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Frugal Science: Physicist Manu Prakash's Radical New Science Tools

Manu Prakash, an assistant professor at Stanford University, is inventing powerful, super-cheap lab tools for classroom use around the world and as a tool for diagnosing diseases.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   06-11-2014
Dr Manu Prakash, assistant professor at Stanford University, is determined to push down the cost of doing science.
As a boy growing up in Meerut, in India, Manu Prakash didn’t have a microscope, but he was intrigued by the device. Convinced he could build his own, he stole the thick lenses from his brother’s eyeglasses. Of course, his brother soon put paid to his rookie device. “My brother snatched back his glasses and broke my microscope,” says Prakash, now 34 and an Assistant Professor of bioengineering at Stanford University.

Today, as a Stanford physicist, Prakash is still reinventing high-tech tools using low cost materials — an endeavor he calls ‘frugal science.’ From his lab in Stanford’s bioengineering department, Prakash is designing lab tools that are significantly cheaper and in some cases more powerful than existing professional equipment.

Typical microscopes are expensive, cumbersome and intricate to transport. Instead, Prakash’s 50-cent 3D “Foldscope” microscope made of sturdy, waterproof paper and tiny lenses of varying strengths is pocket-size. His 0.3-ounce paper microscope is assembled via a process similar to origami. Instructions come in the form of pictures and help users to assemble the microscope in minutes. Significantly, it can have a resolution that approaches 700 nanometers.

Prakash’s super-cheap Foldscope will make it possible for schoolchildren, laboratory technicians and even the world’s best scientists to have the imaging power of a powerful microscope worth several thousand dollars at the cost of less than a dollar.

“Not only will Foldscope give health-care workers around the globe better ways to detect...disease, it will also place magnifying power within the reach of all the world’s students,” Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, wrote in the NIH Director’s blog.

Prakash’s Foldscope is a potential medical device for imaging and diagnosing deadly bacterial diseases, like tuberculosis, malaria and African sleeping sickness.

The Stanford physicist’s "print-and-fold" paper microscope won a $100,000 grant from the Gates Foundation in 2012. The potential for Prakash’s tools became even more evident after the Moore Foundation, established by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, announced that it had awarded Prakash Lab  $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.

Print your own 50-cent Microscope

Prakash earned a BTech in computer science and engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), in Kanpur. He came to study in the United States after he buttonholed the physicist Neil Gershenfeld who is director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms during his visit to IIT. 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,” Gershenfeld told “The New York Times.”

“He had 10 different projects and 10 different ideas, and none of them made sense, and all were interesting.”

Prakash went onto do his master’s and PhD in applied physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), before founding Prakash Lab at Stanford University.

Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site and a writer for Forbes India. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism at the University of Westminster, in London.

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