Category Archives: Biology

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Immune Defense history and update

Understanding the basics of cell biology, I believe, is vital for an understanding and support for infectious disease research.  This is why I left the lab and starting learning about video games.  I am the PI on an R25 grant from the NIH, National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, awarded to the FAS Learning Technologies Program at the   Game evaluation and distribution work are funded by the Entertainment Software Association Foundation.

Now I am about 3 months from releasing Immune Defense, a Real Time Strategy (RTS) game in which the player can deploy 7 types of white blood cells against bacteria, parasites, viruses and even cancer… Our goal is to teach the basics of cell biology.  What proteins do, what receptors do, how cells respond to signals in the environment, how random events lead to predictable behaviors and how the immune system is powerful at killing and how proteins allow for interpretation of signals and make their interactions specifically targeted and how pathogens manage to evade the killing…  The player must battle HIV, TB, Listeria, a Malaria-like organism and many many more.

IMMUNE DEFENSE game description:

Players use brand new Microbot technology to control cells and molecules.  Players deploy Eater cells (Neutrophils) with their LPS receptors (TLR4) to eat E. coli bacteria.  Eaters have powerful “Poison Pods” full of acid and oxidizing molecules that dissolve E. coli bacteria effectively.  All is well, until Streptococcus pneumoniae comes along and your LPS receptor no longer works…  Your trusty collaborating scientists however, have given you an upgrade, you can now control the Complement Receptor on Eater Cells.  And the Complement receptor works, however, it has a lower affinity, so it takes a bit longer to catch those rascally Streptococcus pneumoniae …  which is fine, until some Staphylococcus aureus show up.  The Staphylococcus aureus take a long time for the Eater cells to dissolve….

Immune Defense Evaluation is NOW!

Immune Defense is a cool video game.  The title is blue, the white blood cells are blue, too. And they are eating green e coli bacteria.

Join the oldest battle on Earth.

If you are a teacher of kids ~12-18 years old, you are invited to participate in our evaluation!  We warmly, eagerly and happily invite you!  We have an Amazon gift certificate to pay you back for your time.

We will happily discuss the experiment and results with you and your students after the evaluation.  Please sign up!   (

Immune Defense–the game that has it all–needs you!

Almost readyTEACHERS!   Ever wished someone had asked for your opinion, or your kids’ opinions, while they were developing an education tool?  Well, here we are asking!  We need teachers of students aged 14-16.  Any subject!  Read about our game and see below to get involved in our evaluation.

Immune Defense has everything you could want in a video game.  It’s catchy, fun to play and full of drama:

There are Good Guys   Neutrophil and Macrophage, two Phagocytes!

and Bad GuysEcoliSingle BAD GUY

Natural Killer Cells NaturalKillerA

and cells you need to train…. to make antibodies: AntibodiesA.


Pathogens are tracked, caught and destroyed.  Death and Destruction


We know that kids remember what they use (from our research on Immune Attack).  So we gave Immune Defense players lots of things to use and lots of reasons to use them….  Good game design runs parallel to this:  More interesting decisions for the player keeps the player engaged.  One type of decion is which surface proteins you wish to express on each cell.


There are tough puzzles to solve.  Player use the tools they have to stop many kinds of pathogens, including E. coli, Strep, Staph, Listeria, TB and AIDS.  The tools players have are the cells of the innate and adaptive immune system.   

fun decisions


Immune Defense is like a moving, living textbook…. it should make teachers happy, too.   We have schematics and multiple models of various molecules:

This is the Green LPS Receptor binding the E. coli pathogen.... signaling the phagocyte that this is something to eat and kill.

This is the Green LPS Receptor binding the E. coli pathogen…. signaling the phagocyte that this is something to eat and kill.

This is what the Green LPS Receptor looks like... if you show the boundaries of its cloud of electrons around each of its atoms.

This is what the Green LPS Receptor looks like… if you show the boundaries of its cloud of electrons around each of its atoms.

We have more information in our DATA-base for curious students:

Strategic game tips as well as links to more information are in the DATA-base.

Strategic game tips as well as links to more information are in the DATA-base.

What do we need from you?  Class time and feedback both now and next Fall.  We need answers to these education research questions:

…….Do your 14-16 year old students enjoy playing Immune Defense?
…….Do your 14-16 year old students learn useful things by playing Immune Defense?
…….Can a game provide an introduction to molecular cell biology

To answer these questions we need large numbers of 14-16 year old students to play Immune Defense in their classroom. The next day they will hear short video lectures and the next day they will take our survey of what the think about the game and what they learned from it and the lecture. Other students will see the lecture first and play the game second. It may be that the lecture make the game easier to play, we don’t know yet.

NOW, this Spring, we are conducting two and three day tests. We are asking your students to play the game OR hear the video lecture and the next day take our survey.  This three day testing protocol will start in the Fall 2013.  We hope that you will participate this Spring with 1, 2 or 3 days, give us your feedback and then in the Fall conduct the full three day protocol in your classroom.

Teachers will work with the Maine International Center for Digital Learning.  Please register there.  Additionally, your students ate taking part in an experiment.  I, Melanie Stegman, will be very happy to Skype/Google hangout with your classes and talk about the design of our experiment and what we have demonstrated but only after your students have participated, we don’t want to affect their experience of the learning process.

Who should participate?  Well, science teachers, any kind!  Biology, chemistry, physics, anatomy, technology teachers, engineering teachers, art teachers, English teachers, Communication teachers, social studies teachers.  Thought provoking questions can come from any field:  Social studies teachers can say, If you want to sway people’s opinion about an issue, is a game a good way to do so?  What kinds of information do people need to make a decision?  Compare and contrast iCivics and Immune Defense.  Art teachers can ask their students, “Do you think the graphics in the Immune Attack game make the game easy to understand?  Do you have graphic art ideas that might make the game easier to understand?”  And if they do, please send them to us!

If  you do not teach >25 students, if you do not teach in the US, if you cannot follow the 3 day protocol in the Fall you may still evaluate the game and your students can give us some feedback: just not as much as our official evaluation.  So contact to register, and tell them in your first email that you just want to evaluate the game informally.  Thank you!

Here is a Maine Teaching Standard Alignments (we have not yet aligned Immune Defense to the new Common Core standards.  Anyone want to lend a hand?)

Welcome to Immune Defense

Our new game is a two dimensional strategy game called Immune Defense.  Seven kinds of white bloods cells can be bought and deployed in the never-ending, always-escalating war against 15 viral and bacterial pathogens.

Part 1 of Immune Defense to be released February 1, 2013.  Part 2 will be ready for beta testing In June, 2013.

Description for scientists:

Players must use the right combination of phagocytes, T-Cells and B-Cells for each combination of bacteria, viruses and parasites.  Players also regulate the type of proteins that appear on each cell’s surface and spend points to buy cells, to move drag cytokines and to activate white blood cells.  Surface proteins are required to recognize pathogens and receive signals.  Some signals cause cells to move, other cause activation, other tether cells to a location.  Activation is required for the most effective killing of pathogens… but it comes at a cost: more activated white blood cells raises your inflammation rate.  The game is over if your inflammation gets too high.  (Should have saved some points to buy a T-Reg!)

Description for Teachers:

Immune Defense is a simple, free game that anyone over 10 can play.  It is Macintosh compatible, can be played in a browser window if you have an internet connection and it can be downloaded and installed if you do not.  Low end computers can play this game.  A 30-minute period is sufficient, and a 60 minute period is not too long.  The game teaches many science standards that are appropriate for 5th through 12th grades; see below for Learning Objectives.  The game style and game play has been optimized for 9th and 10th grade students.  But we know that younger and older students enjoy the game.

Please contact me mstegman at is you have any questions at all!  Or please add your comment below.

Evaluation of Immune Defense in Classrooms.

We are testing Immune Defense in classrooms this coming school year, and we need your help!   If you teach any subject to 9th or 10th grade and think our learning objectives, video game art, technology development, cells/proteins or nanotechnology, etc. fits into your curriculum and can give us three 45-minute periods, please see our evaluation collaborator’s website for more information on how you can join us!  Maine International Center for Digital Learning 

These are the general Learning Objectives:

—Randomness of molecular diffusion
—Specificity of interactions between protein signals and protein receptors
—Low and high affinity interactions are different
—Cells have specific functions because of their unique complement of proteins
—Cells can signal to each other
—Cells respond to their environment if they have the correct receptors
—Regulating which proteins you have on hand is important for cell function
—Altering the proteins you have on hand is called cell differentiation
—Pathogens have evolved to thwart our immune system
—Viruses, bacteria and parasites have different ways of attacking and
—White blood cells, antibodies and complement factors all play different roles to combat different pathogens
—Structure and function of biologically relevant molecules and proteins
—The role of Oxidation and free radical chemistry in defense against pathogens
—Introduction to technology and nanotechnology
—Introduction to web based databases and resources
—Introduction to research methods and data presentation
—The player will see real data images of the cells and molecules presented in the game. The player will also be given their own online handbook of links to sites like Leica Microscope’s education page. Curious students can thus satisfy their quest for further information. Because links are presented in context of the game, this advanced information is meaningful to players.


Description for players:

Immune Defense takes place in the Immune Attack universe, chronologically, after the action in Immune Attack.  (Download our PC only, 3D game free on our site,!)  What we did not see in Immune Attack is that you, the new pilot who has no previous training in cell biology or immunology, accidentally and against the repeated advice of the artificial intelligence of the Microbot, gave a white blood cells a fly by.  Zooming down super close to the surface of an activated Macrophage, your Microbot was caught in an phagocytosis event.  Bitterly angry with you, the tiny, artificially intelligent Bot literally stewed for an hour in the acid and free radical oxidizing agents used by Macrophages to kill pathogens.

By the time the Bot was rescued, the acid and oxidation had done a lot of damage…  damage to your friendship with the little Bot!  However, artificial intelligence is more creative than you’d expect, and creative solutions are so much better than holding a grudge.  Every intelligent being knows that.

So the Microbot created a video game for you.  If you can master this game, Bot says, then it allow you to pilot it.  Until you master this 2D simulation of the Immune System, however, the Bot is refusing to heed your instructions.  So you’d better get busy and win this game, because your orders are to use this Microbot to heal patients… and explaining that you are having a personal disagreement with a Bot will be hard to explain to your superior.

Game Development notes:

Originally conceived as a tower defense styled game, Immune Defense originally had a Tower Defense style menu.  We found that the tower defense menu really did not help players figure out what to do.  When we thought about it, we decided our game had morphed into a real time strategy kind of game… so we spent some time working out what kind of game user interface (GUI).  We have a rough version you can play at our Testing Site.  This version still includes our tower defense styled GUI.  Soon, we’ll have a version of the game with a new GUI that matches its real time strategy mechanisms better.  You will be able to compare the two GUI’s and see for yourself what a difference they make.


Immune Defense is a work in progress, but here are the credits so far.
Federation of American Scientists
………..Melanie Stegman, lead scientist, writer, designer, producer
………..—Jerold Council, intern and immunology text book interpreter
Cosmocyte, game development:
………..—Cameron Slayden, CMI
………..—Alec Slayden, Technical Lead
Scientific Advisory Group most helpful volunteer:
………..Howard Young, Ph.D.
Freelance programmer:
………..Ohad Frenkel

Here is the view from your Microbot cockpit.

Here is the view from your Microbot cockpit.

Association of Medical Illustrators presentation

What follows is my personal history with Medical Illustration.  I was very proud to present my work on Immune Attack and Immune Defense at the 2012 conference of the Association of Medical Illustrators.

Click here for my slides: Association of Medical Illustrators presentation, July 28, 2012

I am proud to carry on the tradition of communicating biology to a wide audience with my game Immune Defense.  So.  Science Video Games.  Where in the world did they come from?  Well, let’s look a little bit into the past.  Have you heard of Medical Illustration?  Have you ever wondered maybe bout how medical students learn about body parts, without the body?  Or perhaps you’ve wondered how a surgeon gets an idea of how a surgery should proceed, without actually doing the surgery?  Medical Illustration is the assembly of facts and information about procedures and about body parts into an image, a video or an interactive software that explains the parts, their relationship and the purpose of the procedure to the viewer.  A medical illustrator is part scientist, part artist.  Presenting science requires understanding which aspects of it are key to the understanding of it, that is which are the core concepts?  In a drawing of a surgery the question is what is the key moment, what does it look like when the procedure is halfway finished in the correct manner?

Medical Illustration is a long tradition that has changed a lot as new science and new technology have become available.  Check out the information and drawings at the Association of Medical Illustrators website,, presentation and techniques. These days, medical illustration often involves gathering information about proteins and cells and presenting this gathered information in an image/video/interactive software.  The information that needs to be gathered comes from many sources.  Biochemists spend a lot of time studying one protein, and publish their results generally on their one protein.    Cell Biologists spend a lot of time looking at one kind of cell.  But there is a vast amount of knowledge to be gained from looking at how many proteins interact, how many cell types interact, how one protein moves, how many proteins associate with each other on a vesicle…  Who has the skills to put all this data into a comprehensive format?  Yep, Medical Illustrators.

Sounds like I am fond of medical illustrators, doesn’t it?  I am.  As a biochemist, I spent 7 years studying one protein, a motor protein–or at least a protein that has a similar amino acid sequence to other proteins that had motor activity.  My protein did not have any activity.  It just sat there in my test tube, silent.  I had read the papers, I knew all the assays that were supposed to reveal the activity of my motor-like protein.  I knew there was ATP that was broken, a microtubule to be released, a new microtubule to be grabbed, a new ATP to be grabbed  …  I knew lots of words about my protein, my brain was filled with data and numbers and methods.

However, Ron Vale the motor protein biochemist asked Graham Johnson the medical illustrator to make a movie of Ron’s protein Kinesin walking along a microtubule.  Using the data from many biochemical experiments in test tubes, Graham created a movie of what Kinesin must look like.

Now I had a story, a comprehensive idea, a foundation of thought about my possible motor protein that I could build on.  All those biochemical experiments had been summed up into a video.  A story is a compact way for our brain to store a lot of information!  Space in my brain was now available for building up some new words about my protein.  I imagined a new role for my possible motor protein, building on the story of the original motor protein.  I did a whole bunch more biochemical assays, and well, no one has made a movie of my data yet, but you could read the papers if you wanted to

Another video, requested by Harvard’s Biovisions group, showed Kinesin (at 1:16) walking gloriously along a microtubule, carrying its huge vesicle …  it was a very clear image and showed both aspects of Kinesin’s activities:  Kinesin walks on microtubules but only does so when its other end is bound to a vesicle.  This video, and still images from it, made it possible for me to quickly and completely explain to my colleagues what my thoughts about my own protein were.

Communication of ideas is very important to a scientist.  Mostly, it is important to explain what you are thinking so that your colleagues can attack your idea.  Without attack you will never advance your ideas and if no one understands your idea they can’t attack it properly!

So, there is my personal history with Medical Illustration.  I am proud to carry on the tradition of communicating biology to a wide audience with my game Immune Defense.  I was very proud to present my work on Immune Attack and Immune Defense at the 2012 conference of the Association of Medical Illustrators.

Click here for my slides: Association of Medical Illustrators presentation, July 28, 2012

NSTA Science Rocks Pictures

What does a scientist look like?  See above.

The National Science Teacher Association (NSTA) had a big Science Rocks event at their annual meeting last week.  A few of us lucky scientist types were invited to represent how cool being a scientist can be!

Cindy Hasselbring (Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow & Math Teacher) and  Science Rockstars: Leland Melvin, Anousheh Ansari, Corey Powell, Ken Ono, enjoying the show before they spoke. Not shown: Simona de Silvestro, Grand Hanks and Melanie Stegman.

You can meet Anousheh Ansari in person at the Science and Engineering Festival Expo April 28-29.

What does a chemistry experiment look like?  See below.

In the World’s Largest Chemistry lesson, we shook a highly absorbent polymer to see if it felt cooler after evaporation….  See what happens!  Turn down your volume!  Grand Hanks is the chemist who is teaching the lesson on the microphone and his partner is the DJ who is laying down an excellent polymer shaking beat.

NSTA Science Rocks March 2012 from Melanie Stegman on Vimeo.


Me betwen two astronauts!!

Here I am, Melanie Stegman, being a panelist at Science Rocks. I am sitting between two Astronauts! Anousheh Ansari and Leland Melvin.

Teachers role in a high tech classroom

Everyone seems to have an opinion about teacher’s role in the classroom of the future.  Some claim that teachers should get out of the way and let kids simply have unfettered access to the internet.  Others imagine a classroom in which teachers curate the vast world of information that is available and facilitate students’ understanding.  Certainly, there is more to learn in any subject than any one person could be an expert in.  How can we take the best advantage of technology in the classroom?

Please share your comments below!  I am preparing a blog post addressing the role of teachers in the future, and I would appreciate your thoughts and any resources!


2011 is the Year of Chemistry is a website where you can learn about the things molecules do… like make us fall in love, for instance.

The people behind Moleclues and the Year of Chemistry are The Molecular Frontiers Foundation.

Moleclues wants you to know that 2011 is the international YEAR OF CHEMISTRY!  Watch their videos about chemistry, there will be a new one every month of 2011. Teachers can also get some teachers guides for each month… topics range from fashion, to weather, to love…

Molecular Frontiers is collaborating with Chalmers University of Technology, University of Gothenburg, Universeum and the film company Untamed Science to produce 12 videos during the International Year of Chemistry 2011. The topic of the monthly videos follows the themes set up by Swedish Chemical Society.


STEM Video Game Challenge!

STEM Challenge!




This fall the first  National STEM Video Game Challenge invited professional, collegiate, and youth developers to submit prototypes of games to inspire STEM learning for kids pre-k to 4th grade.  The winners will be announced soon.  You can get your students or yourself involved next year!

Read about the contest at the

I served as a judge for this year’s contest.  I played every game submitted in the STEM game category.  I can tell you that we have many smart, and free thinking young minds out there.  Encourage the minds you know to compete next year!  I will be discussing software that middle school and High School students can use to design and create games.

You can read what another STEM Challenge game judge wrote Here.