When a pandemic lockdown stops you from going to the lab, let the lab come to you.
That’s what is happening with students in Ana Sanchez’s Tropical Parasites of Humans and Animals undergraduate course. They’re receiving a special package in the mail this week: a box with supplies that will enable them to simulate how to prepare samples for examination under a microscope.
Fourth-year student Michelle Potter is particularly excited about the lab-in-a-box Sanchez, her Professor of Health Sciences, is sending.
“I love Dr. Sanchez’s attitude and approach to making everything hands-on; it really puts students first in this weird COVID environment,” says Potter, who describes herself as being a ‘kinesthetic learner.’
Soon after Ontario’s lockdown came into effect, Sanchez and two of her graduate students were discussing the production of how-to videos in lieu of in-person instruction when an intriguing thought popped into her head: “What if we have the students do something at home?”
The trio decided upon three experiments, gathered the materials needed for each, bundled them up into colour-coded baggies, and then purchased inexpensive plastic fishing-tackle boxes.
Sanchez included detailed instructions on how to carry out the assignments, a personal note of encouragement for each student, and a lab coat.
“As great as creating videos and lectures are, nothing compares to hands-on learning and nothing compares to personalized attention,” she says.
The first experiment, coded yellow, demonstrates the concept of ‘floatation,’ a procedure in which parasite eggs can be identified by their densities. When immersed in a sugar-based solution, some eggs will sink and some will float to the surface, helping health-care workers diagnose and treat various parasite infections.
Included in the kit are pre-measured amounts of table sugar. The simulated parasite eggs are various sizes and weights of buttons that students can collect at home. Students also add a pinch of coffee grinds to the solution to see how this floatation occurs.
The second experiment, coded green, involves students collecting an environmental sample and placing it onto a slide. Sanchez will display photos of what the sample will look like under the microscope.
The third experiment, coded orange, walks through the stages of processing a blood sample to test for malaria. To collect a drop of blood, students use a finger prick device in which the needle retreats back into the plastic shaft for safe disposal. A sharps box is not needed to throw the device into the garbage.
A video shows step-by-step how to prepare a thick smear on the slide, which tests for the number of parasites in the bloodstream, and a thin smear, which determines the species of the malaria parasite.
“This is a super low-tech method that’s used in many countries where there are few laboratory and medical resources,” says Sanchez. “In remote communities, volunteers collect a blood sample through a finger prick, put it on the slide, do the two types of smears, and bring the samples to a lab.”
In fact, the lab-in-a-box and home experiments simulate conditions in resource-challenged countries such as Honduras, where Sanchez studies parasitical diseases — soil-transmitted helminths, tapeworms, pediculosis and some intestinal apicomplexa — in children, among other research interests.
“My background and research experience have always helped me to be resourceful and creative,” says Sanchez.
She says supplies in the kit are fairly common, not noxious to the environment, and can all be disposed of safely.
“The tests we are going to be doing at home are the fundamentals,” says fourth-year medical science student Megan Guarascia. “I thought that was really cool that I’d still be able to do some of the lab processes, even if it’s not working with actual parasites.”
Students will take videos of themselves performing the three experiments, which they’ll share with the rest of the class.
Sanchez says she looks forward to seeing the videos and the students’ creativity in carrying out the experiments.
“I have a child in me that is always there, telling me, ‘you know, wouldn’t it be great if we can play.’”