One lab’s trash becomes a poorer one’s treasure

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Local group ships to Africa, Latin America

By James F. Smith

Globe Staff

When Nina Dudnik arrived at

Harvard Medical School in 2001 to pursue

her doctorate, her eyes weren't drawn

to the marble hallways, the state-of-

the-art facilities, or the august faculty.

They were drawn to the trash.

Dudnik came to Harvard from Ivory Coast,

where she had worked for a year in

what passes there for a science lab,

a facility where she spent much of

her time rewashing test tubes and

scrounging up basic supplies.

It is the kind of stuff that labs

all over America toss out routinely.

Why not, she wondered as plunged

into her own research that fall,

find a way to connect the throwaways

of this country to the needs

of scientists in the Third World?

So she did.

With the help of a couple of

like-minded graduate students,

she enlisted dozens of science students

to scour the labs and rescue

unneeded microscopes, petri dishes,

beakers, centrifuges, ovens,

and vast numbers of test tubes.

With them, the nonprofit organization

she built, called Seeding Labs, has,

over the last six years, equipped

22 science laboratories at universities

in 13 Latin American and African countries.

Next month, her team will ship its

largest lab kit yet: A 20-foot container

crammed with $700,000 worth of

high-tech equipment will leave

for Kenyatta University in

Nairobi, Kenya, to outfit the entire

pharmacy and chemistry departments,

serving 3,500 students.

Seeding Labs has outgrown Harvard.

There are student chapters now at BU,

Yale Medical School, Mount Sinai

Medical School, and Albert Einstein

College in New York. And the collectors

are not only leaning on universities.

Dudnik now is tapping into

major biotech and pharmaceutical giants

in the Boston area, including Vertex,

Millennium, and Biogen, to donate

outdated but functional equipment

languishing in basement storerooms.

Since she graduated with her doctorate

in molecular biology in 2007, Dudnik, 33,

has made Seeding Labs a

full-time obsession, with even more

ambitious plans for the years ahead.

She received a $60,000 grant from

the Echoing Green Foundation in 2008

to pay herself a small salary and cover

her costs for two years; she hopes for

a grant in 2010 to allow her to keep growing.

"It's essentially running an international

supply chain - with volunteers,'' she said.

"My goal is for them not to be

such dumpster divers.''

She doesn't see this as charity. Rather,

it's a way to align the huge demand

abroad with vast surplus

inventories in Boston. The scientists

on the receiving end pick out what

they need for their labs from

an online inventory that Dudnik

has developed, and the recipients - whom

she calls fellows - pay 15 percent

of the market value to cover shipping

and other costs. The overseas scientists

also join in an online research exchange

and get training in using the equipment,

so the benefits go well beyond the gear itself.

She has done all this with volunteers and

one slightly paid intern from Northeastern,

as well as a devoted team of students.

"Someone told me early on, 'Never

underestimate the power of pizza

for student volunteers,' '' Dudnik said.

On a recent Saturday morning at

the Harvard Recycling Center in Allston,

it was too early for pizza, so there was

Dunkin' Donuts coffee and doughnut holes

for the volunteers sorting through piles

of donated material to assemble

the Kenyatta University shipment.

"It will be a huge step back home,''

said Martin Mwangi, a Harvard postdoctoral

student who got his master's degree

in chemistry from Kenyatta and is

on the Seeding Labs board.

"The stuff that we are gathering in

this room, and also from Vertex and

Millennium, is going to push the research

at the university about 20 years ahead.

In their wildest dreams they

couldn't have afforded this on their own.''

Mwangi was ticking off various items

to go into the container, including

something called an ultraviolet

transilluminator and a microtome.

If he had had such equipment when

he was doing his own master's

at Kenyatta, he said, "work that I did

over two years would have

taken me five or six months.''

Another volunteer, Harvard Medical

School neuroscience student

Samir Koirala, who is from Nepal,

has been helping Dudnik

collect used gear for three years.

"People in the labs know about us

from word of mouth, and whenever

they have something they

let us know, and we go and get it,''

Koirala said. "The goal is to make it

so that any lab that wants

to discard anything, they

immediately think of us.''

Remembering the struggle at

home for basics, he knows

the secondhand goods

will be welcome. "The level of ingenuity

in the Third World to reuse

things is so great. We send things that

a lab here would say, it's not worth

the expense to fix it. But people in

the Third World have this kind

of MacGyver mentality where

somehow or other you make it run again.''

At Cambridge-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals,

Jugnu Jain, a research fellow working

on multiple sclerosis, helped track

down available gear for Dudnik.

So did Mike Korocinski, the lab equipment

guru who knows where all

the used microscopes are buried.

Jain said all the donated equipment

was still in fine shape, but with

technology changing so fast,

some of the machines had been set

aside because newer versions

work so much better.

Dudnik, who is from Evanston, Ill.,

got her undergraduate degree

from Brown. During her year in Ivory Coast

as a Fulbright fellow working at

a rice research laboratory, Dudnik saw

the aftershocks of the coup there

in 2000 and riots during an election.

She also spent time at the

main university science lab in Abidjan.

Her rice lab coped with

"pretty ridiculous conditions''

despite the important work it was doing.

"But it was luxurious compared

with the university.

The labs there were empty.''

She got Seeding Labs going toward

the end of her first school year

at Harvard, with the help of

fellow students Justin Yarrow

and Matthew Stremlau. They started

going door to door, and found

the pickings rich indeed - Harvard

alone has 400 science laboratories.

Yarrow had worked with the

Sustainable Sciences Institute

at Berkeley, which Dudnik described

as one of the few institutions

in the country that provide training

and resources to scientists

in the developing world. Seeding Labs

worked through the institute

to supply some of its first customers,

among them Dr. Hector Morbidoni,

who had studied at Albert Einstein

and was setting up a lab

to study drug-resistant tuberculosis

in Rosario, Argentina.

Morbidoni said by telephone that

the help from Seeding Labs

three years ago was vital in

kickstarting the lab at a time

of economic crisis in Argentina.

Paul Cruickshank, 27, a board member

who has been part of Seeding Labs

since 2006 and is getting

a doctorate in the history of science,

said poor countries are able to find

ways to send talented young scientists

abroad to study, but lack the resources

to exploit those brains, so too many

good scientists don't come home.

"One of our mottos is 'talent is everywhere

but resources are not.' This is trying

to distribute resources to

where they're really needed.''

James F. Smith writes about

Boston's global ties. His blog is

at boston.com/worldlyboston.

His can be reached

at jsmith@globe.com

Link here

Sent from Kigali, Rwanda

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