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  • Writer's pictureBeth Duff-Brown

Origami Microscopes

Updated: Aug 23, 2019

One of  the handful of side projects I'll be working on when we get to Congo in two weeks (!!) is showing up at schools and helping biology teachers and students craft these origami microscopes, the Foldscope. I picked up 200 of them yesterday and got my own training in assembling the magical little tool that costs less than a dollar. The kits come with paper slides, instructions and tiny magnetic lenses. My goal is to share them with those who likely have never seen or used a microscope or observed the living cells of plants, water & insects.

A rainbow of science stuffed into one of my suitcases.

The Foldscope was co-invented by Manu Prakash, a Stanford bioengineer whose lab develops low-cost scientific tools to expand access to and curiosity about science in the developing world. Prakash, a rockstar on campus and a McArthur Foundation genius grant winner, was eager to get me involved: While there are 1 million Foldscopes out in the field, they have yet to make it to Congo as so few people travel there these days.

Foldscope users around the world share their observations, data & conundrums in an online forum, Microcosmos, and Prakash would love to see what students and teachers observe in Congo.

"We teach each other, we learn from each other and we all grow as scientists together," Prakash says. "I have a very simple vision of every single kid in the world carrying around a microscope in their pocket."

He just got a great writeup in The Atlantic about his new invention, the Octopi, a small, relatively inexpensive microscope that analyzes blood samples 120 times faster than a traditional microscope. I'll be looking for a hospital in Kinshasa or Kananga that can eventually receive one of these, since malaria is endemic across the DRC.

"Rapid diagnostic tests can quickly check whether someone has malaria, but they don’t count the number of parasites. That figure is important: It reveals the severity of an infection and informs treatment choices," the story reads. "To count parasites, you need trained technicians and good microscopes. "`There’s incredible talent, but it’s limited by their tools,' Prakash says. “`I would meet health-care workers who would save their salary for a year to buy a fancier microscope.'”

The Prakash Lab director of visual content Rebecca Konte worked with me for two hours yesterday, helping me build my first Foldscope while telling me some great anecdotes about how the dollar scope is being used around the world. One guy in India has trained 10,000 students on the Foldscope; another blogs about his use of one in the Amazon Rainforest.

We looked at some of the dead cells that are already mounted on the glass slides that come with the trainer's kit (I'll be taking those to teachers as well) and then went outside to pick some plants and see what they look like through the tiny lens.

My first attempt at building a Foldscope. I think the kids are going to love the little stickers that come with the kits.

Once you mount a sliver of insect or food or a thin slice of onion — blood can also be drawn, but I'm not trained to do that and emphasize here that no human research will be done — you can attach the Foldscope to a smartphone camera and take photos and video of what you observe. Here are a few of mine. The first are dead plant cells; the second a leaf.

For my geeky friends — a term of great endearment and respect — you may want to order some for your own classrooms, or parents as fun science projects for your kids. They actually have a Foldscope Store.

The Foldscope site has a ton of tutorials, as well as ones in French (which I'll be using in Congo) and other languages.

I can't wait to see if I can actually get the Congo project off the ground. I'll be blogging about it along the way here and on my Kickstarter page. Thanks for coming along for the ride!

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