Deep in the depths of Bronfman Science Center lies an innocuous black button. Situated on a plain metal plate screwed into the brick wall, it is not the sort of button that would ordinarily attract attention. This particular button, however, is accompanied by a large paper sign which reads, in bold font, “CAUTION: Do not, for any reason, press this button!” Standing beside it are two men, one of whom looks at me with a sly smile. I ask him what the button does. “There’s only one way to find out,” he said.
The man’s name is Jason Mativi, and he is an instrumentation engineer at the Bronfman Science Shop, dealing mostly with electronics. “If something needs to be fixed, I fix it. If you need a device to measure something, I build it,” he said. “If something breaks, I put it back together – that’s my favorite part of the job, seeing all the different ways people can break things.” Recently, he has built a light-up presentation board for the library, made a dynamic wide-spectrum fish light (“What it does, is, it lights up fish,” he said with an excited gesture) for the biology department and repaired a fair number of hot plates – 286, to date. He is accompanied by Coordinator of Science Facilities and Science Safety Officer Norm Bell, who manages science resources all around the College and “makes sure they don’t do anything stupid.” Both men glance knowingly at the baffling black button.
Mativi, Bell and the button are all part of the eclectic apparatus that is the Bronfman Science Shop. The shop houses a CNC milling machine, a laser engraver and multiple 3D printers among other things and aims to provide students and faculty with all the fabrication resources required to build any device or apparatus they might need. Despite its remote and seemingly opaque nature, it plays a crucial role at the College.
“There just aren’t any other opportunities here to do this sort of thing,” Michael Taylor, a design engineer, model maker and the primary arbiter of the Shop, said. When I met with him, he was hunched over a collaborative work station with Milinda Rupasinghe, a post-doctoral research fellow, studying a small metal box. It turned out to be an atomic beam accelerator made of solid molybdenum – with a leak. In the middle of a quantum physics experiment, Rupasinghe had noticed that it was spewing gaseous indium from the seams. With a melting point of 4753 degrees Fahrenheit, a busted molybdenum chamber is not the sort of thing you can go and get welded shut in Pittsfield – but Taylor and the rest of the Shop never back down from a challenge.
Having existed “in some form or another for decades,” according to Taylor, the Shop has seen all sorts of projects. When Taylor arrived seven years ago, it mostly housed industrial machining equipment from the mid-20th century. “They had mostly retired mechanics from [the] industry, guys from G[eneral] E[lectric],” Taylor said. Since then, the Shop has undergone major upgrades, incorporating all manner of computer-run machines to cut and mold plastic and metal with extreme precision, building everything from rat mazes to particle accelerators. Taylor mentioned one instance where a professor came down initially looking to purchase a light bulb – and ended up building a climate-controlled incubation chamber for a species of foreign lichen he was trying to genetically engineer to produce valuable chemicals – as a typical example of the variety of projects that the Shop handles.
In addition to helping professors with their research, Taylor has also recently opened the Shop up to students, taking in about four a semester for independent study projects, as well as offering occasional Winter Study courses. Students from all kinds of majors, often with no fabrication experience, have built everything from syringe assembly tools and “arachnid robots” to art and music projects and even a fully-functioning bicycle, which the student then proceeded to ride across Europe. “The depth of talent hidden in kids walking around this campus is remarkable,” Taylor said. In the future, he hopes to get more students with innovative ideas working in the Shop to make them realities.
Currently, the limiting factor is space, but that is soon to change. The new Science Center extension currently under construction at Morley Circle will provide the Shop with 30 percent more floor space and all new state-of-the-art facilities. In the new space, Taylor hopes to offer Winter Study courses featuring different aspects of the Shop and accommodate the “significant level of interest” at the College in learning about fabrication techniques.
In the meantime, Taylor and the Shop’s myriad of patrons will continue to carve away at their projects, and Mativi will continue to repair broken hot plates. When I pushed him one last time about the mysterious button, he remained tight-lipped. “I can’t tell you on the record what it does,” he said, “but it’s for science. It also has the added plus of making me laugh.” Interested students, it seems, have no choice but to delve into Bronfman and satisfy their curiosity firsthand.