painting showing an eye

Eye from one of San Francisco’s Balmy Alley murals in the Mission district. 

Still reporting from the session called “Integrated Research and Teaching and Its Benefits to Faculty and Students.” One of the talks that energized me was “The Genomics Education Partnership: An undergraduate team research experience. ” Presented by Mike Wolyniak,  who started with a cheerful comment about how his school does not have the resources of Princeton or Stanford, it shows the possibilites of collaborative research using bioinformatics. Spearheaded by the Biology Dept and Genome Center of Washington University in St. Louis, GEP enables students from a vast array of schools including big name universities, state schools, small liberal colleges, and community colleges to collaborate on large annotation projects. At a course scale, the project enables students to get acquainted with bioinformatics tools and analysis; but taken together it weaves a huge amount of data together, which are in fact publishable. The GEP website is absolutely amazing with all its resources and documents, a goldmine to anybody wishing to learn more about bioinformatics, and open to interested faculty who wish to join the project. Needless to say, I jumped on the opportunity and hope to be able to participate next year. Great timing, as I have been eager to learn more of bioinformatics.

Later that afternoon I went to the Exhibit Hall to help setting up the poster. Poster-boards stood between the rows of exhibitors, and the section dedicated to education happened to be just by some of the major microscopy companies- in fact some of the most sophisticated varieties, as we had a couple of EM companies and customizable high-end microscopes on one side, and at the end a huge mobile expo of Beckton-Dickinson’s flow cytometers. As a former microscopy person, I was all ooh and aah over some of the toys exhibited. As an educator I could not help but be saddened by how little of this is known by students. I approached some of the big boys (those who do make microscopes for classrooms) and asked about anything for education, but they shook their heads- for this conference they brought only their high end stuff.

So it was such a contrast when I saw two posters, placed coincidentally side by side, of two ways to bring microscopes to every classroom or even to every student. The poster titled: From lab to classroom: Science  with mobile phone microscopes was also featured in an article in the Conference Pressbook. It made me smile as I have seen (and encouraged) my students taking pictures through the microscope using their cell phones- a possible feat, although requiring some adjustments. This innovation, on the other hand, makes the cellphone an actual little microscope.

The poster besides it presented the epitome of elegance and simplicity – especially in contrast to the neighboring behemoths. Manu Prakash’s Foldscope is (quoting from a TED blog): “a completely functional microscope built completely by folding paper. It offers 3 optical stages, illluminating, mask holding, and it works with the standard stains and slides so it’s universal.” The Prakash lab website does not provide much information, and he stated that he did not want the poster to be photographed, as he was still in process of having the results published. I did see the Foldscope, and like everybody else, I was blown away. It is, indeed, a paper microscope, foldable, with a slot for the slide. It can also be used open, with external light, so the image gets projected on a white surface. Moving it closer or further to the surface changes the magnification. It can be adapted also for fluorescence microscopy as judged by the poster pictures. Diagnosis of diseases (mainly those caused by parasites) and education seem to be the main potential uses of this admirable invention.

I thanked Dr. Prakash for working on this kind of innovations. I love the research statements on his lab website at Stanford, especially the one dedicated to Frugal Science.

I feel encouraged by these kind of innovations, technologies that bring knowledge and possibilities within reach of every individual. I hope that within a short time, kids in the Third World will not be only hacking tablets, but also observing bugs and plants under small portable microscopes.

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