This Cheap Paper Microscope Lets Anyone Do Science : Short Wave Manu Prakash is the co-inventor of the Foldscope, a low-cost microscope aimed at making scientific tools more accessible. We chat with him about why he wants to change how we think about science, and what it'll take to make science something everyone is able to enjoy. Follow Maddie on Twitter. Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.
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Foldscope: Science From Curiosity And A Little Paper

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Foldscope: Science From Curiosity And A Little Paper

Foldscope: Science From Curiosity And A Little Paper

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Maddie Sofia here with a question - do you have a first memory of science? Are you in a classroom? Or maybe you were on a field trip in grade school.

MANU PRAKASH: It was the festival of Diwali. It was the afternoon time. When you celebrate Diwali...

SOFIA: For Manu Prakash, that moment was very far away from school - far away from the prying eyes of his parents as well.

PRAKASH: ...Everybody buys fireworks. And I realized that there were a lot of fireworks that were unexploded that were lying on the street.

SOFIA: He wondered what would happen if all those explosives in all of those fireworks went off at once, just out of, you know, some blowing-things-up curiosity - we can all relate. So he decided to do an experiment of sorts. He grabbed a bunch of them, pulled all the gunpowder inside them into a pile...

PRAKASH: ...And I actually lit that on fire. And I burnt my hand. And I was actually in the ER for my Diwali that night. But on the other hand, I have a scar to go for it. But...

SOFIA: And that's the day you learned about PPE and why...

PRAKASH: That's correct.

SOFIA: ...Personal protective equipment is so important.

PRAKASH: Yeah.

SOFIA: Now, Manu makes tools that feed that curiosity for a living. As a bioengineering professor at Stanford University, his work centers on making scientific equipment - think microscopes and centrifuges - for really cheap. One of his most notable inventions is the Foldscope, a low-cost microscope made out of just paper, a couple magnets and some lenses. It was designed to be portable and durable. And the goal of all of this is to make science more accessible to everybody.

PRAKASH: The science that's cool, as is always, is very textbook-oriented. And for me personally it was just my own sets of questions that I cared about. And if I make a small discovery of my own, I don't care if 200 years ago somebody somewhere else has already discovered that phenomenon or understands it better. It's my discovery.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: Today in the show, Manu Prakash's quest to make science more accessible and hands-on - starting with curiosity and a little paper.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: These days, Manu's at Stanford. But growing up, he felt alienated by the way science was being taught at school.

PRAKASH: You know, what we were learning in school was nothing personal. I mean, it was all in a language that was not my mother tongue. I spoke Hindi at that time. And much of this content was in English. Much of it was discovered and oriented not in my context.

SOFIA: Yeah.

PRAKASH: Much of it felt so alienated in a way, that I was told what was discovered but not how. So I really, I mean, going back, I think about it sometimes - I really flipped my mind about education.

SOFIA: And that's why he spends time working on projects like the Foldscope. As the name implies, the whole deal is anybody can assemble the Foldscope from a piece of paper, complete with some magnetic couplers...

PRAKASH: And then there are microlenses, and so then when you fold the sheet using origami, all of these lenses actually align in a way that you can then insert any traditional slide.

SOFIA: And there you have it, a portable microscope all for less than $2.

PRAKASH: And the point about having a tool that is so accessible is when you have an idea, it's essentially important that the barrier for testing your idea should be very minimal.

SOFIA: And that's what the Foldscope actually allows you to do, right?

PRAKASH: That's what it allows you to do. It really truly lowers the barrier of inquiry.

SOFIA: Yeah.

PRAKASH: I mean, I just think of it as - Foldscope is a window into a genuine aha moment. And, you know, I don't have to explain what a genuine aha moment - when you have one, you will truly be jumping up and down telling everybody you meet. Like, when you're having pizza and you literally saw what cheese is at the microscopic scale. Just genuine aha moments are so delicious. I think that's the only way to describe it.

SOFIA: I like it. I like it. And you've created or helped create online communities where people can upload their notes and what they've found using the Foldscope. Why was that an important part of it?

PRAKASH: Yeah. I think it was extremely important to me at that time when we were starting the community, that the idea of a community is actually almost as powerful or even more powerful than the tool itself because tool is a way to do - go on a self-exploration journey. A community allows you to have mentors. I mean, I've often said this - we can manufacture microscopes, I can't manufacture mentors. Mentors belong in communities around the world.

And our ambition truly has always been - and this is the path we're on - to reach every single child on this planet. But to think about building such ubiquitous tools, you really have to think about equality and access and sharing them very broadly and creating mentors for people that don't exist. And I think I always felt this idea of a voice. You know, when I was a little child, my brother was listening to me. And whatever idea I had, he would just take time and listen. And most often, when I think about when you don't have mentors in your life, you feel voiceless.

SOFIA: Right.

PRAKASH: You might have made a silly observation. You might have made an important observation. It's only that teacher that just gives you that attention to say, ah, that's actually important.

SOFIA: Yeah. So let's talk a little bit about that accessibility and making it so that, you know, all different types of people can participate. I think people intuitively know like, science should be for everybody. But let's talk about why it's better when there are all types of people there in the room.

PRAKASH: Yeah. I mean, I think it's - there is a very practical way of looking at it. We are dealing with planetary scale problems. Just when you talk about climate change, you talk about environmental challenges, biodiversity loss. We talk about health of people around the world. We are operating and seeing these challenges at a scale that we have never appreciated before. So a global citizen is really focused on, not just reading and appreciating science, but doing science, to me, is almost an essential part of how we will both have eyes on our planet to truly understand what happens when changes occur.

On the other hand, you know, ideas are - come from anywhere. It just is remarkable to think about. And frankly, I've come of this opinion that it has nothing to do with your formal education. Ideas lie in intersection of people being able to connect thoughts, and that can happen anywhere. So I think it's this notion that many people who have not actually directly experienced science both need that opportunity, but we need them along the way if we're going to truly tackle some of these global problems.

SOFIA: Absolutely. So a lot of times, you know, people think of things like the Foldscope or, you know, some of your other inventions as outreach opportunities...

PRAKASH: Yeah. Yeah.

SOFIA: ...Not necessarily in line with, you know, your real science work.

PRAKASH: Yeah.

SOFIA: You - you reject that.

PRAKASH: I completely reject that, yes.

SOFIA: I think part of that is, like, what people think science actually is. And I want to ask you about that because I - you know, I used to do a good bit of outreach.

PRAKASH: Yes.

SOFIA: And what I heard from kids, you know, maybe like eighth or ninth grade level is, like, I'm not good at science. It's not for me, and I just can't do it. And I often think that they don't have a great idea of necessarily what science is. So, Manu Prakash, I'm going to give you the opportunity to define what science is in case anybody out there is listening and feeling like they don't belong in science. So just real quick - 30 seconds - what is science?

PRAKASH: What is science? You know, I hope everybody would agree to me that we are all born curious. So satisfying your curiosity in ways where logic and inference gets used, but also your humanity gets used, to me, is science. We are born curious. There is no question about it. There is just a fundamental drive in us, in human beings, in learning how to ask questions. Now, use every possible facility that you have and capacity and capability that you have to just explore that a little deeper, and that's science.

SOFIA: Yeah. So can I ask you a question that I think would be very hard to answer?

PRAKASH: You should ask me - are already asking me very hard questions, but I'm enjoying this. So, yes, go ahead.

SOFIA: So you've said you want to get to a point where everybody can engage with science and be a part of solving all these problems - which I would argue we're a far way away now.

PRAKASH: We're very far away, yeah.

SOFIA: What will it take to get us there, Manu?

PRAKASH: (Laughter) You know, I think I can speak from just my narrow viewpoint. I've often thought that curiosity is such an essential part of what we need to impart. I mean, there are lots of high school students I meet and see who are incredibly bothered by what's happening in the health system and want to cure cancer tomorrow. But sometimes when I dig a little bit deeper, they have that passion, but their natural curiosity of asking questions got suppressed. It was an either-or argument whether they could be curious about the world or they could solve problems, and often enough in my own personal life, it's not either-or, it's both.

So I think I have taken a view that an educational system where you can - in parallel with whatever is happening already in a classical education system can be from the ground up create a night science movement where parents and kids at the dinner table talk about everything else, but then also pick up the tools of science and look at the food that they're eating or the questions that each one of them is asking each other. How do we create dialogues that science is an essential part of your daily life, not just something you get exposed to from once a while while flipping newspapers or flipping on a Facebook post? And it's that level of activism that's sort of what gets me charged up because, you know, then I'm not just tackling a singular problem, I am really talking about a mindset.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: Manu invented the Foldscope alongside his then-graduate student Jim Cybulski. Their initial goal was to get Foldscopes into the hands of roughly 50,000 people, and as of last year, they've reached over a million in more than 150 countries.

You've been listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Geoff Brumfiel and fact-checked by Emily Vaughn.

I'm Maddie Sofia. See you next time.

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