A vision to help: Engineering students design bare-bones microscope for clinics in developing world

Jun 06, 2012
Kyle Stewart, left, and Reggie Ballesteros at work on a prototype for a three-in-one microscope, which will be field tested in Mozambique this summer.

(Phys.org) -- Students at the Jacobs School of Engineering are working to develop a cheaper, lighter, multi-function 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.

Their goal is to design a three-in-one device that can be used as a brightfield and fluorescent as well as a spectrophotometer to examine everything from blood cells to bacteria. Traditional 2-in-one microscopes can cost more than $50,000—and none have historically been equipped for spectroscopy as well. “We are aiming for under $500,” said Dr. 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 and sends the images it captures to a laptop or iPad so physicians can start using and sharing data right away.

Dr. 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 Initiative. Mozambique badly needs medical equipment, the UC San Diego doctor explained. The country of 20 million residents, and less than 1,000 doctors, only has two functioning medical schools and is building two more.

Engineering undergraduates said building the microscope is the best learning experience they’ve had 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 prototype's design displayed on a laptop.

The 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 inches box with different trays that allow for different imaging techniques.

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.

Images obtained with the new low-cost microscope. Left: blood cells. Right: a stained blood sample. 

The 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 microns.

The project has become a full-time job for the students, who have been spending eight to 14 hours a day, five days a week, in the lab at EBU II. “It’s to the point where people are surprised if they don’t see us in here,” Stewart joked.

All say they knew they wanted to be engineers from a young age. Stewart has played with LEGOs since he was 6 years old and learned how to use LEGO Mindstorms as part of a middle school gifted and talented students program. “I’ve always liked making things, so everything pointed to engineering,” he said. He is going to graduate school at San Diego State University.

Reginald Ballesteros is following in the footsteps of his father, who is a civil engineer. He will be interning at Goodrich Aerostructures this summer. In the fall, he will be going to Santa Clara University for a master’s degree in mechatronics.

Costello’s father was a general contractor. Costello, who was home schooled until he came to UC San Diego, often got to spend time with him on the job. The younger Costello also spent a lot of time in the family’s garage, building various creations. He recently accepted a job at North American Repower, a company that specializes in heavy-duty natural gas engine technology.

Sean Patno is responsible for much of the user interface and software aspects of the project. He will probably land a job as a software engineer after he graduates, he said.

Dr. Aronoff-Spencer said he has been impressed by the students’ work—and by their work ethic.

“They are working harder than any students I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Explore further: California quake points to research advancements in retrofitting older buildings

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

At the edge of a cliff, health care must evolve quickly

Feb 10, 2012

To reverse America’s unsustainable health-care costs, Congress must adopt more refined, nimble strategies and get tough in the face of those pushing to keep the status quo, according to Dr. Donald M. ...

There's a mouse in the maze

Jun 15, 2011

First, there was Mickey Mouse. Then came Mighty Mouse. Now, at the dawn of the 21st century, comes micromouse, the little robot that could. Actually, a total of 13 micromice visited the UC San Diego campus ...

Recommended for you

Greater safety and security at Europe's train stations

Sep 01, 2014

When a suspicious individual fleas on a bus or by train, then things usually get tough for the police. This is because the security systems of the various transportation companies and security services are ...

Fingerprints for freight items

Sep 01, 2014

Security is a top priority in air freight logistics but screening procedures can be very time consuming and costly. Fraunhofer researchers intend to boost efficiency with a new approach to digital logistics, ...

On the way to a safe and secure smart home

Sep 01, 2014

A growing number of household operations can be managed via the Internet. Today's "Smart Home" promises efficient building management. But often the systems are not secure and can only be retrofitted at great ...

DIY glove-based tutor indicates muscle-memory potential

Aug 31, 2014

A senior editor at IEEE Spectrum worked on a DIY project that enabled his 11-year-old son to improve his touch typing by use of a vibrating glove. His son was already "pretty quick on the keyboard," said ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dschlink
not rated yet Jun 06, 2012
Moving the programming from the device to an inexpensive laptop is a smart move.