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Neuroscientist wins Nature’s impact prize by supporting others and sharing hardware

Tom Baden has bagged the inaugural Nature Research Award for Driving Global Impact, a joint venture between Nature Research and Chinese technology company Tencent.
Amber Dance is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, California.

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Tom Baden

Tom Baden advocates open technology and organizes training for junior scientists in Africa.Credit: Stuart Robinson/University of Sussex

What began as a penchant for tinkering eventually led Tom Baden to launch an organization that trains African researchers and makes inexpensive, 3D-printed laboratory equipment widely available. This work earned Baden, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, the inaugural Nature Research Award for Driving Global Impact.

The prize is part of a joint venture between Nature Research and Tencent, an Internet and technology company based in Shenzhen, China. The award programme supports early-career researchers whose work has, or is likely to have, a positive impact on society. Baden received a US$30,000 grant, and an invitation to speak at the Tencent WE Summit in Beijing on 3 November. The summit, Tencent’s seventh annual such conference and one of China’s largest science events, gathers researchers from around the world to present scientific breakthroughs and new technology.

Runners-up Luisa Pinto, a neuroscientist at the University of Minho in Braga, Portugal, and psychologist Alan Gow of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK, each received a $10,000 grant. Pinto’s work centres on how brain cells called glia contribute to depression. She hopes to apply this knowledge to help people in a clinical setting. Gow was recognized for his work to keep people’s minds sharp as they age, such as development of a tablet-computer training course.

Baden has been a tinkerer since his days as a postdoc at the University of Tübingen in Germany between 2010 and 2016, when he first bought a 3D printer. “For relatively little money, with a little bit of know-how, you can build very sophisticated scientific machines,” he says.

For example, his current lab group studies vision in mice and zebrafish. When members needed a precise way to send light to a fish’s eyes, they found that devices on the market use wavelengths appropriate for human eyes. So they printed components and assembled their own stimulator. “There’s almost no experiment that we do in the lab that doesn’t use a home-built device in some way,” says Baden.

He has also designed an inexpensive electronic model neuron for education and outreach. The Spikeling costs about £25 (US$32) to make from a commercial microcontroller chip and other parts. Users can provide input to excite or inhibit the ‘neuron’s’ activity; measure output; and link several Spikelings into a neural circuit to simulate classic neuroscience experiments or design their own. Audible clicks indicate neural activity and the brightness of LEDs indicates the cell’s action potential, the spike of electrical activity that shows it’s working.

Baden’s group has posted designs for tools such as low-cost microscopes and pipettes on open-labware.net, a platform that he uses to share the benefits of homemade equipment. Users don’t need vast resources — just a 3D printer (about $1,000), microcontrollers and a few basic materials to make their own equipment, so open hardware can be useful for researchers in developing nations or for schools. Baden draws parallels between his efforts and the open-software movement, in which users around the globe adapt and modify free software such as the Linux operating system. Open-hardware aficionados freely share designs for their technology.

Baden is also co-founder of Teaching and Research in Natural Sciences for Development in Africa (TReND in Africa). This non-profit organization, which launched in 2011, runs research courses in Africa and helps to place scientists who’d like to visit Africa to teach in the region into universities. The group also collects surplus lab equipment from facilities in the United States and Europe and redistributes it to labs across Africa.

Baden’s TReND course on building lab equipment has proved popular, and the organization has integrated 3D printing into other courses. “You can build your own tools, whether or not you’re a scientist,” says Baden.

Plus, he notes, it’s just plain fun. “It’s Lego for grown-ups,” he says. That’s important for early-career scientists, he adds. “You need to have fun in what you’re doing.”

The 2019 Awards for Driving Global Impact focused on neuroscience; the 2020 awards’ focus is yet to be decided. The awards are judged by Nature Research staff and independent experts.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03550-z

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