Team Wins National Cell Bowl Tournament

What started out as a lab assignment for a group of Allied Health Sciences students turned into a national title among the country’s top programs

Smiling group of students

A team of students from Allied Health Sciences took home the top prize in a national competition to accurately and quickly identify hematology cells and diseases. (Contributed photo)

What started as a laboratory assignment for students in the Department of Allied Health Sciences turned into a national title among the country’s top medical laboratory sciences programs.

In the fall semester, Bruce Blanchard, assistant clinical professor and director of UConn’s Medical Laboratory Sciences Program, incorporated an app called CellAtlas into his hematology course to help students learn to identify different types of blood cells and pathologies. CellAtlas has a timed quiz feature that asks users to identify 30 cells in 60 seconds.

Blanchard originally introduced CellAtlas as a learning tool for this course, but once he started seeing students submit perfect scores in under 30 seconds, he encouraged them to consider entering the national Cell Bowl, which began in 2021.

“We went in with modest goals, just to get comfortable using the technology with hopes it would improve the students’ ability to identify different types of cells in class and prepare them for their clinical rotations in the future,” Blanchard says. “When I started seeing those really, really competitive times, that’s when I encouraged them to participate in the Cell Bowl.”

The Cell Bowl is a competition sponsored by the American Society for Clinical Pathology in which teams from across the country compete to correctly identify hematology cells.

Two students, Lakshmi Manne ’23 (CAHNR) and Ruth-Ann Lambert ’23 (CAHNR) took charge as unofficial team captains and formed a team for Cell Bowl 2022 with 12 other students.

“We thought that if we joined this competition, this would be really good exposure for the class, for the program, and just a good way to get out of the classroom and have fun,” Lambert says.

Each week, students competed to complete five CellAtlas quizzes. The best score, the highest number of correctly identified cells in the lowest time, was submitted to the Cell Bowl.

Lauren Corso, assistant professor in residence, sent out weekly emails to the team with motivational gifs and songs, like “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba or “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen to keep the educational activity as entertaining as possible.

“It’s really fun to see how fast they got at identifying the cells and diseases,” Corso says.

The UConn team advanced through regionals, the semifinals, and all the way to the national Super Cell Bowl Finals.

Manne completed the final quiz with a perfect score in a record-breaking 19.8 seconds, clinching the victory for UConn.

“All of my teammates were so supportive, and the professors as well,” Manne says. “They had my back and they believed in me more than I believed in myself.”

Lambert and Manne say the experience helped their class become a close-knit group of friends.

“It was amazing to see everyone rally around us,” Lambert says. “Everyone was so excited about the whole thing.”

Now, Lambert and Manne are in their clinical rotations. Lambert is working at Hartford Hospital and Manne is at Yale New Haven Hospital. They say their experience competing in the Cell Bowl has given them more confidence using the technology to identify cells in a real clinical laboratory.

“It’s great practice. Just to be able to get used to seeing the cells on the screen in that way is really helpful,” Manne says.

Blanchard and Corso emphasize that aside from the fun of the Cell Bowl, preparing students to work in diagnostic laboratories is always the priority.

“When you take away the competition, the ultimate goal for these students is to work in a lab and diagnose disease in real people,” Corso says.

Blanchard and Corso say they would love to have a future class compete in the Cell Bowl again, and perhaps win another trophy to match this year’s team accomplishment.

“This was a way to show the rest of the programs out there in the country that our UConn students are pretty good at what they do,” Blanchard says.

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