Inventor of Paper “Origami” Microscope Visits Woods Hole, Reaching All Ages

Inventor of Paper “Origami” Microscope Visits Woods Hole, Reaching All Ages

By Diana Kenney

Students in the MBL’s advanced research courses are fortunate to have access to a trove of leading-edge, expensive microscopes, many of which are generously on loan to the MBL from commercial vendors.

And this year, the Physiology course students also used a microscope that is powerful for its global accessibility: It’s made mostly of paper, fits in a shirt pocket, and costs less than $1 to build.

The Foldscope was co-invented by Stanford bioengineer Manu Prakash, who brought the Physiology students on a field trip to test out the origami-like instrument.

Manu Prakash, second from right, holds the Foldscope microscope and a plankton tow in Waterfront Park, Woods Hole, with MBL Physiology course students. All photos courtesy of Manu Prakash.

“We built Foldscope right next to the [MBL] dock, did a coastal plankton tow, and imaged all kinds of things, including beautiful crab eggs and bioluminescent ctenophores,” Prakash wrote in an email.

“The objective is to encourage the students at MBL and elsewhere to act as mentors to budding naturalists/biologists around the world exploring the microscopic world through a Foldscope,” he added.

With a lens that costs just 6.5 cents, Foldscope can give magnifications up to 2000 X. Its origami construction is part of its functional design. “Paper is not only cheap but if folded properly in a given set of instructions, it gives rise to precision,” Prakash explains in a video by the Moore Foundation, which funded Foldscope’s development. “You can align optics that are important for a microscope to work in ways that would generally require a lot more resources.”

Below, MBL Physiology course students marvel at crab eggs viewed with the Foldscope:

A Microscope for Every Child

Prakash and a former graduate student in his lab, Jim Cybulski, developed the Foldscope after seeing bulky, broken, or non-existent microscopes in field visits around the world. After publishing their technology in 2014, the enthusiastic response inspired them to distribute it as widely as possible.

“I have a very simple vision of every single kid in the world carrying around a microscope in their pocket,” Prakash has said.

In 2015, Prakash and colleagues made 50,000 Foldscopes and started shipping them to people in more than 130 countries. The project has spawned an active community website, Microcosmos, where people share their discoveries and uses for Foldscope. Its abundantly creative applications range from pest control in India to an American girl studying all kinds of frozen samples (inspired by her favorite movie, “Frozen”).

Prakash reached several audiences while in Woods Hole, from faculty to children, including students at the Children’s School of Science, where he led a Foldscope workshop.

Manu Prakash with Karen Dell, curriculum co-chair at the Children’s School of Science (CSS) and Simon Minor, CSS faculty member.

Prakash even went exploring in Woods Hole himself, bringing his young nephew, a plankton tow, and Foldscope. He was amazed at the coastal biodiversity they saw, including mysterious “floating jelly balls,” a discovery he shares with obvious delight in this Microcosmos post.

Prakash and his nephew exploring Wood Neck Beach, Falmouth.

“MBL Woods Hole is a perfect place; both because of the biodiversity around us and the mission/vision of bringing cutting-edge discoveries of biology but also making them accessible to everyone around us,” Prakash said. “The mission of curiosity-driven science shines at MBL, and that is what Foldscope stands for.”