Frugal Science Brings Research Opportunities to High Schoolers 

With a new grant, scientific research can be democratized at schools across Georgia.

In 2017, Gaurav Byagathvalli, a Lambert High School junior, reached out to Georgia Tech Assistant Professor Saad Bhamla. They had worked together as part of Lambert’s synthetic biology program led by teacher Janet Standeven. Byagathvalli wanted to transform E. coli with engineered plasmids for an experiment and needed to use electroporation. Rather than purchase a $10,000 electroporator, the team brainstormed ideas to build a frugal version. With some ingenuity, a barbecue lighter became an electroporator and cost less than a dollar, enabling frugal cell transformations.

More innovations like this exist in Bhamla’s lab: an automated tracking microscope for STEM, a 3D-printed centrifuge, and an inexpensive cell lysis device for molecular biology. These inventions aren’t just fun challenges — they’re also part of frugal science research between Georgia Tech and Lambert High School. Creating accessible, affordable equipment to democratize research is the foundation of frugal science. Now, with a new five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bhamla and Standeven will pave the way to bring frugal science to high schools across Georgia. This NIH Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) leverages partnerships with Project ENGAGES, K-12 Inventure Prize, CEISMC, and the Georgia Bio Education Institute to achieve their goal.

“We’re trying to create the next generation of scientists, and we're going to cultivate their ideas into products, and students into inventors and authors,” Bhamla said. 

Beginning the Collaboration

Bhamla and Standeven first started working together six years ago through her leadership of Lambert’s International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM) team. Although typically intended for college students, her high school students wanted to compete in the synthetic biology competition and reached out to Bhamla to use his open-source centrifuge to separate liquids using centrifugal force. 

Using a 3D printer, the team created a centrifuge for molecular biology research and won a gold medal in the 2018 iGEM competition. Their work was eventually published in the journal PLOS Biology in 2019, giving the high schoolers their first scholarly citation before they had even graduated.

“It’s inspirational for students at my school to see other teenagers getting to be first authors from an intense research experience,” Standeven said. “I’m turning students away because I can't clone myself to have enough hours in their day to support the students who want to do research.”

students learning with GT's frugal science

Elio Challita, a Ph.D. student in bioengineering at Tech, has been mentoring students in the lab for the past four years, helping them refine their research questions, manage projects, and present findings for publication. The reason he got involved was much more personal, though. Growing up in Lebanon, Challita faced similar struggles as some of these high school students. 

“I thought that frugal science would democratize science for people who have the talent and drive, but who face the burden of not having money,” he said. “So, I wanted to be more involved because it would also allow me to give back to the community, especially where I came from.”

Graduate assistant Rajas Poorna had a similar experience growing up in India and joined the Bhamla Lab to help, but also believes it makes him a stronger researcher.

“As moved as I am by the humanitarian aspect of this, what excites the physicist in me is that enforcing ‘frugal constraints’ actually makes it easier to find elegant, simple mechanisms that solve the problem, regardless of cost,” he said.

Blank Space (Medium)
(text and background only visible when logged in)
decorative divider
“We’re trying to create the next generation of scientists, and we're going to cultivate their ideas into products, and students into inventors and authors.” — Saad Bhamla
decorative divider
Blank Space (X-Large)
(text and background only visible when logged in)

Expanding Across Georgia

An instrument use for Georgia Tech's frugal science.The NIH grant aims to replicate Standeven’s students’ experience at Georgia Tech. The grant focuses on training not just students but also teachers on how to conduct academic-level research from anywhere. Each year of the grant, up to 10 high school interns and 16 teachers will learn frugal science skills. If the average high school science teacher works with 150 students, the program multiplies access to hands-on science experience.

The frugal science program will also expand across the state. While teachers in metro Atlanta and other large cities often have access to university research labs, those in rural areas do not. Training teachers and providing them with frugal equipment can help close this gap.

“We’re going to create a really nice synergy between the needs of the rural teachers and the interns’ inventions to enable the next generation in Georgia to become an engaged and empowered workforce,” Standeven said. “It’s about enabling teachers to provide immersive research opportunities at the high schools and then trickling down into middle schools. We're going to get a much better workforce that's engaged in STEM.”

Projects will be added to a website of open-source files that other classrooms can access for their experiments. Eventually, they will set up virtual networks of teachers and classrooms to test new designs and give critiques to the inventors, creating a feedback loop to improve the projects and data for possible publications. 

“There are students at every single high school who need these opportunities,” Standeven said. “Eventually, every high school should support this engineering mindset and the opportunity to develop these tools, and eventually see that synthetic biology is doable, achievable, and a way to solve major world problems.”

Blank Space (Medium)
(text and background only visible when logged in)
decorative divider
Blank Space (X-Large)
(text and background only visible when logged in)

Frugal Innovations

From making biotech research easier to revolutionizing medicine, learn about some of the inventions from the lab.

Open Cell

Aryan Gupta was a Lambert High School junior working on an iGEM project to find the DNA of a parasitic worm that can infiltrate water sources. He needed a bead homogenizer, a device that rigorously shakes high density beads within a sample to rupture cell walls and make intercellular contents, like DNA, accessible.

It also costs thousands of dollars, but with the help of Bhamla’s frugal science lab, they made their own. Their version not only decreases the cost to roughly $36, but also is simple enough that anyone can build it themselves.  

“The heart of any beater structure is you want to shake something vigorously, the same way you'd be mixing up a drink,” Gupta said. “To get that from a motor that simply rotates, you need to translate that motion into a linear one.” 

Inspired by how the moon orbits around the Earth, they used a gearing system that fixes the orientation of tubes as they orbit around the motor. When the device spins rapidly, the high density beads are moved up and down within the tubes, causing them to collide with cells and split them open. The success of the project and interaction with Georgia Tech pushed Gupta to apply, and he is now a second-year studying electrical engineering. 

“Having worked with Bhamla and his graduate students really showed me what Georgia Tech is about and what engineering as a science really means,” he said. “We can take our projects and actually make an impact, and that was one of the most significant drives that made me want to attend Georgia Tech and not only further this project, but also to be in this environment of innovation and research.”

As he’s continued with the project at Georgia Tech and worked on open sourcing the material and publishing, frugal science has influenced how Gupta pursues his scientific career.

“All the different facets of this project have helped me grow my skills in engineering, like 3D printing and design work, but also scientific skills like collecting data, forming figures, and learning how to reach proper conclusions,” he said.

Blank Space (Medium)
(text and background only visible when logged in)
decorative divider
“We can take our projects and actually make an impact, and that was one of the most significant
drives that made me want to attend Georgia Tech and not only further this project, but also to be
in this environment of innovation and research.” — Aryan Gupta
decorative divider
Blank Space (X-Large)
(text and background only visible when logged in)


Priya Soneji has loved microscopes ever since her father got her one when she was 10 years old. As a Milton High School student, she worked on a tracking microscope as part of the Science Fair national student competition. 

“When you find an organism, it's very hard to follow it with just your hands, so with this tracking we’re trying to see how to follow an organism for a long period of time,” Soneji said.

She first reached out to Bhamla as a high school junior, then joined his lab shortly after, and continued when she started at Georgia Tech in 2021. Relying on the knowledge she had from working on robotics teams since elementary school, she built a 3D-printed, three-axis actuator to move a microscope around. Since that initial idea, Soneji has built four prototypes, more precise with each iteration. Once Soneji figured out the mechanisms of the microscope, she created an open-source vision software system to perform object detection and communicate with the actuator. The whole device is only $300, hundreds if not thousands of dollars cheaper than a typical microscope, making it much more accessible to the high school labs in her area.  

Now as a second-year Tech student, Soneji is pursuing publication on the device. Overall, Trackoscope fits with Soneji’s mechanical engineering studies and has helped her get into the field earlier than most of her peers.

“Trackoscope is mainly a mechanical- and robotics-based project with an application in biology,” she said. “This has helped a whole lot with me trying to go into robotics.”


When Gaurav Byagathvalli first started working with the Bhamla lab in 2017, he was a Lambert High School student competing in iGEM. Together, they built an electroporator based on a barbecue lighter. Their device shaved the cost down from thousands to a few dollars and led to Byagathvalli’s first publication as a Georgia Tech undergraduate, but they were only just getting started. It turned out that the same technology they used as a delivery system for bacteria also works to get vaccines into cells in the body and mounts a strong immune response.

“It’s just like getting a package delivered somewhere. It’s on a truck to its destination, and we used the same thing, but for bacteria,” Byagathvalli said. “And now we're using that in animals. We need to get DNA or RNA into a cell so that the end user, which is the cell, can use the package for some purpose.”

students learning with Georgia Tech's frugal scienceThe device is made of two mechanisms: the barbecue lighter electroporation system that sends electric pulses to create holes in the cell membrane to reach the cell’s interior, and a microneedle electrode that can deliver these pulses into skin. The device is pressed next to the skin and clicked like a pen to deliver the RNA- or DNA-based vaccine. The five-year project has resulted in a startup, Piezo Therapeutics, launching later this year.

RNA vaccines have been more popular lately because they only need to break past the cell membrane, but DNA also needs to enter the nucleus, and ePatch has this capability. The innovation could extend to other applications, including dermal gene therapies. Byagathvalli will explore the possibilities as head of the company after he graduates this year with a degree in industrial engineering.

“When I started, I was just a high school student who wanted to do good research and try to contribute to the world, and that mission still stands today,” he said. “But did I ever think that it would turn to the point where we're building a company that's gotten funding and is growing? There are very few jobs where you have that type of satisfaction from your work, knowing that you're actually making an impact, especially early on in your career, and this is one of them.”

decorative divider

Writer: Tess Malone

Multimedia: Steven Norris and Evan Atkinson 

Media Contact: Tess Malone |