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College of Arts & Sciences Faculty Members Honored

College of Arts & Sciences Faculty Members Honored

Eight University of Delaware faculty members were recently honored by the College of Arts and Sciences for excellence in the areas of teaching, scholarship, advising, advocacy, faculty mentoring and service.
 
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UD’s Fox cited in Nobel’s chemistry announcement

Development of fast new reaction provides new biological and biomedical tools
 
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Key research tool

New UD spectrometer can detect surface materials, down to individual atoms
 
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UD project uses augmented reality to teach virology

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Students from Las Américas ASPIRA Academy High School pose with an augmented reality model of a Brome mosaic virus, part of the VirusGo teaching platform developed by University of Delaware chemistry professors Jodi Hadden-Perilla and Lauren Genova and undergraduates Riley McKeon and Ava West. VirusGo combines AR and a role-playing game to teach students about viruses.

Throughout the cafeteria at Las Américas ASPIRA Academy High School in Newark, students were taking photos of each other with their cell phones. While teens taking photos of their friends isn’t new, the poses may have looked a little unusual. Five students stood next to each other, pointing toward a spot on the ground. Nearby a student crouched down, holding out his arms as if he was hugging something, but his arms were empty. That is, until you looked at the photo on the phone. There, the student’s arms were wrapped around an augmented reality (AR) model of a sphere covered with spikes — a rotavirus particle.

The models were part of a new teaching platform called VirusGo developed by University of Delaware chemistry professors Jodi Hadden-Perilla and Lauren Genova, along with Hadden-Perilla’s undergraduate lab assistants, senior Riley McKeon and junior Ava West. VirusGo combines the AR models and a role-playing game that assigns students to one of five professions related to virology to teach them about the complex world of viruses.

“The idea is to get students to learn more about the different ways that people study or are interested in viruses and to see themselves in these different professions,” Hadden-Perilla said. “They can get to know a little bit about what each of these roles does and become aware of them as potential careers.”​

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​A Las Américas ASPIRA Academy High School student with a norovirus model that is part of the VirusGo teaching platform created by UD chemistry professors and ​students

Hadden-Perilla, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is a structural biologist who uses supercomputers to create models and simulations to study how the structure of a virus controls how it functions. Genova, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, specializes in pedagogy and education research.

Last year Hadden-Perilla received a CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation to support her work, attract more undergraduates into research, and expand the reach and impact of that work outside of UD. VirusGo is the first outreach project supported by the grant.

VirusGo in action

The ASPIRA students were all part of the charter school’s public and community health pathway, making them the perfect audience to test the effectiveness of VirusGo. Students began by filling out a survey Hadden-Perilla and Genova created to assess their existing knowledge of viruses. Then Hadden-Perilla gave a short lecture of the structure and function of viruses, providing key background information for the VirusGo activity. The students then broke into teams of five, and each chose a role: physician, pharmacist, public health official, structural biologist and virologist.

The student “professionals” then visited six different stations containing a poster with facts about a particular virus and a QR code to load the AR model of it on their phone. The students worked together to answer questions about the viruses based on their role, learning the different perspectives each profession brings to the field. They also took a lot of pictures, moving the virus models around on their camera screen and making them larger and smaller.

The result was a success.

ASPIRA senior Yala Cassion, who had the role of a physician, said taking the pictures was the best part of the event.

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“It was fun to see the virus right next to you. If you zoom in you can see how it’s made. It was cool,” she said. “With the posters and the activity, I’ve learned a lot more about viruses, especially the structural biology of it. It’s interesting to see how many layers it takes to make them all.”

Junior Emily Castro aspires to be a neurosurgeon. She said she learned that the measles virus has long-term effects, including risk of brain damage.

“I’d like to learn more about how that takes place,” she said.

ASPIRA teacher Michaela Stacy said the project brought the importance and the process of scientific and medical research to life for the students.

“It's really interesting for them to see that medicine isn't just the doctor and the nurse, or the people that they see on TV,” she said. “There are so many other people that go into medicine, and research is a huge part of that.”

After the activity, the ASPIRA students took the survey a second time, allowing Hadden-Perilla and Genova to determine whether their understanding of viruses increased. Then the students had the opportunity to use a VR headset to immerse themselves in virus structure and build geometric models of them using pieces that were 3D printed by UD honors biochemistry major Luke Coster at UD's MakerSpace facility. The VR movies and idea for using the 3D prints to teach students about viruses were courtesy of UD associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry Juan Perilla.

After compiling and analyzing their data, Hadden-Perilla and Genova plan to publish the VirusGo materials and their findings about its educational effectiveness. ​

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​Las Américas ASPIRA Academy High School students pose with an augmented reality model of a ​rotovirus.

VirusGo begins

The roots of VirusGo began in summer 2022 when West, an honors computer science major from Washington D.C., joined Hadden-Perilla’s lab as an undergraduate fellow funded by the University of Delaware Research Foundation. Hadden-Perilla had seen immersive experiences about viruses based in virtual reality (VR) before but realized the audience was limited because not everyone has access to a VR headset. She had seen that other scientists were using AR to display protein structures and had West to look into the idea.

“We thought it would be so much better if we could find a way to get it in schools, to students and children. And so that's when that whole idea started of using AR models to show virus capsids, structural biology and stuff like that,” West said.

Although she never played the popular AR game Pokémon GO, West used it as an inspiration to code the virus models. She has completed more than 30 models so far: a mix of plant, human and animal viruses. As all are accessible on a cell phone, they can reach a much wider audience.

Hadden-Perilla reached out to Genova, and they began discussing using the AR models as part of a teaching tool.

“I thought that bringing this technology to the classroom would be incredible for student engagement,” Genova said. ”I'm all about trying to get students to engage with course material, but this is a whole new level where they can literally immerse themselves with these viruses, walk through them and move them around.”

McKeon, a biochemistry major from New Jersey, joined the lab last summer as part of an Research Experiences for Undergraduates program on virus-enabled biotechnology hosted by Hadden-Perilla’s group. The two students expanded the project to reflect a holistic view of the science of viruses and research. They worked together to create the details of the role-playing game.

“We wanted to encompass all sides of science because I feel like when we were in high school, and you wanted to go into science, people are always pushing you to be a doctor,” McKeon said. “Now most of us who do research want to go to grad school and get a Ph.D. and do research rather than being in patient care. I wanted to be able to expose the kids early to that because I would have loved that at 17 years old.”

Test it yourself

A few of the VirusGo AR models are available to the public. The model for the Zika virus can be found here. Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that can cause fever, rash and joint pain. Zika infection is particularly dangerous for pregnant women as it can lead to severe birth defects like microcephaly.

The model for rotavirus can be found here. Rotavirus is the most common cause of severe diarrheal disease in young children worldwide. Available vaccines for rotavirus have significantly reduced the numbers of infections in recent years.​

Article by Hilary Douwes 

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson 

June 07, 2024

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