Foldable microscope heading around the world

Researchers in the Bay Area are working to unleash an army of citizen scientists in countries around the world.
April 24, 2014 8:28:44 PM PDT
Researchers in the Bay Area are working to unleash an army of citizen scientists in countries around the world. They're doing it by providing them with a key scientific tool, crafted in a new way.

Stanford University Professor Manu Prakash, PhD is not just passionate about science, he's determined to bring thousands of new researchers into the fold.

Prakash and his team have perfected what's being called the Origami microscope. He says it's technically Kirigami, to those familiar with Japanese art forms. That's because the device is made from pre-cut templates, rather than simple sheets of paper.

"When I'm folding, I'm actually providing constraints so the parts will self-align," says Prakash. "And when I want to focus, I just change tension in the hands. This allows you to focus and pan."

Once finished, the microscope is powerful enough to see objects many times thinner than a human hair. Still, Prakash believes it's real power lies in the bigger picture -- shaping the future of global science.

"And a lot of projects we do in the lab really come from this notion, of how do you democratize tools such that everybody's a scientist," says Prakash. "We're all born a scientist."

To take advantage of that capability, Prakash and his team are distributing ten thousand of the foldable microscopes worldwide.

Co-developer Jim Cybulski helped deliver early versions in Nigeria and Uganda.

"We were looking at the diagnostics of Malaria. You can take it out in the field and do screening work, go to houses in outer areas and figure out who needs treatment," says Cybulski.

While some of the microscopes are delivered directly to health workers, most are destined for a volunteer army of citizen scientists from 30 different countries; ordinary people who simply signed up on the lab's website.

Prakash expects their contributions to be as varied as the places they live.

"There's a Mongolian farmer trying to convince his buddies you should boil camel milk. Turns out he's ID'd a pathogen in camel mile, but his friends have never seen it, so they don't believe him," Prakash says. "And it's such a simple idea."

He says the goal was to bring the price of each microscope down to a few dollars, using simple batteries and lenses, coupled with an led for illumination.

Once the microscopes are distributed, the Stanford team plans to document all the varied uses people devise.

"The idea of crowd sourcing is help me solve my problem; I'm flipping that around, I'm saying solve the problem you care about," Prakash says. "Let's highlight the curiosity that already exists in the world.

The Stanford team reached its 10,000 person sign-up goal, so for this round, the microscopes are all spoken for. Several members of the team left this month to distribute a shipment to villages in Africa.

Written and produced by Tim Didion


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