Case Study: “Make a Vaccine” practical for BVS3006

College Science
School / Department (list all where collaborative across more than one) Department of Life Sciences
Project / Innovation Title “Make a Vaccine” practical for BVS3006
Start & End Dates (where applicable) Runs throughout semesters A and B
Project Lead Name Colin Butter
Additional Project Team Members Ashley Roberts, Karen Staines


The project seeks to help students make the link between molecular biology and the production of  a “real world” vaccine to a pathogen that is causing havoc in the poultry industry and wild bird populations.  Too often students are turned off this academic discipline, failing to appreciate its widespread application and categorising it as “too difficult” or “not relevant to me”.  The student cohort includes those with no background in molecular biology.  The project team are well suited to the task, comprising a molecular virologist, molecular biologist and a vaccinologist.  Critically, all are active researchers, for whom the advanced techniques employed in the practical are part of routine practice.

The practical series runs over two semesters and comprises five laboratory practicals and a session in the computer lab.  We start by giving the students an open plasmid, into which they inert a hemagglutinin gene that we have cloned from avian influenza virus.  They then transform this into competent bacteria which they leave to grow on agar.   At the start of the second practical they appreciate that the only bacteria that have gown on the selective media are those that have been successfully transformed and are expressing an antibiotic resistance gene also contained in the plasmid.   Cloning, ligation, transformation and selection cassettes have now been liberated from the “too difficult” box into “I’ve done it and it works”.  Each student then performs colony PCR on a selection of their colonies to find those that have inserts of the correct size and containing their cloned gene.  The resulting DNA gels are read in the lab and there is clear excitement and a level of competition between students to see whose “has worked”.

In the next practical students make DNA preparations that are sent away to be sequenced.  The next  visible result is when take them into a computer lab, where there is real enthusiasm to look at their own data in the search for the perfect match to the reference sequence.  In doing so they have now learned about sequencing and the software used to explore and understand it.

In the background staff now transfect mammalian cells with the most promising sequences, clone the highest expressors and produce protein.   In the next session students practice these techniques in the environment of our research laboratory, emphasising that this is “not just” a student practical but produces a relevant product that will be used well into the future by us and other laboratories.

Finally students undertake  purification and analysis and formulate their protein into a usable vaccine for avian influenza.

Throughout the practical series we take time out to tutor in small groups and also have two timetabled “catch-up” sessions.  Extensive use is made of OneNote as a forum to deliver information,  data and video tutorials.

Assessment takes the form of “speed dating”, with students moving from table to table where an understanding of the concepts embedded in the practical are tested. Whilst there is always some nervousness about one-to-one presentation we prepare them thoughly for this task and they perform very well.

Feedback has been very positive, with students commenting on how molecular biology now “makes sense” to them.  Some of them have stayed on to undertake research degrees here or elsewhere, including to fully funded PhDs.  Others have entered the diagnostics industry.  Whatever their career path the ability to execute and communicate a completed piece of practical science is a skill appreciated by employers.


Please indicate which category/categories this project/activity aligns with
Academic Experience Yes
Employability Yes
Learning Environment Yes
Learning Gain Yes
Student Engagement/ Student as Producer Yes
Other (please indicate)