— by Joseph Caputo
Researchers at The Southern University of Chile are watching the mailbox. Since a fire swept through four of the University’s science departments last December, they have been in need of equipment for their teaching and research laboratories.
“The situation is now critical,” wrote Maite Castro, a Chilean researcher. “There is no equipment and we’re being relocated to different places in and out of campus. But even when that happens, I don’t have any equipment to work with. All my things are gone, I really need help.”
It was a small group of Harvard Medical school students, alums and postdocs that came to the rescue. Wearing purple latex gloves and noting inventory on the back of thesis proposals, they volunteered two Saturdays in April to pack over 3,000 lbs. worth of used lab equipment, all destined for Chile. The shipment is valued at tens of thousands of dollars.
It was the largest packing event in the history of Seeding Labs, a volunteer-run non-profit that puts unused lab equipment from the fix-it shops and basements of research facilities into the hands of foreign scientists facing a lack of resources as basic as gloves and test tubes. Similar organizations exist to equip hospitals in need, but this is the first to aid research scientists.
“These are our colleagues,” says Executive Director Nina Dudnik, who co-founded Seeding Labs five years ago as a Harvard Medical School student. “What we throw away without a second thought can make a real difference.”
This may seem like the obvious thing to do, but as Dudnik explains, the process is a bit like recycling. Although scientists may support and be aware of the cause, without a little blue bin to remind them and reduce the effort, it won’t happen. Seeding Labs, which is based in Cambridge Massachusetts, provides the boxes and transportation for equipment so researchers can do the right thing without breaking a sweat.
“The equipment is a little bit older, but we try to fix and clean it up,” says Dudnik. “It’s still usable.”
Donors from all over Massachusetts, including Harvard Medical School and Biogen Idec, a pharmaceutical company, supplied the test tubes, pipette tips and occasional mystery machine for the Chile shipment. When the day started, the volunteers carefully organized the hundreds of pieces of lab equipment on the warehouse floor. Hours later, after rolled-up sleeves and some sweat, boxes the size of dryers filled the space.
“Sometimes it’s overwhelming, but it gives you a nice feeling of accomplishment and a good work out,” said Melissa Wu, the event’s coordinator and a member of the Seeding Labs board. “Your research can go for years before you see anything tangible. With Seeding Labs, it’s easier to see your results.”
Now 5 years in operation, Seeding Labs has equipped 14 labs with nearly all of their equipment needs. One success story is a donation to Partners in Health, an organization that improves access to health care in developing countries. “In 2003, our five facilities in Haiti experienced approximately 655,000 patient visits. The laboratories work full time, so the donation, especially the microcentrifuge and the water bath, help us save countless lives,” wrote Dr. Paul Farmer, Partners in Health co-founder.
Currently running on volunteers and a shoestring budge, Seeding Labs is ready to grow. When asked about the organization’s needs, Wu verbalized an instant list: Warehouse space, tax lawyers, customs experts, boxes, vehicles, storage space, money, shipping donations, packing materials, lab equipment, volunteers, a parking space, and a moving company were just a few mentioned.
Dudnik, who became Seeding Labs’ first full-time staff member in January, is now dedicated to finding funding. The non-profit was recently selected as a finalist to receive $10,000 from ideablob.com, but they need votes to win the money. If you’d like to get involved, e-mail Nina Dudnik or visit the Seeding Labs Website.