Foldscope: Let us walk with microscopes in our pockets

Image credit:Foldscope Instruments

When I was young, like most children in developing countries, never had a chance or dreamed of using a microscope in primary school, even in high school microscope usage was rare yet I was studying science. This is a major challenge for the scientific schools students and lowers the science knowledge transfer. This challenge is not just because the governments are not doing anything but to have enough scientific infrastructure is very expensive.

Let’s dig deeply about one of the scientific tools, a microscope. This tool invented in the 1590’s has expanded the capabilities of studying microorganisms to a higher level and enabled the diagnosis of various illnesses.  Microscopes are pricey and this is a major bottleneck to decentralize their usage to the younger generation.

Manu Prakash, an Indian born scientist who is a Professor of Bioengineering Stanford University, and Jim Cybulski, a PhD student by that time, have made a versatile foldable microscope called Foldscope in 2010, this amazing microscope has a historical background when Prakash was still young when he used to steal his brother’s eye glasses’ lenses to make a microscope, and this passion rose again while he was traveling around the world, he realized how hard it was for people to access basic scientific tools such as a microscope and started working on a simple but very effective microscope that can be used without electricity anywhere you are.

A Foldscope is an optical microscope that has a pierced water-proof sheet of cardstock, (which gives it the ability to be used in severe conditions), a spherical glass lens, a light emitting diode and a diffuser panel, along with a watch battery that powers the LED. It has an impressive magnification lens up to 140x and weighs 8 grams. It has a magnet that enables it to get fixed on a mobile phone which allows to take pictures of the magnification. The foldscope is designed in a way that it can be assembled by the end user and the beauty of it, is that the cost of production is less than USD$1.

Image credit:Foldscope Instruments

In 2014, over 50,000 foldscopes were made and shipped them to over 130 countries to kids free of charge to experience them, and Foldscope Instruments has a plan to ship 1 million foldscopes by 2018. The logic behind this kind of thinking is that science should be about experience sharing rather than sharing information. Prakash calls it “Frugal Science” and this will only be achieved through the decentralization of the accessibility to the scientific tools that are affordable to everyone. To create that personal experience and reveal the so-called science mysteries that most people think can only be conducted in laboratories.

There have been best practices where foldscope was being used such as in Nicaragua, a kid was teaching others how to identify mosquito species that carry Dengue, a Pharmacologist came up a new way to detect fake medicines using a foldscope, and a young girl discovered the physics of crystal formations of a Glitter, all these are examples that show foldscope actually works well for all different age levels.

“The world has terrible problems, there are 1 billion of people with no health care, climate change, biodiversity loss, we hope that science will provide solutions and we promise that we are going to make science accessible not just to people who can afford it, but for a 1 billion others who can’t. Let’s make science and scientific literacy a human right, “said Prakash

Other Prakash Discoveries

Paperfuge

Manu Prakash’s passion to help communities is not limited only to a foldscope. Awhile back he traveled to Uganda to do some studies on Schistosomiasis and while he was at a clinic in a remote area, he found a centrifuge, a tool that is mostly used to do sample processing or to separate blood with plasma to be able to identify pathogens. This centrifuge was actually being used as a doorstop because there was no electricity to use it. This gave Prakash an idea to do some research on how to make a simple and effective centrifuge that uses off-grid power. His basis of creating tools is always from the simple materials found easily and started to study the physics of  a Yo-yo, after studying many toys, he did not delay to discover the perfect toy that could have a similar physics concept as a centrifuge, that’s a 'buzzer,' (I guess most of us played with something like this while we were young), once you pull this buzzer with two strings passing through a button it spins, he did a lot of calculations and came up with a formula to make a prototype - A 'Paperfuge'. This tool is made of paper with a string and has many different types of paperfuge to conduct various diagnosis such malaria, nucleic acid, etc and it costs only $0.20 to produce it.

ABUZZ

Another project that Prakash is working on is ABUZZ, the concept of this project is based in building a map for mosquitos all over the world to be able to identify them through voices, locate them and set up a largest mosquito database, there over 3,500 mosquito species worldwide which cause serious diseases such as Zika, Malaria, Chikungunya, Dengue etc. It only requires a simple mobile phone that can record an audio and once find and record a mosquito you just need to upload on the ABUZZ dedicated platform.

If more scientists and people innovating in other areas of life would have this same approach, we could have a boom of accesible tools and leapfrog super fast.  This model of knowledge sharing at a lower cost to younger generation is very promising and is likely to create a sustainable positive impact.