Q&A: Chuck Jones


Chuck Jones on maintaining the remarkable tools of the science trade

By Stephen Collins '74
Photography by Jeff Earickson

Photo by Jeff Earickson
Chuck Jones, Colby's science division instrument maintenance technician, is not the lonely guy made famous in the Maytag ads, moping around waiting for the phone to ring. Even in midsummer it took two weeks for him to find an hour to talk about his work: keeping Colby's equipment"ranging from nuclear magnetic resonance systems to fish tanks"ship shape. "He's out straight all the time," Professor Paul Greenwood said when asked how best to find Jones. We finally connected with him for a conversation and a tour of some of the science labs. Here are some excerpts:

Tell me about some of the equipment you've worked on in your twelve years at Colby.
We have the NMR [nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy], we have an FTIR [Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy], ICP [inductively coupled plasma], GC mass spec [gas chromatograph mass spectrometer], LC [liquid chromatograph] mass spectrometer.

Can you tell from my expression that you're talking to an English major? What are the different functions of these things?
They're all ways of looking at different materials and identifying what is in them, from the molecular level to the substance level.

So, what are some of your projects?
We had an NMR but it was aging, so we got a grant that bought us all new electronics. The only thing we kept from the old system was the magnet. A very big magnet. . . . We went from having one GC mass spec"a Hewlett-Packard, and a real workhorse. Matter of fact it just died three or four months ago. The company discontinued supporting it five years ago. We're currently looking on eBay for parts. We hope to bring that back up. We go from steam to basic icemakers to water systems, lab-ware washers, centrifuges, calorimeters. And of course the bigger the label you put on the equipment the more the repairs cost. Except for the computers, anything that lays in this lab is fair game [for the attention of the repairman].

It sounds like a lot of the sophisticated equipment is used in chemistry.
We have so, so much equipment and we keep getting more. In chemistry we have Whitney [King] and Tom [Shattuck], who have a vast background in equipment"they both design and make stuff. . . . We brought on a new crystal x-ray diffractometer. Rebecca Conry got a grant for that about three years ago. It basically gives you the structure of the crystal. . . . Tom [Shattuck] got a grant for an LC mass spectrometer a few years back.

What about other departments?
The majority of the stuff in physics is utilized for research, as far as the big equipment goes. Of course Murray [Campbell] has all of his astronomy stuff, so we do what we can for the observatory and his other telescopes. Duncan [Tate] and Charlie [Conover] are very deep into their laser systems, so we support what we can with that.

Don Allen has an x-ray diffractometer over in geology that he used for his rock samples. There's the scanning electron microscope, the x-ray system, but in geology I'm mostly involved with smaller stuff"polishers, grinders, field equipment.

Biology has a lot of equipment: centrifuges, micro-centrifuges, refrigerated centrifuges, electrophoresis power supplies, electrophoresis boxes, their chillers, water baths, incubators. We've built tanks for biology: flow tanks to simulate streams, wave tanks. A few years ago they got a grant, I think it was from the DOT, to check different grass and soil mixtures for roadbeds, and we had to make big troughs for that. . . . I made a frog pen for Cathy Bevier maybe three years ago. She wanted a floating pen that she could put her frogs in and take out at one of the ponds. It's just made of PVC and netting, and for additional flotation I bought a couple dozen of those hollow noodles that people use in the lake. Well, the auditor happened to pull one slip and the only thing it said on it was "water noodles" and it was from Wal-Mart, and of course it was to her research account. I said, "Scott [Smith '88, of Colby's business office], I'm going to send you a photo of what we used them on."

How do you train for a job like science division instrument maintenance technician, anyway?
That's a very good question and honestly I'm not sure it comes with an answer. You've got to have an electronics background, you've got to have a mechanical background. I had no experience in the scientific community [before Colby], however my background on submarines provided me with both electronics and mechanical experience. There you fixed things underway with little or no support, and you had to know every mechanical system onboard, from the reactor on up.

There's a lot to learn on the job then?
My premise when I interviewed was, "If it's got a book, it's easy. If it doesn't have a book, it takes a little longer." You just have to keep going and not be scared of the stuff. The first time I took a mass spectrometer apart, I thought, "Oh man, I'm gonna ruin this." But as long as you're careful and keep everything clean, it usually turns out well. And I haven't had any leftover parts, which is good, because I usually do when I work on my cars.

Speaking of cars, what is it you drive?
They're old like me. One's a [restored] sixty-three Ford Econoline van"turquoise. The motorcycle is an eighty. The pickup is an eighty-five. My daughter's starting to get embarrassed to ride in it. My wife's got the only nice one"she's got a Camry.

Are you ever confused with the guy who made the cartoons"the Looney Tunes?
Of course it always amazed me as a kid. "Hey, there's my name!" But no, seldom confused with that.
I know you spent some time in Hawaii when you were in the Navy, but I thought I heard something in your accent that wasn't the South Seas.

I was stationed over there from eighty-two to eighty-eight. Pacific Fleet Headquarters for the submarines. But I grew up in Waldoboro, actually. Well, I was raised there; I haven't grown up yet, I'm told.

So there are a lot of things to keep running and a lot of people to please in your job?
It's very busy, but I wouldn't trade it for the world. I've never come in here and been bored. And you couldn't find a better group of people to work with.

Have you ever counted up how many major and minor appliances you're responsible for?
No. God no. It would scare me and I'd have to stay home.
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