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Every child in the world can have a microscope. Here’s how.

August 31, 2017 at 6:05 PM EDT
Manu Prakash has always loved science, but as a child in India, couldn't afford the traditional tools that would have empowered him to explore his passion. Now he's making sure children all around the world don't go without, by inventing and distributing low-cost, low-tech tools that are accessible to everyone. Prakash gives his Brief but Spectacular take on frugal science.
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MANU PRAKASH, Stanford University: I grew up in India. I love science, and it was very clear but you know, we couldn’t afford the traditional scientific tools. And so from that moment itself, the idea that you can invent your tools as you go along became very important to me.

I was in Uganda in 2013 and I noticed this centrifuge being used as a doorstop. And I realized the fact that there was no electricity. And so of course, what good is a scientific instrument if it only runs on electricity that you don’t have?

We make affordable scientific tools that are accessible to everyone, to bring the joy and discovery of science, not just for the traditional scientist, but every single kid in the world. We have shipped 50,000 of what we call foldscopes. These are origami microscopes that anybody can make. They cost just $1.00 to make. This year we have set a goal to release a million foldscopes to kids around the world, and we will not stop until every single kid carries a tool like that in their pocket.

I call it frugal science; over the last five years, we have been working in many countries, many of them in Africa and India, to really be able to try to understand how do you empower community health workers who are on the front lines of infectious diseases trying to protect all of us? And the area that we focus on is infectious diseases and diagnostics.

Now, diagnostics has a really hard problem, which is, it’s like searching for a needle in a haystack. And one problem that we have been tackling in this is, how do you really bring that needle out? And we just discovered a new tool, that we describe, we call it paperfuge. It’s an idea to build a centrifuge, a really legit complex tool that’s used for sample preparation, out of a very simple children’s toy.

I actually am carrying it in my pocket, so if you haven’t ever seen one. Depending on how much force I apply and how much air drag there is on this disc, and how much torque is there in these strings, I can back-calculate how fast this will spin. One million rotations per minute. That’s very, very fast.

What I can do is take a drop of blood with a Lancet, fill it in. And now what I’m doing is as I spin the blood that I have taken in there is also spinning. And between 30 seconds to a minute, we can separate the content of that blood into plasma and red blood cells. And now, the ratio of how much red blood cells I have to plasma actually gives me an indicator of whether I have anemia. If I was to spin this for a couple more minutes, I might be able to separate out the cells that are infected with malaria.

Intellectually, it becomes quite an exciting endeavor, to really be able to do the same kind of performance that you would do in a traditional lab, but to be able to do it with almost nothing. My name is Manu Prakash, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on frugal science.

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