Wonders from Underground: Mason’s Machine Shop Is Buzzing with New Ideas
By Cathy Cruise
Did you know George Mason University has a machine shop? If you’re like most people, the answer is no, which means you’re missing out on a fundamental hub of activity and innovation.
The shop, a part of the School of Physics, Astronomy, and Computational Sciences, is located in the basement of Planetary Hall. Visit any Tuesday evening, and amidst the clamor of machinery and animated conversations over new technologies, you’re likely to run into a number of students and alumni working on their creations with the help of the shop’s machinist, Sándor Nyerges.
Nyerges has managed the Machine Shop since the mid-1980s, and his patient, enthusiastic instruction makes him seem more professor than machinist. He graduated from Mason with a BS in electrical engineering in 1991 and currently works at ITT Corporation.
“Sándor is our unofficial teacher,” says Eswar prasad Iyer, PhD Biosciences ’12. “He teaches all these things about electrical circuits—the equations and the basics—in a way we can understand.”
Iyer currently conducts research at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study with Mason neuroscientist Daniel Cox. In the spring, Iyer audited a bioengineering course taught by Mason researcher Nathalia Peixoto, an associate professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.
“We were learning how to plant electrodes in the brain,” Iyer says, “and I found myself absorbing the material on electrical engineering much more easily as a result of working with and learning all these basic concepts from Sándor.”
In addition to the saws, drills, lathes, and presses found in a typical machine shop, Nyerges and the other shop regulars have introduced, and work at maintaining, some truly cutting-edge equipment. A computer numeric control (CNC) milling machine, for example, was retrieved from the trash, and the group invested its own time and money to get it working again.
“We all had a hand in it,” says Mason alumnus Andy Kennedy, BFA Art and Visual Technology ’11. “I did the soldering on the circuits and motors. It’s good to have this place on campus where those of us who have an idea can come and find people and certain kinds of machines that help us manufacture things ourselves.”
Kennedy is a cofounder of Mason’s Inventors Club, which was started in 2006. Although the club is not a recognized campus student organization, it still has active members who work together to transform ideas into working inventions and bring innovative devices to Mason.
One of these is a rapid prototyper, or 3-D printer, for which the club secured donations. This device produces plastic prototypes of computer-generated designs with the push of a button. It’s one of several machines Nyerges hopes to bring to Mason in his attempt to install a fabrication laboratory, or Fablab, on campus.
Fablabs—small-scale workshops with programmable assemblers that are able to make almost anything—were first created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and are now springing up all around the world. But there are none in Northern Virginia.
A Fablab is generally equipped with an array of computer-controlled equipment, including 3-D printers, CNC machines, a laser engraver, a sign cutter, and other numerically controlled machine tools. Nyerges is working to secure funding for the rest of the equipment needed. He says that since many Fablabs rent time to the public, a portion of the money spent could eventually be recovered. But, he adds, money is only a part of it.
“[We would need] more space to make this a reality,” he says. “Some of these machine tools need more than regular grid power, as well as proper ventilation. We need about 3,000 square feet of floor space, which is a huge area. A Fablab cannot be tucked away in a corner somewhere.”
Until then, the Machine Shop will provide necessary space and support to those working on new ideas, such as inventor Neil Desmond, BS Computer Science ’05. Desmond is now working toward a second degree in electrical engineering. He holds three patents in the area of self-reconfigurable robotics. While he’s not yet created a proof-of-concept for these modules yet, they are similar to cubelets—magnetic blocks that are snapped together by hand to make a variety of robots. Desmond’s devices, however, are designed to actually connect and disconnect from each other on their own, through electrical components that transfer information from one module to the next.
Desmond says the help he’s received through the Inventors Club and the Machine Shop has been crucial. “I actually have a large team of people who are helping me,” he says. “A couple of people I met through the Inventors Club and others from all over the country, even in other countries.”
Iyer also credits the club for fostering partnerships and support. “The Inventors Club has provided us a beautiful meeting ground where we could come together to establish collaborations that can continue forward,” he says.
Take, for example, an automated fruit fly embryo collector, devised while Iyer was working at the Cox Lab with friend and fellow Krasnow researcher James Boddu, BS Biology ’11. At present, work with fruit flies requires collecting embryos onto a grape agar plate and aging them to specific development points where scientists can tinker with and study the genetic makeup of cells. This is achieved by triggering complex genetic variations using changes in temperature, light, or other elements. A researcher must set up the plates and then return hours later to set them up again and then again.
“A person conducting such an experiment might end up devoting entire days, for several weeks, achieving modest productivity at best,” says Iyer. But much of this tedious and time-consuming work would be alleviated with this automated device that slowly moves the plates forward while subjecting them to various conditions programmed by the user on a touch screen. Once the collections are complete, the plates stack up in neat vertical rows and are ready for retrieval.
“The idea is to put in a stack of plates, press a button and go home,” Boddu explains. “There are thousands of research labs all over the country. But you won’t find a machine like this. It would save them all a tremendous amount of time.” With help from Nyerges, who made critical contributions to its design and implementation, this project is well on its way to completion.
Iyer and Cox also created and patented a sort of “biopsy bandage,” for which they’ve already fulfilled a number of orders. A biopsy is normally studied by placing a small slice of tissue onto a glass slide and dipping it in different solutions. “The problem is, the tissue falls off,” Iyer explains. “Imagine if someone goes into your brain, gets a piece of tissue, and then loses it.”
Iyer and Cox created a polymer membrane with a special adhesive that can be applied to the slides. The membrane protects the tissue integrity and holds it in place, while allowing optimal processing conditions. “It’s flexible, like a Band-Aid,” Iyer says, “and we have optimized it, so you can boil it or freeze it and it still works.” These membranes are currently being marketed by Kerafast for $12 each, but Iyer says they couldn’t keep up with demand. Nyerges is now working with him to create a machine to produce them in large quantities.
The assistance Mason can provide inventors doesn’t end after creations are brought to life. Once they have completed their designs, inventors often seek help through Mason’s Office of Technology Transfer. This office works with Mason students, faculty, and staff to market their commercially significant inventions, even obtaining patent protection when appropriate. It’s part of a system of support, from concept to market, that starts with a simple exchange of ideas.
“People come in and say, I’ve got this cool thing here in my head,” Nyerges says. “And we say, no way. Or yes, we can do it. They come up with all kinds of ideas. Half are crazy and the other half…maybe. And every now and then something good comes out of it. There are good things going on here.”
Sándor Nyerges is available in the Machine Shop most Tuesdays between 3 and 8 p.m. To ensure his availability, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that, for safety reasons, all visitors must be supervised. Those interested in becoming Inventors Club officers can contact email@example.com or visit inventors.gmu.edu/elections.html for more information.
To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.