A Bug's Life

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Elizabeth O'Brien
27 March 2017

My role was to assist the students in carrying out a staining procedure to aid identification of bacteria isolated from various locations around the university building and grown on nutrient agar for two days. Students were supplied with a protocol and necessary reagents to carry out the practical exercise.

The session was carried out in the teaching laboratory at the university where I am a lecturer in cell biology. The students were first year undergraduates who were introduced to bacterial cell walls during lectures and this session was a practical demonstration to help reinforce their knowledge.

The task was to enable them to make a partial identification of bacteria they had grown in colonies on agar using a technique widely practised in medical laboratories. They should gain technical competence and a successful outcome would be assessed following examination of the stained sample using a microscope. This would allow the students to compare their results with those published in the literature and to carry out any relevant research into the background to the procedure and its usefulness in medicine.

The main obstacle to success appeared to be lack of confidence and fear of “getting it wrong”. There was also a lack of appreciation of the need to stick to the protocol with regard to timings and the result this might have.

Generally outcomes were good with many taking photographs for their write-up. Some were under-stained and others were over-stained resulting in mixed results. This illustrated the importance of timing in the procedure.

Reflecting on the exercise it was clear that it should never be assumed that students have particular skills or feel confident in an environment and extra time should be given to address these issues.

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