How did you get into working with 3D printing for developing countries?
I started working on printed microscopes for fun, as a Friday afternoon project. The applications found me rather than the other way around; it started with a student project on water testing in Cambridge (which is now a start-up, WaterScope). From there, I got in touch with people interested in using it for malaria diagnostics, and it snowballed into a set of research projects that are now the majority of what I work on.
Your invention of 3D printed microscopes to boost science in developing countries is up for an award, what can these microscopes be used for?
Many things! Probably the most exciting one is malaria diagnosis – while they’re not yet certified, we’re doing a clinical study in Tanzania, aiming to record enough blood smears that we can train computer vision algorithms to recognise the parasites. We hope they’ll find uses in universities and schools, and we’re working with a number of different partners to make that happen.
Do you ever visit Africa? What did you do on your visits?
I’ve been out every year since 2016, to visit engineering labs where people are producing the microscopes, see clinics where they might eventually be used, and make contacts in universities and hospitals. It’s really valuable to see where the technology will be used (and produced), as well as building relationships with the people there. I spend several hours a week on video calls, but it’s never quite the same.
On one visit we met Dr Christine Mwase in Dar es Salaam. It turns out she’s an alumna, who graduated with a degree in electrical engineering (I think) some years ago. She gave one of the keynote talks at the conference we attended.
What research are you involved in going forward?
The current projects in our group range from research into the underlying 3D printed mechanisms that make the microscope possible, to work focused on automation of the microscope, and large scale data analysis for e.g. malaria diagnostics or following the lifecycle of parasites as they replicate in blood.
What do you hope to achieve with your research?
One of my big goals is making “open source hardware” a core part of mainstream science; the microscope is completely free to download, so you can build one yourself. That’s not only cheaper for people to make, it sidesteps a lot of the supply chain issues that are present in developing countries. For scientific instruments, though, it makes even more sense – these are usually customised, generally produced in small quantities, and must be understood by the scientists who use them. That means it’s incredibly valuable to eliminate “black box” hardware by providing full schematics, even if there is no difference to the price. OpenFlexure Industries, which is currently up for a Launch Great West award, aims to produce these microscopes commercially, but without locking down any part of the design with patents or warranty stickers. It’s an experiment that I hope will be useful to many of my fellow scientists!