Editorial: Frugal Science

Apr 11 2014, 03:39 IST
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SummaryAn Indian-origin scientist’s $5 chemistry kit furthers the cause of affordable diagnostics

Manu Prakash, an assistant professor of bio-engineering at Stanford University, sums up the $5 chemistry kit he co-created the best—it is indeed “frugal science”. Prakash and Stanford graduate student, George Korir, took a toy music box and turned it into a kit that can be used for a number of functions—from testing water quality and assessing soil chemistry to carrying out medical diagnostic tests, according to Stanford University Communication.

Re-purposing the toy into the kit involved pairing the arrangement within the box with microfluidics chips—silicon chips with tiny channels through which fluids can be pumped. The music box has a hand crank that pulls a paper ribbon through a set of pins arranged concentric disks. The disk and the pin rotate on hitting a hole in the ribbon, causing a different pin to pluck a metal strip and make a sound. Prakash found that the rotating pins could be used to pump fluids or even control valves and droplet generators in a programmed manner. Working with Korir, he developed a way to pair the toy with the microfluidics chips. To detect a certain pathogen in a sample of bodily fluid, say, blood, the apparatus would use chips that combine blood with a chemical that points out the said pathogen’s presence. Given that the box and the chip come for less than $5 and that the chips can be reused, Prakash’s kit reflects the quest for making the use of science an affordable engagement. Such frugal science is on the rise, popping up even in our smartphones—Apple has an app that guides expecting mothers regarding ante-natal health through the full-term of pregnancy while AliveCor, available both on Google Play and App Store, records an user’s electrocardiogram.

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