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A Scientist Becomes a Social Entrepreneur — In Science

Nina Dudnik, a molecular biologist from Harvard, is the founder and CEO of the Boston-based Seeding Labs. The non-profit organization tries to bridge the resource gap between research labs in the U.S. and the developing world, starting with lab equipment. Dudnik is on the Massachusetts High Tech council’s list of women to watch in 2011.

Dudnik did a research stint in the Africa Rice Center in Cote d’Ivoire, in 2000, as a Fulbright scholar. During her time there she realized, she says, that the technicians at the lab — some of whom did not have a college degree — were just as skilled at scientific work as scientists in richer countries. But they lacked material resources to go further.

When she returned to the U.S., she spoke with colleagues about this resource crunch. She told them about African researchers who would carefully rinse out disposable pipette tips and re-use them several times.

Dudnik realized she could help, even as a student. She and her lab friends set about scouring Harvard labs for old but serviceable scientific equipment, which Harvard researchers often leave in the hallway right outside their labs. Their first shipment went to schools in South America. As word got around, other researchers began to contact them with donations. In 2007, Dudnick received the Echoing Green fellowship to launch Seeding Labs and expand its operations. In 2010, Nina became a TED Global Fellow. Today she has left the bench, pursuing a career as a full-time social entrepreneur.

Here’s how Seeding Labs works: Researchers from labs in the developing world send an application listing their equipment needs. When a match is found for items on their list, they pay a small fee — a small percentage of the equipment’s original cost — to cover shipping and handling costs. The buyer is responsible for clearing the equipment through customs. Seeding Labs also helps recipients get training to fix the equipment when it breaks. Thus far, Dudnik has worked with labs in 16 countries, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Working in a lab can be a very social experience, but it isn’t always. The more social part of science is limited to a small subset of people, says Dudnik who likes to be around people. “Running Seeding Labs, I get to spend time with an incredible range of people across the world and across many sectors. On any given day, I might talk to a pharmaceutical executive in Boston, a bench scientist in Ghana, a student in Cambridge or Kenya, social media marketers, lawyers, accountants, [or] warehouse managers,” she says. “I learn so much every day, and get to have conversations I never imagined.”
                        – Vijaysree Venkatraman