"What a dang fool can do for a dollar, an engineer can do for a nickel" -- Anonymous
$17,000 for a 110,000 revolutions-per-minute (rpm) centrifuge. $200 for a 2000x microscope. Scientific research is an expensive endeavor. While the costs of such work may not bother large university and government labs with massive budgets, it does impede scientific education and medical testing in less-fortunate areas worldwide. Enter Manu Prakash, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford, and a medical equipment expert in all things frugal. Dr. Prakash and his lab are committed to what they call frugal science. Frugal science is the study and practice of significantly reducing equipment costs to allow medicine, computing, and other scientific endeavors to become more accessible to the public. 20 cents for a 125,000-rpm centrifuge. 50 cents for a 2000x microscope.
It doesn't get cheaper than paper. Two of Dr. Prakash's most well-known inventions -- Paperfuge and Foldscope -- are excellent examples. The Paperfuge is a paper, plastic, and twine centrifuge inspired by the ancient whirligig. As with a traditional centrifuge, the Paperfuge breaks down biological samples. For as little as two dimes, the Paperfuge can determine if an individual has anemia or malaria, just by separating blood into its subcomponents. The Foldscope is an origami inspired, waterproof, paper microscope with up 2000x magnification. Not only is it inexpensive, but incredibly portable as well; just fold it and stick it in your pocket.
Dr. Prakash and his lab are just getting started in their mission to cut costs and spread science. In addition to the Foldscope and Paperfuge, the Prakash lab has developed Oscan -- a smartphone enabled device that scans the oral cavity for cancer, punch-card microfluidics -- a chemistry kit in a five-dollar device, and Abuzz -- a citizen-based mosquito monitoring system.
The implications of being cheap are profound. Imagine the increase in contributions to science if every interested individual had the equipment access needed to conduct experiments. Science should not be restricted to advanced-degree toting experts in state of the art labs, but the curious among us who have testable ideas. As Dr. Prakash promises at the end of his 2017 TED Talk, "We're going to make science accessible -- not just to the people who can afford it, but a billion others who can't. Let's make science and scientific literacy a human right. The moment that you pass the tingling feeling of making a discovery to another child, you're enabling them to be the next group of people who will actually solve these problems."
Mahdi Al-Husseini is the volunteer organizer of TEDxDouglasville, a senior at Georgia Tech studying biomedical engineering and public policy, and a U.S. Army cadet.