26 Feb 2018

A robotic avatar is helping new mothers learn genomics from home


In the race to capitalise on the secrets of the human genome, scientists at Cambridge University, the European Bioinformatics Institute, and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, have now mapped the genomes of 50,000 individual people. Half way to their target of 100,000 genomes.

The information contained within this whole population of genomes should have a profound impact on medicine’s understanding of diseases and the appropriate drugs to treat them. But the field is moving so fast, it has to take the medical establishment with it.

With that in mind the Institute of Continuing Education at Cambridge is bringing in doctors, pharmacists, pharmacologists, and healthcare professionals to add qualifications to those they already have. The Cambridge genome course demands that the qualification in genomics will only be secured if the individual physically attends every step of the year long study.

Last Christmas two of the women on the course, Neeta (a paediatrician) and Quan (a pharmaceutical assessor) gave birth. And as neither woman lived anywhere near Cambridge, it was clear that they were going to miss critical lectures and would therefore have to abandon it.

Dr Gemma Chandratillake and Dr Sarah Morgan, who run the course were determined not to let this happen.

Gemma told me that she had heard of a process whereby children with serious medical conditions had been able to remain in class through the placing robotic avatar in the classroom through which children at home could continue to be able to see and interact with everything going on in class.

The manufacturers adapted the avatars to enable both of the new mothers to attend class whilst caring for their new-born babies.

I found attending the class an amazing experience. Neeta and Quan, were both fully involved. With laptops open on the same screen as the rest of the class – through their little head and shoulder shaped avatars, they were able to see and ask question of the lecturer, and subsequently join in with clusters of students in discussion groups.

In a significant sense, nursing mothers who had previously had to leave the course were liberated to attend – a problem none of the men had had to contend with. As Neeta puts it to me when we filmed the class, the avatars, and the women at home, “it’s a break-through in the battle against inequality – and all in the year of the 100th anniversary of awarding of voting rights for women!”

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