Manu Prakash, Biophysicist and MacArthur Fellow
Changing the World With a Paper Microscope
As a child in India, Manu Prakash spent hours in an abandoned chemistry lab, tinkering with radios or making his own fireworks. One day, he stole his brother's glasses and used the lenses to build a crude microscope. It didn't work. But a seed was planted. Today, as head of his own lab at Stanford University, he has created a revolutionary device called the Foldscope: a microscope made of paper. Prakash was awarded a prestigious 2016 MacArthur Fellowship, known as a "genius" grant, for his work.
Speaking previously from Stanford, he explains his vision for "frugal science," why empathy is crucial for a scientist and knowing what you don't know is as important as what you do know, and how he hopes to put a Foldscope in the pocket of every child in the world. —Simon Worrall
Tell us a little about your journey from India to America.
I grew up in north India in a town called Rampur. It's a very old town, which had historic significance in the colonial period. But one of the things it was known for when I was growing up was its knife industry. If you ever watch a Bollywood movie, you will hear "Rampuri chaku," which means Rampuri knife. [Laughs.] I got my degree in computer science at IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) but I knew I didn't want to sit in front of a computer doing code for the rest of my life, so I applied to a few labs, which is how I moved to Boston to do graduate studies at MIT.
Were you always interested in science as a kid?
I was always tinkering. I remember building my first microscope out of my brother's spectacles. I had never seen a microscope before but it was clear to me that it needed lenses. So, I stole his glasses and took the lenses out. [Laughs.] We did a lot of stuff together. We made our own fireworks. We did a lot of chemistry. There was a house with an abandoned chemistry lab, which had belonged to a chemistry teacher. He couldn't pay his rent, so he got kicked out, so we confiscated his lab. [Laughs.] That was a lot of fun! We built electronic radios and things like that. It was very physical, hands-on. We even built the skeleton of an entire rabbit, using three rabbits we bought at the butcher's. We cleaned them and put them all together. It was the hardest jigsaw puzzle I have ever made.
You had your own lab at Stanford at the young age of 31—an enormous honor and responsibility. Do you ever feel overawed by it?
It's a lot of responsibility. Now my main role is as mentor. I have students and I want them to experience what I did as a scientist and have the skills to tackle anything that they passionately care about. When you start thinking about something, you don't have to have everything figured out. You just have a gut feeling. Once an idea works, of course, people understand it. But when you're in the conception phase, nobody understands it; nobody believes in it. That's the most intense portion of the time we spend at the lab.
Your specialty is designing inexpensive laboratory instruments that can spread science and medical opportunity around the world. Tell us about the Foldscope and how it could change lives in the developing world.
I've always been fascinated with instruments and measurement. It's valuable to engage people in the act of making measurements. Information is cheap in this day and age. Experience is expensive. One of the goals when we established the lab was what we call "frugal science"—bringing scientific tools and experience to people around the world.
The Foldscope was initially designed as a microscope that you build using origami. You fold a sheet of paper and get a completely functional instrument that costs around 60 to 97 cents, but with which you can do a very broad range of microscopy in the middle of nowhere. We took it to Uganda and were talking to this medical doctor who didn't believe us. He said, "You're telling me you're going to do microscopy under a tree?" And that's exactly what we want to do! [Laughs.] We want to do microscopy under a tree, out in the ocean, out in the backyard, anywhere. To bring that experience of the microscope to a large, global community.
One of the big things that also happened was that we started realizing how global health and science education are deeply connected. The biggest thing we need to make an impact in health care in the developing world is health care workers being passionate and trained and having the right tools. One of the visions we have for the Foldscope is to try to get every single kid in the world to carry around a microscope in their pocket, so they can do things like test their own drinking water. Last year, we built the first 50,000 units in the lab and shipped them to 130 countries.
We don't think of this as just for the developing world. Many places have resources, but no knowledge. You can have a kid walking around with an iPhone, who doesn't know that the human body is made of cells. That knowledge deficit goes way beyond just the developing world.
What inspires your work?
There are two aspects. Empathy is crucial when you start thinking about equity and science. That's something I really try to teach students I work with. If you truly care about a problem, you will tackle and hack away at it for a long time. The other side of the puzzle is that I spend a lot of time being curious. It's valuable to know what you don't know, and there's so much we don't know. Every day you wake up, you realize there's so much the human race doesn't know. That is very inspiring.
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It’s valuable to know what you don’t know, and there’s so much we don’t know.
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