Mid-morning on Wednesday, March 11, graduate student Mathew Rasmussen was preparing for the recruitment events that weekend, when about 50 prospective graduate students were expected to visit the chemical and biological engineering department at the University of Colorado Boulder. When his committee on graduate student recruitment got the word that the campus was closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic and student visits were canceled, they sprang into action. “We basically had all of Thursday afternoon and evening to shoot and edit the video clips before posting them on YouTube for our virtual recruitment weekend on Friday,” he says.
Getting facts and information about labs is easy to do remotely, but getting a sense of the people working there and whether you would get along with them is much harder.—Colleen McCollum, University of Colorado Boulder
Despite the rush, Rasmussen says he thinks the resulting videos are a valuable tool for giving potential students a glimpse of each lab’s culture. His lab, led by renewable energy researcher Will Medlin, “is even talking about putting the video on our group website to attract potential graduate students after the pandemic,” Rasmussen says. Joel Kaar, the graduate program chair in Rasmussen’s department, says he’s received positive feedback from prospective students, who appreciated the effort to recapitulate the lab tours they would have experienced had the event taken place in person.
Rasmussen’s department was far from alone in having to find workarounds to its usual in-person recruitment practices. K. Wang, who recently completed his master’s degree at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, was considering his options for pursuing a PhD beginning this fall, but the US banned arrivals from anyone who had been in China for the past 14 days. Rather than flying to the States to visit the department of chemical and bimolecular engineering at Georgia Tech, Wang, whose father is a property agent who’s given virtual tours to clients, suggested a virtual lab visit to the PI of the lab he was thinking of joining, he tells The Scientist.
During the live tour, which Wang received in February from a senior member of the lab, “I basically followed the guide and when I saw an interesting equipment like a well-plate reader, the guide would explain to me what it does,” Wang says. “Although the tour was not professionally taken, it gave me a good sense of the personal physical space I will have and how the lab members are working together at common spaces. I think this is important because back in my previous lab, all the spaces are shared, and it can get quite disorganized.” In addition, the professor’s response to his proposal of a virtual tour gave Wang the impression that the professor is receptive to suggestions and quick to implement them. “This is definitely a lab culture I can see myself thriving in,” he says.
Virtual lab tours are not new, but they have never been as common as in-person lab tours. However, the pandemic has generated strong incentives for formerly in-person lab tours to go online. The Scientist spoke with researchers and educators with experience conducting such tours to get their tips for people new to the medium—and reasons scientists may want to continue offering virtual tours even when the COVID-19 threat is past.
Catherine McCusker, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston, has been conducting virtual lab tours targeting K–12 students as a form of public outreach since 2013 using her laptop with a built-in camera. Student instructors usually email her to request for a tour through her lab website, and once McCusker finds a suitable time, she will run a virtual event. “I think virtual lab tours can be done well even without professional equipment once you have created a clear program of what the tour will be like,” she says. “I start by first bringing participants for a tour of my laboratory facility, followed by a short research presentation, and ending with a question and answer session.” She conducts her tours live so that she can interact with the students, and she says the response of the participants has been amazing, as they are extremely interactive, and curious about science and what scientists do in the lab.
Researchers who prefer a high-quality video production can seek professional help for their virtual lab tours. At Macquarie University in Sydney, scientific officers Prasanth Subramani and Ray Duell, whose duties include teaching and research support and lab maintenance and safety, first began developing virtual tours of new labs in the university’s biological sciences department for prospective undergraduate and graduate students eight years ago. Subramani says that in addition to professional videography, a good script is crucial; in their videos, the storylines highlight the benefits of the spaces being toured and paint a picture of the lab experience there. Once Subramani and Duell have finalized their script, they work with colleagues in the university’s marketing department to film and edit it. As an alternative, researchers could contract with a professional videographer from outside the university, Subramani notes.
In many ways, a virtual lab tour can be more advantageous than a physical one.—Wendy Jarrett, Understanding Animal Research
Once a video is put together, “it is also useful to get feedback on the draft production from multiple stakeholder groups before making the virtual lab tours public,” Subramani says. He’s heard from prospective students and researchers that the virtual tours helped contribute to a positive first impression of the department.
Creating a highly professional virtual lab tour can take significant effort, according to Wendy Jarrett, the head of Understanding Animal Research, a UK advocacy group. “It’s not possible to create the perfect tour without the buy-in of all the staff involved, especially the senior management,” she notes. “You also need an internal ‘champion’ of the project who can lead and make sure that staff are available for videos and photography.”
The human touch
Colleen McCollum, a graduate student in the same department as Rasmussen, was tasked with creating a lab tour for the department’s virtual recruitment weekend. “My lab mates felt that getting facts and information about labs is easy to do remotely, but getting a sense of the people working there and whether you would get along with them is much harder,” she says. Her lab decided to gear their tour toward reflecting the lab’s fun side and sense of community by injecting humorous sound effects and explaining experiments in simple terms. McCollum adds that if she’d had more time, she “would have included clear captions to improve accessibility and contact information . . . in case prospective students have questions.”
Including the human element may be complicated by the fact that many labs currently have few to no people working onsite due to social distancing measures. But there are ways to convey hints of the lab community even when members aren’t physically present, says Alex Dainis, who as a PhD student at Stanford University filmed virtual lab tours for the general public at night when there no lab members were working, and who went on to found Helicase Media, a company that provides science communications and video production services, in 2019. “One way to introduce the audience to the people working in the lab is to include the little things that make a lab personal,” she says—“a picture someone’s child has drawn at their desk, or the paper mustache someone has pasted onto the centrifuge, or the dog quote calendar by the door. These little things remind viewers that the lab is a place where real people work.”
Continuing virtual tours after the pandemic
Researchers with experience filming virtual tours say they offer great value, and not just when labs and universities are closed. “Virtual lab tours are great educational tools to provide the public with more information about research,” says Jarrett. She and her colleague Richard Scrase have been creating professional tours of animal facilities since 2016 to explain to the public why animals are used in research.
“It’s great for people, not just scientists, to visit a research facility, but it’s just not practical to have too many people touring facilities,” Jarrett says. Virtual tours can reach more people, she says, and are more accessible for people with mobility difficulties or other medical conditions. “Furthermore, visitors can sit at home at their own comfort to explore our facilities. They can focus on things they find interesting and skip areas that do not interest them so much,” Jarrett notes. “In many ways, a virtual lab tour can be more advantageous than a physical one.”
Virtual tours can also contribute to formal learning, says David Hampton, who runs an online master’s program in translational neurology at the University of Edinburgh and uses virtual lab tours for his classes and to create a sense of community. Using a 360° camera and video editing software, he has developed interactive tours to give his students a flavor of the environment in clinical and laboratory settings. The tours, which include information about different clinical environment and their impact on patients, as well as lab equipment and procedures, “work as teaching materials for my students who are learning remotely and may never step foot on the campus and the labs,” Hampton says. And videos of Edinburgh landmarks, including the university campus and the National Museum of Scotland, give his students a peek into the environment in the city, he adds, helping to build a sense of community.
What Makes an Effective Lab Tour
Here are tips from researchers with experience organizing virtual lab tours.
Be yourself: Consider doing a live tour and connect personally with the participants.
Be accessible: “Make sure that information from interviewees and captions (if included) are in plain language so that the layperson can understand.”
Be as comprehensive as possible: “One should avoid assuming that the audience will not find certain aspects of a lab facility interesting. One should aim to be as comprehensive as possible so that the audience can linger on the equipment and processes they find most interesting.”
Tap free resources: There are many free video editing software options, such as iMovie—use them!
Invest when warranted: Having access to tools like 360° cameras and software (such as Pano2VR or 3DVista) will allow one to put tours together with greater ease and more professionally.