Print your Lab

(April 28th, 2015) Sharing is a good thing and, in some cases, it can even power public science engagement. Researchers at the University of Tübingen have taken open source, 3D printed lab equipment to developing countries.

The satisfaction of building something by yourself is undeniable. This is certainly the view of amateur biologists, a group of people from all walks of life sharing an interest in building lab equipment, like a micromanipulator or a micropipette, and conducting experiments outside an academic environment.

Known as DIY Biology, this movement has reached worldwide proportions relying on a simple principle: sharing. In fact, the only requisite to join this community is not a scientific background or a PhD in electronics, but simply a willingness to share ideas, which anybody can use, modify and improve. "Sharing is the core of the open source movement," explains Andre Maia Chagas, a systems neurophysiologist based at the University of Tübingen, Germany.

The contributor base may still be relatively limited, but Chagas believes the movement has "legs" to move forward. "Like any new idea/technology it will be some time until a large number of people take it up and it becomes common place, but I think there is a big chance that we'll soon see a large number of people sharing their equipment designs." There's certainly a learning curve to go through, but as time passes and the community matures and grows, equipment developed under the open source philosophy will undoubtedly become more complex and reliable. More importantly, adds the researcher: "As the 3D printing industry evolves, with more precise and capable printers, areas where DIY equipment fabrication was impossible will become part of the possible range."

For many, the obvious application for this movement is in schools and universities in developing countries. Being able to customise lab equipment or even build a device from scratch may represent the best way for institutions with a limited budget to get their hands on much needed equipment. The problem is that, in these countries, most teachers and lecturers lack even the most basic knowledge needed in computer programming and electronics to build such devices. In an effort to change this Tom Baden and his team, including Chagas, travelled half-way around the world and organised training events in schools and universities in sub-Saharan Africa (TReND) and Latin America (Backyard Brains).

Events ranged from three week summer schools for university students in Tanzania and Uganda to seminars and workshops for school students in Chile and Mexico, as well as lectures held in many schools and public places. Some of the more hands-on events allowed participants to build their own devices, which could then be used in real experiments. This way, participants had to learn to "read" the circuit diagram and assemble the necessary electronic components to solder on a printed circuit board.

"In the most recent events we were even able to bring a 3D printer and have the participants design their very own equipment," explains Chagas. Incredibly, students were able to go from never having modelled any 3D parts, to a 3D printable model in a single day. The team also discussed the merits of self-built vs commercial solutions for different types of experiments. Micropipettes were a case in point, as 3D printed versions are typically less accurate, but nonetheless still adequate for experiments that don't require high precision measurements.

Especially for those students completely new to the world of circuit boards, capacitors and transistors, it was a daunting process at first. However, the initial fear quickly dissipated and soon students were attempting to repair or even modify their devices. Low cost parts also meant participants could indulge in building their own designs rather than simply use their school or university equipment, making them much more devoted to its success and maintenance. Given these results, the team strongly believes that the introduction of open source devices in this environment could open up wide possibilities, independent of participant's education or budget.

With this in mind, alumni of previous workshops are now taking over and organising outreach events further afield. These former students are now the perfect role models, as they come from the same background as the students they're trying to reach. These workshops also provide valuable materials and ideas for teachers. It's remarkable how educating only few students at a high level can have such a far-reaching and long-lasting impact.

Also thinking long-term, TReND and Backyard Brains are attempting to spread the message about a career in science. For this, the team has participated in over a hundred outreach workshops and talked to over 10,000 students, parents and teachers. This involves a two hour lecture followed by practical demonstrations, which are typically hijacked by students keen to have a go themselves.

From this, the interest in self-built lab equipment is clear and can be the ideal "engine" to promote scientific research and a better public science engagement. In developing countries, this approach could mean affordable equipment built locally with the appealing possibility of customisation depending on available parts. After all, the sky is the limit when it comes to homemade devices, from simple micropipettes and centrifuges to more sophisticated PCR machines or even microscopes.

Alex Reis

Picture: Baden et al., PLoS Biology

Last Changes: 06.12.2015