The Innovation Lab Experience at the UTC

We are constantly being told by employers that school leavers and graduate students lack many of the skills required to succeed in science and technology careers. The Innovation Labs at the UTC have been established and developed over two years to address these concerns, by introducing students between the ages of 14-19, to the skills required to carry out contemporary scientific research. Perhaps the most immediate impression of the UTC, after stepping through its imposing, post-industrial entrance hall, is the run of high tech laboratories on the ground floor. However, state of the art laboratory facilities are not enough to nurture the scientific minds of the future. Contemporary technology, combined with a programme of engaging and challenging experimental science is at the heart of the UTC experience.

Developing Practical Skills and Competencies

The Y12 innovation lab programme is the best way to capture what we are trying to achieve. The programme is always “a work in progress”: after all it is driven and informed by new discoveries, even if it is grounded in the fundamentals of classical Maths and Science. We begin by developing student confidence and skills in using a range of laboratory equipment including Gilson pipettes, spectrophotometers, centrifuges, balances and chromatography columns. Proficiency in these core skills is assessed and students are progressively given greater autonomy in planning and carrying out their research projects.

In one project, students are asked to develop a translational research programme to isolate a therapeutic compound from a fruit or vegetable. Working in small teams, they must first decide upon the source material, whilst taking into account the economic viability of the process. This is an important consideration for the students as a successful method, especially one which involves isolating a useful compound, is often measured by yield. Students are encouraged to consider whether their protocol is sufficiently cost effective to compete with the current commercially available compound not only on efficacy, but on economic grounds. This would be essential in persuading the CEO of a biotech or pharmaceutical company that this exciting new therapeutic molecule is commercially viable. Faced with this additional challenge, the students then integrate steps into their planning that include capturing the relevant metrics: weight of the starting material, choice of solvents, pH of the extract, and extraction methods. Careful annotation of protocols, measurement of fraction volumes, observation of colour, solubilities etc. is all encouraged and rewarded.

The students are then faced with applying, or developing assays (tests) to determine the therapeutic effect of their extracts. It might be a broth culture assay in which the effect on bacterial cell growth is assessed, or an agar plating protocol, or a spectrophotometric enzyme assay. Again, this must be accompanied by careful measurements, tests of robustness of data and an appreciation of the concept of the “dose response” phenomenon.

This is one example of how the students are invited to approach a scientific challenge, but along the way they are expected to confront the preparative challenges in Biochemistry, explore a range of  aspects of chemistry (e.g. polar versus aqueous solvents and biocampatibility), the rigour of analytical chemistry and the robustness requirements of assay results. Some students will add their own take, perhaps by investigating the value of tissue fractionation in advance of extraction: do we take leaf tissue, the husk, the white “meat”, the water or the milk? And just what is coconut milk? Is it really a live, stem cell “soup”? They might ask whether or not access to the coconut genome could help?

Independent Research and Extended Projects

What do we want to achieve? We want students to develop a confident, articulate passion for experimental science and we reward this by asking those who want to go further in year 13 with the opportunity to develop and pursue their own project ideas with the ultimate aim of publishing their original research.  An excellent example is two of our current year 13 students who were inspired to develop their own original research after completing an industrial placement at Unilever. The students used their experience of scientifically testing skin care products using expensive equipment at Unilever to develop their own laboratory test of the smoothness of the skin’s surface using cheap and readily available laboratory equipment. They are in the process of testing the effectiveness of vitamins on the skin of student volunteers using their technique to take an impression of the skin, magnify and photograph it before analysing the image using image analysis software. The most impressive part is that they have worked almost entirely autonomously with very little teacher input and developed an impressive array of skills along the way.

Students from all year groups have the opportunity to sign up to joint projects developed in collaboration with our academic and industry partners and led by year 13 students. Current collaborations include a project with the University of Liverpool funded by a Biochemical Society grant to set up and culture neuroblastoma cells at the UTC. This will allow groups of Y13 and Y12 students to investigate the effect of natural substances on the growth of human cells within the context of developing new therapeutic compounds for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Last year the year 11 students were published in the Journal of Young Scientists for their work on investigating the proteome of the UTCs first model organism – the mealworm (Tenebrio molitor). The current year 11 students are currently involved in extracting and purifying mealworm DNA using a new kit provided by Bioline in order to test whether this purification method can lead to more complete sequence data. Other students are involved in joint projects with the University of Liverpool to setup and develop our use of water fleas (Daphnia pulex) and zebrafish (Danio rubrio) as additional model organisms at the UTC. These projects involve students with a wide range of interests as engineers are required to design and build the systems, physicists and computer scientists to monitor and control conditions using sensors linked to micro-computers , animal scientists for animal husbandry and physical and life scientists to use the model organisms in their research.

Other exciting projects include industrial collaborations with our partners at MAST group, investigating the use of differential and selective growth media in culturing microorganisms and ProLab Diagnostics investigating lateral flow and molecular diagnostic techniques. These projects offer students the opportunity to develop their investigative skills further with a placement at the partner institution.

Greenland BioDesign

The Greenland group was initially set up during the opening year of the Liverpool Life Sciences UTC in order to provide an outlet for students who wanted to take their own interests in Science a little bit further. This group of students covering the whole age range have their own laboratory space and are led by year 13 students. This autonomous group of students perform a vital role in keeping the innovation labs running smoothly through providing technical support and acting as demonstrators during practical laboratory sessions. The students have developed a business structure with year 13 students leading in key roles and managing younger students. The dual aims of this group are to pursue original research and to use the innovation lab facilities such as the 3D printers to design and develop novel products including equipment which is used in our innovation labs. They have a business plan and a great deal of passion and motivation so don’t be surprised if they end up publishing original research and making some money along the way!

Additional Transferable Skills

There are several other key strand that run through the Innovation Lab programme, including the development of communication skills: from comprehensive lab note books, through detailed experimental planning sheets, archiving and tracking materials for others to use, poster presentations, oral presentations, constructing abstracts, writing reports, creating appealing and informative infograms etc.  Several of our students have presented their research at national scientific conferences and have also had the opportunity to judge the scientific posters of post-doctoral researchers at a University of Liverpool Genomics faculty away day. We also take every opportunity to address the maths underpinning the science, from solid geometry to non-linear physical phenomena and use biological phenomena where possible to illuminate maths: exponential microbial growth and nucleic acid amplification by the polymerase chain reaction.