5 Ways to Make Biosafety an Interesting Topic for Students

Sana Shujat

Scientists working in microbiology labs are always at risk of contamination; therefore, biosafety rules have been set for their protection. These rules or protocols not only protect the person handling dangerous pathogens but also ensure error-free results. The four biosafety containment levels are as follows; biosafety level 1 (BSL-1), biosafety level 2 (BSL-2), biosafety level 3 (BSL-3), and biosafety level 4 (BSL-4). The levels ranged from 1 to 4 based on the order of deadly pathogens/agents under study. The top-level that is BSL-4 is implicated in the facilities dealing with the most lethal pathogens. 

BSL-3 containment facility works with infectious agents that could be transmitted through the air, causing health hazards. This article will discuss BSL-3, why it's tricky, and tips to make it interesting for students. The biosafety cabinet in the BSL-3 facility is a game changer when working with life-threatening pathogens. This cabinet protects the workers from inhaling contaminated air and filters it out. Moreover, the airflow and pressure must be maintained inside the laboratory. 

Recent viral infections like covid made working in such labs a challenging experience. We'll discuss five effective ways to normalize biosafety containment facilities by highlighting their benefits.

Why biosafety level 3 could be tricky

BSL-3 containment facility deals with disease-causing agents that could quickly get to you if you don't follow guidelines and protocols. There are the following reasons that make this a tricky topic.

1. It feels scary

Students will get scared and overwhelmed as they'll learn to be working in a containment facility along with deadly pathogens. Teachers should highlight that the lab is designed to be safe for workers. However, everybody in the laboratory should comply with all the rules and protocols. Familiarity with apparatus and basic techniques like growing bacteria and streaking helps boost confidence and understanding of the topic.

2. Misconceptions 

Most students have only seen such containment facilities in movies. Most of the time, the virus (star of the film) overpowers the scientists in the lab. Such perceptions, along with the lab's self-closing and interlocked doors, filtered ventilation systems, sealed windows, walls, and floors, make students feel overwhelmed about the subject. Teachers could introduce the significance of wearing protective gear and safety cabinets here to calm the nerves. Also, emphasize that all these engineered safety features are for their safety.

3. It's complicated 

Using safety cabinets or continuous disinfection of the apparatus to avoid contamination is a complex process. The working principle of laminar flow or HEPA filters is tricky for students to understand. Proper use and disposal of protective gear should be followed while working in the laboratory. These aspects make biosafety a complicated subject for students to understand and learn. 

5 ways to make BSL-3 a more approachable topic

Biosafety is an important topic that should be approached in fun and less scary way. Following are some suggestions that teachers could incorporate into their classes.

1. Show the people behind the science

Storytelling has always been great at humanizing any scientific concept or discovery. It makes students sentimental about the topic and appreciates the efforts of scientists. 

It is difficult to identify the origin of biosafety. Over the years, many individuals and companies have contributed to developing a safety protocol for facilities handling infectious pathogens. However, the initial efforts date back to the 1890s when Pasteur and Koch started isolating and identifying contagious microorganisms. Sulkin and Pike actively contributed to developing protective measures through meticulous investigations in containment facilities. 

The safety cabinets are the highlights of BSL-3 facilities that took many years to design correctly. At the beginning of the 20th century, German scientist Robert Koch noticed the dangers of working with germs like anthrax, cholera, and tuberculosis. He constructed the first 'bio-containment' cabinet to control health risks; however, his design has many flaws. In 1909, the W. K. Mulford Pharmaceutical Company in Glenolden, Pennsylvania, came up with a better plan which was used for years. However, many scientists were still dying of infections acquired during work. The rate of laboratory-acquired infections recorded by 1940 was 2,456, with 164 deaths. The most mischievous diseases at that time caused by lab-acquired infections were Q-fever and the bubonic plague.

In 1943, Van den Ende published the first formal description of a biological safety cabinet with furnaces to prevent contaminated air. The same year the high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter was developed by the facility we today know as Atomic Energy Commission. These filters helped in controlling laboratory-born infections. In 1948, the biosafety cabinet was improvised with stainless steel casing, an interior rear baffle, spun-glass fiber filters, an exhaust blower, and service piping. 

In the 1970s, NuAire developed the first biosafety cabinet design in compliance with the required specification. This model had a laminar flow making this design way better than previous ones. In 1972, Baker (an industrial company) improved this model by regulating the contaminated positive pressure with negative pressure, thus keeping the toxic air within the cabinet and ensuring the worker's safety. Baker continued his efforts and, in 1983, established optimum setpoints with the performance envelope in biosafety cabinets. During the 1990s, Thermo Scientific improved biosafety cabinets' designs by identifying and correcting the flaws. For instance, in 1993, they introduced aerosol-tight window sealing, and in 2000 they incorporated brushless DC motor technology.

By 2009 the design was improved with efficacy, but some issues remained like the biosafety cabinet used too much electricity and made noise. Baker came to help here again and launched the FlexAIR Exhaust Connection model with significantly lower exhaust flows. Around the same time, ESCO developed Labculture Class II, a low-noise biological safety cabinet. These biosafety cabinets were 50% quieter compared to other cabinets in the market. In 2010, the Bio II Advance biological safety cabinets were introduced in the market by Telstar, competing with all other biosafety cabinets in the market. 

Introducing the discovery of biosafety and how it has been made over all these years makes students feel comfortable. 

2. Relate it to the real world

Tell students about these facilities' remarkable work for healthcare by relating real-world examples. One of the best examples to give nowadays is COVID-19 specimens. World health organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend handling (isolation and propagation) high virus concentrations in BSL-3 facilities. However, the clinical samples of suspected and confirmed specimens could be directed at BSL-2 facilities. Coronavirus highlighted the significance of these laboratories showing high containment facilities, their resources, and the highly trained individuals skilled in dealing with emerging disease-causing viruses or bacteria. 

 Mycobacterium tuberculosis, a contagious bacterium, attacks the lungs but could also damage the brain, spine, and kidneys. Biosafety lab -3 facilities have been studying this pathogen for a long time. The scientists working with the specimens must follow the laboratory protocols to avoid getting sick. Sometimes this bacterium camouflages inside its host so well that the individual shows no symptoms. Many other cunning pathogens are dealt with in BSL-3 facilities; therefore, the workers regularly get medical checkups. Giving such examples makes students appreciate the scientists' efforts in these facilities and motivates them to learn more. 

3. Seeing is believing

Visual representations help students learn and understand better than mere words. The students might mistake the safety cabinet for a room where scientists are locked inside with a pathogen. Well, we cannot blame the students here as the name suggests so. 

However, showing the GIF-like seen below from Labster's Biosafety Virtual Lab simulation helps clear misconceptions about containment facilities.  

Biosafety GIF

4. Make it stick with word-play

The storytelling methodology and visual aids help clear the concepts and make the topic interesting for the students; however, we should also introduce some tricks to memorize the problematic words for exams. Following are the ways to back up essential terms in the concepts and make them memorable for the students.

  • The autoclave is the device used for the sterilization of laboratory equipment. The word "auto" means self, and "clave" comes from a Greek word meaning "key." It shows autoclave work on specific pressure and volume. Press the start button, lock the machine and get sterilized equipment. 

  • The word "biosafety cabinet" suggests a cabinet made explicitly for protecting personnel dealing with contagious pathogens.  

5. Use virtual lab simulations

A virtual laboratory simulation is a great way to teach about BSL-3. At Labster, we're dedicated to delivering fully interactive advanced laboratory simulations that utilize gamification elements like storytelling and scoring systems inside an immersive and engaging 3D universe.

Check out the Biosafety Virtual Lab simulation at Labster. In this simulation, you will be presented with a hypothetical case where you must identify a potential bioterrorism agent classed as a hazard group three microorganism.

Please note that this simulation has been developed broadly around UK regulations. Some protocols may differ depending on the specific rules.

biosafety img

If you are interested in testing our simulations or have questions, contact us now.

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