Virtual clean room to enhance training for pharmacy students

  • December 2, 2008
  • Science Highlights

Editor's note: View a fly-through animation of the clean room from the Rosen Center Web site,

Hard-to-come-by training time in a pharmacy clean room is about to become a lot easier for Purdue pharmacy students to get, eventually as easy as turning on their laptop computers.

Pharmacy clean rooms are sterile environments where pharmacists and pharmacy technicians prepare materials that need to be guaranteed contamination free, said Steve Abel, assistant dean for clinical programs in the Purdue School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Researchers from Purdue’s Envision Center for Data Perceptualization, part of the Rosen Center for Advanced Computing and Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and the School of Industrial Engineering are creating a virtual version of a standard hospital clean room.

The prototype runs in a multiwall immersive environment at the Envision Center and will work on wall-sized panels and portable systems as well. The equipment employs 3-D glasses and wireless controllers to put users in the middle of the virtual world being projected and allow them to navigate and manipulate it.

Meanwhile, undergraduate research assistants for the Envision Center also are adding the capability for modifying the virtual pharmacy clean room to run on Unreal Engine 2, software underlying the popular computer game, itself a stroll—or panicked sprint—through a virtual environment, albeit with opponents shooting at you. The additions will allow the virtual clean room to be used on a PC.

The game engine is openly available for professional developers and hobbyists to build other worlds on top of, largely for games, although its first-person perspective is ideal for something like the virtual clean room as well. For example, researchers elsewhere have used it to create a virtual control room for training workers at nuclear power plants.

Generally found in hospitals and home health care companies, clean rooms are used to prepare drugs, intravenous drips, syringes, chemotherapy treatments and the like, especially those administered through the veins, a factor that makes use of a clean room and proper clean room procedures vital.

“You’re putting the medication right in (patients’) blood so it goes right to their organs,” Abel said.

Concern over the rise of antibiotic-resistant pathogens has only increased the need for expertise in the use of clean rooms.

“It’s really important that pharmacists be trained to use them,” Abel said.

But the number of facilities where pharmacy students can train is limited. When the training involves real materials, it also can be expensive, sometimes prohibitively so.

Abel said Purdue pharmacy students tend to get the training at the end of their third year, just before their last year, in which they serve a professional practicum.

“A lot of it is classroom,” he said of the clean room training. “Just a small amount of it is actual hands on.”

Moreover, students often don’t have the easiest time getting used to the clean room environment once they’re in it. They’re covered in gowns, shoe covers, caps, and gloves. There are needles involved. The work of mixing and packaging materials is exacting. That the situation can be nerve-racking at first isn’t surprising.

Abel said the plan is to have students work in the virtual clean room clad as they would be in a real-life clean room. Unlike a real clean room, the system will warn them when they make a mistake, allowing them to do a procedure over without the potential for tragic consequences.

The virtual clean room is designed to give pharmacy students plenty of “stick time”—in the vernacular of pilots, who do a lot of virtual flight training on computerized simulators these days—even before they set foot in a real clean room.

The Envision Center uses advanced data visualization and perceptualization tools to process and display scientific information in ways that make complex phenomena easier to comprehend and enable the discovery of new knowledge and the development of innovative products.

Researchers at the center explore novel computer graphics and human-computer interface technologies and integrate them with state-of-the-art advanced computation and networking and high-end immersive environments.

Envision Center Managing Director Steve Dunlop and Abel connected in an Envision Center tour for a campus guest Abel hosted. He and Dunlop ended up brainstorming about what the center’s work with virtual environments might do for pharmacy teaching, learning, and training.

The idea for a virtual clean room came out of the discussions between Abel and Dunlop and they, along with industrial engineering Professor Leyla Ozsen, obtained a Purdue Provost’s instructional grant, as well as some funding from Eli Lilly and Company and Purdue’s Pharmacy School, to pay for the development.

From there, Dunlop went looking for students to work on the project. The attraction: they’d get paid, but more importantly have something impressive for their portfolios that people would use. The undergraduate research assistants working with Dunlop include Chris Mankey of Fishers, Chris Sprunger of Lafayette, and Evan Underwood of Kokomo, all from the Computer Graphics Technology Department.

“This is a great opportunity, to actually work on something that’s relevant and meaningful,” Mankey said.

The team started work in February, among other things visiting multiple clean rooms at Clarion Health Partners and Wishard Health Services in Indianapolis.

“We took digital pictures from multiple angles to provide the necessary details,” Underwood said.

Those pictures became models for creating the elements of the virtual environment, using high-end computer graphics programs like Maya and 3ds Max, right down to individual vials of materials.

Underwood said they started with “primitive shapes,” your basic cube for instance, morphed them to the shape of the object they were creating and added relevant coloring and texture. They also added shading and lighting, based on the lighting of the hospital facilities they visited.

The object creation was the most laborious part of the process, the students said, although it helped that once they had one, say, IV bag created it could be copied and repurposed elsewhere in the virtual clean room.

The simulation includes motion-tracking capability that adjusts the view as users move their heads or “walk” through the rooms—a clean room facility is actually more than one room—using the wireless controller.

“You can change the perspective to create a more lifelike environment.,” Sprunger said.

Laura Arns, associate director of the Envision Center, is providing technical expertise on the development of the interaction in the virtual environment, the picking up, moving, and manipulation of objects. While not in the first version, the Envision Center might eventually add haptics capability to the simulation, that is touch and feel, which could let a user experience the weight and texture of something picked up in the virtual environment.

In addition, Ozsen and her students are to use to the computer model to study clean room design and work flow to see where improvements might be made.

The computer graphics students also created a movie “fly-through” of the virtual clean room that can be used for presentations about the project and appeared at the Purdue booth at SIGGRAPH, the major annual computer graphics conference, held Aug. 11-15 in Los Angeles this year.

The movie, 1 minute 58 seconds long, incorporates 3,060 frames, any one of which takes about an hour to render on a single computer.

The students cut the rendering time down to about 48 hours, however, by using TeraDRE. Arns and David Braun of the Rosen Center provided assistance with using the distributed rendering environment, which draws on the Purdue Condor pool, a system for harnessing unused compute time on nearly 20,000 processors on campus, along with computers at Purdue Calumet, Indiana, Indiana State and Notre Dame. It works over the TeraGrid, the world’s largest open computing network for scientific research, in which Purdue, via the Rosen Center, is a partner.

Writer: Greg Kline, (765) 494-8167,

Sources: Steve Abel, (317) 613-2315, Steve Dunlop, (765) 494-5861, Laura Arns, (765) 496-7888,

Originally posted: December 2, 2008