Image: University of California, San Diego
Students at the Jacobs School of Engineering are working to
develop a cheaper, lighter, multifunction microscope that could be used in
clinics in developing countries. Their prototype will be flown to Mozambique this summer and field tested at
Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in the country’s capital, Maputo.
Similar microscopes can cause more than $50,000. “We are aiming
for under $500,” said Eliah Aronoff-Spencer, a physician scientist in UC San
Diego’s infectious disease department and the project’s sponsor. The low-cost
microscope has another advantage: it’s run by a laptop or iPad to which it
sends the images it captures. That means physicians can start using and sharing
data right away.
Aronoff-Spencer is one of the physicians partnering with Mozambique
doctors to improve research, training, and technology in the country as part of
a five-year, $12.5-million award from the U.S. Medical Education Partnership
badly needs medical equipment, the UC San Diego doctor explained. The country
of about 23.5 million residents has less than 1,000 doctors and only two
functioning medical schools. It is building two more.
Engineering undergraduates said building the microscope is the
best learning experience they’ve had in their years on campus.
“It really brings home all the issues we talk about in
class,” said Kyle Stewart, one of the four mechanical engineering seniors
working on the device. “All that becomes real when you work on this project.”
Stewart said he had a great internship last summer. “But I
didn’t learn anywhere near what I’ve learned from this.”
The students’ goal is to design a three-in-one device that
can be used as a brightfield and fluorescent microscope as well as a
spectrophotometer to examine everything from blood cells to bacteria.
Traditional two-in-one microscopes don’t historically include spectroscopy and
can cost more than $50,000.
The students are now on their third prototype for the
microscope and estimate there will be at least three more before the quarter is
over. The goal is a 6-by-6-by-13 in box with different trays that activate
different kinds of lighting.
Their decision to keep slide trays stationary, and the
optics mobile, is what made the device possible, said Leonardo Costello, one of
the four students working on the project. In a traditional microscope, it’s the
other way around.
Their device uses a CMOS chip in the imaging unit and a full
CCD chip to take spectrometry pictures in any position. The ultimate goal is to
image objects down to 0.5 microns in diameter. A hair’s breadth is about 100