Science Tools Anyone Can Afford

Manu Prakash with his mother, center, in India, where it was not long before he began showing an appetite for science.

STANFORD, CALIF. — 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, Dr. 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. Dr. 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 schoolchildren, laboratory technicians and even the world’s best scientists to have the imaging power of a desktop instrument worth several thousand dollars at the cost of less than a dollar.

He said he hopes to put paper microscopes in the hands of every child in the developing world, providing them with the ability to see for themselves such things as whether their drinking water is clean.

“I want to explore what happens to society when microscopes are a common day-to-day term,” he said recently in an interview in his laboratory at the James H. Clark Center at Stanford. The microscope is part of Dr. 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 that could capture the imagination of a new generation of young scientists.

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. Dr. 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 pioneering semiconductor engineer who was a founder of Intel, announced that it had awarded Dr. Prakash’s laboratory $757,000 to manufacture 10,000 Foldscopes, to be distributed to people who submit a question they would like to use the instrument to help answer. In the two weeks after the March 11 announcement, more than 8,000 applications had been received.

They included:

■ A farmer in Mongolia who asked for a Foldscope to help him persuade other farmers in his community that they should either boil or pasteurize their milk. Few people in his rural community thought that something called “bacteria” existed, and the farmer believed that proving it to them would change their behavior.

■ The Tanzania Albinism Society, which requested microscopes to better understand the risks of skin cancer.

■ A rural beekeeper in the United States, who wants to help catalog the micro-organisms that cause diseases in bees.

■ A researcher for the Canadian Space Agency who plans to launch micro-organisms into orbit aboard a minisatellite. He needs a microscope that weighs less than 10 grams, and the Foldscope is just 8 grams.

Dr. Prakash’s interest in science goes back to his childhood in India, where he and his brother were regular science-fair winners. He was 9 years old when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker accident occurred. Seeking to dramatize the need for a better way to control oil spills, he built a model tanker, filled it with oil, and then exploded it in a demonstration pool.

Unfortunately, the judges, who were standing next to the pool to get a closer view, were singed in the ensuing oil fire.

Dr. Prakash came to study in the United States after he buttonholed the physicist Neil Gershenfeld of M.I.T. during his visit to the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. Dr. Gershenfeld recalled that after his lecture a student “who wouldn’t shut up” descended upon him.

“There were all these serious students, and then there was Manu,” he said. “He had 10 different projects and 10 different ideas, and none of them made sense, and all were interesting.”

Dr. Prakash obtained a Ph.D. from the M.I.T. Media Laboratory in 2008.

With Dr. Gershenfeld, he pioneered microfluidic bubble logic, a technology that combines computing and chemistry. Information is represented by microbubbles that can move through channels that branch and switch. Unlike bits in electronic circuits, however, the bubbles can not only represent ones and zeroes but can also carry a chemical payload, making it possible to simultaneously manipulate information and materials.

The inexpensive science tools may turn out to be Dr. Prakash’s greatest claim to fame. In February at the annual meeting for the Pew Charitable Trusts programs in biomedical sciences, in Herradura, Costa Rica, Dr. Prakash demonstrated his microscope to a roomful of scientists, including two Nobel laureates. It is made from die-cut paper, can be assembled in several minutes and can have a resolution that approaches 700 nanometers. That makes it a potential medical instrument for imaging and diagnosing deadly bacterial diseases, including tuberculosis, malaria, African sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis and giardiasis.

It also can achieve magnification above 2,000 times using standard laboratory slide samples, weighs less than two nickels, requires no external power, can project a high-resolution image on a wall, and fits in a pocket. Dr. Prakash, who likes to emphasize its ruggedness, said that it could survive a drop from a three-story building, and he demonstrated its strength by stomping on it.

Michael B. Eisen, an associate professor in molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that the audience members reacted like children with new toys.

“You had a roomful of scientists, including two Nobel Prize winners, staring at this with wonder,” he recalled. “There is something magical about doing things like this.”

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