Manu Prakash, HHMI-Gates faculty scholar, champions “frugal science,” a philosophy that inspires the development and distribution of affordable scientific tools (including paper microscopes and plastic centrifuges) to regions around the globe. Prakash, now an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, studied computer science engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology before earning his graduate degree in applied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Today, Prakash’s inexpensive inventions create communities in which anyone – children, historians, farmers – can experience the microcosms of the world and learn about science.
Prakash sat down with staff from HHMI’s Communications department to discuss frugal science and its power to boost population health, knowledge sharing, and curiosity.
How did your philosophy on “frugal science” first emerge?
Accessibility is a challenge that science faces. So I asked myself this: How can I make the experience of science as accessible as possible for the broadest group of people?
What we try to do is build tools that cost less, but still compete with other scientific instruments' functionally. Then we figure out ways to share them with as many people as possible. In a way, it’s like sharing the philosophy of science – the open-ended curiosity of it. You don’t tell people what to do; you give them the tools and have them experience science for themselves.
How do you think about tool development on a global scale?
When I was in the field in Uganda, I learned a lesson from a microbiologist named Alex. He told me, “Come back and bring me technology that allows me to run diagnostics under a tree.” I took that to heart. We asked ourselves, “Is it possible to make microscopes that don’t require electricity, for the price of a dollar?”
That turned into something called Foldscope, a microscope made from a cut-out sheet of paper folded origami style. It’s something that a kid can make, and it’s something that we can manufacture at very large scales. People can use Foldscope to diagnose diseases or simply explore the world around them.
What kind of response are you seeing from Foldscope users?
To date, we’ve disseminated nearly 80,000 Foldscope microscopes to 130 countries. We’re discovering all kinds of uses that we couldn’t have anticipated. A kid in Nigeria uses Foldscope to detect fake currency, and farmers in India use it to identify pathogens in plants and remove diseased crops early. So that’s why, when I refer to the word “Foldscope,” I’m also referring to a community of people.
Ideas are very powerful; they go where they want. Sure, you can play a role in originating an idea, but you can’t control it – and we don’t want to. We want people to take ownership of how they use our tools. That’s how you scale up – when people in a local context choose to invest in the success of the project and teach others. We make microscopes; we don't make mentors. The mentors are already there.
What other kinds of tools has your lab developed?
We have something called Paperfuge, which is a centrifuge [a machine that spins biological samples at a high speed to separate the solution based on density], and the parts cost about 20 cents. You take a piece of circular plastic and put two strings through it, you spin the disk and pull the two strings. Some people call it a button-on-a-string, or a whirligig. What’s remarkable is that the toy version spins at a rate of about 10,000 rotations per minute (rpm).
I thought of this when I was at a remote clinic in Uganda. I was walking out of the clinic, and holding the door open was a nice centrifuge – something that might cost five to seven thousand dollars. And it was being used as a doorstop. I asked my friend why this was, and he told me they hadn’t had electricity for five years and that at least this way, it served a purpose.
I thought there must be another way to solve this problem. I started thinking about a toy that we all know well – the yo-yo. My lab considered all kinds of spinning toys until we stumbled upon this button-on-a-string idea, and by understanding the mechanics of this object, we were able to turn it into a centrifuge. Paperfuge spins at 125,000 rpm.
What, to you, is the biggest takeaway from your work in frugal science?
Our philosophy is to make sure that the objects we build are approachable and accessible. But at the same time, we’re pushing to deliver a level of performance that allows people to make new observations anywhere in the world. The hard bit is getting support to scale up these ideas. But when you experience the joys of sharing the tools you’ve built, that’s really when things take off.
This year we want to release one million Foldscopes, and we’re on track to do just that.
Learn more about Prakash’s field of research and work in frugal science in his Dialogues of Discovery talk.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.