“You had a roomful of scientists, including two Nobel Prize winners, staring at this with wonder”
Manu Prakash keeps a map on his bedroom wall that imagines what the world would look like if it were configured according to the scientific research that each region produces.
Judged this way, he said, “Africa just disappears, India is small, and China is only a little bigger.”
To combat that inequity, Dr. Prakash has proposed the creation of a “frugal science.” He believes that by distributing powerful yet inexpensive laboratory instruments he can play the role of a scientific Johnny Appleseed, spreading science and medical opportunity around the globe.
“Today people look at these extraordinary labs and forget that in the 1800s they could still do the exact same science,” he said, referring to major research laboratories and the work accomplished in far more modest settings. Dr. Prakash, 34, a biophysicist and an assistant professor at Stanford University, is designing laboratory tools that are significantly cheaper and in some cases more powerful than existing professional equipment.
Last month he received widespread attention for his Foldscope, a 3D-printed microscope assembled from origami-folded paper. The microscope will make it possible for schoolchildren, laboratory technicians and even the world’s best scientists to have the imaging power of a desktop instrument worth several thousand dollars at the cost of less than a dollar.
He said he hopes to put paper microscopes in the hands of every child in the developing world, providing them with the ability to see for themselves such things as whether their drinking water is clean.
“I want to explore what happens to society when microscopes are a common day-to-day term,” he said recently in an interview in his laboratory at the James H. Clark Center at Stanford. The microscope is part of Dr. Prakash’s larger vision of providing “science laboratories for the rest of us.” And that goal was further advanced earlier this month when he and a graduate student, George Korir, were awarded the $50,000 first prize in the Moore Foundation Science Play and Research Kit Competition, a challenge to reimagine the ubiquitous chemistry set of an earlier era that could capture the imagination of a new generation of young scientists.