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Biosecurity Research Institute offers biocontainment research basics

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Students under the supervision of biosafety personnel at Kansas State University's Biosecurity Research Institute wear personal protective equipment and participate in laboratory activities required for their individual research projects. Infectious agent is not present during training but is simulated using fluorescent dye. | Download this image.



MANHATTAN — If you attend new researcher training at Kansas State University's Biosecurity Research Institute, or BRI, at Pat Roberts Hall, one of the first things you notice is nothing happens quickly. Getting into the building requires passing through several layers of security, and strict rules are followed.

The biosafety experts modeling standard operating procedures for students move slowly and deliberately. They take time to stop and think carefully about what they are doing, including reading instructions for procedures they have done hundreds of times. Even getting dressed to enter lab spaces requires education. And no, you don't get to wear your own underwear beneath the scrubs you don to enter the clean hallway that leads to the secured research labs.

These precautions are necessary because BRI is a Biosafety Level-3, or BSL-3, research facility, which means it houses containment facilities in which researchers are able to investigate infectious diseases that threaten animals, plants and humans. BRI offers new researcher training monthly for everyone who will work on projects in the facility.

Six trainees participated in training in early June. The group included postdoctoral researchers, doctoral students and undergraduate researchers, all of whom will begin working on projects with Kansas State University researchers in the next few months. Trainees complete online modules then spend five days at BRI to hear lectures on the basics of biosafety and biocontainment practices, procedures and facilities, as well as receive hands-on practice implementing research techniques.

Shefali Dobhal will work for Jim Stack, professor of plant pathology, on a wheat blast project as a postdoctoral researcher. Wheat blast emerged in Brazil in 1985 and can be a devastating to the crop, so working with the fungus that causes the disease in containment is necessary for proper handling and control of the pathogen. Dobhal says she is grateful for the thorough training.

"They went through each and every step," Dobhal said. "They made sure every person had the same experience — treated everybody the same. They don't think, 'Oh, this person might know it and we don't have to tell him.'"

Vlad Petrovan, a doctoral student studying with Bob Rowland, professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine, also found the class thorough. Petrovan will assist Rowland with swine virus research.

"I learned how to actually work with a pathogen that could infect animals if released and to be prepared in case of an emergency," he said.

Petrovan knows it's a great opportunity. "Not many people can do research that helps eradicate a disease that's not endemic here," he said.

Although attending training is the beginning of the research process for students and postdocs like Dobhal and Petrovan, the faculty member in charge of the project, also known as the principal investigator, or PI, has been working with staff at BRI for a long time before such training takes place. John Webster, education officer at the BRI, monitors compliance with training programs and manages the online learning system. He said the planning and approval phases of research can be a long process. First, a faculty member with a project contacts Stephen Higgs, BRI research director, and BRI staff help fill out the details.

"Then the biosafety team will work with that PI to help develop the appropriate permits to be able to do the work and help guide them through the process with necessary departments on campus," Webster said. "Staff remain in contact as the PI develops standard operating procedures for inside the building to make sure we maintain biosafety, biocontainment and biosecurity, and follow all appropriate regulations with federal agencies."

The approval process can be relatively short, but also can be years, he said.

When necessary approvals are in hand, training is next. The first phase of training attended by Dobhal, Petrovan and their four other classmates teaches the fundamentals of working in high-containment research facilities. They receive an in-depth pre-project walk-through from biosafety experts before starting their specific research. Annual refreshers and other as-needed trainings follow for all researchers in containment labs.

Webster and other BRI staff members have worked to integrate more experiential learning in the training sessions. Dobhal, who previously worked at a BSL-2 lab on foodborne pathogens, said the hands-on approach highlighted the differences in BSL-3 requirements.

"Here, it's a double pair of gloves. You discard both pair of gloves, whereas before I just wiped with disinfectant. Here we autoclave the trash; it's a more strict protocol," she said.

BRI also offers introductions to the strict protocols of working in high-containment facilities to others at the university and around the country. For example, upper-level undergraduate and graduate students at Kansas State University can enroll in a course by the diagnostic medicine and pathobiology department that covers relevant topics, techniques and essential practices.

BRI is also collaborating in June with the university's Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases, or CEEZAD, to offer a Department of Homeland Security-funded two-week training program for graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine students from around the nation who have demonstrated career interest in transboundary and zoonotic diseases of animals. The first week consists of hands-on research education. During the second week, students participate in seminars, hear lectures and make field visits to Kansas State University business and industry partners in the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor. A mini-symposium on research requiring high-containment facilities and transboundary diseases of importance to U.S. agricultural health will be June 25 and is open to outside registrations.

Jessica Green, CEEZAD program coordinator, said the training furthers the center's mission of helping DHS protect the U.S. agricultural economy, particularly in light of the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility being built in Manhattan.

"With NBAF coming, part of what's important to DHS is a highly trained workforce that can work in NBAF or that understands that work even if they are in academia, other industries and government entities that will interface with NBAF," Green said.

Experts and students alike want people to know that safety is always a serious subject and that all of their training and research is done to protect the public.

"Everything is secure," said Dobhal. "We are part of the public; we are working to benefit them."

Petrovan echoed his classmate's desire to work for the public good. "We are a research facility. We are working on vaccines. We are trying to help," he said.

That's why the researchers take their time.

"We encourage slow, deliberate work," said Webster. "Our training asks people to take their time, and we recognize from the very beginning that you need to plan out what you are going to do before you do it, and you follow the rules."

Written by

Sarah Caldwell Hancock

At a glance

Training is not a quick undertaking at Kansas State University's Biosecurity Research Institute — by design.

Notable quote

"We encourage slow, deliberate work. Our training asks people to take their time, and we recognize from the very beginning that you need to plan out what you are going to do before you do it, and you follow the rules."

— John Webster, education officer at Kansas State University's Biosecurity Research Institute