shark dissection lab, researchers discussing their work… It turns out YouTube has a lot of academically useful footage; not just TV clips and home movies.”
His take on the wired world: “You can’t not use technology. It’s infiltrated everywhere. And that’s mostly a good thing.”