Bioengineer Manu Prakash wins prestigious MacArthur grant

The bioengineer develops novel tools for “frugal science” — inexpensive devices that can be used to tackle global health problems and that also aim to democratize access to scientific experience.

Manu Prakash will receive $625,000 over five years from the MacArthur Foundation.
Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Manu Prakash, PhD, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford, has been named one of the 2016 fellows of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The fellowships, popularly known as “genius grants,” are awarded to scholars who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future. It includes a $625,000 stipend over five years, designed to provide recipients with the flexibility to pursue their activities in the absence of specific obligations.

The MacArthur Foundation recognized Prakash for his research that is “driven by curiosity about the diversity of life forms on our planet and how they work, empathy for problems in resource-poor settings, and a deep interest in democratizing the experience and joy of science globally.”

“Manu Prakash is not only one of the most innovative scientists of our day, he is also using his interdisciplinary expertise to improve human health around the world,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, PhD. “He harnesses a wide array of technologies, including optical physics, computer science, fluid dynamics, biology and chemistry, to solve tangible human and scientific problems. It is fitting that his creative approach to applying scientific principles has been recognized as true genius by the MacArthur Foundation.”

Prakash almost didn’t pick up the phone when the MacArthur Foundation called. He was caring for his 4-month-old twins at the time. “I was very sleep-deprived when the phone rang,” he said. “My main reaction is that it is a very humbling experience because there are so many people in the world doing amazing work.”

Driven by curiosity

Prakash said his research has been driven by curiosity about the world rather than answering a particular question. “I’ve done science the way I’ve wanted to do science,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to convince others that we are taking the right approach. This award gives me the flexibility to not think about those bounds.”

Manu’s work could help solve some of the biggest issues facing us in global health.

Prakash’s studies problems in organismal biology through the lens of physics. He also builds tools and approaches to do field science that are both low-cost and extremely powerful, bringing science out of the lab and to parts of the world where traditional tools aren’t feasible.

One example of this approach is a microscope made out of paper with a glass bead for a lens, called the Foldscope. It costs less than a dollar to make and has now been distributed by his lab to more than 50,000 people in 135 countries who use the tool in research and education.

“What the community has done with the Foldscope is phenomenal,” said Prakash, who requests that people who receive Foldscopes share back on what they’ve learned with the Foldscope community.

People around the world have used Foldscopes for projects exploring diseases in bees, documenting pollen grains in urban landscapes, mapping biodiversity of microscopic organisms, detecting cervical cancer, and teaching hygiene and sanitation and in hands-on education among many other projects.

“Manu’s work could help solve some of the biggest issues facing us in global health,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “His creativity has led to powerful, low-cost technologies that people in remote locations can use to study and treat disease in their communities. These are the kinds of solutions that will bring real change to health-care challenges.”

An eye toward global health

Prakash said that many of his ideas come from his travels and from his childhood growing up in India. “Being in the field gives meaning to working in global health,” Prakash said. “It teaches you empathy, a driving force so strong that it transforms ideas into actions.”

An example of this is his work designing tools to track and detect mosquito species by people around the world. This work would allow communities to survey mosquitoes at large scale and track the vectors for some of the most deadly diseases. In a few months, the Prakash lab will start testing some of these tools in a field site in Madagascar.

“Manu’s contributions to global health are an inspiration to us all,” said Persis Drell, PhD, dean of the School of Engineering. “It is through precisely the kinds of creative innovations in technology that Manu is developing that we can have significant impact on the world’s urgent challenges.”

Some of his other work is more whimsical in origin. When Prakash’s wife gave him a mechanical music box as a gift, he realized that the inner workings of the toy — with its tiny wheel spinning pins of various sizes — could be used to drive a miniature chemistry kit akin to how old mechanical computers used to work. That kit won him the Science Play and Research Kit (SPARK) competition, jointly sponsored by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Society for Science & the Public. The award was for the device’s possibility as a child’s toy, but it could also run chemical assays in remote locations, such as testing water purity or running diagnostics tests.

“Often a challenge in technology deployment is building engaged local communities that take ownership of ideas and deployment. I’d started thinking about this connection between science education and global health,” Prakash said. “The things that you make for kids to explore and experience science are also exactly the kind of things that you need in the field because they need to be robust, scalable and they need to be highly versatile.”

Another series of projects that began with his PhD work pioneering microfluidic bubble logic involves the dynamics of water droplets, whose mysterious movement had captivated Prakash. He figured out how the surface dynamics of droplets result in their dancelike interactions.

He then went on to apply what he’d learned about manipulating water droplets to develop a computer powered by the motion of droplets. “Our goal is not to compete with electronic computers or to operate word processors on this,” Prakash said. “Our goal is to build a completely new class of computers that can precisely control and manipulate physical matter at mesoscale.”

Prakash said that he doesn’t know exactly what research he will pursue with his award. “I can’t say what this will mean to my science as yet, but I know for sure we have a lot of ideas brewing,” he said.

Prakash is also a member of the interdisciplinary institutes Stanford Bio-X, Stanford ChEM-H and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Stanford’s Department of Bioengineering is jointly operated by the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering.

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