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Local Macarthur "genius" uses toys to make chemistry accessible to the world


Last month, four Bay Area residents were named Macarthur Award winners. That means they’re now unofficialy known as "geniuses". Each will receive more than $600,000, and can do with it what they will. That’s usually for the public good. So we all win.

One of the recipients is Stanford Bioengineer Manu Prakash. He’s working to get a microscope and a lab in reach of every person, everywhere. He’s doing it by scaling things down. Way down. His inspiration? Toys.

The lab

I'm in a lab tucked away in the basement of a Stanford University engineering building. Bioengineering professor Manu Prakash is showing me a tiny music box which plays the song “Happy Birthday.” Inside the shell of the music box is a miniature chemistry set designed by Prakash. As he cranks the handle round and round, a strip of paper with holes punched in it rolls over a series of spiked metal gears. As the gears turn, the spikes create sound by striking a metal plate. 

It's exactly how a music box works, except this music box has a plastic chip attached to it -- a little silicon box filled with tiny channels of different fluids, or chemicals that can be mixed together. When you turn the handle, the gears not only make sound, they also trigger tiny pumps in the plastic chip to releases minute amounts of chemical fluids. 

“This is coding a specific chemistry that we care about. When I’m running this chip, whatever code was on this will get executed as chemistry on this chip,” Prakash explains.

As you turn the tape, more chemicals get released and mixed together. Prakash says these little boxes can be used for testing everything from disease markers to soil or water quality.

Now, there isn’t a water quality test, or any test out there, that actually plays “Happy Birthday” when you run it. This tape was just used to demonstrate how the machine works. A simple water quality test would actually sound more abstract. Simply put, it’s the sound of a ratio: one reagent, or chemical, mixed with half of another. The more complicated the ratio, the more complicated the sound. Prakash’s research assistant, Ben Alpers explains:

“Each line of holes corresponds to a certain reagent, so if you need a certain ratio of reagents all you have to do is punch. For every one hole you punch in this line, you punch three holes in the other line. Every hole is one pump of that fluid,” he says.

Creating more access through frugal science

This way of mixing chemicals together, called microfluidics, has been around for a while, but Prakash says it requires a lot of money and infrastructure. It’s something that doctors and scientists in developing countries don’t always have easy access to. 

“It’s an expensive enterprise. What we wanted to do was bring out this idea of being able to do controlled reactions and handling chemicals completely in an automated way, but anywhere in the world,” Prakash says. “So we built something that doesn’t require any power and doesn’t require any electricity.”

Even better, it only costs $5. Building inexpensive, universal scientific tools like this is one of the goals of Prakash’s lab at Stanford. He calls it "frugal science". 

However, Prakash has another aim that’s just as important: fostering a non-goal-oriented curiosity among both kids and adults. He says that’s something missing in science education today.

“Early on, kids get very focused on thinking about: ‘Hey I want to solve this problem or that problem.’ To be a scientist is a marathon, and you really have to be passionate about the intricacies of science. The tools that we make are completely open-ended -- we really don't tell people what you want to do with it,” Prakash says.

This curiosity-driven exploration is most evident in Prakash’s other invention: the foldscope. It’s a paper microscope that’s built by folding, like origami. 

“All the components are printed flat on a sheet of paper and then you fold it together and you get a fully functional microscope,” he says.

It is a tough little tool. Throw it off a three-story building or toss it in the washing machine -- Prakash has tried both. 

The foldscope magnifies objects over 2,000 times. It can pick up subcellular structures like parasites, microbes -- things one-millionth of a meter in size. Traditional microscopes of this strength cost upwards of $1,000. The foldscope costs 50 cents. 

“Even though it looks like a simple object, it’s a very powerful instrument,” Prakash says.

Child’s play

At an event at Stanford’s bioengineering department, Prakash’s team distributed dozens of these foldscopes to children. They could look at anything they wanted: legs of an ant, strands of their hair. The kids are essentially beta-testers. 13-year-old JalynDevadoss and her 11-year-old  brother Elias built one. 

“We were looking at little flatworms through a paper microscope called a foldscope. I learned that you could see any type of organism through just a 50-cent paper and plastic. I think it’s pretty cool because it only costs 50 cents to make but it still works pretty well,” the kids say.

Prakash has also created what he calls the “Ten-Thousand Microscopes Project.” Anyone who proposes a novel experiment with the foldscope will get one. They received over 12,000 entries from over 130 countries, and it’s still growing. They plan to ship 50,000 at the end of the month. 

There have been entries from award-winning chemists and biologists, like a group of mosquito biologists who want to teach people how to identify more dangerous species of mosquitos. Amateur kid scientists have also sent in their ideas:

“A 12-year-old boy wanted to understand how Namib beetles actually extract water from the fog,” Prakash says. “The goal is that curiosity is everywhere. And every question is a good question, as long as you’re passionate about asking it.”

Prakash says the DIY aspect of these tools can bring a deeper understanding and empowerment. 

“We enforce this idea that people are going to build these instruments, modify, hack, and do whatever they want to do on top of it. And there lies the idea of making sure that you don’t consider scientific instruments as black boxes. An iPhone is a black box, and it’s a great scientific instrument actually, but you don’t have any idea of conceptually what went in it.”

Prakash believes that the world will be a healthier and better place if everybody has the chance to make a scientific discovery regardless of where you were born, your income level, or even your age. 

“Right now, two billion kids on the planet, we are not giving them the choice,” Prakash says. “We are telling them: ‘Here is a book. Pass all these hoops and if you qualify to a certain extent, then you enter the club for doing science.’ Which is a broken model of how scientific thinking should propagate.” 

And because of that, Prakash says he hopes someday every scientist -- and every kid -- in the world can carry a foldscope or music box chemistry set in their back pocket.

Click here to see a video of the music box chemistry set in action. 

This piece first aired on October 2, 2014.