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Stanford Biologist Invents Ultra Low Cost Scientific Tools


Imagine a microscope that could be assembled with materials that cost less than a dollar, a microscope with which health workers in the world's poorest countries can examine a slide and detect any number of tropical diseases. Well, it exists.

It's called a Foldscope. It's assembly owes much to the art of origami, and its development owes much to physical biologist and inventor Manu Prakash and his team at Stanford University. The reason we mention Professor Prakash today is that he is one of this year's MacArthur Fellows. The winners of the so-called genius grants were announced today, and Professor Prakash joins us. Welcome, and congratulations.

MANU PRAKASH: Thank you.

SIEGEL: I have now watched you and colleagues of yours on YouTube demonstrating the full scope. It's amazing. What was the inspiration for this?

PRAKASH: I think as a as a tool maker and as a scientist, one of the things that I always struggle with is, how do I really bring experience of science outside the lab to a much broader community? I grew up in India. I've seen inspirational people all around the world.

And one of the thought process was, how do you really make scientific tools as commonplace as pencils? So that was the seed of an idea, and then we've been working on this for many years.

SIEGEL: Well, is the Foldscope now in use, and if so, what is it being used for?

PRAKASH: So just to clarify, we make many different types of microscopes using this modality. And some of them are really designed for specific diseases, but many of the others are really designed to get you started to thinking about the microscopic scale. We built last year 50,000 of them in the lab and shipped them around the world to 130 countries.

And you know, I think the joy of doing science is also just watching it evolve. And it's quite a pleasure and a humbling experience to see so many imaginative ways people actually use the tools far beyond what we had initially realized. And so it's as much about the community as it is about the tool itself, and we try to nurture this community as much as we can and encourage and engage anybody else who's listening to engage in that community.

SIEGEL: Another invention of a different sort that you're credited with is a water computer. What is a water computer? What...

PRAKASH: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: What did you do?

PRAKASH: It's exactly what you think it might be. It's a computer that's made out of water. You know, if you think of a computer, if you could watch every single electron running around, you would actually see that they interact with each other to lead to a certain outcome.

So literally a water computer is essentially some amount of miniature plumbing and these hydrodynamic interactions between tiny drops of water that result to universal logic which is the basis of any computation.

SIEGEL: The things that you study and the inventions that you've helped create suggest a very wide range of interest. For you, is there a way that they're all tied together? How do you describe your interests in a coherent, unified way?

PRAKASH: (Laughter) I try not to.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

PRAKASH: I think, you know, the common thread is curiosity for me personally. It's very important to me to be curious and explore my world in the best ways I can, but it's also important for me to pass that on to a much broader group of people.

So some of my work focuses really on tools that could enable open-ended explorations in other people, and some of that is, you know - I use my own tools - is just my own explorations that result in projects that we then conceive and structure.

SIEGEL: Manu Prakash is an assistant professor in the department of bioengineering at Stanford University and a 2016 MacArthur Fellow. Thanks, and congratulations.

PRAKASH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.