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The Outbreak Module

In June, the bacteriology team from Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust visited local healthcare science students to share their skills and deliver a week of biomedical science practicals. Here’s what they got up to.

Universities often face the challenge of finding placements for students. This is something Dr Lisa Coulthwaite, Principal Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), is all too aware of. “Students on our undergraduate courses often want to go into laboratory-based careers. This can be very difficult without work experience,” she says. So MMU and the bacteriology department at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust (MFT) came up with the perfect solution: the Microbiology Outbreak Module on the annual Live Labs skills course.

The scenario

Run over five days, this year’s Outbreak Module tasked students with managing a possible outbreak of MRSA in a care home. Students received a set of swabs from the “care home” and used their time to culture, isolate, and identify any MRSA infections. All to establish if there was an MRSA outbreak.

“Watching the students grow in confidence and gain knowledge over the course of the week was a tremendous privilege”

The laboratory environment mimicked a hospital setting and students received a high standard of training. MMU staff and the MFT team – led by Senior Biomedical Scientist Zonya Jeffrey and consisting of Specialist Biomedical Scientists Helen George and Emily Lee, and Medical Laboratory Assistant Jack McKoen – demonstrated techniques and supported the groups. They prepared the students to safely and accurately culture patients’ samples using aseptic techniques and to carry out the laboratory investigations. “The aim was to bring the work experience into the university for these students to work through in a real live project,” says Dr Coulthwaite.

Build confidence

To complement the practical aspects of the module, students attended lectures relating to the outbreak they were managing, hospital clinicians and infection prevention clinical scientists provided case studies, and the Biomedical Scientist team gave regular updates on outbreak progress.

Each day the students summarised and recorded their results. They prepared daily reports and planned for the next day’s experiments, which included biochemical tests and antibiotic susceptibility testing. By the end of the week the students were helping each other problem-solve and passing on knowledge to their peers. One student said: “I got to learn so much about MRSA and the laboratory tests, such as Gram staining. I got a good feel of working with other people in the laboratory. I really enjoyed it”.

Another added: “It really helped me develop my teamworking and communication skills… [the course] builds your confidence up”.

Building confidence

On the final day the student teams not only presented their findings to the group, they also prepared individual written reports that were assessed. In an added twist they were asked to write up their findings in the style of a newspaper article to be published in the Communicable Disease Report or scientific magazine such as New Scientist or The Biomedical Scientist. Prizes were given for the best reports.

“It is often difficult for scientists to convey themselves to a wider audience,” notes Medical Laboratory Assistant Jack McKoen. “We wanted the students to learn not only about their possible future roles in infection prevention, but also how to pass on their work and passion to the general public”. Dr Coulthwaite agrees that the course was beneficial to her students. “It is a fantastic work experience opportunity” and “brilliant to help them in their future careers,” she says.

When asked about their experience of the course, many students echo this positive feeling. “Loving these labs. I feel much more confident in my lab skills and knowledge already,” one participant says. Another adds: “It builds your experience and it gives you motivation. I would definitely recommend the Microbiology Outbreak Module to other students.” Ultimately, the students gained an understanding of how biomedical scientists play a vital role in the managing of outbreaks.

Watching the students grow

Everyone at MFT would like to thank all those involved in this collaborative project, especially Dr Lisa Coulthwaite and the Healthcare Science Laboratory team at MMU. Also, thank you to all the students, for your enthusiasm, inquisitive questioning, and willingness to learn. “Watching the students grow in confidence and gain knowledge over the course of the week was a tremendous privilege” says Specialist Biomedical Scientist Helen George. “I think the enthusiasm and interest they showed demonstrates the potential of our future scientists.” Specialist Biomedical Scientist Emily Lee adds: “Being able to pass that knowledge on and inspire students has been such a wonderful experience.”

The Outbreak Module team at MMU and MFT look forward to continuing to support students on their vital Live Labs Skills course, providing the essential laboratory training where needed. If you want to learn more about the Microbiology Outbreak Module, get in touch by emailing [email protected].   

Image Credit | Zonya Jeffrey

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