Illustration by Giorgia Virgili
Illustration of Kathy Zonana

 

It was the best sort of office-party gift exchange: the kind where there’s thievery and laughter and a couple of coveted items that are stolen three times before they are rightfully owned. And there, at the close of 2015, the most popular gift among the School of Medicine communications staff was a piece of paper.

To be fair, it wasn’t any old piece of paper. It was a sheet of cardstock, colorfully printed and containing detailed folding instructions. Plus a lens. 

It was a Foldscope, the $1 origami microscope that was just beginning to be distributed to citizen-scientists, including many children, around the world. The writer who covered bioengineering for the School of Medicine had wrangled one from its faculty inventor, Manu Prakash. Encased in a FedEx envelope, the Foldscope was carefully passed from new owner to new owner before coming to rest with my gleeful boss. (Science writers, it must be said, really know how to party.)

If you’re getting the sense that Prakash isn’t the type to follow a carefully paved path, you’re on the right track. And the world is demonstrably better off for it.

In our profile of Prakash, you’ll read about his inspiration for the Foldscope and the other “frugal science” projects he has since dreamed up. It’s the story of a man who readily channels his childhood in rural India, where he fell in love with nature’s small mysteries on walks with his grandfather and conducted science experiments with all manner of materials he scrounged up—from gunpowder to mercury to bleach. If you’re getting the sense that Prakash isn’t the type to follow a carefully paved path, you’re on the right track. And the world is demonstrably better off for it. 

You get a similar sense of individuality from Kevin Bennett, ’90. A nationally lauded undergraduate poet, Bennett took a corporate job as a young adult but soon quit to write. His life has been full of challenges, from mental illness to displacement after Hurricane Katrina. Through it all, he has remained true to himself, and his Stanford friends true to him.

Both Bennett and Prakash embody what Steve Jobs said in his 2005 Stanford Commencement address—one of the most popular ever at any university: “Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to fold up a piece of paper and see where my instincts take me.


Kathy Zonana, ’93, JD ’96, is the editor of Stanford. Email her at kathyz@stanford.edu.