'Seeding Labs'

August 24, 2007

Seeding Labs, a five-year-old, Harvard University-based effort to collect used and surplus laboratory equipment and distribute it across the developing world, aims not only to transport microscopes but also to forge connections. “You can’t do science in a vacuum, regardless of whether you’re in the U.S. or the Congo,” says Nina Dudnik, Seeding Lab’s founder and a Ph.D. student in molecular biology at Harvard Medical School. “Having the research capacity in the Congo only strengthens us here and vice versa.”

The organization, which has distributed about $300,000 in equipment on about an $8,000 budget so far, stands poised to grow after receiving a $60,000 grant this summer from the Echoing Green Foundation, which is dedicated to investing in early-stage social entrepreneurs. Seeding Labs, which grew out of a Harvard student club focused on international science and health, has plans to further “institutionalize” its collection operations in Boston while establishing chapters at other research institutions. So far, says Dudnik, they’ve had interest among graduate students and postdoctoral fellows “from Stanford to Stockholm.”

“We see what we’ve started in Boston as an umbrella that will eventually coordinate other chapters based at other major research universities across the U.S.,” says Paul Cruickshank, a Harvard doctoral student studying the history of science who best describes his role in Seeding Labs as “second-in-command.”

Dudnik -- who recalls seeing a lab with empty shelves and “sinks and tiles and no chemicals” during her time as a Fulbright fellow in the Ivory Coast only to return to Harvard “where you order chemicals in the morning and you have them in the afternoon” -- describes the inequities in the distribution of scientific resources as the “responsibility of the scientific community in the U.S.” Although Seeding Labs supports scientific research more generally, she points to the need to increase research of diseases endemic to the developing world, like dengue fever and malaria, as one of many reasons such resources are needed there.

“Capacity is equally distributed everywhere in the world. It’s just the resources that are unequally distributed,” Dudnik says.

Seeding Labs has sent donations of laboratory equipment to institutions abroad, including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where donors are equipping a medical school training program, and also on an individual level to particular scientists. Many of the recent recipients have been postdoctoral fellows at U.S. institutions who wanted to head back to the developing world -- back home, says Dudnik.

International students and scientists in the United States often “would like to go home and pursue their careers in their home countries and many times that’s not feasible," she explains. “We’d like to make it more feasible.”

Seeding Labs, which has primarily worked with Boston-based colleges and biotechnology companies to collect the equipment, has partnered with other non-profit groups, like the California-based Sustainable Sciences Institute, in coordinating and funding shipments abroad -- although Dudnik says with a laugh that Seeding Labs has been operating "very much on a shoestring for the past five years."

In addition to collecting and distributing laboratory equipment, Seeding Labs also has plans to publish the research of scholars getting the gear on its Web site in order to mitigate the publication barriers that scientists in developing nations face -- and foster collaboration. (Donors shouldn't be helping a "nameless face," says Cruickshank, but "a colleague that they could potentially collaborate with, that they could potentially work with").

And Seeding Lab's all-volunteer corps -- Dudnik counts 10 executive board members, plus a couple dozen more volunteers who help with shipments and inventory and such -- is surveying scientists in an attempt to get a better idea of their biggest barriers. “What are their major constraints; what is the single major piece of equipment they could get their hands on that they don’t have?” asks Dudnik. “A lot of this data isn’t really out there.”

Seeding Labs’ efforts are no “magic bullet,” says Cruickshank, who acknowledges that the problem of unequal scientific resources is one with multiple geographic and financial causes. “This is just one aspect that we’re trying to address, but it’s a crucial aspect,” he says. And a simple step at many universities that routinely let surplus or old equipment gather dust or take space in a landfill, adds Dudnik.

“My dream with Seeding Labs is to have this be the default at every university – when you have surplus equipment, you think, ‘Who can I help with this equipment?’ Whether it’s down the hall or, especially, around the world.”

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