Cell (phone) biologist

Daniel Miller, a recent biological sciences M.S. graduate, built a DIY microscope with less than $10 in materials and a smartphone.

Daniel Miller, a recent biological sciences M.S. graduate, built a DIY microscope with less than $10 in materials and a smartphone. Photo by Sam O’Keefe.

Armed with a smartphone and a few dollars’ worth of trinkets and hardware store supplies, Daniel Miller is helping Missouri S&T students gain a new perspective on the world of cellular biology.

Last spring, while Miller was wrapping up his graduate studies in applied and environmental biology, he found a website that showed how to build a digital microscope with inexpensive supplies, a smartphone and a power drill. “I thought I’d give it a try,” says the St. Louis native.

He liked the result and thought this do-it-yourself approach might appeal to some of the undergraduate students in a lab course where he served as a teaching assistant. So he offered extra credit to any of the students in that lab who built their own smartphone-enabled microscope. Fifteen of the 50 took him up on it.

Close-up of a pine cone ovulate as viewed through Daniel Miller's DIY microscope.

Close-up of a pine cone ovulate as viewed through Daniel Miller’s DIY microscope.

“They love it,” he says. “They get to take it home and can use it to look at specimens whenever they want.”

While the quality of the DIY microscope isn’t on par with the conventional models found in university labs – the most basic smartphone version can enlarge up to 175 times a specimen’s actual size, whereas real microscopes typically enlarge by 600 times – the price is in line with a college student’s budget. And the portability, as Miller points out, is an added benefit.

Now, Miller’s idea is being incorporated into a campus initiative to reimagine instructional labs. Missouri S&T recently received a grant from the University of Missouri System to redesign instructional labs in five different disciplines: biological sciences, chemistry, civil engineering, physics and nuclear engineering. Based on the results of those experiments in learning, project organizers plan to put together a how-to manual that other colleges and universities could use.

“We’re working with different lab courses on campus that use blended or online learning and plan to come up with an instructional model that could be reproduced anywhere,” says Angela Hammons, manager of instructional technology services at Missouri S&T.

Miller’s cell phone biology tool is an important part of that initiative. This fall, students enrolled in the General Biology course taught by Terry Wilson, an associate teaching professor, will build their own digital microscopes using carriage bolts, nuts, wing nuts, washers, plywood and Plexiglas from a hardware store, laser pointer lenses, LED click lights from a keychain flashlight and a smartphone.

Wilson was looking at commercial kits and online versions of microscopes to incorporate into her General Biology lab, but was not satisfied with what was available. When Miller showed her his prototype, “I was blown away by it,” she says. “I was really shocked by how good a job it does.”

In commercially available biology lab kits, “the microscope is usually the most expensive thing,” Wilson says. The DIY model “is much more cost-effective. It’s the perfect solution for us.”
by Andrew Careaga

Comments

  1. Al hardwick says:

    I would like to see a video of how its constructed, this would be a great science project, for kids at home.

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