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McArthur ‘genius’ engagement through DBT helped ‘democratizing science’

Inspired by the vision of our Honorable Prime Minister two years ago, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) had taken on itself the task of spotting Indian scientists who were making their mark abroad and using their talents for the benefit of the Nation.

On August 12 last year, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology (DBT) Professor K VijayRaghavan tweeted to Dr Manu Prakash, of Stanford University.

‘Hi, can we discuss using Foldscope widely in India? I am at the Dept of Biotech, Govt of India’.
Dr Prakash who hailed from Rampur in Uttar Pradesh is an alumnus of IIT Kanpur. He had been working on out of the box solutions that would reach the benefits of science to the remotest corners of the world through PrakashLab, which he created while working at Stanford University. One of the solutions was Foldscope, an origami microscope which costs $1 to produce.

Dr Prakash responded immediately welcoming it. A Skype call followed subsequently. Prime Minister’s office also responded enthusiastically to the call requesting for his support.
Rapid communication through the social media played a crucial role quickly paving the pathway for collaboration between PrakashLab and DBT.

In October a letter of intent was signed between the two organizations to spread the foldscope technology widely through DBT’s network. PrakashLab was scheduled to source Foldscope to DBT and its constituents. DBT would reach it to schools, colleges, forest field officers and help encourage an interest in field observation and research.
Dr Prakash was excited about engaging through DBT to extend further the Foldscope’s reach to all parts of India. He said, “Our vision is to bring a microscope into the hands of every single kid in the world”.

In short, this was an opportunity for him to realize his dream of ‘democratizing science’. Besides, it was also a wonderful example of how small moves to connect with the world can translate already generated knowledge to our people. In this case, the social media played a crucial role in establishing connections that can reach science to the people.

“Partnering with PrakashLab’s Foldscope is an exciting new adventure for the Department of Biotechnology. It is Citizen Science at its best. The Foldscope is torchlight in the hands of human curiosity that allows each and every one of us to explore our planet at the microscopic level, just as the telescope allows us to explore the stars. The beauty we see and the science underneath it will create a new generation of young scientists in India. We look forward to taking this wonderful partnership ahead” said Professor VijayRaghavan, Secretary Department of Biotechnology during the signing of the letter of intent.

The DBT started to provide Foldscope to students of the Star College scheme in each identified college, which would use Foldscope as an educational and training tool to understand physics, chemistry, biology and instrumentation.

Starting December 2015, a series of workshops on foldscope was organized in colleges of Delhi and those of the North East. Workshops in Delhi were organized in Venkateshwara College and Gargi College and in several colleges of Guwahati and Kaziranga.

This month (September 2016)
, Manu Prakash received the MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant for unraveling “hard to explain phenomena” and inventing “solutions to difficult problems” in the sciences.

One of the major innovations he was hailed for was the Foldscope, which ‘have been used for everything from examining algae blooms to diagnosing diseases to leading classroom lessons in rural corners of the globe’.
During signing of the letter of intent with DBT Dr Prakash had been excited about engaging through DBT to bring the microscope to every kid in India, probably more so because he had been born and educated here and knows the longing of science loving children to explore the world of the minute through it.

This was a case of matching of views that focused to create a spark. The Prime Minister has been stressing on using Indian experts abroad to bring benefits to India. Early identification and connecting with this (now) McArthur genius was instrumental in creating magic through science driven by the young.

DBT aspires to tap a million talents like this to reach the benefits of science to the remotest corners of the nation.