Making Science

“The advance of technology is based on making it fit in so that you don’t really even notice it,so it’s part of everyday life.”
Bill Gates

There was a time when all biologists were also artists because they had to create drawings of their observations. Even after the invention of the camera, it was still easier to reproduce line art on a print press then photographs for quite some time.

Modern chemists purchase their glassware online or through a catalog. However, there was a time when a lot of chemists were also glass blowers. After all, if you can’t buy what you need, you must make it.  When I was an undergraduate, my university still had a full glass shop.

Early astronomers like Galileo designed and built their telescopes. Early biologists like van Leeuwenhoek, the discoverer of microorganisms, made their microscopes.  The development of optics for both telescopes and microscopes is a fascinating story in and of itself.

In a lot of ways, the progression of science is the progress of technology. The use of new technology in scientific research allows us to ask questions and collect data in ways that we previously could not, leading to advancements in our scientific understanding.

There are still fields like physics and astronomy were building instruments a standard part of the field. However, for many areas, the acquisition of new technology is most often made at conference booths or out of catalogs.

There is a problem with the model of companies providing all the scientific instrumentation. While standard equipment is readily available companies know about it and can make money, companies rarely invest in equipment with a tiny market.  It just happens the rare and nonexistent instrumentation is where innovation can move science forward: Unfortunately, only the scientists working at the cutting edge of their fields know about these needs.

Historically building new equipment has been a costly and challenging process. The equipment used to make a prototype has been expensive and took up a lot of space.Depending on the type of equipment created the electronics and programming might also be complicated.

However, over the last couple of decades, this has changed. There are now desktop versions of laser cutters, vinyl cutters, multi-axis CNC machines;I even recently saw an ad for a desktop water jet cutter. There is also the continuously improving world of 3-D printers. On the electronic side, there is both the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi platforms that allow rapid electronics prototyping using off-the-shelf equipment. Additionally, these tools allow the rapid creation of sophisticated equipment.

This list only represents some of the equipment currently available. The one thing that we can say for sure is that desktop manufacturing tools will become more cost-effective and more precise with future generations.

However, right now I could equip a digital fabrication(desktop style) shop with all the tools I talked about for less than the cost of a single high-end microscope. If access to desktop fabrication tools become standard how will it change science and science education?

There are currently organizations like Open-Labware.net and the PLoS Open Hardware Collection, making open-source lab equipment available. These organizations design and organize open-source science equipment. The idea is that open-source equipment can be cheaply built allowing access to science at lower costs. Joshua Pearce, the Richard Witte Endowed Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Michigan Tech,has even written a book on the open-source laboratory, Open-Source Lab, 1st Edition, How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs.

Imagine a lab that could produce equipment when it needs it.It would no longer be necessary to keep something because you might need it someday. Not only would we be reducing costs, but we would also free up limited space. As an example, a project I was involved with used multiple automated syringe pumps to dispense fluid through the internet each pump cost more than$1000.  A paper published in PLOS ONE describes the design and creation of an open-sourceweb controllable syringe pump that costs about $160.

Researchers can now save thousands of dollars and slash the time it takes to complete experiments by printing parts for their own custom-designed syringe pumps. Members of Joshua Pearce's lab made this web-enabled double syringe pump for less than $160. Credit: Emily Hunt
Researchers can now save thousands of dollars and slash the time it takes to complete experiments by printing parts for their own custom-designed syringe pumps. Members of Joshua Pearce’s lab made this web-enabled double syringe pump for less than $160. Credit: Emily Hunt

Let’s take this a step further, why create standard equipment. As a graduate student, I did a lot of standard experiments especially in the areas of gel electrophoresis. However, a lot of the time I had to fit my experiments into the commercially available equipment. If I could’ve customized my equipment to meet my research, I could’ve been more efficient and faster. 

Beyond customization what about rare or unique equipment, the sort of thing that you can’t buy. Instead of trying to find a way to ask a question with equipment that is”financially” viable and therefore available design and builds tools to ask the questions the way you want.

What kind of educational changes would we need to realize this research utopia? Many of the skills are already taught and would only require changes in focus and depth.

In my physical chemistry lab course, we learn Basic programming so that we could model atmospheric chemistry. What if instead of Basic we learned to program C/C++ that Arduino uses. If we design additional labs across multiple courses that use programming to run models, simulations, and control sensors learning to program would be part of the primary curriculum.

In my introductory physics class,I learned basic electronics and circuit design. Introductory physics is a course that most if not all science students need to take.With a little bit of refinement, the electronics and circuit design could take care of the electronics for equipment design. The only real addition would be a computer-aided design (CAD) course so that students/researchers can learn to design parts for 3-D printers and multi-axis CNC’s. Alternatively, all the training to use and run desktop fabrication equipment could be taken care of with a couple of classes.

The design and availability of desktop fabricating equipment can change how we do science by allowing customization and creation of scientific instruments to fit the specific needs of the researcher. What do you think,should we embrace the desktop fabrication (Maker) movement as part of science?Should the creation of equipment stay a specialized field? Is it a good idea but perhaps you think there isn’t space in the curriculum to fit in training?

Thanks for Listening to My Musings

The Teaching Cyborg

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