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Community Superheroes - Mo Pandirajan

We have long known that Foldscope is far more than a microscope in someone’s pocket. It is a community of passionate people around the world that see the challenge that science faces due to inaccessibility. It’s a group of activists that jump on the opportunity of bringing scientific and critical thinking to communities that are struggling with environmental challenges. It’s an army of doctors looking for new solutions to the hardest challenges in infectious diseases for resource poor communities. It’s students around the world passing on the knowledge they learn to families and friends. It’s wandering naturalists who know that nature is more than a utility - and is essential for our well being beyond what it provides us. The power of what we all can do together is the real Foldscope story. So to kick things off, we will start by recognizing community leaders, activities and passionate educators on the ground who have shaped so much of what Foldscope has done so far. This is the inner life of what goes on inside the head of a Foldscope “super users”.

Mo Pandirajan, Eden School, Rural Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India

And to kick off the series; we choose to highlight one and only, Mo Pandirajan, a grassroots educator extraordinare. The first picture that comes to me whenever I think of a super hero, it’s Mo. Mo contacted me in a humble and short email in 2015 during the phase 1 of the Foldscope program (anyone remember that?). Those were the days where we had decided to ship 10,000 foldscope to anyone who asks. Mo runs a small school in a rural region of Vellore, Tamil Nadu. What stood out in his email was a genuine desire to help his community and bring science to a new pedestal. We shipped a 100 foldscope to Mo; and that began our friendship for years to come.

To give you a perspective, in the last 4 years; Mo and his community friends including his wife and kids have trained 12,000 teachers and roughly 70,000 school children and 12,000 members of the public on microscopy and its many uses. I have tried to catch up with him, shipping as many Foldscope as we can - and it’s still not enough. He travels prolifically all around Tamil Nadu (and now across the country) teaching and training kids and adults; whether it might be a festival on the street, or a train compartment, whether it’s a footpath of a vegetable seller. It’s the spirit of science and the excitement that he can grab kids attention that stands him apart as an educator that I wish I had when I was growing up. Some days, I wonder how lucky am I to have actually met him many times in person and seen him in action in my life time.

To give you some context, I will list some challenges in doing community work with hands on science. Majority of the regions around the world lack scientific tools of inquiry. Many parts of Tamil Nadu are no exception, with rural communities often cut off from new technological innovations and access to scientific tools for discovery. Mo sees a potential in every child he meets; and makes it his mission to travel to far flung places in Tamil Nadu - including both north and south Tamil Nadu.

When you are resource constrained, you have to be creative. Mo championed a unique method to bring microscopy based knowledge to the general public - by hosting exhibitions on Foldscope images taken by his students - and printing and hanging them in public places. This led to masses of students and the general public sharing the excitement that individual Foldscope users were experiencing in a quick breeze. The pictures below are a testament to the excitement that exists in everyone when you meet the microscopic world for the first time.

With 328 microcosmos community posts - all in the native language Tamil - including 150 pollen grain images contributed to the Pollen grain roster project, Mo and Foldscope super users like him are true champions of the Foldscope story. Just because of his efforts, after English - Tamil is the most commonly used language on our community site. Because of him, thousands of kids are now thinking and planning and executing careers in science. And Mo is just getting started. He has been recognized as a leader in his community for a long while - see recent article about him - but I wanted to use this forum to salute him with his dedication and passion for making science accessible to all.