Imagine a research laboratory relying on little more than old phonographs and kitchen blenders. This is what Lina Nilsson, a post-doctoral researcher in the bioengineering lab of professor Daniel Fletcher, saw in Bolivian labs, inspiring her to develop alternatives to expensive laboratory equipment.
After a year in Asia and South America visiting labs that lacked the basics, Nilsson and a team of engineering colleagues brainstormed about how to develop low-cost, accessible tools that could produce research-grade results. They created protocols for making do-it-yourself laboratory equipment, along with detailed how-to blueprints available for free online.
“A lot of basic equipment is really expensive, but it doesn’t have to be,” says Nilsson. She adds that while many charitable organizations make contributions to labs in developing countries, most donated equipment consists of larger and more costly machines.
Each semester, Tekla Labs researchers help individual students build equipment. They also team up with Engineering World Health on a DeCal (student-run) course that tasks undergraduate students with designing inexpensive product prototypes. In one case, a student was sent to Radio Shack for supplies to build a magnetic stirrer; she returned with a light-switch circuit box, which ended up serving quite nicely as housing for the stirrer.
“Where the outlet would have plugged in we placed the speed dial,” Nilsson says. “The core requirement is that the parts must be cheap and easy to find. My lab has four magnetic stirrers and they cost $250 and up. We built one for $30 that runs off a battery.”
Once the documentation and instructions are complete, they are added to the lab’s online library and become universally available under an unrestrictive creative commons license.
The database could also help American high school students build their own equipment, adds bioengineering doctoral student Bertram Koelsch, another Tekla Labs partner. “A lot of high school labs are underfunded. One class could build the equipment and subsequent classes could use it.”
Nilsson and Koelsch envision expanding to an open-source network through which researchers share their own improvements, pose questions and propose alternative solutions to research challenges. Ultimately, says Nilsson, she hopes that Tekla Labs can help provide scientists around the world with the tools and connectivity they need to do their work.
Tekla used some of the money from the Big Ideas prize to present their model to the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s February meeting in Vancouver.
“My dream is to make it possible for people to pursue the questions they couldn’t have before because they didn’t have the means to do so,” says Nilsson. “I would like to help develop the equivalent of the Fletcher Lab in one of those countries.”