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Western student invents microscope adapter for smart phones

Sophomore Justin Turner presented his homemade invention to a classroom of genetics students on Tuesday, Feb. 17.

The “Just In Time” Adapter is an adapter for microscopes that allows students to take pictures of specimens on a slide using their smart phones.

Turner described the inventing process as “extremely independent.”

“I saw a need and I figured out an invention to address that need,” Turner said.

Dr. Todd Eckdahl, professor of biology, teaches multiple classes in which students commonly need to document microscopic specimens. Students often use their phones to do so.

“[Turner] and others were in the lab early last fall and they were trying to get their phones to take a picture of the microscope and they couldn’t get the angle quite right,” Eckdahl said. “Next thing I know, [Turner] comes to me and says, ‘I’m working on an idea for an adapter that would address this problem.'”

Turner drafted multiple different designs for an adapter that would attach a phone to a microscope eyepiece. He settled on the final model that he printed using his personal 3-D printer. Turner purchased his 3-D printer from a company called “XYZ Printing.”

“I suggest that more students look into getting a 3-D printer,” Turner said. “In a few years, they’ll be as common as paper printers.”

After presenting the prototype to a board of Missouri Western biology professors in an informal demonstration, the biology department purchased twelve “Just In Time” Adapters from Turner.

These adapters are now open to professors in the science department for classroom use. In fact, some students have used the adapters in class on a regular basis.

Students of the class in which Turner’s presentation took place generally had positive reactions to the adapter.

“I think the adapter is a great idea because it is hard to hold your phone and take a picture through the microscope,” Carrie Hillebrand, junior, said. “This let’s you position your phone so it’s just right.”

“The idea is pretty cool, but it’s really basic – it could definitely use improvements,” Carly Compton, junior, said. “If [Turner] keeps improving on it, I think it could be a pretty amazing tool for the classroom.”

The concept of using a phone to take pictures of microscopic specimens is not a novel one, and adapters that attach phones to microscope eyepiece’s already exist. But there is one common fault of all adapters currently on the market: they can either be used with any phone, but are specific to one microscope model, or they can be used with any microscope model, but are specific to one phone.

Turner’s specific model is unique altogether – it can be attached to any microscope model and can expand to fit any desired phone or tablet. Because of this specific trait, Turner’s invention is patentable.

Patenting the adapter was a consideration of Turner’s for quite some time; however, patents for technologies like Turner’s adapter could take up to five years and thousands of dollars in fees to complete.

Although it is unlikely that Turner will pursue a patent, scientific patents are not new for Western or Eckdahl.

“I had an idea for a specific type of genetic circuit that my colleagues and I invented a couple of years back, and the university paid some money for us to get a provisional patent,” Eckdahl said. “For something like this, [Turner] would have to convince the administration that it was worth even several thousand dollars to pursue it.”

Eckdahl does not believe that the university will provide funding to Turner, since it is unlikely that the adapter will provide the university significant monetary return.

“This type of adapter is something that other people will come up with, although no one besides Justin has, yet,” Eckdahl says.

Turner may not be looking to patent his adapter, but he still has high aspirations for the future. Turner has already applied to the medical program at Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences and he has the life goal to one day continue developing his creative designs.

“I’ve been researching ways to use fiberglass to create cartilage and bone material; the hope is one day, with enough funding, I can research a method to actually print bones,” Turner said.

Eckdahl himself is pleased with Turner’s finished product, though he is more amazed at the interdisciplinary education that Turner showed.

“It is possible for a student to see a need, to address that need by thinking about it using several different disciplines, to actually build the device and then bring it back to the classrooms in which they saw the need,” Eckdahl said. “That’s pretty amazing; that we live in a world that someone can come up with an idea and actually carry it through, even to the point of people benefiting from using it.”

The adapter may never return a significant profit, but that is not important to Turner. The legacy of the “Just In Time” Adapter is the educational benefit students at Western receive from using the adapter and the truth that any student with a reasonable goal for the future can achieve it with education, hard work and occasionally, a bit of 21st Century technology.

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