Foldscoping coffee mold in the city of kings

The South America Diaries is a monthlong series documenting Foldscope's first trip to South America. Starting July 13, the team travelled all over Peru, Argentina and Brazil to lead workshops and presentations with schools and organizations. We experienced new cultures, ate cool foods and met tons of people. This is a behind-the-scenes look into the beautiful and mundane experiences that come with our mission to give every person on the planet a microscope.

This is part five in a series. In this post, we eat Papa John's pizza with the Peru staff of the Wildlife Conservation Society and look at coffee mold with university students in Lima, also known as La Ciudad de los Reyes (the city of kings). Read part four here.

Cast of characters in this post: 
The Foldscope team: Jim, Judy, Alice (me), and Rebecca who's just arrived. Paola and Wenying returned home to continue their studies/work.
Professors and students from Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC) 
Staff from the Wildlife Conservation Society 

Day 10: Lima, Peru 🍕🌫🏙

Lima’s blanketed in a grey winter fog, and I wake up in a hotel room with air conditioning and a glass door shower. We're in a city with cars and smog and sidewalks that lead into big buildings that Judy likes to point out and say, "Man, it just amazes me how they make those things." I'd never thought I'd regard the rainforest as anything other than an exotic location. When I used to think about the Amazon, I'd say the word Amazon accompanied with jazz hands and wide eyes. But I miss it like I'd miss a home. What a surprise. 

Today, we're meeting Jorge Abad, a professor at Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC), an engineering and technology university in Miraflores, one of Lima's higher-end neighborhoods.

 A display of UTEC engineering majors at the entrance of the university

A display of UTEC engineering majors at the entrance of the university

 The magical, flexible sheet of laser cut wood

The magical, flexible sheet of laser cut wood

UTEC's campus is what I'd characterize as industrial grunge. The place is a matrix of concrete and glass. Perfectly placed, typographically aesthetic signage and motivational quotes are plastered extra large on huge slabs of wall. UTEC is less than ten years old, so in university-years, it's very very new. Dr. Abad told us about partnerships UTEC has made with top-tier universities in the United States, like Harvard, MIT and Purdue, where students from both institutions can participate in research exchange programs. UTEC's maker labs are equipped with laser cutters, 360° scanners for 3-D modeling and cool 3-D printers that print in clay and chocolate. A hodgepodge of half done, all done and already deconstructed projects are strewn out on a heavy wood table. The predominant vibe is the all too familiar feel of a late night machine shop construction fest, do-it-yourself engineering at its finest. One of the students in the machine shop showed me a cool laser-cut sheet pressed wood that has some interesting paper-like qualities in one orientation, and stiff, wood-like qualities in another direction.

 Dr. Abad in his office during our meeting

Dr. Abad in his office during our meeting

Dr. Abad is the director of the environmental and civil engineering departments at UTEC. His research involves assessing water quality in various areas of the Peruvian Amazon basin. One of his big projects focuses on the affects of illegal mining on water quality in Río Madre de Dios, which we visited during our time in Puerto Maldonado. Jim and Dr. Abad have a long conversation about potential low-cost tools that can streamline and automate the data collection process in areas where connection is bad (more like nonexistent, and sensor-data needs to be collected manually). The predominant thought is that creating a cost-effective sensor that works in remote areas will significantly increase the amount of data that can be collected and allow Dr. Abad to come to more definitive and longitudinal conclusions about water quality in the rivers. Jim is in his element here. He gets very excited whenever there's discussion about new potential research and development projects at Foldscope. As we travel and talk to institutions around the world, the critical need for low cost tools, especially in improving field research, goes back to a core Foldscope mission to make the discovery of new knowledge more widely accessible to everyone. 

After our meeting and tour at UTEC, we walk to the Peru office of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and meet with the Peru staff of the organization to talk about Foldscope. WCS has worked with many organizations in South America, including ACEER, whom we worked with in the Peruvian Amazon a week earlier, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, who is a huge supporter of Foldscope. Carmen and Cecilia, who we had last seen in Madre de Dios, and it was a surprise reunion mixed in with the weird feeling of having never seen them outside sweaty jungle paradise and in cosmo civilization. WCS ordered Papa John's pizza for the meeting, and Jim started waxing nostalgic about his obsession with Papa John's garlic sauce during his early PhD years at Prakash Lab. 

Day 11: Lima, Peru ☕️☕️☕️

The room's kind of silent right now as Jim gets ready to give one of our last workshops in Peru. We're at the headquarters of Fe y Alegría, a group that works with a variety of educational organizations and schools to advocate for better public education programs in Peru. We're teaching a small room of primary and secondary school teachers today, and the white light of the projector screen glows on their faces. The unflappability is a stark contrast from the constant din of pre-teens sitting in chairs. Yet, right as we finish the build process and some teachers start imaging their strands of hair under the Foldscope, the energy comes rushing in like a chic black-and-white film turned into full Cinemascope color. Smiles all around. 

And just like that, it's noon and we're on our way to the next stop after a quick intermission at an alpaca-themed souvenir emporium(!). Dr. Abad from our meeting yesterday invited us to give a workshop at UTEC, and one of the students brought over his two half-empty cups of moldy coffee to the front of the classroom as Foldscope tribute. Coffee guy's friend, who was wearing a bright red scarf, was similarly interesting and she used a staple to prick her finger as a ceremonial first sample.

One of the students started talking to Rebecca and me about Peruvian music in a sweet gesture of cultural exchange. He gave us the song that I have ordained the anthem of our trip to Peru.

By 3AM tomorrow morning, we'll be in the air again, on our way to Argentina. I'd like to think that the music is in the movement, feet afootin'. 

Alice Dai has worked with Foldscope since high school and will be a junior at Duke University this fall. She is the trip blogger/photographer. 

All photos taken by Alice unless otherwise attributed.

Finding foldscopers in the middle of the rainforest

The South America Diaries is a monthlong series documenting Foldscope's first trip to South America. Starting July 13, the team travelled all over Peru, Argentina and Brazil to lead workshops and presentations with schools and organizations. We experienced new cultures, ate cool foods and met tons of people. This is a behind-the-scenes look into the beautiful and mundane experiences that come with our mission to give every person on the planet a microscope.

This is part four in a series. In this post, we find a Foldscope enthusiast couple in the middle of the Amazon. Read part three here.

Cast of characters in this post: 
The Foldscope team: Jim, Judy, Wenying, Paola, Alice (me)
The ACEER team: Jon, Paul
Inkaterra staff: Frank, our tour guide

Day 8: ⛈⛈Puerto Maldonado, Peru —> Inkaterra Guides Field Station, Peru 🐦🐧🔬☕️

A cold front from the Andes hit last night and it’s pouring thunder outside. The temperature has dropped thirty degrees (Fahrenheit), and for the first time here I feel something along the lines of coldness. There's a name for this sudden change in weather, it's called el friaje, and we've been talking about this mysterious cold weather from the mysterious mountains since it was predicted earlier in the week. These friajes don't happen often, and the locals are very unused to the sudden temperature drop mixed in with an unshakeable rainforest humidity that makes the coldness stick to you like a wet t-shirt. We've stuffed ourselves in all our layers (which is still, not very many) as we wobble onto a canoe-shaped boat and drive an hour down the Rio Madre de Dios. You can see the Billinghurst bridge behind us (the one that looks like a wiry Golden Gate).

 The Foldscope team (from left to right): Alice, Judy, Jim, Wenying, Paola on the Rio Madre de Dios

The Foldscope team (from left to right): Alice, Judy, Jim, Wenying, Paola on the Rio Madre de Dios

We're going to Inkaterra Guides Field Station, a lodge/research hybrid where we've planned to stop for the night before heading back to Lima. We arrive to the most picturesque set of large, hut-like cabins dropped in a fogged up rainforest. Then, Paola and I have the best hot chocolate of our lives. It's served all day in the dining cabin of the lodge, and, in hindsight, is also where Judy starts her hot chocolate obsession that will last all the way through the end of our trip. Everything feels wintery, which messes around with my ideas of mid July. 

It's nice to know that the Reservoir of Cool People to Meet is endless sometimes. It's lunchtime when we arrive to Inkaterra, and Jon and Paul, who arrived a day earlier, introduce us to a family from the states who is vacationing at the lodge. The man is a family doctor who's brought his three sons and 75 year old mother here, and Jim gives his sons a quick Foldscope demonstration right over the dining table. Then, walking back to our cabins, a kid that looks around my age stops Paola and me to chat. He introduces himself as Alex, and he's just arrived in Peru after doing some field work in Montana. Alex turns out to be exactly the same age as me, a rising junior at Cornell, and he's an aspiring ornithologist carrying a pair of super nice Cornell ornithology club funded binoculars and a camera with a lens the length of my arm. He's fluent in Spanish (and apparently talks with a Colombian accent) and doesn't believe in making bird noises. Alex very much looks the part of a cool field guy. 

As we're getting ready to leave for a small excursion up to the forest canopies, Wenying finds Inkaterra's research lab, which happens to be next door to our rooms. There are two researchers in the lab who immediately catch her attention, Gideon and Mini, who are married and have been living with their three children at the lodge since May this year. 

 Gideon, Mini and researcher number 3 whose name we didn't catch working in the Inkaterra lab.

Gideon, Mini and researcher number 3 whose name we didn't catch working in the Inkaterra lab.

Photo courtesy Wenying Pan

Gideon and Mini are biologists studying a wide variety of genomics and ecology questions in field labs. When Wenying asked how equipped the lab in the jungle was, Gideon showed us a mini genomic sequencing machine called MinION which can do whole-genome sequencing in the field. Gideon founded a non profit called Field Projects in 2013 and helps organize field based projects for researchers, students, and wildlife enthusiasts. Gideon knows Aaron Pomerantz, one of Foldscope's most dedicated super users who hosted a Field Projects workshop with Foldscopes in 2017. And still, there's more. Field Projects featured Foldscope back when we still had our first design to raise money to buy 1,000 units so they could distribute them around the world and advocate for our mission. 

And here we all are, in a internet-less, zero waste lodge off the Madre de Dios river in the Peruvian Amazon. A totally unplanned, unexpected collision of two groups of people who didn't know each other but should have, and then now do know each other, accidentally. Many things seem to happen in this all-at-once way as I think about how I got here and where I was, four years ago, as a high school intern working on Foldscope in the Prakash Lab. 

Anyway, this entire interaction with Gideon and Mini was actually around ten minutes as we ran off into the forest to look at some birds and trees. Here is a self-timed photo of our entire team and our tour guide Frank, taken on a cracked iPhone.

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At night, we all took a boat ride to look for caimans. Jon and Paul told us hilarious stories over dessert after dinner. I taught everyone how to use Airdrop. It was still cold and drizzly and half the team got chigger bites. But the hot chocolate. Oh man. 

Day 9: Inkaterra Guide Field Station, Peru  —> Lima, Peru

The weather is paradise today, once again. Birds wake me up in the morning, that's how much of a dream it is.

After three attempts, Frank finally leads us to the family of capuchin monkeys on River Island, the island a few minutes away from the lodge that's, surprise, surrounded by a river. These monkeys were rescued from a pet store and have been living on the island since. Spot the monkey: 

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Today is a travel day as we head back to Lima. Through the airplane window, I saw huge patches of forest that were brown from the trunks of all the felled trees and it made me sad. I don't think I'll ever forget seeing the shadow of our plane cruise down towards the deep green trees in Puerto Maldonado when we first arrived a week ago. Someone named Emiliano (whom we won't meet until the team goes to Brazil in three weeks, but I'm writing this in both present and future) told me that the feeling of first seeing the Amazon rainforest never leaves you, and I'm glad.  

Alice Dai has worked with Foldscope since high school and will be a junior at Duke University this fall. She is the trip blogger/photographer. 

All photos taken by Alice unless otherwise attributed.

Foldscoping in the Peruvian Amazon, part 2

The South America Diaries is a monthlong series documenting Foldscope's first trip to South America. Starting July 13, the team travelled all over Peru, Argentina and Brazil to lead workshops and presentations with schools and organizations. We experienced new cultures, ate cool foods and met tons of people. This is a behind-the-scenes look into the beautiful and mundane experiences that come with our mission to give every person on the planet a microscope.

This is part three in a series. In this post, we welcome some new friends onto our team and wrap up the week of workshops in the Amazon. Read part two here

Cast of characters in this post: 
The Foldscope team: Jim, Judy, Wenying, Paola, Alice (me)
The ACEER team: Carmen, Therany, Patricia, Cecilia, Raquel, and new additions Jon, Paul, Cecilia, Ken

Day 5: Puerto Maldonado, Peru 🔥🔥🐕🐮

Carmen is lulling a baby to sleep right now. I’m in this sunlit classroom in the indigenous town of Infierno (translates literally to Hell), watching the students and their intensely entertaining concentration faces.

The ACEER team's grown overnight and we've gotten a properly large bus now to transport the whole crew. Jon, Paul, Cecilia and Ken arrived yesterday from various parts of the world to join us for the rest of the workshops. All of us have only worked together for a short time, but it's already like family. We eat together and wake up early together, and a few nights ago we celebrated Carmen's birthday with piña coladas and a huge Costco-sized tiramisu. 

The workshop is a well-oiled machine. Sometimes, I just stand very still and watch everyone move. Jon and Cecilia take photos. Everyone helps the kids, and Judy is the superstar 75 year-old who picks up the little bits of Foldscope scraps that tend to get scattered in the chaos. She says that this way, she can get in her 10,000 steps a day on her pedometer, but really she's outrunning all of us who are half her age. Paola translates Jim. Patricia and Ken gather samples to help the students image. Jon climbed on top of our bus to get a picture of all of us. The students here are quieter than the students in Puerto Maldonado, and I took some of my favorite photos from the trip so far of them being seriously focused. 

The biodiversity in the various nooks and green patches in these schools is so rich. The schools I've attended always had too-clean corners and maybe a few ants in the summer months. I remember one of my classmates in elementary school found a bee and ate it, and everyone freaked out by his close encounter with nature. Not here. Patricia takes care to gather a huge spread of samples: pollen, different species of ants and spiders and butterflies, fungi, leaves, flowers. She probably knows everything ever about plants and bugs. We Foldscoped a flea one of the students picked off the school dog today, and Therany took a video.

Video courtesy Therany Gonzales

After the workshop this morning, a group of us decided to tour around Puerto Maldonado. There’s the Billinghurst Bridge here that looks like a mini, slightly wirier version of the Golden Gate Bridge and creates a connection across the Madre de Dios river. According to Paul, this bridge is incredibly important for the region since before everyone had to boat across the river (including huge cars and things like that) and now there’s a reliable path across that connects places like Brazil all the way to ports in Peru for exporting goods. What better way to celebrate this information by testing the bridge suspension with a good jump and a panoramic view of the Madre de Dios river behind us. 

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Photo courtesy Jim Cybulski

Day 6: Puerto Maldonado, Peru 🚌🌺☀️🌱🌸
Long ride today to a school called Javier Heraud in Laberinto, a mining town. These rides are a good time to birdwatch and talk with Jon and Paul, who normally sit in the back of the bus with me. They get along so well they've started referring to themselves as one unit in a sort of franco-italian accent, Jonpaul. This is them together:

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Photo courtesy Paul Morgan

Jon teaches photography at the University of Delaware, and Paul is a professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. Both are board members on ACEER. Both are what you'd call very cool dads. Paul used to be one of those 80s hippies who had a pony tail and moved to China to become a teacher. Now, he owns many chickens and has a funny kid neighbor who shows up to his house uninvited. Jon’s spent the last five years documenting the oral history of the Ese’Eje natives in the Madre de Dios region of Peru and is exhibiting his work in Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. Jon’s a National Geographic Explorer, as are Carmen and her husband Ken, who's a climatologist at the University of Miami. He talked to me about deforestation vs. beef consumption yesterday, and walking through the Amazon while having this conversation tinged everything with a sense of urgency that I guess, honestly, had never fully registered before. I'm convinced that every person on our bus could fill the length of a dinner party with cool, hilarious, revelatory life stories. The day begins with these amazing conversations and miles of trees and birds flying against a pure blue sky. We spotted teardrop-shaped oropendola bird nests, hanging off the trees like nuggets of gold.

When we arrive at the school, we find out that it's activity day, which only happens twice a school year. All the kids are out of class and celebrating a day full of food, sports and games. We even saw a hallway that looked like a mini science fair setup. Kids are drinking juices from straws stuck into plastic bags, and there's treats everywhere. One of the girls in the younger grades comes up and hugs me without warning and it feels like a little, timid lick from a puppy. Something really corny like, "Oh! The joys of childhood!" spasms into my brain, and I remember my own activity days in elementary school, the spontaneous laughter over nothing too important and the rust-smelling sweat that you can't wash off your hands. It's not that I feel old, it's just that I'm very happy to be here, watching these kids bounce around and learn things. 

We teach a big group of kids in the midst of the day's festivities. The teachers and students have prepared a warm welcome for Foldscope. They've made a huge sign on the wall of the workshop classroom that says "Welcome Stanford University, creator of Foldscope" in Spanish. It's easy to see that the teacher's here have a made a big deal out of the workshops today, as they call up a student to give a small prepared speech and formally welcome our arrival. The students here are in caring hands, and I can tell that the teacher's strict in the very earnest and hopeful way that good teachers always are. Needless to say, it was another successful workshop with students from other classes peeking through doors and an ambling school dog. 

Day 7: Puerto Maldonado, Peru 🐰🐜💕

Today was the last day of workshops, and we arrived at a private conservation space called the Fundo Refugio K'erenda Homet. The first thing I learned about K'erenda was that there is a rabbit that has been sitting on an ant hill for three days, and our group went to go visit the rabbit during lunch. We spent all day here in a sort of humid summer daze. Workshop in the morning, nap/rest time at noon, where we got to try some out-of-season cocoa pods (the stuff chocolate's made of), workshop in the afternoon. One of the kids from the morning workshop was so funny and kept on opening to pages in his encyclopedia whenever Jim talked about anything that he understood. When Jim demoed a frog blood sample, the kid opened to the frog section of his book and raised it high in the air for everyone to see.

In the afternoon, a group of very well behaved 12-15 years olds from a science club at Santa Rosa, an all-girls school, came to visit us. Therany lead the workshop entirely on his own, in Spanish, like a pro. One of the girls picked a lice from her own head and imaged it. This is our very last workshop in Puerto Maldonado, and after a week of lessons, this last one is serene. Everyone’s a bit messy-tired (except for Judy, who is made of steel). Paola has translated for Jim for the last week and both are thoroughly winded from talking so much. Feet hurt, legs ache, but of course, it’s the good kind of pain with all the sweaty satisfaction of a post-workout milkshake.

I’ve seen more this week than I have in a lot of one-weeks that I’ve lived, at university, at home, on family vacation. Visiting schools in parts of the world where the concept of education is much different from the one I’ve taken as normal or “just whatever” back in states makes me feel less like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas and more energized for what's to come. There are only two options, ever: to be hopeful or to be unhopeful, and one option pushes you forward and the other creates stasis. This week has been relentlessly hopeful. I've seen it in the almost 400 students we've taught, in the teachers who nurture them, in our friends at ACEER and all my teammates at Foldscope. We’ve made good friends with Carmen, Therany, Patricia, Cecilia, Cecilia (there are two), Raquel, Jon, Paul, and it’s the sort of fast, loving togetherness that's worth so! many! exclamation points!! Everyone has taught me something about their passion, given me some sturdy life advice, made me laugh. The workshops are sacred if I think about them too hard, like there’s probably some ancient pre-human ancestor that also practiced these series of funny gestures called teaching and that’s what we did this week, and so everything has its beginnings and we’re just carrying out our jobs like they’re innately a part of what we, as now-humans, are supposed to do. It's a generous cycle of giving and taking, and it's the to's and from's that's always a surprise, that always give me something to look forward to. It's so special. 

Since it was our last night in Puerto Maldonado, Therany took us out and I ate suri, grilled worms skewered on a stick. Crunchy. Buttery. Salty. Like everything I hoped they could be, and then some. 

Alice Dai has worked with Foldscope since high school and will be a junior at Duke University this fall. She is the trip blogger/photographer. 

All photos taken by Alice unless otherwise attributed.

Foldscoping in the Peruvian Amazon, Part 1

The South America Diaries is a monthlong series documenting Foldscope's first trip to South America. Starting July 13, the team travelled all over Peru, Argentina and Brazil to lead workshops and presentations with schools and organizations. We experienced new cultures, ate cool foods and met tons of people. This is a behind-the-scenes look into the beautiful and mundane experiences that come with our mission to give every person on the planet a microscope.

This is part two in a series. In this post, we arrive in the Peruvian Amazon and teach workshops in rural schools with our partners at ACEER. Read part one here

Cast of characters in this post: 
The Foldscope team: Jim, Judy, Wenying, Paola, Alice (me)
The ACEER team: Carmen, Therany, Patricia, Cecilia, Raquel

Day 2: Lima, Peru 🇵🇪—> Puerto Maldonado, Peru 🐞🐛🕷🌳🍄(aka the AMAZON RAINFOREST💦💦💦🌳🌳)
Getting off the plane was that sort of heart explosion thing that happens when you’re somewhere you know you already love. A blow of humid air. Blue skies, flying things, sweat, burning sun. Green, green, green. 

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 A wasp got stuck in my hair in the hotel lobby and Patricia extracted it out of the nest of hair at the top of my head and it was *this* close to stabbing me before she pulled its stinger out. This will forever be the first memory I have of Patricia, one of the most well-versed ecologists/naturalists I've ever met, who also happens to be a researcher at Duke but has spent months by herself studying fungi and other nature-y things in the Peruvian Amazon (Manú National Park is a big research hub here in Peru). She's one of the team members at ACEER. 

For the next week, we're going to be teaching workshops all over the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon in collaboration with ACEER (which stands for Centro Amazónico de Educación Ambiental e Investigación). ACEER was founded in the 90s and has done extensive work in education and conservation all over Peru. In 2013, ACEER won Peru's National Award for Environmental Citizenship for a project called Puppet House, and organizations like National Geographic have supported their work. Our time in the Amazon will be lead by Carmen, the organization's director of Peru programs, and her super-team of researchers, coordinators and professors who are moonlighting as Foldscope missionaries for the week. Carmen leads her team with razor focus. Foldscopes are through customs on time, all the details for the week are sorted and organized, everyone on the ACEER team works in sync like a symphony. 

Today is día de pollo a la brasa, one of the many Peruvian food holidays where people eat certain foods on certain randomly assigned days. Pollo a la brasa is charcoal fired rotisserie chicken, and this is where ACEER's Carmen, Patricia and Therany joined the Foldscope team for our first meal together. We had buckets of fries and ordered two whole chickens for the table. A man came up to our table selling gum, and Carmen gave him a big chunk of our chicken instead of shooing him away.

Over dinner, Carmen told us about Peru’s ecological crisis and the huge illegal gold mining industry that is four times more lucrative in this area than cocaine production, and Peru is now the number one country in cocaine production in the world. It’s surreal to be able to sit here and watch Carmen and Patricia talk about their concerns for the environment. ACEER has started multiple projects to preserve Peru's ecology and support the country's education system. For example, in 2011, ACEER's Leaf Pack program helped students and teachers learn about water conservation in their local streams. 

The energy from my new friends also comes from a necessary resilience when the places they love are slowly destroyed for capitalistic gain and short-term financial stability. Carmen ends dinner with a detailed itinerary for the week. Lots of early wake up times. We’re going to nine schools in five days all around the Madre de Dios region of the Amazon. 

July 16 Day 3: Puerto Maldonado, Peru 🛵❤️🏫

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First day of workshops. In the morning we visited UNAMAD (Universidad Nacional Amazonica de Madre de Dios), the best university in Madre de Dios. The Amazon has the lowest rates of college matriculation in all of Peru, so the students here are the few that have made it into higher education. Our workshop today lasted almost four hours and by the end of it everyone was happy-exhausted. We're just getting into the swing of things: Paola translates for Jim, Patricia leads a group of students to gather samples outside, everyone helps the students construct their microscopes. Many of the professors and students at UNAMAD stayed until the end. The school is so colorful and there are motos (vespa-like motorcycles) everywhere. I can tell that Peruvians are very affectionate as the students walk around in groups or pairs. There’s a physical closeness that makes me feel immediately close to people I don't know very well. A hug and a kiss and that's how it goes. None of the tension in the transition from stranger to friend. I think it’s nice that people are comfortable in their relationships and with their bodies. I saw a little baby walking in the halls with two younger girls, and that is something I’ve never seen at Duke. 

In the afternoon we went to Señor de los Milagros, a secondary school, and taught a classroom of around thirty 13 year olds. Mixi is the first girl here that I’ve given my phone number to for WhatsApp. When I think about how many students we will be meeting in the coming weeks, I get a little bittersweet knowing that I'll most likely never see them in person again. It'll be good to keep in contact with some of the students, even if it is just to share selfies or to answer their questions on where I am in the world. The kids here are like all the kids everywhere, glinty-eyed, optimistic, a little mischievous. After we told them to keep track of their pieces, most of students took the instruction manual and made a barricade for themselves, and so for the rest of the workshop they worked in their own meager fortresses. They're fascinated with us as foreigners, and stare widely when they see something cool on their microscopes for the first time. At the end of the workshop, the kids presented drawings of their Foldscoped images in front of the class, and I've started a collection of sketches from the schools we're going to visit this week. It's so amusing to hear the kids joke around as they haphazardly take pieces of each other's hair into their Foldscopes or gather around like hummingbirds when we're displaying images of pollen of flower petals or ants on our phones. The hugging culture here is my favorite. Students we've just known for a few hours hug us goodbye as the workshop ends and the sun sets.

Day 4: Puerto Maldonado, Peru 🌟

Rise and shine. It's funny to think that it's the winter season in the southern hemisphere right now, and I'm sweating way too much while all the kids we're teaching this morning at Jorge Chavez Renfigo look pretty comfortable. After an hourlong bus ride, we've arrived in a small town called Planchón. One of my favorite things about visiting the schools so far has been the colors. The walls are painted lime green and yellow and Jim likes to say the vibrancy matches the Foldscope color scheme. He's not wrong. It's nice to wake up every morning and see so much activity going on, an entire family sitting on one motorcycle, insects, the unmistakable movements that come from people and things living together. It's a synergy, a word that Jim uses all the time and is probably his favorite word at the moment. 

Yadhira, one of the students, was so funny and kept posing with her various Foldscope parts while I walked around the classroom taking pictures. She asked me if she could use my "fancy camera" and then spent a few minutes ambling around taking photos of the flowers outside the classroom and of her friends using Foldscopes under the sun.

Students from other classes started peeking through the windows and doors to see what we were doing. I went outside to find one of the students intensely looking for an ant to image under his microscope, completely engrossed in the way I've seen kids engrossed in their video games or cartoons. We wrapped up the workshop right in time for recess/lunch break and the older students were in a heated match of soccer (I guess the only way to play soccer on a basketball court is heatedly), kicking around in their white school uniforms and ties and dress pants and dress shoes.

In the afternoon we visited the Madre de Dios COAR (Colegio de Alto Rendimiento), which is a new experimental boarding school for secondary students. The school's only been open for five years, but the hope is that this model of education will help students in under-educated areas of the Amazon gain access to resources and constant support from teachers. The students stay at the school during the week and go home to their families over the weekend. The school receives heavy support from the Peruvian government and has the best resources out of any school we've visited so far. Labs, art studios, classrooms with projectors.

I can already tell which students really want to talk to us. I’ve gained some experience in the last day and make myself as friendly as possible (lots of smiling, and a full opportunity to practice my Spanish). If I wait just a few minutes and linger around they start asking me questions as I try my hardest to feign fluency. Being able to speak in the student's native language is so useful. I don't really know any Spanish vernacular, but when the students realize I can understand them, it's usually the equivalent of unclogging a sink. 

What comes out of this language flow is a ton of energetic chatting. A few students in the COAR have latched onto me in an unexpected way. Two girls squealed when I told them that I was vaguely familiar with Kpop (Korean pop music). After class, at least 15 students suddenly circled around me as I was talking to the girls about Kpop and going to school in the United States. It’s crazy that I can talk to high schoolers in Puerto Maldonado about music that we’ve both found on the internet. This dissemination of information into the cracks of the world is the sort of global impact Foldscope is striving for someday. Weird comparison, I know. But “Magnify curiosity worldwide”, after all.

One of the students was also interested about Jim’s educational journey. He asked Jim about all the classes he had to take to become an engineer and the schools Jim studied in to develop the Foldscope. The kids are so hopeful for their futures. They go to the best high school in the region, and the Peruvian Amazon has notoriously low education matriculation levels. They practiced English with me and confidently spoke in front of their classmates during their Foldscope presentations.

These might seem like small gestures, but it's the energy, the affect, that strangely brings me back to a question I'd thought about a lot when applying to college. Stanford's infamous undergraduate application question asks something along the lines of What is intellectual curiosity? I'd tried scrapping together a cogent answer at the time, but now, seeing these kids actively pursue a path of education that their neighbors never will, swimming against the current, I have my answer. The students embody everything I'd had trouble writing about when I was 17, as if maybe what we're experiencing here in Peru is intellectual curiosity in its platonic ideal, the kind that escapes words, that you know when you see, that influences you more than you've influenced them. I'm learning, too. 

Alice Dai has worked with Foldscope since high school and will be a junior at Duke University this fall. She is the trip blogger/photographer. 

All photos taken by Alice unless otherwise attributed.

The Great Foldscope Adventure to South America, a diary series

The South America Diaries is a monthlong series documenting Foldscope's first trip to South America. Starting July 13, the team travelled all over Peru, Argentina and Brazil to lead workshops and presentations with schools and organizations. We experienced new cultures, ate cool foods and met tons of people. This is a behind-the-scenes look into the beautiful and mundane experiences that come with our mission to give every person on the planet a microscope. This is part one in a series. 

Cast of characters in this post: 
The Foldscope team: Jim, Judy, Wenying, Paola, Alice (me)
The MACTec team: Javier, Johanna, Paola (again!), Carolina, Nigellia, Mariella, Coto

Day 1: ✈️ San Francisco, CA 🌉 —> Mexico City, Mexico 🇲🇽—>  Lima, Peru 🇵🇪

Wenying and I had to chug our water bottles (not unlike a college party, except it was water) at the Mexico City airport security line. The TSA guy was very impressed with me and a few people got upset at us for holding up the line. Typical airport drama. Lots of flying, some waiting around. The Mexico City airport is beautiful, and a perk of flying red-eye is that we saw the sun rise. 

 The Mexico City airport to start our travels

The Mexico City airport to start our travels

First order of business in Lima is dinner with Peru's MACTec Team: Javier, Johanna, Paola, Carolina, Nigellia, Mariella, Coto. MACTec, which stands for Mini Academia de Ciencia y Tecnología (Mini Academy of Science and Technology) is a nonprofit organization that has lead workshops all over Peru to promote STEM education for young girls. Tonight, we're having dinner with MACTec founders Javier, Johanna, Paola, and MACTec fellows. Paola is joining the Foldscope team for workshops later in the week in the Peruvian Amazon. 

I can feel the hospitality so strongly already. Shared food, cultural exchange, Instagram exchange, the whole thing. We ate some interesting meats while talking with MACTec about their extensive work in Peru. Last year, MACTec created a public exhibition in the Miraflores district of Lima called "Visions of the Microworld" using images girls captured with their Foldscopes from MACTec Foldscope workshops. 

"Visions of the Microworld" photos courtesy MACTec

MACTec's dedication to globalizing education hits the heart of what Foldscope's all about, too. It's heartening to see all the ways in which organizations like MACTec and Foldscope eat together, break bread as the old traditions go. Both Manu and Saad from Prakash Lab at Stanford (where the Foldscope was born) are MACTec scientists, and we even got a chance to see Saad give a MACTec workshop on high-speed cameras with some local students the next morning. Johanna recently went to China to receive the UNESCO Prize in Girls' and Women's education for MACTec's work in education, particularly for a project where they converted a bus into a travelling lab to host workshops in rural Peruvian communities. In between all of this conversation, we tried anticucho, beef heart. Had some cau cau, tripe that had the texture of a carpet, but Coto loved it. Seco de carne. Papas de huancaína. Ají de gallina. Picarónes and mazamorra morada for dessert. This is our short stop in Lima and our first authentic Peruvian meal. Tomorrow we go to the Amazon.  

firstdinnerinlima

Alice Dai has worked with Foldscope since high school and will be a junior at Duke University this fall. She is the trip blogger/photographer. 

All photos taken by Alice unless otherwise attributed.