Chemistry Professor Introduces Innovative Pedagogy by Utilizing Virtual Reality


 

students using virtual reality

Francis Yoshimoto, assistant professor in the College of Sciences' Department of Chemistry, helped introduce a new way of learning to his Biochemistry II lab by implementing virtual reality headsets into one of the course’s lab modules.

Yoshimoto’s students utilized the Department of Computer Science's VizLab to set up virtual reality headsets to observe and analyze protein structures. For their assignment, students had to create snapshots of a protein using traditional computer software (e.g. Chimera or Pymol) and then go to the same region of the protein in ProteinVR, a web-based molecular visualization program that allows one to see proteins with a virtual reality headset. The students subsequently compared the two images. Students were asked to prepare the 3D snapshots of other proteins and their interactions with ligands or protein partners by searching the protein databank for other human health-related proteins, such as the SARS CoV-2 spike protein, the protein that the coronavirus uses to invade human cells.

The 3D virtual reality headsets proved an effective way to instruct students about protein structures as it immersed them in a unique learning experience. Under the ProteinVR viewer with the Oculus headset, students were able to change their viewing angles of the protein and navigate forward and backward using the joystick on the Oculus hand controller. With the virtual reality headset on, students could travel inside the protein. If students wanted to move a different direction around the protein, they could just tilt their head while wearing the headset and continue to move forward and backward with the joystick.

"For over 15 years I have been looking at proteins just on my computer screen," said Yoshimoto. "Putting a virtual reality headset on to go inside an actual protein was truly an eye-opening experience for both myself and my students."

The implementation of virtual reality technology has aided pharmaceutical businesses in designing novel drugs–a recent advancement for developing new medicines. By receiving exposure and training in VR technology, students were able to apply the skills they learn in the classroom in a way that is relevant to a future career in biomedical research.

Yoshimoto and his lab instructors partnered with the university's Research Computing Support Group to arrange this VR learning experience.

 

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