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Foldscopes Redux – Beginning Microbiology at Age 65

This is the fourth and final article featuring Richard Dorsett’s trip to Asia to distribute Foldscopes, the fully functional microscope, which users construct by origami principles. The Rotary Club of Tacoma #8 funded the Foldscopes for adventurer and hiking and biking enthusiast Richard Dorsett:

Some years ago, I bought two microscopes from the Washington surplus warehouse (seen here with a Foldscope in comparison).

Some years ago, I bought two microscopes from the Washington surplus warehouse. They are tip-top, one a compound scope, the other a dissection scope. I paid fifty bucks each and keep them handy for when I want to look at something. One time, I took the scopes to a friend’s birthday party and watched young children put all sort of things under the lenses (bugs, chicken poop, etc.). I thought then that a microscope would be a nice household appliance and that they should be available outside the lab.

Then I saw Stanford University’s Manu Prakash’s TED talk about the Foldscope he and his team had invented. The Foldscope is a paper, origami-based microscope that initially cost about fifty cents each to make. That, I thought to myself, is something I’d really like to take along on my travels. Even more, if I had a supply of Foldscopes, some of my touring could be developed with schools and Foldscope students as a goal. Alas, I was too late to get in on the initial Foldscope beta test, but the idea stayed with me.

My hundred scopes were funded by Tacoma Rotary #8 and arrived just before Christmas (a good thing, my flight to Laos was December 28).

As my trip to Asia began to take shape, I figured it was time to get in touch with Prakash and state my interest. He’s a busy university professor and I figured a traveling Johnny Appleseed of Microbiology might just be a perfect way to plant the seeds of Foldscopes around the world. Sure, I know Johnny Appleseed sounds corny, but with the idea to plant seeds of science in the minds of students . . . well, it’s apt until someone offers a better tag.

As luck would have it, by October the initial production of Foldscope kits was just arriving in the U.S. Eighty-five hundred Kickstart contributors had raised over $400,000. The wrinkle for me was Foldscope had an obligation to deliver scopes to its funders before others would receive orders. But luck came my way again, and I got in on the tail end of the contribution list. My hundred scopes were funded by the Rotary Club of Tacoma #8 and arrived just before Christmas (a good thing, my flight to Laos was December 28).

Two students experimenting with their Foldscopes at Vientiane Pattana School, a private academy.

My plan was to visit five schools, and to instruct and leave behind up to twenty Foldscopes in each school. I thought two in Laos, two in Cambodia, and one on Thailand was a good goal. I also thought I might have some to spare if other opportunities arose. Of course, I had no schools booked, just a belief that Foldscopes are the coolest instrument, they would be welcome, and I needed to get hopping. Hoping wasn’t going to get it done.

I wrote an inquiry letter to several schools in Vientiane, Laos, including a link to Prakash’s TED talk. An enthusiastic welcome came from a teacher and principal at the Vientiane Pattana School, a private academy about a mile from my hostel. Students had not yet returned from vacation, but I lingered a few days for the chance to meet my first group of Foldscopers, a word I may have invented. Patience, no doubt, is part of this project.

The teacher had shown the students the TED talk, so they had a good idea of what was coming.

The presentation at Pattana School went as good as I could have hoped. Then, the principal in Vientiane connected with a colleague in Luang Prabang who put me in touch with the principal of Kiettisack International School there. A few more days of cooling my heals, then wow, another enthusiastic welcome. Here, the teacher had shown the students the TED talk, so they had a good idea of what was coming.

There are days when I have no idea what’s coming next. I knew when I arrived in Luang Prabang I didn’t have anything booked in Cambodia and Chiang Mai, Thailand, was looking like a better prospect, so there I went. My friend Joyce in Seattle connected me with her friend Cheron in Chiang Mai. This led me to Maewin Samakee School, where I showed students from various hill tribes how to assemble and use Foldscopes; a pretty amazing experience.

At Maewin Samakee School students from various hill tribes were shown how to assemble and use Foldscopes; a pretty amazing experience.

Well, when the going is good, this is how it goes: Cheron connected with Bill in Seattle, who put me in touch with Carol in Mae Chan (just north of Chiang Rai). Even with short notice, Carol booked me for Foldscope workshops at the Janjawa School, a Thai government school, and Suksasongkraw School, a welfare school for hill tribe students who are poor, orphans, have parents in prison, or other disadvantages. Three schools in three days, this has been a satisfying finish to my idea to distribute Foldscopes in Asia.

Sometimes I bemuse myself with ideas that seem reasonable late at night. They often vanish come the light of day. But other times I grab hold and that is how some of my adventures take shape. So it has been with Foldscopes. Just an idea, not much of a plan, but a pretty good idea and a belief it will happen. So it has.

Even with short notice, Carol (on the left) booked me at the Janjawa School, a Thai government school, and Suksasongkraw School, a welfare school for hill tribe students who are poor, orphans, have parents in prison, or other disadvantages.

After presenting Foldscopes to five groups of students I am getting adept at assembly and instruction. I can quickly correct mistakes, theirs or mine, and can make sure their scopes will work. If one tears a focus ramp, no problem, a piece of tape makes it good. Sample stage folded wrong? It’s an easy fix. I used grains of soils for one group to prepare specimens, but think now sugar grains are perfect for first timers. They reflect light well and ensure the students have immediate successes. I learned with the last group that an iPad is best for capturing images through the lens. Bigger than a camera screen and impressive to those trying to catch an image through their scopes.

I learned that an iPad is best for capturing images through the lens. They are impressive to those trying to catch an image through their scopes.

Already, I want to go back on the road with Foldscopes. I have enough left over to give a couple of workshops back home in the Greater Tacoma area. That’d be a nice wrap-up for these first hundred scopes. There may be opportunities in the states and Carol already has nine-plus schools in mind where she thinks the scopes will be welcome. One Tacoman wants a hundred to take to India. As when I was cooling my heals in Luang Prabang, I don’t know what’s next, but I believe new doors will open.

For a project like this, doors do not open without the help and encouragement of so many. Thank you Don Doman (Tacoma), who believed in the idea before he ever saw a Foldscope. And thank you Rotary Club of Tacoma #8, for providing funds for these first hundred scopes. To Dennis Flannigan and Sondra Purcell, who support my efforts, whatever they may be. To teachers whose names I don’t know; Peter Crosthwaite and Peter Werdenberg (Vientiane), Jason and Robert at Kiettisack International School (Luang Prabang), Cheron, Jim, and Jason (Chiang Mai), Bill (Seattle), and Carol (Mae Chan). Thank you Artis and to all who have read, commented on, and shared my posts. And thank you Ben Sclair and the Suburban Times for publishing my stories as I traveled along; I enjoy having new readers. Thanks too, to all the travelers who listened patiently when I explained Foldscopes to them. And to Honomi, my contact at Foldscopes who helped me acquire my first hundred scopes. Thank you Manu Prakash, who with his team invented this fantastic device. And to wife Liz, who has more patience than I can imagine (I got lucky with that).

For a project like this, doors do not open without the help and encouragement of so many.

My muse Amanda Palmer has her own TED talk (and best selling book) called The Art of Asking. She says if you learn to ask for what you need, the world will find a way to help you. So it has been with Foldscopes. Now, as I move forward, I’ll have to work on making more asks; for Foldscope sponsors, for help finding schools, for encouraging words. Not to worry, it’ll all come.

Richard Dorsett
Bangkok, Thailand

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