The inverted microscope design utilizes two first-surface mirrors to bend the optical path into a conveniently shaped body. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow)

RICE (US)—The backbreaking work of delivering medical care to those in need will get a little less so if the next version of Rice University’s Lab-in-a-Backpack incorporates a compact, yet powerful microscope that weighs about a pound.


Rice bioengineering student Andy Miller, who designed a tiny, portable microscope. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow)

Andy Miller, a senior bioengineering student at Rice, designed the microscope that will nestle among the other diagnostic supplies in the pack—a product of Rice 360° and Beyond Traditional Borders international health initiatives. The pack can be carried to otherwise-inaccessible locations, like remote villages where residents rarely see a doctor. Rice will send about three dozen backpacks abroad this summer.

The microscope would replace a standard instrument at least four times as heavy and much more fragile. The new scope is built into its own protective case, eliminating the bulky and expensive packing material the original microscope required to keep it from breaking in the field.
The project gained praise from former President Bill Clinton and financial backing from the Clinton Global Initiative University last summer.

With the support of Maria Oden, a Rice lecturer on bioengineering and director of the university’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, Miller has been refining his plastic microscope, which incorporates lenses and mirrors and matches the performance of stock instruments. His target price to make each unit is $180, the price of the instrument currently used in the backpack, and he hopes the final version will come in for less than that.

The initial design came together quickly. “From coming up with the idea to having a prototype took less than a month. That, in design terms, is just amazing,” he adds.

The device is smartly packaged, with the case becoming the base. Once assembled, it can magnify objects up to 1,000 times through a clever use of lenses and mirrors. Miller says it’s an inverted microscope, because light passes through the upside-down slide and then the lens, and is redirected by two mirrors to the eyepiece. Conveniently, light to power the system comes from any standard flashlight.

“This hasn’t been done before,” says Miller. “And the wonderful thing is, it’s multifunctional. You can take out the flashlight and do an eye exam, do an ear exam, whatever else you need.”

Miller says the microscope could have been half its size, but that would have meant using custom lenses. Having settled on standard items that can be easily replaced if broken, he spent three weeks getting the best price.

Though he’s still tweaking the focusing mechanism and working on ways to incorporate fluorescence microscopy, which would greatly increase its value as a field microscope, Miller expects the still-nameless instrument will be part of a backpack Rice will send out into the world this summer.
“I’ve probably got one or two minor changes before it’s finalized, but an important part of designing something is getting feedback,” he adds. “I’m not looking for perfection—I’m looking to get it out and get it used as soon as possible.”

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