Tucked into the basement of the Hope Building at the corner of Congress Avenue and Cedar Street is a warren of well-lit rooms filled with milling machines, table saws, welders and lathes—a place where a scientist in need can go for a centrifuge repair or a part for a pH meter. The Instrument Repair and Design Shop has catered to medical school researchers for more than three decades, building prototype devices for use in experiments and performing emergency repairs on equipment that fails.
It’s a distinguished history that almost came to an end. According to faculty member Vinzenz M. Unger, Ph.D., the staff provides researchers with essential technology not commercially available elsewhere. Yet years of running in the red threatened the shop’s existence, and in 2000 it appeared to be on its last legs.
That was before a hue and cry arose from faculty members who had come to appreciate the instrument shop not only as a provider of engineering services but also as a catalyst for intellectual creativity and innovation—something difficult to measure in terms of profitability.
Faculty advisors Robert H. LaMotte, Ph.D., and Kenneth R. Williams, Ph.D., worked with administrators and the shop staff to find a solution. Shop engineers James F. Hogan and Eugene J. Modzelewski streamlined existing services, reconfigured the fee schedule and developed a marketing plan to increase the instrument shop’s customer base.
Now, said Carol S. Marshall, the school’s director of training and quality improvement, the shop is in the black for the first time in seven years. The key to balancing the books, she said, was increasing the shop’s visibility and encouraging an entrepreneurial approach to the shop’s business.
Hogan and Modzelewski perform many services, from such mundane tasks as ordering specialized plastics and repairing Geiger counters to talking through experiments with researchers and planning the design and fabrication of delicate laboratory instruments. Hogan has been tinkering with designs for Yale researchers for 40 years, initially working with the Department of Surgery in the design of pacemakers before joining the instrument shop staff in 1985. Trained as an electrical engineer, he said that his real education has come on the job while listening to the needs of researchers.
One of their recent projects was a “heart phantom” developed for researchers in the Department of Internal Medicine, with six progressively smaller chambers of Plexiglas sitting one within the other. The distance between chambers simulates the thickness of the myocardium during a contraction, allowing researchers to take measurements critical to their work.
Hogan and Modzelewski took the project from a series of discussions and paper sketches to a model on the computer screen to the eight-inch Plexiglas prototype sitting on the table when a visitor toured the shop recently. Hogan lifted the heart phantom, demonstrated the way the top seals two outer chambers in a vacuum and pointed out how the four remaining inner chambers would fit inside each other. “It’s like being an artist,” Modzelewski agreed. “We see how the pieces of the problem connect the way an artist sees color, and it all comes together.”