Oct 16, 2011
It is often said that in graduate school one learns not what to think but how to think. This statement sounds trite, but Nina Dudnik believes it may determine the long-term success of Seeding Labs. Dudnik, the founder and CEO of the Cambridge-based non-profit, has been sending surplus laboratory equipment to scientists in the developing world for nearly a decade. The departments of chemistry at the Kenyatta University and University of Nairobi, for example, use the donations to train students in their undergraduate teaching labs. Other partnerships allow scientists to study Parkinson’s disease in India, pharmacology of native plants in Kenya, and cellular metabolism in Chile.
Seeding Labs’ mission is to support and expand scientific research in developing countries, but not because they believe all people have an inherent right to the simple joy unfettered scientific pursuit. Rather, Seeding Labs aims to democratize the technological benefits of a knowledge economy and allow developing countries to reap the fruit of homegrown scientific research.
But equipment alone does not produce good, practical science. A scientist must first ask a relevant question, and then design a series of experiments to test it. If students are involved in the research, the projects must also be designed to allow students to engage in the type of inquiry that will teach them to become productive scientists. Moreover, at a systems level, the scientist must be able to argue for his research to funding agencies.
These last two points – the training of the next generation of scientists and the establishment of stable financial support – are essential for the sustainability of gains achieved by one-time shipments of equipment. Dudnik acknowledges that scientists in the developing world often lack these crucial “soft” skills, which Western scientists typically acquire during the long crucible of a doctoral thesis.
A new program called Seeding Labs Fellows is designed to expand the organization’s impact into this realm of teaching how to think. Seeding Labs Fellows are young scientists from the developing world that come to the US for a ten week intensive training course (currently hosted by the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, MA). Beyond getting acquainted with cutting edge laboratory equipment, the fellows network with American scientists and receive training in grant writing, curriculum development, and project design.
I am reminded of Everett Rogers’ treatise, the Diffusion of Innovations, in which he describes all innovations as having a hardware component and a software component. This is true for purely technological devices like the iPhone, which is appealing for its sleek, full-body glass touchscreen (hardware) and for its simple, elegant, customizable interface (software). It is also true for cultural innovations like anti-HIV public health campaigns that combine condoms and vaginal microbicides (hardware) with a social push to increase testing and destigmatize the disease (software).
The experience of Seeding Labs in the decade since its inception indicates that science, too, is an innovation with both hardware and software components. To successfully expand scientific research and all its attendant benefits in the developing world, one must provide both the proper physical tools and the proper intellectual tools. Seeding Labs was founded to do the former, with their first shipment of used laboratory equipment scrounged from the halls of Harvard University’s biochemistry department. They have grown in scale to $680k of equipment distributed to labs in 16 countries, and follow-up reports indicate that recipient scientists train more students, work on more projects, and receive more grants than they did before the equipment upgrade.
But in science, software distribution is more difficult than hardware distribution. Tools, even when used correctly, are impotent if they’re not directed toward meaningful problems by proper experiments. It is wonderful that Seeding Labs recognizes the necessity of educating scientists in the developing world in the soft skills required to form a sustainable scientific culture. It remains to be seen just how much the Seeding Labs Fellows program will contribute towards meeting this goal. For their sake, and for the sake of the local communities that stand to benefit from future scientific advances, we wish them the best.
This article is based on observations from the Harvard/MIT Health Sciences & Technology course Designing and Sustaining Technology Innovation for Global Health Practice. MIT, Harvard, and Sloan students interested in an entrepreneurial approach to global health and development are encouraged to enroll.