Curiosity-driven. That is Dr. Manu Prakash in a nutshell. Born and raised in India, he didn’t have many economic resources as a young man, but his creativity and curiosity were plentiful. Today he is an award-winning and world-renowned scientist, inventor and professor of bioengineering at Stanford University. His thirst for knowledge and sense of awe remain intact, and inspire his mission to empower people through science.
Prakash is visiting Puerto Rico this week (November 5-10, 2018) for a series of events organized by Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR) and the Puerto Rico Science, Technology, and Research Trust (PRST), in collaboration with the Department of Education, and Ponce Health Sciences University. Prakash, who is a member of CienciaPR’s Board of Directors, will be offering two workshops (November 8 in San Juan and November 9 in Ponce) to train educators on how to use Foldscope, a low-cost origami microscope invented by him and his team, to promote exploration of local environments and natural wonders.
Teachers will not only learn how to assemble and use the microscopes, but will also think about ways their students might use them for research and discovery. The workshops will include 120 teachers from the public education system, and are part of CienciaPR’s efforts to transform science education by encouraging culturally-relevant project-based learning in schools. Twenty of the educators taking part in these workshops are participants of “Ciencia al Servicio de Puerto Rico”, CienciaPR’s flagship science education project, which brings together teachers and scientists to co-create lessons that challenge middle school students to use science to contribute to their communities. Prakash will also be the keynote speaker at the Forward Research and Innovation Summit 2018, hosted by PRST on November 10.
We talked to Prakash about his visit to Puerto Rico (answers have been edited for length and clarity).
Why do you feel such strong commitment to CienciaPR’s mission of transforming science education in Puerto Rico? How do you hope that your visit will contribute to advancing that mission?
I am new to Puerto Rico. By engaging with CienciaPR, I am learning about its rich history and the scientific infrastructure and systems that support it. Often in my life, I learn from people with different circumstances, life experiences and context than mine. Over the years, I have read the news and seen the challenges with respect to access to healthcare and education in Puerto Rico, which have been heightened by Hurricane Maria. CienciaPR has provided me the right context to jump in and engage, and see what we [his team] can learn and what we can bring and teach.
Much of our work is built around the idea that communities—when empowered with scientific tools—can transform local challenges into opportunities. I wish something like that would unfold in Puerto Rico with the scientific tools (microscopy, biodiversity mapping, vector surveillance and so forth) we develop in my lab. I am optimistic and excited.
What does it mean for you to hold these Foldscope workshops in Puerto Rico?
Puerto Rico is a biodiversity paradise. I love how the sense of wonder gets reinvigorated on a tropical island, surrounded by unbounded ocean so vast that’s hard to fathom. Holding Foldscope workshops in these places, giving kids the right set of tools to make their own discoveries is a powerful example to me. It’s where curiosity can beat the resource-challenges we all know we face. Let’s see what will be discovered by the more than 3,600 kids we impact through training their teachers!
My real hope is to bring Foldscope to every kid growing up in Puerto Rico. We will do this, one microscope at a time. We could set an example for the rest of the world. We can show what having the right kind of access to mentors and role models (like the ones you can find through CienciaPR or the Foldscope community) and tools for exploration can do to the creative process in learning. If we can do this in Puerto Rico, we can replicate these models at other locations.
What else do you hope will result of this visit to Puerto Rico?
This trip is a means for me to find my own feet in Puerto Rico. Since half of my work also focuses on creating new tools to understand marine life, I also plan to explore if we could build a more permanent connection with the scientific community in Puerto Rico.
In collaboration with the Puerto Rico Vector Control Unit and several citizen science organizations, I plan to build a big local community for the Abuzz Project, a real-time mosquito surveillance system in which citizens can use their mobile phones (even flip phones) to record the buzzing sound of a mosquito and upload it for free to a website, to help us create a more accurate map of where these insects are. Choosing an island to do this is scientifically very relevant and will serve to show the world that these approaches can be implemented with limited resources.
Finally, I am very thankful to members of CienciaPR and Puerto Rico Science Trust for hosting us, inviting us into their homes and teaching us about the challenges and opportunities that exist. As a scientist, I could not resist getting involved.