Head of Medical Center Instrument Shop Turns Scientists’ Dreams Into Reality

March 20, 2014Bookmark and Share

For nearly half a century, Gary Johnson, an instrument maker at Columbia University Medical Center, has been taking scientists’ ideas for research equipment and turning them into reality. “People come to me and tell me what they need,” said Johnson, who is the director of the Design and Instrument shops for the Center for Radiological Research and the core facilities at the Medical Center. “When I get a request, I sit down with the researcher and we kick the ideas around and draw some sketches.”

Gary Johnson in the shop where he has worked for 47 years. Photo by Anna Spinner.

In January, Johnson, who has worked with nearly every department and center at the Medical Center and across the University, received the Officer of Research Award during a ceremony to celebrate the 2013 P&S Awards for Excellence. The annual awards are given to exceptional employees or groups of employees for their outstanding performance and contributions.

David Brenner, the Higgins Professor of Radiation Biophysics and director of the Center for Radiological Research, presented the award to Johnson, acknowledging his nearly half century of service to the University.

Brenner briefly described interactions between the instrument shop and investigators, who must communicate to the instrument maker what kind of device they need. They may bring in a fancy drawing, Brenner explained, or more often, an idea jotted down on the back of a napkin. “Gary has been a treasure to everybody,” he said.

Electrostatic lens

Designed and built by Gary Johnson, the ESL 4-29-08, is an electrostatic lens used on the particle accelerator in the Nevis Laboratory. It consists of 21 different pieces. When assembled, it has a maximum error of 5 microns over its 300mm length. Courtesy of Gary Johnson.

Once Johnson has an idea of what a scientist wants, he develops a prototype with computer-aided design software and works with the researcher to fine-tune the details before he starts building. “Paper is cheap compared with shop time and materials,” he said.

Johnson has designed and built many thousands of pieces of research equipment, everything from laser-scanning systems and pieces for the particle accelerator at the Physics Department’s Nevis Laboratories to microscope mounts and water bottles for mice cages. He has a one-ton crane inside his instrument shop and drills holes down to 1,000th of an inch in diameter. “There’s no limit to what we will try to do,” he said.

When he started at Columbia in 1966, after working on custom, high-speed industrial sewing machines, there were around seven shops at the Medical Center campus. Now, Johnson’s shop and one at the Harkness Eye Institute are the only ones still dedicated to the manufacture of high-precision research and clinical devices.

Another Johnson creation, this microscope was cut in half (removing the bottom) and mounted on a rotating system so it can be moved to 3 different locations when needed. Courtesy of Gary Johnson.

Johnson, who has headed the instrument shop since 1988, oversaw the introduction of computer-aided design and manufacturing systems, but the majority of the work is still done by hand with traditional high-precision machine tools.

“Gary has provided key support to the research efforts of a number of other Department of Neuroscience faculty members, including Drs. Richard Axel, Eric Kandel and Attila Losonczy,” said Steven Siegelbaum, chair of the department of Neuroscience, who along with Brenner recommended Johnson for the award. “My own lab has benefited greatly from Gary’s expertise and craft in designing and producing high precision equipment for our electrophysiological studies.”

Johnson recalled the days many years ago when someone would come in to the shop from an operating room in scrubs, holding a prosthetic device such as a knee or hip. “They would say they’ve got the patient on the table, but the stem on the device is too long,” he said. “So I’d cut the stem of the prosthetic device to the length they wanted, redress it and send it back with them to the operating room. That hasn’t happened in a long long time, but you never know what’s going to walk through that door.”

Brenner said he and his colleagues are always coming up with new technologies that don’t exist yet and then asking Johnson if he can build them. “I’d say that two-thirds of our whole center is based on technology that ultimately is built in Gary Johnson’s instrument shop,” he said.

—by Anna Spinner, Columbia University Medical Center

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