When science and math faculty and students need instruments or contraptions, Ken Moffett is their go-to guy.

Ken Moffett’s job is an endless series of questions, and he loves it, really loves it. Moffett’s workshop is in Olin-Rice Science Center, where he invents solutions to quandaries such as how to measure the movement of a glacier or how to collect fragile, microscopic fossils from buckets of Montana “dirt.”

Moffett is Mac’s go-to guy for scientific instrumentation. His shop is equipped for metal machining, woodworking, welding, and lab glass working, and has shelves full of shop-made gadgets. His first step is to ask the professors or students lots of questions about their project so he can fully understand their vision for the end product.

Take, for example, his current project: an eight-armed rat maze in which the door to each segment can be open or closed. Sounds simple enough, but then come the questions: Should the doors open manually or by computer? How fast should they move? How quiet must they be? Does the maze need to be portable?

Once he has a good grasp of a project’s parameters, Moffett searches the Internet to see if an appropriate gadget already exists, and if not, where he can procure the materials to build one. Then he goes to work, designing and constructing with regular feedback from the user. The necessary materials may come from Home Depot, an instrument supplier in Switzerland, Ax-Man Surplus on University Avenue, or an artist friend who does ironwork.

As for what prepared him for this, his ideal job, Moffett explains that the first step was being raised on a small farm in central Iowa by Depression-era parents. “My dad was the guy other farmers came to for help fixing their machinery, so I was always around it,” he says.

The route from junior farm mechanic to college instrumentation specialist first took Moffett to Iowa State University for an industrial arts education degree. Then, about to be drafted, he joined the Air Force and taught English in Vietnam, moving on to graphics work with NOR AD in Tacoma, Washington. When he left the service he came to Minnesota for a medical electronics degree, which led to a 23-year job in Biomedical Engineering Services at the University of Minnesota Hospitals. He next joined a software start-up doing customer data analysis, software installation, and user training.

Then 13 years ago, Professor Jan Serie posted a job for a creative person with machine knowledge who liked working with students. And it was kismet. “I was ecstatic,” says Moffett. “It’s a wonderful job at a wonderful school. The cooperation among the various sciences is amazing, and the students are so bright.” Most students have barely worked with tools before but quickly pick it up, he says, and are delighted to create—with Moffett’s help— what they need for their projects.

Will the patents on his inventions earn Moffett a cushy retirement? “No, nothing is patented,” says Moffett, smiling. “It all belongs to Macalester.”

Photo Gallery Key

(1) Transducers used to measure the movement of the underside of a glacier. The body of the piece goes on a rock beneath a glacier, and a cable attaches to the underside of the glacier. As the glacier moves, the increasing length of the cable measures and records the glacier’s movement. This tool was developed for geology professor Kelly MacGregor.

(2) Variable pulse-width interface modules, developed for physics professor James Heyman. Several of these are used in a student physics lab experiment to analyze the harmonic content of electronic signals.

(3) Display case for human spinal cord used in biology classes by Professor Liz Jansen.

(4) RF impedance-matching network designed to maximize the input power to a thin-film deposition plasma chamber used in solar cell research. It was developed for physics professor James Doyle.

(5) This eight-armed rat maze being developed for psychology professor Eric Wiertelak allows investigators to offer up to eight options for the rat, or to have different arms of the maze set up for two different experiments.

(6) The original square-wheeled bike was constructed in the mid-’90s for mathematics professor Stan Wagon, who was inspired to investigate the relationship between the shapes of wheels and the roads over which they can roll smoothly. So many people rode the original bike that it wore out, leading Moffett to develop a smoother-riding version in 2004. It is usually available in Olin-Rice to inspire interest in mathematics.

(7) The two-kayak crane developed for Professor Kelly MacGregor supports a tripod between two kayaks. From here a tube is lowered 100 feet down into glacial lakes to take sediment core samples. It was designed to be light enough to be disassembled and backpacked into remote mountain areas along with inflatable kayaks.

(8) Sediment disaggregator, also known as “the Big Dipper,” is Ken’s current favorite project. His prototype, “Duncan,” is being used by the Smithsonian Institution’s paleontology lab. Through repeated dipping into buckets of water, the Cretaceous “dirt” is gently rinsed away, leaving the fragile microfossils collected and sorted in sieves. This invention was devised to aid the work of geology professors Ray Rogers and Kristi Curry Rogers.

(9) Charles Darwin cutout and frame. The Biology Department annually celebrates Darwin’s February 12 birthday. At the request of Professor Curry Rogers, who also teaches biology, Moffett developed a supportive frame that allows Darwin to stand for photos with students. It can be collapsed for convenient storage.

(10) Instrumentation for a student honors project designed to investigate if a mother rat can teach its baby to perform a marble-moving task for a reward. The top part is a computerized marble dispenser, the other part detects that a marble has reached the goal. It was developed for Julia Meyers Manor ’04, who is currently teaching in the Psychology Department.

(11) This student-assembled vacuum control panel for Professor Heyman’s cryogenic lab is used for research on materials at extremely low temperatures.

January 31 2014

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