Stanford University bioengineer Manu Prakash's research has been driven by innovation and curiosity about the world rather than solving a particular problem, including exploring how shorebirds drink and how drops of food coloring can demonstrate highly complex behavior to building an inexpensive microscope for the developing world.
For his work, the India-born biologist has been named one of the 2016 fellows of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and will receive the foundation's "genius grant."
"I've done science the way I've wanted to do science," Prakash told Stanford News Service. "Sometimes it's hard to convince others that we are taking the right approach. This award gives me the flexibility to not think about those bounds."
Prakash is being recognized for his research, which is "driven by curiosity about the diversity of life forms on our planet and how they work, empathy for problems in resource-poor settings, and a deep interest in democratizing the experience and joy of science globally," according to the MacArthur Foundation.
He also builds tools that are both low cost and powerful, bringing science to parts of the world where traditional tools aren't feasible, including the Foldscope, a microscope made out of paper with a glass bead for a lens.
The inexpensive tool costs less than a dollar to make and has now been distributed by Prakash's lab to more than 50,000 people in 135 countries who use it to explore diseases in bees, map biodiversity of microscopic organisms, detect cervical cancer and teach hygiene and sanitation, among other research and education projects, according to Stanford.
Prakash was caring for his 4-month-old twins when the MacArthur Foundation called to let him know that he won the grant, he told Stanford News Service.
"I was very sleep deprived when the phone rang," he said, adding that he almost didn't pick up the phone. "My main reaction is that it is a very humbling experience because there are so many people in the world doing amazing work."
Prakash will receive $625,000 to further his research and creative vision, although he said he doesn't know exactly what research he will pursue.
"I can't say what this will mean to my science as yet, but I know for sure we have a lot of ideas brewing."
Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne praised Prakash for his arsenal of technologies to "solve tangible human and scientific problems," including optical physics, computer science, fluid dynamics, biology and chemistry.
"It is fitting that his creative approach to applying scientific principles has been recognized as true genius by the MacArthur Foundation," Tessier-Lavigne said.
Each year, the MacArthur Foundation recognizes individuals with "a track record of achievement and the potential for significant contributions in the future," according to its website.
Other 2016 recipients include computer scientists, a synthetic chemist, a sculptor, an art historian and curator and video artist.