Handmade Research

Leigh Ann
Nuclear Science and Engineering

When I first took my parents to my lab, my father was appalled. “This place is worse than my shop.” To truly understand this insult, consider that my father is a farmer who works in a 40-year-old shop with concrete floors and metal walls. Seed is sometimes stored in the back, the machining equipment is shoved in one corner, and parts from a dismantled tractor or farm implement are sometimes strewn about a space that is much too small for the amount of work being done.

And then there was my lab. At that point in time, the floors were rotting asbestos tiles, covered in dirt, the tables were covered with tools and partially constructed experiments, and a massive particle accelerator emerged from the rubble.

Things have vastly improved since that day over four years ago, partially because the discovery of the asbestos tiles prompted some major renovations from a horrified administration officer, and partially due to a lot of hard work from a few dedicated scientists and students. Despite these improvements, the labs in which I work would hardly be showpieces for any ordinary institute.

MIT is no ordinary institute. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is regularly ranked as the top university (or amongst the top few) for undergraduate education, graduate education, and research. The phrase “researchers from MIT have discovered...” is like a gold star in reporting any scientific achievement. This reputation as a premier research institution seemingly clashes with the experience I have had in MIT labs.

One of my earliest experiences in lab as a graduate student was fixing a broken matching network. The network consisted of a variety of solenoids and capacitors designed to control a plasma-generation device. One of the variable capacitors broke, and I needed data badly for a conference which was rapidly approaching. Armed with the confidence of innocence and undergraduate education in circuits, I began disassembly, sure that a functional network was a few days away.

Flash forward to the week before the conference (and the night before my birthday), and I’m sitting on the dirty, rotten floor tiles, the disassembled network still warm in my hands as I inspect the melted capacitors I tried to use as replacements. The first attempt at replacing the broken component failed because there was no schematic and no part number, so I had to randomly guess what to buy. My struggles continued until I got to the point where I was alone, crying, because I couldn’t make science work.

Of course, the next day, I took all my failures and examined them, realizing the problem, and fixed the matching network, which still works, three years later. I learned a lot in that month, and the many months that followed, as I continued using equipment that requires my loving (or not-so-loving) maintenance.

Most of the equipment I use is second-hand, including all of the particle accelerators. It is incredibly frustrating, time-consuming, and, at times, demoralizing. Some days I wish nothing more for a shiny new lab with functional equipment. But I also know that working with my hands, building and  learning manually, has made me a better scientist. I don’t think like a physicist, only seeing the theoretical, but I think like a engineer, knowing where the practical limits of experiments lie.

When talking with scientists from other institutes, I often am shocked when the solution to a perplexing problem is to just buy new equipment. In my lab, when we realize that something isn’t working, we fix it. We talk to machinists and engineers and other scientists. We borrow pumps, we modify equipment, we make it work. This can be a problem. Not everything can be fixed with ingenuity and a bit of pluck.

Sometimes the right solution is just to buy a replacement, saving money and time in the long run. But often, the best thing to do is to think. To innovate. That is what forces ordinary people to figure out how to be extraordinary. This attitude, expounded in the motto “Mens et Manus, Mind and hand,” is what makes MIT the scientific leader that it is.