Tate Lab of Physics machine shop fuels research

Kelly Gulbrandson

In the tunnels of the Tate Lab of Physics, various experiments churn and whirl as students conduct research projects.

The School of Physics and Astronomy student machine shop and the professional machine shop are full of resources to help students in their work.

The student machine shop allows students to build equipment for larger research projects. All students can use the lab and tools free of charge, paying only for materials.

Loren Kaake, third-year chemistry graduate student, finds the lab helpful in making simple projects.

Kaake builds plastic computer chips to help in his research to understand how electrical current flows through organic products.

He’s helping with a professor’s project to incorporate computers into new areas. Kaake said in 10 to 20 years, computers will be in car dashboards and allow people to buy groceries without even having to go through a checkout lane.

“The faculty is always happy to help out, and the shop makes life easier,” Kaake said.

The tools in the shop are all up-to-date and well-maintained, he said.

To use the lab, students must complete a free basic tool safety class offered in the shop.

Roger Olson, University research machinist and part-time supervisor of the student machine shop, came out of retirement to supervise the shop on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“I like working with the students because they keep me young,” Olson said.

After working in the chemistry machine shop for more than 10 years, Olson retired but returned to the physics shop seven years later. He teaches the basic tool safety class, funded by the physics department.

The class meets two hours once a week for eight weeks and covers all the basics of how to use the lab and its tools. After students complete the class, they can use the lab whenever they need to.

Olson said he is there to help students with any questions or problems.

When professors need something built for a project, the student assistant comes to the machine shop. If the project is too large or complicated for the student machine shop, the professional machine shop takes on the project.

Jon Kilgore, supervisor of the professional machine shop, said it has been operating for more than 50 years.

“We build scientific instruments, repair and support scientific research,” Kilgore said.

All of the workers in the shop are professional machinists and work on projects for students or outside businesses who submitted a proposal.

The projects can take anywhere from one hour to weeks, Kilgore said.

State and federal grants obtained by researchers support the shop and the machinists charge by the hour for projects they work on.

Professional machinist Ron Marchand has worked in the physics machine shop since 1981 and said he likes the variety of work in the shop.

“It’s challenging and fun coming up with different solutions to problems,” he said.

Marchand said his work varies, but he typically works on six projects per week. He said he likes to have a one-on-one connection with the student or professor who submitted the project.

George Derks, laboratory machinist specialist, who has also worked at the shop since 1981, is working on a machine for NASA and has about one week left on the project.

The shop’s assignments vary, so the work does not get boring, he said.

Since the shop works on a project from start to finish, Derks gets a sense of accomplishment when he finishes a project. He said he has noticed the shop getting smaller projects recently.

Derks remembers one special projec working on spectrometers.

“We built every part of them. Sometimes they would take a year to make, but we do not get those anymore,” he said of the medical devices.

With advancing technology and more people buying machines off the shelf, the future of the machine shop is uncertain.

“The shop used to rely on inside projects but now is relying more on outside projects from recent graduates of the University, and I feel lucky to have a job here because the chemistry machine shop … just closed down,” Derks said.