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Virtual Laboratories: Convergence of Learning and Career Practice

In the months of COVID-19 isolation, the gulf between college science labs and professional labs has narrowed; they both are converging in online practice.

July 15, 2020
 

Academic virtual science labs have improved year by year as more and more learners seek to advance their education and careers through online learning. At the same time, professional laboratories have increasingly utilized robotics, distant sensors and associated technologies to make the labs more versatile, efficient, accurate and operable at a distance. The advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) is overhauling laboratories to provide remote (distant) control and monitoring.

IoT continues to advance month by month in linking literally billions of devices to the network. As a matter of common practice, new models of all types of equipment in all fields are internet connection-enabled. This has led to a new term -- “Industrial Internet of Things.” The U.K. editor in chief of ZD Net and Tech Republic, Steve Ranger, writes, “The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) or the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0 are all names given to the use of IoT technology in a business setting. The concept is the same as for the consumer IoT devices in the home, but in this case the aim is to use a combination of sensors, wireless networks, big data, AI and analytics to measure and optimise industrial processes.”

The current pandemic has put increased pressure on both the professional practitioners and professors to implement new technologies to operate laboratories at a distance wherever possible. Many of these technologies were developed prior to the current pandemic. For example, pharmaceutical laboratory Pranatharthiharan moved a couple of years ago to enable remote lab controls:

In addition to collecting data about equipment performance and laboratory conditions, scientists such as Pranatharthiharan can use the IoT to deposit vast amounts of experimental data into the cloud directly from instruments and to control experiments remotely. “It’s very clear that research in laboratories -- particularly in biology and biomedicine -- is becoming fully intertwined with online technologies,” says Sabina Leonelli, a philosopher who studies data and life science at the University of Exeter in the U.K.

Chemical engineer and biotechnologist Arthur Trapotsis of Consolidated Sterilizer Systems has adapted the IoT and IIoT terms to apply specifically to laboratories: “The Internet of Things in laboratories, or as I like to call it, the Internet of Labs (IoL), is about to take off -- and in a short time all laboratory equipment will be connected to the cloud. This type of ‘smart’ equipment will enable researchers to be more productive by allowing them to remotely perform experiments, run processes, monitor tests, collect data and more.”

Clearly, as we move forward, graduates will be working in smart laboratories. No longer will they use the manual tools and techniques of prior centuries seen in the classic college laboratory. Instead, they will begin their careers by using computer-controlled, precise, monitored and remotely controlled robotics to perform laboratory work utilizing the Internet of Labs described above. Remote control -- even working from home -- will become normalized. John Joyce writes in Laboratory Manager, “Ready or not, you need to be planning how to deal with the internet of things (IoT); simply ignoring it is not an option. You may be able to delay its infiltration of your lab, but that will rapidly become an unfeasible option as more manufacturers incorporate the IoT into their instruments.”

The Internet of Things is rapidly expanding to serve laboratories, both professional and academic. In a unique collaboration, MIT has joined Biogen to demonstrate web-based, remote lab tools.

Michael Cima, Lemelson-MIT Program faculty director and associate dean of innovation for MIT’s School of Engineering, says, “We also know that hands-on doesn’t have to mean in-person, and mentoring can happen effectively using web-based collaboration tools. We are excited to join forces with Biogen and their unique expertise, combined with ours, to help another generation of students discover their passion for invention in biotechnology and neuroscience.”

Al Sandrock, executive vice president, research and development, Biogen, says, “While we have always believed that science can be done anywhere, the current public health crisis has pushed us all to consider new ways of learning and to think differently about how we collaborate with others. Lemelson-MIT is allowing us to enrich our program so we can continue to foster an appreciation for science, and reinforce the point that science is accessible, even if you’re not physically in a lab.”

Science education company Labster and Google have joined forces to support an online biology degree using virtual reality labs. And, just as the pandemic emerged, edX launched a free online platform to support the laboratory sciences through interactive simulations and more.

In the coming year or two, as we return to the “new normal” of post-pandemic, we will see the Industrial Internet of Things and the Internet of Laboratories merge in the corporate and research worlds. Are we preparing our STEM students to thrive in the new environment? Are we adapting our laboratories to the emerging IIoT and IoL? Who is leading the initiative to bring the labs on your campus up to speed?

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