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Local group ships to Africa, Latin America
By James F. Smith
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outdated but functional equipment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
His can be reached
Sent from Kigali, Rwanda