College of Science

Clemson lecturer uses toys to teach students about viruses


First, there was Ebola and Zika. Then COVID-19 and monkeypox. Now, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common respiratory infection that can cause serious illness in older adults and children, have hit early and hard.

Viruses have dominated the headlines over the past few years and have prompted a renewed interest in studying them.

Learning about viruses can be challenging because of their unique nature. One Clemson University faculty member is using some unconventional teaching tools to help students understand their inner workings. 

Kaustubha Qanungo, a lecturer in the Clemson University Department of Biological Sciences, uses magnetic fidget toys to help students in his introductory virology class about the complicated structure of viruses.

Virologist Kaustubha “Kos” Qanungo uses magnetic fidget toys and Buckyballs, which are desktop toys made up of tiny magnetic spheres that can be made into many shapes, to teach students in his introductory virology class about the complicated structure and working principles of viruses.

Viruses are unlike other pathogens. They aren’t alive — they don’t grow or move by themselves and don’t eat or reproduce independently. Not all are harmful to humans. But when those that are come in contact with a host cell, they launch a complex series of steps that allow the virus to hijack the cell and force it to make many copies of itself, making the host organism sick or dysfunctional. 

In addition to infecting humans and animals, viruses can affect plants, fungi and even bacteria. Most viruses are specific to one or a few hosts and harmless to others. For example, millions of plant virus particles pass through humans every day without causing any harm.

“The toys make it easier for students to visualize what they’re learning,” said Qanungo, a lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences.

The magnetic fidget toy has multiple pentagonal shapes that attach via small magnets. Using a rubber band to represent a virus’s nucleic acid, Qanungo assembles the pentagonal shapes until they form a sphere that encases the rubber band to simulate the virus. 

Kaustubha Qanungo

The viral nucleic acid can be either DNA or RNA and is the main information-carrying molecule which causes an infected host cell to make many copies of the virus. 

The fidget toy spheres representing the virus are metastable, meaning they are stable enough to be handled without breaking. But when slight pressure is applied, the fidget toy spheres collapse, breaking the magnetic attractions. Likewise, when a viral particle binds to a specific receptor molecule on the surface of a host cell, viral particle becomes unstable and comes apart, delivering the viral nucleic acid into the cell to take control over the cellular machinery. 

Qanungo also wraps a plastic bag over the magnetic fidget toys to illustrate an enveloped virus. These viral envelopes — like the ones present on influenza or COVID-19-causing coronavirus — are made up lipids, or fat. The soap used in handwashing breaks down these fatty envelopes and renders the virus inactive very easily. In contrast, alcohol disinfectants are more effective on non-enveloped viruses like common cold-causing rhinoviruses.

Qanungo said he expects interest in virology to continue.

“Virology is more relevant than ever. We need to understand the structure of viruses at molecular detail and how they work to be prepared for future pandemics,” Qanungo said. 

The College of Science pursues excellence in scientific discovery, learning, and engagement that is both locally relevant and globally impactful. The life, physical and mathematical sciences converge to tackle some of tomorrow’s scientific challenges, and our faculty are preparing the next generation of leading scientists. The College of Science offers high-impact transformational experiences such as research, internships and study abroad to help prepare our graduates for top industries, graduate programs and health professions. 

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