We're a little crazy, about science!

DIY Research

When I say arts and crafts projects, I really do mean there is art involved.

Working in a big fancy hospital research lab means I get access to all sorts of very expensive, very cool equipment that I wouldn’t be able to use normally. Things that I take great pains not to break because, well… it’s not cheap. If we need something, we order it and the process is surprisingly fast considering the amount of paperwork that goes into placing an order. However, on occasion there are no ready pieces of equipment that I can just use for an experiment or we don’t know that the big expensive piece of equipment that we’re looking at is the thing we actually need. So what other options do we have? Spoiler, it’s arts and crafts time.

The need for building something to be used in research falls into three broad categories. The first is the can’t afford or don’t want to spend the money category. This happens somewhat often, especially in either very large labs or labs just starting out. In both cases you may have more equipment than people or there aren’t funds for the project. The second category is the one-off project category. Sometimes you just can’t justify spending all that money on something fancy when you’re never going to use it again. The last category is the, they just don’t make it. That happens a LOT! You need something very specific and you just can’t find someone who makes it. In all three cases the end result is you end up needing to get your arts and crafts on!

The first image was the “after” of this image, which was not my work thank you, but I did fix it.

Okay, maybe not exactly the traditionally arts and crafts projects you’re used to doing as a kid, but I like to think of them as the more “adult” version. Since I’ve jumped into research, from way back to my undergrad days, I’ve had more projects than I think I could list where I needed to build something. I’ve had build projects that fall into each of the three categories above and in most cases it was more fun than anything else. I do enjoy building stuff, even if it takes some time to do it.

It may sound a bit odd, but there are a few things we need to DIY before we do our latest experiments in the OR. This DIY is a lot easier than some of the other projects I’ve done. This one just requires some soldering and I’m pretty much done. There’s a little bit of time and effort that needs to go into getting it right and to be fair it’s a lot of soldering, but we needed some custom made connectors for the experiment so I was asked to make them.

Some of the other projects I’ve had to DIY? Mostly adaptors for things to be honest, everyone uses different connectors so we need ways to connect equipment and it can cost us < $20USD to do it ourself, but if we bought a readymade solution it could be > $200USD or more. There are other odds and ends, making controllers for hardware for example, or different types of supports (for people, things, etc). One of the most interesting DIY projects I’ve had to do was a balance platform for robotic testing. That was a big project and it fell into a combination of not enough money for a ready-made system, but also not a ready-made system that fit our requirements exactly. I’ve also had to modify a balance stand to accept a force plate, which I got yelled at (well not exactly) by the hospital staff because I was making too much noise.

So why am I talking about all this today? Well, mostly because I’m soldering today, but also because I realized that I’ve never really explicitly talked about the need to build stuff in research and part of the reason for this blog is to give people a better picture of what life in research, specifically from a getting your PhD perspective, looks like. I enjoy working on projects like this, but it’s not for everyone, so if you think that this kind of stuff isn’t something you would enjoy then it’s important to know that going into a research program. Now the thing is that this is specifically for mechanical engineering, neuroengineering, and engineering fields in general, but the lab at the hospital is neurology (well neurophysiology and rehabilitation) focused and you still get craft projects (like the one above). Which means stepping into fields like this will probably mean a little bit of crafting on your part, like it or not.

The mini balance platform, to test everything before we made the full-sized version.

With all that said, it’s time for me to get to soldering. While we don’t need these for Tuesday, I still need to be able to test it tomorrow before we go in. I trust my soldering abilities, but I also know how unexpected things can pop up. Welcome to research, nothing goes the way you plan it, but we plan anyway.


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