University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

School of Freshwater Sciences

Shop talk – The SFS fix-it guys

Greg Barske, School of Freshwater Sciences instrument
shop coordinator, uses a lathe to groove a piece of plastic
to create housing for hundreds of zebrafish.
Around the School of Freshwater Sciences, Greg Barske is known as the man behind the plan. For 12 years, Barske has headed up the on-site instrument shop – the place where dreams are fabricated – and fixed.

A seasoned tool-and-die maker, Barske has a knack for translating ideas – many of them originating as just a sketch on a piece of paper – into cutting-edge, custom-made research equipment that can change the way science is conducted.

“The scientists are real brainiacs,” he says. “They know their systems and what they are doing but they don’t know how to put a nut and a bolt together so I help them design equipment to fit their needs. I couldn’t explain the science, but I can make the equipment.”

When not scratch-building scientific equipment, Barske and his shop machinist, journeyman Randy Metzger, are fixing it. For machines and devices that spend most of their research lives underwater, a lot can go wrong. Masters of Science student (and 2012 Fulbright Award recipient) Emily Tyner had Barske create a special housing for an underwater spectrometer. Tyner used the equipment to measure dissolved oxygen in dead Cladophora mats off shore of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan, as part of her research on avian botulism.
The SFS Instrument Shop created the housing for the dissolved oxygen
micro-profiler used here by recent SFS grad Emily Tyner in her research
off Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This year she is conducting
research on Lake Malawi in Africa as a U.S.Fulbright Scholar.

Barske and Metzger also modify existing equipment to fit unique needs in specific applications. “We take the product and make it better, make it work for the scientist,” says Barske.

This onsite, full-service shop is a major draw for prospective faculty members and students. Researchers can keep costs down and reduce the time it typically takes to get equipment on order. “Having the shop just down the hall from me has made my work easier and I use Greg as a sounding board for a lot of the ideas that come up in my work with underwater robotics,” says SFS Assistant Professor Tom Consi.

Other onsite centers also take advantage of this on-demand custom. Henry Tomasiewicz, a scientist who studies neurobehavioral diseases and disorders at the Children’s Environmental Health and Sciences Core Center at the School of Freshwater Sciences facility, needed a zebrafish embryo housing system. “Crude, simple, but they need it,” Barkse says, indicating a pile of sliced PVC pipes that will be used to house nearly 200 zebrafish.  “You can’t run down to Walmart to get these things, so we make them.”

“They do high quality work and could get them to me ASAP,” says Tomasiewicz. “It wasn't really feasible to buy them commercially because that would have cost a lot. I only needed a few and I don’t know any place to get this work done locally.”

From the school’s origins as the Center for Great Lakes Studies and through its life as the Great Lakes Water Institute, an onsite shop has been integral to the science and to support the fleet. “Back in the '60s when this place was coming together, Clifford Mortimer [founder of the Center for Great Lake Studies] put a lot of emphasis on getting the shop set up," says SFS Senior Scientist Fred Binkowski. "As an institute dedicated to the study of freshwater, we'd obviously have a boat and sampling equipment that would need repairs.”

Barske (right) and instrument maker-journey Randy Metzger made this
photosynthatron machine for SFS Senior Scientist Russel Cuhel for his
research on plankton. Water circulating through the holes and channels
on the plate mimic Lake Michigan water temperatures.
The shop opened in 1969 near the UWM campus, in a garage on Oakland and Kenilworth where Augie Pabst (beer heir and race-car driver) stored his autos. In 1972, the shop moved to a factory on Kenilworth that had been used by the federal government for manufacturing during World War II and in 1979, moved to its current spot at the Great Lakes Research Facility, now home to the School of Freshwater Sciences. At nearly 3,000 square feet, the shop features more than 50 wood- and metal-working machines.

Today the shop boasts an impressive array of machines. When Rockwell Automation ceased its manufacturing in Milwaukee in 2011, they called Barske, who picked out a dozen tool-and-die machines for the shop. Built in the '60s, the machines were top-of-the-line in their day, some costing as much as $80,000 then. “They are still in excellent condition,” says Barske. “You can’t even buy some of these machines of this quality anymore.”
Barske in front of the 'Grundlematic' an in situ harbor
sampler made for SFS Professor Tim Grundl.

One of Barske’s favorite projects was an in situ harbor sampler he made for School of Freshwater Sciences Professor Tim Grundl. “Harbors get notoriously polluted from the shipping and all the comings and goings,” says Barske. “If a scientist wanted to test for heavy metals in the harbor, he would have to collect a core sample – four inches in diameter and a couple of feet long – take it back to the lab, slice it up and analyze it.”

Grundl made a sketch of a sampler based on machines he had worked with in the oil industry and took it to Barske. Together they came up with the design for a sampler that could easily be loaded on the School of Freshwater Sciences research vessel Neeskay and lowered to the bottom of the harbor, where it could get real-time results without having to collect and analyze samples in the lab.  “Now we can map out a whole harbor in two days, where before it would take a year and lots of money. This machine can do the same job for just a few dollars per poke. It’s a real revolution,” says Barske.