Design Science: UCSF Project Applies Innovative Thinking to Research


Cellular imaging isn’t usually top-of-mind when parents buy the popular LEGO(TM) building blocks for their kids, but the two have converged in a UCSF experiment that applies design thinking to science.

Keith Yamamoto, PhD

Keith Yamamoto, PhD

Earlier this year, a team of UCSF faculty turned to the Palo Alto design and innovation firm IDEO (pronounced EYE-dee-oh) to see whether their designers could help UCSF rethink the way it approaches the toughest problems in science. That connection has turned into a collaboration between UCSF and IDEO to apply cutting-edge design processes to a variety of campus projects.

“Biology is going through big changes in the way that we learn things and the opportunities we have to learn across a spectrum we never imagined before,” said Keith Yamamoto, PhD, UCSF vice chancellor of research, who led the initiative.

“But the way that we do our research — stable, non-dynamic, one individual at a time — doesn’t adapt well to the opportunities we have in front of us,” he said, because the problems are too broad and too complex. “The best work in the future is going to be done by teams of people with very different expertise, who know different things and think about things in different ways, who come together to focus on one big problem.”

LEGO CellScope Open House

The Design Science team will present the results of their design project and the concepts behind it during a Wednesday, Dec. 12 open house in Genentech Hall, Room N 114. The open house will include an overview of the design experiment from 4 to 5 p.m., followed by beer and snacks from 5 to 6 p.m.

This experiment was an attempt to see whether we can change that to make science more creative, team-based and ultimately more productive in terms of public benefit.

Making Prototypes into Useful Products

The experiment included a two-month project this summer that trained about a dozen researchers, students and other members of the UCSF community in so-called design thinking, which approaches design based on three main criteria: user desirability, technical feasibility and business viability.

Daniel Fletcher, PhD.

Daniel Fletcher, PhD.

The experiment culminated in a three-week, intensive design project for three graduate students from different laboratories — Harrison Liu (bioengineering), Michael Sachs (biomedical sciences) and Reid Williams (biophysics). They were challenged to develop new ideas around a cell phone microscope called the CellScope that was developed in the UC Berkeley lab of bioengineering professor Daniel Fletcher, PhD.

Under the design thinking approach, that project blossomed into copious user interviews, off-the-wall ideas on sticky notes and two new prototypes that could bring the CellScope out of the ivory tower and into real use.

Design Process Starts by Assessing Users’ Needs

The process of design science moves through a “users-journey” that starts with brainstorming who might actually need this type of product. Then people across a spectrum of users are interviewed to understand what drives them, what need this product might fill and how they would use it, from the moment they first learn of a product, through its use, to how they would dispose of it.

Taking Design Science Beyond UCSF

UCSF is working with IDEO on several fronts, including faculty who are applying design thinking in their everyday lives. Among those is Wendell Lim, PhD, professor and vice chair of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, who was among the first on campus to explore the notion of applying IDEO concepts to science.

Lim led a scientific exchange this summer between the UCSF Center of Systems & Synthetic Biology and the Peking University (PKU) Center for Quantitative Biology, in which he took 14 UCSF faculty, fellows and students to a weeklong workshop in Beijing.

Teaming up with former UCSF professor Chao Tang, PhD, who is now director of the PKU center, Lim brought the UCSF team together with PKU undergraduates and graduate students to brainstorm around four, cutting-edge “challenge topics” in quantitative biology: what controls cell size; the future of optogenetics; using microfluidics as cheap diagnostics; and managing cell stress in engineered metabolic pathways.

“The workshop represents another example of how we are using IDEO-inspired innovation processes to facilitate scientific research at UCSF and beyond,” said Lim, who is a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator at UCSF.

Applying the same sticky-note approach learned from IDEO, the group developed innovative roadmap proposals, which PKU is now working to move forward.

“I think we are establishing a mutually beneficial two-way relationship with China that is far more substantive than that of most other U.S. institutions,” Lim said. “I think there is a real opportunity here.”

More importantly, he said, the workshops have a great potential to build stronger ties with Peking University, providing a highly effective way to screen and recruit the best talent.

“People have a number of different ways in which they design things or think of things,” said Scott Paterson, from IDEO, who donated his time to teach the design methods and mentor the students on the project. But not all of those approaches end up as commercial successes. “Often, people start with whether it’s feasible, but sometimes you design something and no one will use it. So, instead of saying, ‘Is this feasible or not,’ we said, ‘Do people really want this? And how might they want it?’”

The team started by interviewing Fletcher, who designed the scope with the idea that clinicians in remote parts of the world often have access to cellphones, but not microscopes or pathology labs. He created a microscope that would attach to a cellphone, which could photograph a microscope slide and send it to a pathology lab or expert located miles away.The UC Berkeley project won praise from many areas, as well as both philanthropic backing, but had not been commercialized.

Then they worked directly with Paterson, who guided them through a three-week series of brainstorming sessions that identified potential users, selected key people to interview, applied their insights from those interviews to understand that “user-journey,” and ultimately came up with prototypes. Along the way, they applied stacks of sticky notes to the walls in the Genentech Hall teaching laboratory, each with its own concept, fact, thought or “how might we” statement, all aimed at bringing forward the most creative ideas.

Among the people interviewed during the process was a seventh-grade teacher who talked about finding ways to engage her students in science — on a limited classroom budget.  That interview led to a number of “how might we” questions — from providing educational tools that demystify technology, to creating a community around DIY microscopy.

The result was a cell phone microscope built out of LEGO building blocks. Using the 3D printer in the Genentech Hall Center for Advanced Technology, the team built four key optic pieces that would neatly fit into a LEGO tower, creating a DIY microscope that any classroom could build, almost anywhere in the world. The team is planning to make the instructions for building the scope publically available via the Internet, with CAD files to make the adapters, links to places for ordering the optics at different price points and lesson plans for teachers to share.

Design thinking, developed by IDEO, brings together what people desire with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. Keith Yamamoto, PhD, is aiming to adapt this approach to scientific research.

Liu, Sachs and Williams — along with Theresa O’Brien, PhD, associate dean for research strategy in the UCSF School of Medicine, who organized and shepherded the design science project through the summer — rolled out the pilot of that project at the Bay Area Science Festival in early November, to the delight of both children and adults who stopped by the booth.

They also took it back to Fletcher and to the people they had originally interviewed for the project. Unanimously, they asked how quickly this could become commercially available.

“The result of this is beyond what we imagined,” Paterson said. “When you’re creating prototypes, you’re not thinking about this being a real product. So for Dan’s response to be, ‘When can this be real and in the world?,’ that’s the best we could hope for.”

But for UCSF, this is about more than just a DIY microscope or a single project; it’s about making the way scientists approach and teach science as modern as the way it’s studied.

“It really felt like if we didn't do this, that we'd be missing the boat,” Yamamoto said. “We have not only an opportunity, but in a way, a responsibility, to do this.”