Out of the Box Diagnostics

- David Wolking

In January, outdoor apparel company Aether was making headlines for unveiling a concept store designed by Thierry Guagain using three stacked shipping containers.  There's even a teaser hyping the launch on Hayes Street.

Then, hip new Science and Culture journal Nautilus publishes a piece on shipping containers "The Box that Built the Modern World."    Shipping containers, those steel boxes you see on trains printed with Hamburg Sur and Hanjin are popping up everywhere, reinvented as designer homes, mobile expeditionary labs with 3D printers for the military providing "the most advanced workshops in the harshest environments," and as laboratories.  It's a little out of control.  Just visit Pinterest and search for shipping containers and you'll get the idea.

So why all the hype?  They're just 20' long rectangular steel containers.  Boxes.  7.9 million of these things move through the Port of Los Angeles every year.   31 million in Shanghai.  Such vast numbers, such ruggedly commonplace things, these boxes have become the basic ingredients for anything requiring immediate structure and space.

A few years ago in Morogoro, HALI jumped on the shipping container bandwagon (a less crowded wagon at that time), leveled out some ground outside the Sokoine University of Agriculture School of Veterinary Medicine and Public Health, brought in 2 containers, stacked them up, and reinvented them as an advanced molecular diagnostic laboratory for emerging infectious diseases.  New buildings cost money, require more permits, take time.  Boxes, on the other hand, build up with the simplicity of legos.  One atop the other, a few modifications with some cutter torches, and bring in the interior designers. 

Initially we envisioned a relatively simply lab, just the stacked containers, some doors, maybe AC units to keep our techs from cooking and our freezers from burning out.  But Professor Kazwala had something entirely different in mind.  Prof took the design process to heart and reinvented these containers in the French Quarter style.  Roof, rails, and decorative ironwork, balconies and windows and flooring, they're a work of art.  Our lab is no longer a couple of boxes that in a former life held electronics, someone's belongings in an international move, or auto parts bound for the plant.  These boxes are opening up new worlds in scientific discovery, as our technicians Ruth and Joseph work on identifying novel pathogens.  

So if you're ever in Morogoro, come by the SUA lab, take a tour.  It's a great place to hang out on the balcony with a cup of chai, taking in the scenery of Morogoro, mountains and waterfalls in the distance, and learn about HALI's exciting new discoveries.  If you're lucky, maybe you'll even meet Professor Kazwala, though he's likely working on another design masterpiece, polishing his portfolio.

Want to help HALI keep building great things in Tanzania?  Consider a donation, or contact the HALI team to get involved!