Virtual/Remote Labs for Fluorescent Immunocytochemistry or Western Blotting:  The Next Best Thing to Being There

Mary E. Morrison


The SARS CoV-2 pandemic forced many college courses to convert to remote instruction almost overnight in the middle of the spring 2020 teaching semester.  This article presents two molecular biology labs formerly performed in person by students but converted into virtual labs. The virtual immunocytochemistry experiment teaches the specificity of antibody staining, principles of fluorescent microscopy, diversity of brain cell types and morphologies, and journal article Figure construction skills.  The virtual Western blotting experiment teaches sodium dodecyl sulfate polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE), the specificity of antibody binding, and graph creation and interpretation skills.  Both virtual experiments use professionally-produced web-based videos of scientists conducting the lab procedures.  Students must answer questions about the techniques and analyze real experimental data generated by past students to take a quiz and write a journal article-style lab report.

At the whole-class level, student quiz and lab report scores from these virtual labs were not statistically different from those from the in-person versions of the same labs from a previous semester, using t tests with the Bonferroni correction.  On the virtual Western blot quiz, students who did the virtual version actually scored higher than students
who did the in-person version.  These results were significant when the 2020 data were analyzed by within-student paired t tests for in-person labs done before COVID-19 versus those done virtually after dismissal for all-remote instruction.  The students learned the laboratory concepts and data analysis skills just as well virtually as their predecessors had in person.  However, the students trained virtually reported that they could not enter the lab and actually do Western blotting or fluorescent immunocytochemistry with their own hands without extensive additional training.

These virtual experiments can be done with data included in the supplemental materials or can easily be adapted for any micrographs or Western blotting images available from previous lab experiments, or in the published literature.  When COVID-19 or other public health emergencies necessitate remote instruction and we can’t use the best practice of hands-on lab work, virtual labs can be the next best thing to being there.