Gray and Daniel's workshop
working year-round for Emory
Buried in the depths of the Woodruff Research Building is a small workshop
cluttered with all manner of tools and gadgets, wired guts of things electronic,
bits and pieces of plastic and metal, sketched schematics on napkins and
scraps of paper. Perched on a shelf over a workbench is a fishbowl cozily
ensconced in the shell of a computer monitor.
Keith Gray and Alex Daniel scurry around this office, the School of Medicine's
Electronics and Machine Shop, but they're thinking about monkeys instead
of fish. Neuroscience grad student Debbie Backus just dropped off for repair
a special plastic chair that monkeys sit in while undergoing PET scans.
She came to the right place.
Gray and Daniel are Emory's do-it-themselves men, and they spend their
days repairing items like the plastic monkey chair or just about anything
else electronic or mechanical that might be found in an Emory lab. With
Gray trained as a machinist and Daniel an electronics expert, they can fix
most devices people bring them, but that's only half their job. They also
construct research equipment for Emory researchers, sometimes from designs
as rudimentary as a few lines scribbled on a napkin.
"Like this one," Gray said, holding out a paper with a few
rough lines drawn in blue ink. It is a design from Michael Tomasello, a
psychology professor who's doing cognition work with chimpanzees The design
is for a contraption that will require two chimps to work independently
but in concert if they want to get a food reward. "He hands me this
and this, and he says, 'Go to work,'" Gray shrugged.
"Another time someone will come with complete designs, and they
want us to build exactly what they've drawn up," Daniel said. "Sometimes
they'll bring a fairly thorough sketch of what they want, and we'll do the
finished design based on the materials we're used to using.
"Often for me in electronics, a researcher reads a scientific paper,
and they'll read in the methods section a description of an electronic circuit
or something," Daniel said. "They'll ask me to duplicate the device.
And that's very common-it won't be an exact copy, but it will duplicate
electronically what was intended."
"After 10 years of doing this," Gary added, "I kind of
have a scrap pile of ideas in my head, and I may come up with a scrap here
and a scrap there and put it together, kind of remove and add things to
their design, but it's really a creative process."
Rarely is the pair forced to bring in outside help to fix or build something,
and that helps them in more ways than one. Outside of a small budget supplied
by the University, the two basically pay their expenses and salaries by
charging their 'customers' for their work. "Speed and efficiency are
probably our main driving force," Gray said. "It's really what
people like about us."
Daniel has his own workshop at home and fixes all manner of household
problems, along with many of his son's toys. As a matter of fact, he said
he even gets ideas from studying the innards of toys. "They often have
really ingenious features," Daniel said. "Same thing with home
improvement-type stuff. This researcher wanted a device to detect a rat
poking its nose through a hole, so I got the idea of using these motion-detecting
security lights like you have on your house. What I did was cannibalize
one of those and take the infrared detector part and put it on a tiny wand,
which I hung right above the hole. It's kind of a silly thing, but I might
not have ever thought of it if I hadn't been shopping at Home Depot."
Gray, on the other hand, said he's learned to leave his work at the office.
He does moonlight as a massage therapist, however. "I have my own office
in Buckhead, and I go over there two nights a week and Saturdays,"
he said. "If for some reason Emory decided to shut down the shop right
now, I'd do massage therapy, which I've been doing for 10 years now. I think
the key thing is that I'm working with my hands."
Sometimes the work both do with their hands pays off in better ways than
an invoice. When two people spend long hours thinking up creative ways of
building gadgets-the most important contraption in the shop, Gray said,
is the French press coffeemaker he put together with spare parts-it's inevitable
they'll come up with something that has real potential.
Gray has been involved with a few projects that resulted in patents,
one being a suturing device for endoscopic surgery. Daniel's second job
is repairing medical equipment in physicians' offices and hospitals, which
he does after work and on weekends, but it's basically the same type of
work he does all day at Emory. One day those odd jobs and stray patents
could translate into something big. "Yeah," Gray said, "maybe
someday you'll be reading about us as millionaires."
The two men take pride in their work, but they admit they have little
time to go watch their creations in action once they leave the shop. For
instance, after putting together Tomasello's monkey contraption with thick
plastic and tubing-"When it comes to monkeys, I try to overdo it in
durability," Gray said-they'll watch it leave. If they don't hear from
the professor, that probably means the invention worked, which they do more
often than not. At the very least, they won't hear anything until the professor
needs them to build something else.
to December 8, 1997 Contents Page