Liberty students gain real-world experience with bioterrorism simulation

  • Bio-terror attack simulation allows students to network and receive hands-on experience and agencies the opportunity to practice their response.
  • The simulation allows students from various departments such as public health, criminal justice and biology to come together and learn.

The Lynchburg Fire Department responded to a call Saturday, Nov. 4 at the Liberty University indoor track and field facility to find several victims bleeding from their eyes and mouths.

After assessing the situation and determining that some sort of biological agent had affected the patients, the department called the Virginia Fusion Center, which notified larger agencies of a potential bioterror attack on campus.

By 10 a.m., the facility on Liberty Mountain was buzzing with activity— firetrucks, ambulances and mobile labs. In addition to local law enforcement, the Virginia State Police, the Virginia National Guard’s 34th Civil Support Team, the Virginia National Guard’s 229th Brigade Engineer Battalion and an FBI agent swarmed the facility.

Though the victims displayed gruesome sickness, the professionals did not seem particularly worried. Rather, they tended to the dozens of students investigating the crime scene and asking countless questions about the agencies’ work.

In conjunction with the Forensic Science Club, Liberty University’s Department of Biology and Chemistry staged a simulated bio-terror attack from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 4 to offer students hands-on experience and networking opportunities.

Students had the opportunity to investigate two mock labs— production and distribution of the biological agent— staged inside of the university’s indoor track complex. The space was fogged with water vapor in order to give the appearance of a biological agent having been released into the building’s HVAC system, and various other clues were planted around the facility.

Because of the victims’ symptoms, students concluded the synthetic biological agent was a combination of Anthrax poisoning and the Ebola virus. At one of the mock labs, student volunteers dressed in laboratory safety gear and produced a simulation of the biological agent with a variety of test tubes and petri dishes. The other scene served as the distribution lab and was littered with bottles of the synthetic agent, ready for distribution, as well as messy notes and information hinting at potential methods for distribution.

“Textbooks are really nice, but they are limited,” Dr. J Thomas McClintock, professor and director of Liberty’s forensic science program said.

McClintock, an accomplished forensic scientist and founder of DNA Diagnostics, strongly believes that practical experience and real-world exposure is imperative to higher education. Since the foundation of Liberty’s forensic science program in the fall of 2014, the biology and chemistry department has hosted two other simulated bio-terror attacks — one in the Vines Center and the other in the LaHaye Ice Center.

“We have other events that we participate in, (we) work with local law enforcement agencies (and) different counties,” McClintock said. “(The agencies) weren’t really sure what the forensic science program was. They didn’t know it existed. They didn’t know what Liberty was all about … I am a really strong believer that application of what you learn is going to be one of the best teachers.”

In addition to the simulated attacks, McClintock has his students participate in other experiential learning activities such as mock crime-scene investigations. Many activities are done in partnership with other departments on campus such as the Helms School of Government’s criminal justice program.

President of the Forensic Science Club Kristin Jones said this year’s simulated bio-terror attack was marketed to a number of departments. The previous simulations were open to all students, but were attended primarily by forensic science students. Because of the various agencies in attendance this year, students from other university departments benefitted from the exposure.

“I definitely hope that students (took) advantage of having these agencies here,” Jones said. “A lot of (the agencies) could be potential employers, so I really hope a lot of them see it as a good networking opportunity to get to meet these people, talk to them, to get to know their job.”

Public and community health student Nicole Solvig said she heard of the event from one of her professors and decided to attend because she wanted to see what it looked like to respond internally to public health issues such as this. Additionally, forensic science student Mahala Pincince explained that she wanted to see how law enforcement interacted with different agencies to see what opportunities she had after graduation.

With a wealth of professionals at their fingertips, students had every opportunity to work alongside and learn from specialists in their fields of interest. However, members of the agencies also benefitted from the simulation, as they had an opportunity to practice their craft in a non-threatening environment.

“A lot of times, these agencies don’t honestly get to work together until an actual event like this happens,” Jones said. “So, this is great practice for them … to kind of work with each other like you would in a real scenario … it’s a good practice without the actual hazard and urgency that an actual scenario would have.”

McClintock described the reciprocal benefit as a “win-win,” and explained that, in addition to showing students opportunities they have in their fields, the simulation may have encouraged agencies by highlighting the value and importance of their work.

“Our team supported the last two events here,” Young Ethridge, an operations officer for the U.S. Army National Guard, said. “We do this kind of event on a regular basis to build (our) capabilities, in brief, so we can get with the local jurisdictions and tie into some of the state assets as well.”

While learning experiences such as the simulation bioterror attack help students learn and network, they also serve as a reminder that terror attacks are a common occurrence of this generation.

McClintock said that, since 9/11, there have been over 26,000 bioterror attacks worldwide.

“Across the country, there are numerous (attacks) that occur, and it’s heavy in the media right now with all the active shooters and stuff,” Lynchburg Fire Department Station 7 Captain Todd Davis said. “There’s a lot of smaller incidents that don’t hit the media … there are small incidents that happen on a regular basis.”

Davis encouraged students and citizens to be vigilant and pay attention to what is going on in their neighborhoods and environments to help prevent future bioterror attacks.

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