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Winter 2002

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Drill sergeant

by Sue Rosenberg

     Way down the hall, around the corner, at the end of a cul-de-sac is Dana Science Center’s secret workshop. (OK, it’s no secret to faculty and students in the sciences, especially physics, but it’s a decidedly behind-the-scenes operation.) It’s a big grey room ringed with drill presses, band saws, lathes, and milling machines, and it’s the domain of John Myers, Skidmore’s mechanical engineering technician. Here Myers works with students and faculty on a wide range of equipment-building, toolmaking, and instrument-repair projects in physics, chemistry, biology, and other fields.

At the drill press, Owen Osborn ’02 gets a few pointers from science technician John Myers.

     Until the major renovations and enlargement of Dana Science Center were undertaken in 1995, there was no machine shop for the sciences, says William Standish, chair of Skidmore’s chemistry and physics department. He pulls a tiny metal toolbox from a desk drawer: “This is it—this was our shop,” he says. If a faculty member needed to fashion a mechanism or apparatus for an experiment, he says, “we’d ask to use a saw or drill in the art building, or maybe we’d know a friend with a machine shop.”

     When the Dana improvements were planned, Standish and his colleagues leaped at the opportunity to catch up with other college science programs by providing a machine shop on the premises. Then they hired Myers to equip and organize it.

     In his twenty-eight-year career at the Watervliet, N.Y., arsenal, Myers had worked his way up to inspection supervisor, traveling the country to ensure that military contractors were building weapons components properly and up to spec. He also earned an associate’s degree in mechanical engineering and management. When Standish presented him with a budget and an empty 650-square-foot room, he knew where to start.

     One of his first purchases was a classic 1969 Bridge-port milling machine. “I happen to know a guy,” begins Myers, in the words of proud and mighty bargain hunters the world over. “This guy buys used machine tools at auctions and resells them. I looked at new Bridgeports, but they’re not so different. A new one costs around $20,000, and I got this for $5,600.” Another tool came for free: the arsenal in Watervliet donated an optical comparator, which allows fine registration of separate pieces or parts to ensure exact alignments of, say, screw holes or joints.

     “Space was a challenge,” says Myers. To optimize the shop’s capacity, he chose multifunction and variable-speed tools, so that one saw or drill can handle wood, metal, and plastic. He also put just about everything—machines, worktables, toolchests—on wheels.

     Now that we have a shop,” Myers notes, “we’re working to integrate it into the curriculum more.” Already Myers has crafted several parts and fittings for chemist David Weis and two of his students, who needed to build a system for creating a salt aerosol, spraying it into a chamber, and shining infrared light through the mist. “Having the students work with John in the shop was excellent training—the kind usually only grad students get,” says Weis. “And it saved a lot of money over buying the prefab parts or hiring a machinist to make them.” Among Myers’s other projects: an exhaust tube for a smelly laboratory pump; about sixty miniature terrariums in which students placed tiny plants and, wearing them around their necks, watched the plants grow; and strainers for a water-habitat study. “It’s exciting to see what needs will come up each day and try to tackle them,” says Myers.

David Kahler ’02 with his double vacuum pump, built in the Dana machine shop

     Take the dual pump system he helped design for the senior research of David Kahler ’02. A physics major, Kahler is studying silver nanoclusters and the conditions under which they fluoresce. To create a dust-free environment in which to lay the silver onto films, Kahler needed a superstrong vacuum, so he enlisted Myers’s help to build a portable, two-stage vacuum pump. First is a mechanical rotary pump, which exhausts air to start making a vacuum; then comes a diffusion pump, in which oil is sprayed in a fine mist so that its clingy droplets, as they fall back down and are exhausted, carry neighboring air molecules away with them. While the pumps themselves were purchased, Kahler and Myers had to solder and seal the connections, run electric wires, add a cooling system, and build a safe, sturdy chassis around them.

     Kahler recently tried out his pumps in the lab. If the silver films turn out perfectly clean, he can count the pumps a success and turn his attention to the light-energy physics of his research. If not, Myers stands ready to offer expert tinkering and trouble-shooting.

     In fact, Myers provides those services outside the shop as well. About half his job duties involve maintaining equipment and monitoring safety systems throughout the science facilities—from a special water purifier to refrigerators and freezers, from emergency eye-wash stations to lightbulbs in the microscopes. “I enjoy learning new things,” he says, “like how to check on the biomedical-research-quality water system and how to refill liquid nitrogen in the nuclear magnetic resonance unit. But I recognize my limitations. My job is not to do it all, but to know when to call Skidmore’s facilities services or an outside contractor.”

     Another activity that gets Myers out of the shop is his volunteer work in the education department. Formerly an equal-opportunity officer for the Army and a substitute teacher for local high-school vocational training, he helps teach Skidmore’s “Schools and Society” course, conducting a segment on sexual orientation. After his long Army career “in the closet,” Myers has become an activist to protect gay youngsters from bullying, hate crimes, and suicide. He is a founder of the Coalition for Safer Schools in New York State, which helps prosecute sexual-orientation harassment cases, and a founder of the local chapter of the Gay-Lesbian-Straight Education Network, which helped win a school policy forbidding harassment for real or perceived sexual orientation. “I want to be active in the community, trying to make it better,” he says plainly.

     His pluralism also prevails in the physics shop, where he says he’d like more women students to get involved. He welcomes nonscientists too and was especially gratified when a couple of female art majors inquired about using the shop for a project this semester.

     Combining the mechanical skills he mastered in the Army with the social activism he was denied there, Myers brings an unusual perspective and passion to Skidmore. He’s no erudite scholar, but he’s a dedicated mentor, a meticulous factotum, and a servant of science—a true foot soldier, you might say, supporting the logistics of learning.

Scopeb editor Sue Rosenberg just recently learned the “righty tighty, lefty loosey” principle of screws and bolts.

From gesture to sound—through technology

Owen Osborn ’02 and his hand-crafted banjo

“I never made a banjo before,” says John Myers with a grin. But Owen Osborn ’02 did, with the help of Myers’s workshop. A project for his self-determined major in sound art, Osborn’s lovely neobanjo is both strung and wired, both an acoustic instrument and an interface for electronic music. After spending last year in Dartmouth College’s engineering program, with which Skidmore has a formal affiliation, Osborn is now working on his senior project, which may entail more instrument-making yet.

A man of few words and many fidgets—toes tapping or fingers fiddling, it’s as if music, or at least electricity, were coursing through him all the time—Osborn has big, and intriguing, plans. He’s building a three-step music system: an instrument to serve as an input device; a computer to translate the strums, toots, or taps into electronic impulses; and another instrument to produce new music as directed by the computer. In such a system, he explains, the output instrument “could be a really big, interesting structure that would be too large or awkward for a person to play, but you’d control it through a regular instrument—or through a roller ball, maybe, or a light wand, or even hand-waving.” After all, he says, “Capturing human gesture and translating it into sound—that’s what music is.”

A member of a student bluegrass band, Osborn appreciates both acoustics and performance. His plan, by going beyond purely computer music and including a human “player” at one end and an interesting-looking instrument at the other, “also lets you maintain the visual appeal of music.”

As the owner and primary-care mechanic of a fire-engine red, 1970s-vintage Checker cab with a dicey alternator, Osborn wishes he had more time to work under the hood. Instead, with a May deadline looming, he’s hard at work developing algorithms for the translation-software component of his project, before returning to the Dana machine shop to finish up the hardware. And John Myers is eager to help, although, he says, “Owen doesn’t need much guidance. He’s quite mechanically inclined and very talented.” —SR


© 2001 Skidmore College