The #SANBioLabHack2018 took place in Pretoria, South Africa, this week with 17 undergraduate students coming together to turn their passion for innovation by addressing afro-centric solutions to common lab issues.
The 3rd place winning team from the Zimbabwe National University of Science and Technology’s (NUST) Young Inventors Club impressed the judges with their low-cost PCR machine, which is also known as a Thermocycler that is commonly used to amplify segments of DNA.
Aimed to bring the ideas and ideology of the open hardware movement to the African education community, LabHack opens up opportunities for equipping labs in novel and sustainable fashions by facilitating the open design of key laboratory equipment.
When asked what inspired their prototype, Team Zimbabwe captain and NUST Electronics Engineering student Clifford Mutsave said the team wanted to live up to their name, Young Inventors.
According to the team, the best centre in Zimbabwe only has two PCR machines mainly because they are very expensive.
The cheapest PCR machines on the market cost in the range of forty thousand US dollars and are thus often unaffordable by the institutions offering science and technology education, resulting in students lacking a practical exposure to how these kinds of equipment are operated.
“In high school we were also victims of theoretical lessons on how to operate the lab equipment, resulting in a lack of overall appreciation on how to use these pieces of equipment. As NUST students who have their country at heart – especially young scientists in the high schools – we have come with a design of a low cost and economic yet effective PCR machine,” Mutsave states.
Mutsave’s team also included Applied Chemistry student, Miriam Guni – the only female participant in the group – and Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering students Ropafadzo Manyuchi and Nakai Mashamba.
The team were also accompanied by their mentors, Nigel Nyathi, Givemore Kanyemba along with Tafadzwa Banga who is the founder and president of a non-profit organisation Young Inventors from NUST.
Young Inventors was established in 2017 after getting support from the Yali organisation with the idea to give innovative African youths the platform to engage in shaping their communities.
“As an organisation, we want to ensure that youths who are innovative get recognition as much as those in the academic sector do. It has been a trend for the past in Africa, Zimbabwe specifically, that a child who excels in academics is considered to be more important than others whilst those who are innovative are not so much appreciated. As of now we have managed to establish a club at NUST and what we seek is to break departmental barriers by allowing students from different departments to work together. Winning this award is just the beginning of more great things to come,” Banga said.
The LabHack model was first piloted in Zimbabwe and conceived by University of Oxford researchers, Dr Louise Bezuidenhout and Helena Webb with the intention to be a competitive and educational event where multidisciplinary teams of students compete around three challenges to build low-cost laboratory equipment.
The South African edition of LabHack was supported and hosted by SANBio / BioFISA II Programme which is a shared biosciences research development and innovation platform for working collaboratively to address some of Southern Africa’s key biosciences issues in health, nutrition and health-related intervention areas.