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“Making” in America, Changing the World: An Immigrant Maker’s Story

At the first-ever White House Maker Faire, truly remarkable “Makers” showed off how access to new technologies like 3D printers, laser cutters, and desktop machine tools are enabling more Americans to design and build just about anything. Even though these remarkable innovators are making in America, they weren’t all born here.

Yesterday, at the first-ever White House Maker Faire, truly remarkable “Makers” showed off how access to new technologies like 3D printers, laser cutters, and desktop machine tools are enabling more Americans to design and build just about anything. The President also announced new steps the Administration and its partners are taking to ensure that more Americans, young and old, have access to these tools and techniques for launching businesses; learning vital skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); and leading a grassroots renaissance in American manufacturing.

Even though these remarkable innovators are making in America, they weren’t all born here. Many Makers immigrated to the United States, bringing with them the passion and creativity to invent new technologies and boost the American economy.

We caught up with one of these remarkable immigrant Makers, Manu Prakash, an Assistant Professor of Bioengineering at Stanford University, and the creator of the Foldscope, an origami-based paper microscope that costs less than $1. As we focus this week on the urgency and importance of immigration reform, Manu’s story is just one example of how America benefits from attracting the best and brightest talent from around the world.

What led you to become a "Maker"?

I grew up in India, moving from small unknown towns to mega-cities and back to small towns, and saw an incredible diversity of people and lifestyles. One common theme that struck me growing up was the importance of frugality and the incredible inventions that come from lack of basic resources. Improvising and fixing things, if they break, were part of my life. I can't say one moment when I told myself I am a "Maker," but I was making stuff all along, from a matchstick-fueled replica of fuse rockets to 3D jigsaw puzzles made out of rabbit bones, to my own cricket bat and hockey sticks. That sense of building was always the biggest undercurrent in my life, and almost all of it was driven by the joy of making.

Now looking back, I realize that a lack of tools can truly stunt the growth of immense scientific potential globally. All we need to do is spark that potential and people will solve incredible problems that have remained unsolved for more than hundreds of years. We are talking about billions of Makers and scientists in the making here!

What was your experience coming to the United States from India to pursue science? Is your experience typical, or does it differ from what you saw others going through?

After a competitive exam, I got a bachelor's degree from India and applied to graduate schools in the United States. I found this absolute academic freedom to pursue both basic and applied science very broadly only in United States. I got my PhD from MIT and a chance to spend three years at the Society of Fellows at Harvard to pursue scientific directions I wanted. I got an undergrad degree in computer science, trained with an applied physicist for my PhD, did organismic biophysics and biology for my postdoc, and now run a lab in the department of bioengineering.

I don't know another place in the world that nurtures an academic experience that would be so open and allow me to explore science broadly. Never in the entire journey through the science world did I ever feel like an outsider. I see an incredible cohort of international scientists who come and train in this country and go on to do incredible things. I often make it a point to talk to them and every single story is like a thriller novel for me.

On your 50-cent microscope and $5 Chemistry Set: How did you first come up with these ideas, and what are your hopes for these products looking forward?

Most of the ideas I pursue in the field of "frugal science" have their origin in field settings -- when you truly see a problem in an unbiased manner, solutions stare straight at you. It was in a rainforest in Thailand and remote public hospitals in Africa where I conceived of most of my ideas. But it takes a rich scientific environment back at home in the U.S. to realize them and turn them from a sketch on a napkin to a real thing we can deploy in the field.

I truly believe we need to think about the scale of the problems we face. We need to enable global tinkerers, Makers, and scientists-to-be to think about problems in the environment, biodiversity, and global health. This is only possible by providing appropriate scientific tools that enable new findings in context-based field settings.

Imagine a world where every single kid is carrying a microscope in his/her pocket! This vision of scientific tools for everyone is something I am pursuing with every ounce of energy I have. We are running a large-scale beta trial for the microscope, with a goal to write a crowd-sourced microscopy/biology manual from 10,000 participants around the world. People from 130 countries have already signed up! We are also commercializing these tools, starting with the science education setting, so that everybody can have access to these tools.

How have your Indian roots and your experience as an immigrant informed your interests as a Maker and entrepreneur?

I recently started my own lab in the U.S. I decided to dedicate half of my time to frugal science (in the night time, I am a marine biophysicist). Because of growing up in a developing country context with very little resources, I naturally understand the scale of problems and the scale of solutions needed. But only by being in the hyperdrive mode of innovation in the U.S. do I have the tools at hand to actually tackle these challenges. So what I am as a Maker, an entrepreneur, and as an academic scientist is truly a juxtaposition/superposition of my experiences in these two countries.

Another common thread that my Indian roots taught me, which got strengthened by my experiences in the United States, is empathy. Without it, all the technological innovation in the world will not be utilized. It's humans that make this incredible machine we call society run. The current society is truly global and we need to be global scientists.