Science lab for the rest of us

Apr 27 2014, 23:15 IST
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The Foldscope, a bookmark-sized layered cardstock with a micro-lens, can magnify up to 2,000 times. The Foldscope, a bookmark-sized layered cardstock with a micro-lens, can magnify up to 2,000 times.
SummaryStanford University professor Manu Prakash designs lab tools at a fraction of the cost of professional equipment. A microscope from origami-folded paper, anyone?

Manu Prakash keeps a map on his bedroom wall that imagines what the world would look like if it were configured according to the scientific research that each region produces. Judged this way, he said, “Africa just disappears, India is small, and China is only a little bigger.”

To combat that inequity, Prakash has proposed the creation of a “frugal science”. He believes that by distributing powerful yet inexpensive laboratory instruments he can play the role of a scientific Johnny Appleseed, spreading science and medical opportunity around the globe. “Today people look at these extraordinary labs and forget that in the 1800s they could still do the exact same science,” he said, referring to major research laboratories and the work accomplished in far more modest settings. Prakash, 34, a biophysicist and an assistant professor at Stanford University, is designing laboratory tools that are significantly cheaper and in some cases more powerful than existing professional equipment.

Last month, he received widespread attention for his Foldscope, a 3D-printed microscope assembled from origami-folded paper. The microscope will make it possible for children, laboratory technicians and even scientists to have the imaging power of a desktop instrument worth several thousand dollars at the cost of less than a dollar. Prakash hopes to put the microscopes in the hands of every child in the developing world, providing them with the ability to see things such as whether their water is clean.

“I want to explore what happens to society when microscopes are a common day-to-day term,” he said. The microscope is part of Prakash’s larger vision of providing “science laboratories for the rest of us”. And that goal was further advanced earlier this month when he and a graduate student, George Korir, were awarded the $50,000 first prize in the Moore Foundation Science Play and Research Kit Competition, a challenge to reimagine the ubiquitous chemistry set of an earlier era.

The researchers produced a prototype of a chemistry “lab on a chip”, which they based on a technology known as microfluidics that involves etching and depositing pipes, valves and pumps onto a silicon chip. Prakash has been a pioneer in using microfluids rather than electric current to both act as computer logic and simultaneously manipulate materials to create chemical reactions.

The potential for these kinds of tools became evident after the Moore Foundation, established by Gordon Moore, a founder of Intel, announced that it had awarded Prakash’s laboratory $757,000 to

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