Where most people see a stack of Legos, UCSF researcher Harrison Liu, sees the building blocks of science. In fact, his team at the university's Mission Bay campus used piles of them to construct their very own working Lego microscope.
"A microscope is essentially made out of two lenses. The first one is the objective, which is here..." said Liu.
Liu says they did need to fabricate a few specialty parts in the lab's 3-D printer -- a kind of computerized Easy Bake Oven that converts spools of plastic into useful objects, like snap-on lenses holders.
"It's Lego-fied the top and bottom...," said Liu.
The result was a working device, built to answer all kinds of scientific questions. Except the one you may be asking yourself right now, "Why build a microscope out of Legos at all?"
The answer is a new program, just launched at UCSF. It's a course designed to change the way scientists think about their work. Director Keith Yamamoto says one of the goals is to make research projects more practical by focusing on the end user.
"And having them work together in this ideal-based way of touring ideas, brainstorming, and touring ideas. It brings a new dimension to the way that science can be done," said Yamamoto.
As a test case, the team was tasked with re-imaging uses for a cellphone microscope developed at the University of California. Its creators envisioned it as a way of diagnosing diseases in remote locations, but it has yet to be commercialized.
To help the creative process, UCSF brought in consultants from a Bay Area design company, IDEO, famed for their work on user interfaces like the original computer mouse. Scott Paterson helped hone the questions to a razors edge.
"Who might use that and how," said Paterson.
After a bit of brainstorming, the group decided the cellscope might be a valuable tool for teaching science, but also thought it needed a demonstration component. A way to help teachers and students understand the inner working of microscopes. Hence, the homemade Lego-microscope project.
"The discovery that they had from talking to teachers about how we might use something like this, is how do we demystify the science of microscopy," said Paterson.
While it's not certain if the cellscope, or its Lego counterpart, will be turning up in Bay Area classrooms any time soon. The UCSF students say the design process has already re-focused their thinking and their appreciation for the creative process.
"It's definitely been a lot of fun," said Liu.
The alternative design exercise is already being employed internationally. A team from UCSF recently held similar brain storming sessions with colleagues in Beijing, looking for new ways to research key challenges in cell biology.
Written and produced by Tim Didion