Cloud technologies bring organoids into undergraduate classrooms for the first time

A cortical organoid grown at UC Santa Cruz. The different colors are produced by antibody dyes that cling to specific genes. In this study, two groups of undergraduate students conducted experiments with organoids via cloud technology remote education methods. 
Cortical organoids — miniature models of brain tissue grown from stem cells — are becoming increasingly relevant in biotechnology for their usefulness in drug discovery, the study of infectious disease, and more. But the tiny organ models are very tricky to grow and maintain in the lab, meaning many students majoring in biotech-related fields enter the workforce or advanced degree programs  without experience working with organoids. 

Now, for the first time, remote education tools have allowed undergraduate students to gain direct experience experimenting with cortical organoids grown at UC Santa Cruz. These innovative teaching techniques are the product of efforts led by UCSC Genomics Institute Research Scientist Mohammed Mostajo-Radji and are described in a new paper published in the journal eNeuro

“Right now, it’s difficult to use organoids in the classroom, so there’s a disconnect between the skills that are required in the job market versus what the universities can provide,” Mostajo-Radji said. “It's a very long and very expensive [process] to make organoids, so it's not really compatible with classroom learning.”

In their initial efforts to bring the models into undergraduate education, Mostajo-Radji and his team at the Live Cell Biotechnology Discovery Lab introduced two classrooms to their method of designing experiments and observing organoids with remote-controlled microscopes and multielectrode arrays.

The team’s previous experiments with their remote-controlled microscopes brought the technology into biology classrooms in several Latinx communities in the United States and Latin America, enabling these students to design and carry out tissue culture experiments. They found their microscopy technology, developed by Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Mircea Teodorescu’s Lab, to be an effective and scalable approach for giving students who have been traditionally underrepresented in STEM the ability to conduct complex experiments remotely. However, this new paper marks the first time they’ve combined remote education methods with the study of organoids.

“Our platform has bridged a gap between advanced scientific research and online learning. With the tools we've been working on, students have the ability to engage with complex biological systems in an accessible, remote environment,” said Ash Robbins, a co-first author on the paper. “It has been wild to see how the students were able to interactively create and explore scientific questions. This has given the students the same capabilities I use for my own research on cortical organoids, and it amazes me to see the novel approaches they take from their own unique perspectives.”

One of the two classes was a more traditional, introductory-level biology tissue culture class at the University of San Francisco, and enabled the students to do live experiments with the effects of different drugs on organoids. 

The second class was a new upper-level mathematics course at UCSC called “Mathematics of the Mind” taught by David Haussler, Distinguished Professor of Biomolecular Engineering and an author on the eNeuro paper. In the class, which will be offered again in Spring 2024 at UCSC, students used multielectrode arrays to look at patterns of simulation in cortical organoids in order to understand the mathematical properties of how brain circuits change over time.

To the researchers’ knowledge, this marked the first time that multielectrode arrays have been used in a classroom setting, and presented an opportunity that would not normally be available to students outside of biology wet labs. 

Through surveys in both courses, the researchers found that the remote experiments with organoids developed students’ interest in stem cell and neuroscience.

“It was amazing watching the students light up as they performed science experiments for the first time,” said Matthew Elliott, a co-first author on the paper who was a Teaching Assistant in the class. “Many of them came from strictly computational backgrounds like math and computer science and never dreamed that they'd be creating their own complex biological experiments. This course inspired many students to start doing research in computational neuroscience, and even inspired some to pursue Ph.D.s. I am proud to have made this impact on the lives of others.”

“The reason I am excited to be a part of the Live Cell Biotechnology Discovery Lab is that I get to bring my love of science to the next generation of students,” said Hunter Schweiger, another co-first author. “Growing up in Bakersfield, there was never a support system for the types of experiments that we are able to have the students design themselves. Seeing the excitement from students growing up in a similar atmosphere to mine is one of the most rewarding things I have ever participated in.”

Schweiger prepared the organoids used by both the USF and UCSC classes, while Robbins translated the complex software for the simulation of organoids into an easier interface for students in this class to use.

With the success of their approach in the initial two undergraduate courses, the team is interested in expanding the technology to bring remote organoid education to more students. By transmitting their microscope feed through Youtube, the technology is more scalable, supporting  applications even in areas of low internet bandwidth. 

The team is actively seeking new partnerships to bring their technology to more students, and welcomes anyone interested in collaboration to reach out.  

“This team, Mo, Elliott, Ash, Hunter, Sebastian and others, successfully pioneered an exciting new platform for learning neuroscience,” Haussler said. “I feel we just barely scratched the surface regarding the potential of this technology. Someday students studying neuroscience from anywhere in the world will be able to learn by remotely performing and analyzing the results from diverse actual experiments on lab-grown human or mouse neural tissue in the form of cerebral organoids. The possibilities are incredibly exciting."