Ambassadors in Action - How do PCR's Work?

By Catherine Heath

I am a researcher working at The University of Edinburgh, and I ran a virtual session for higher biology pupils about how PCR is used to test people for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. I had been working in an NHS COVID-19 testing lab whilst I couldn’t do my regular job, and had also been helping to build a University wide testing scheme (TestEd). I wanted to use my relevant experience to demonstrate how something students are learning about in school directly relates to what scientists do in the real world, especially when tackling a pandemic.

I focused on how PCR works, building upon what the students had already covered, and how the technique can be applied to test for SARS-CoV-2 and its different variants. I talked briefly about the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and used images from the lab of real positive and negative test samples to demonstrate the differences we were looking for.

Reading PCR results

I also tried to build in information about life as a scientist and a researcher to give pupils some insight into potential career options in STEM.

As the activity was run virtually, it was hard to gauge the immediate impact on the pupils as I had no face-to-face contact with them. The session was recorded so it could be used for other classes, which will extend the reach of the session. I hope this activity has helped the students think about real-world applications of the molecular biology techniques they are learning about, and potentially inspire them to go into a career in STEM.

I enjoyed thinking about my work in the larger context of the pandemic and making it relatable to the students. I would certainly do it again! If I had the opportunity to do it in person, I would like to do a more hands-on PCR based activity, such as a cut-and-stick exercise or even get the students to look at their own DNA if I could bring some equipment.