Pandemic inspires science students to create homemade lab devices

A Dalhousie University science student has created a homemade spectrometer that lets her lab-from-home during the coronavirus pandemic.

In pre-COVID-19 times, Alanna Gravelle juggled a career in the Canadian Navy with her academic work earning a bachelor of engineering at Dalhousie, meaning she often had to complete her studies while aboard HMCS Halifax. 

While lectures were easy enough to handle remotely, lessons in the laboratory were harder. So she started to create her own spectrometer, using a flashlight, a plastic tube, a box and a smartphone.

“What that does is shines a light through a liquid and you’re able to determine the concentration of the liquid with the amount of light that gets absorbed or makes it through the liquid,” she said in a recent interview with CBC News.

The spectrometer, for example, can help show how much calcium is contained in a crushed and diluted multivitamin, or how many proteins are found in a urine sample. The devices have practical uses in the mining and recycling industries.

By the summer of 2020, Gravelle’s unusual problem had become mainstream. She won the Lloyd & Margaret Cooley Memorial research scholarship for women studying analytical chemistry and polished her rough design so other students could create it at home. A regular smartphone provides the analytical feedback. 

Alanna Gravelle’s homemade spectrometer takes a low-tech approach. (Submitted by Alanna Gravelle)

She realized another benefit: students would use the lab spectrometer without really understanding what happened inside the device. By making their own at-home version, students get a better understanding of what the machine actually does.

“It allows you to carry out experiments at home and collect data, and it also allows you to see the working parts of the spectrometer and understand what they do to give you that data,” she said. 

With all of her classes happening online during the pandemic, she said it’s an important way to retain the hands-on experience of science. “Being an engineering student online, third year, right now is very difficult.”

Gravelle worked with chemistry instructor Roderick Chisholm. Usually, he said, everything happens in the lab. “We’ve had to completely change that.”

Students joining classes via video from across Canada, China, the Middle East and Europe are embracing Gravelle’s MacGyver approach to taking things they find around the house to build the spectrometer.

“Everyone can do it at home, make those measurements, so they can actually feel involved, rather than looking at a presentation or video,” Chisholm said. 

Paper microscopes

Learning how the device works has been an extra bonus. “The disadvantage of using this in the lab is they are literally black boxes, so the students would put a sample in and magically they get a number related to absorption,” he said. 

Chisholm thinks the homemade spectrometer could also help out at high schools, where students typically share a $750 professional spectrometer. The homemade version costs about $20, plus the smartphone. 

His Dalhousie colleague Jennifer Van Dommelen has also gotten her biology students tinkering at home on a low-tech microscope. 

“We use an instrument called Foldscope, which is a portable microscope assembled from heavy-gauge paper, a lens, and a couple of magnets,” said Van Dommelen, a senior instructor at the university.

“The lens has a 140X magnification and resolution of two microns; the user can adjust lighting and focus and even attach the Foldscope to their phone or tablet to use their device’s optical zoom and take photos.”

Assemble at home

Van Dommelen sends her Dalhousie students kits and instructions so they can assemble it at home. 

“Putting one together is similar to using paper dolls — you detach the components from a single piece of paper, fold where instructed, add the lens and the magnetic couplers and then reassemble everything into a working, focusable microscope,” she said.

“The kit includes paper slides that students can use to mount their own specimens, but standard glass slides can also be used.”

She’d been using them for online classes since 2018 and they are crucial now during the pandemic. 

Chisholm and Van Dommelen both hope to keep the best parts of lab-from-home active after the pandemic.

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