It costs about $30 to have hundreds of test tubes delivered to practically any doorstep in Boston, but to scientists in the West African nation Ivory Coast, they are practically priceless.
When molecular biologist Nina Dudnik worked in that West African nation in 2000, “we were washing and drying and reusing disposable plastic test tubes,” she said. “They’re one of those simple, day-to-day things that we absolutely take for granted at research centers here.”
On Friday, six scientists and researchers from two Kenyan universities toured the Cambridge lab facilities of equipment maker Thermo Fisher Scientific, thanks to Seeding Labs, a Boston-based nonprofit founded in 2003 by Dudnik that sends used equipment to labs in developing countries. The group was here under Seeding Labs’s 10-week fellowship program, which brings scientists from those countries to the United States, where they meet with peers, exchange ideas, receive training in advanced lab techniques, and learn how to write grant requests to further their work.
“I’ve redefined myself,” said Mildred Nawiri, a chemist from Kenya who was a member of the visiting group. “I can leave with knowledge that has been radically boosted.”
Some of the funding for Seeding Labs comes from private companies. Pharmaceutical giant Novartis sponsored the US visit of the researchers from Africa, for example. Thermo Fisher refurbishes used equipment from its customers so Seeding Labs can send it overseas.
Founded as a volunteer student project in 2003, when Dudnik was a graduate student at Harvard Medical School, Seeding Labs now ships containers full of equipment, ranging from gloves and lab coats to state-of-the-art spectrometers, to labs in 16 countries. To date, Dudnik said, the nonprofit has donated supplies worth about $1.3 million.
Dudnik also wants to sponsor overseas visits by young American scientists. “My real dream is to create the science equivalent of Peace Corps,” she said. “There’s a chance to do phenomenal science diplomacy and collaboration, because science is a language that transcends other language barriers.”
Limited resources make the cost of importing test tubes, gloves, and other basic supplies prohibitive for scientists in developing countries, according to Ron O’Brien, spokesman for Thermo Fisher. “A junior high chemistry lab here would probably be as equipped or better equipped than some of the labs [Dudnik] works with,” he said.
Those scientists are compelled to reuse, repurpose, and improvise equipment, a time-consuming process that slows research, according to Dudnik.
“You see this all the time, these very MacGyver-esque workarounds,” she said, adding that her favorite such tale is about a researcher in rural Argentina who reversed the mechanics of a household refrigerator to create a warming incubator. “If you don’t have the most sophisticated equipment, what are you going to do so you can still get the experiment done?”
At the Thermo Fisher labs, Nawiri and Steven Runo watched an automated machine that can prepare 1,000 lab samples a day — a process that would take them six weeks at home.
“This way, we don’t introduce human error into the process if we’re having a bad day,” said senior Thermo Fisher scientist Bryan Krastins. “And I can have lunch while it’s working.”
Nawiri left with an armful of goggles, gloves, and other safety equipment, which she will use to teach lab safety to undergraduate students at her Nairobi university. She also collected US scientific contacts, valuable for future collaboration and advice on her project to extract vital nutrients from indigenous vegetables.
“Scientists all over the world are working on really important problems,” Dudnik said. “They’re working on diseases that affect their communities, foods that their communities rely on to eat and for their livelihood, issues of pollution in the environment — really practical, impactful kinds of science. It’s imperative they have resources to solve these problems.”