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Employee Q&A: Instrumentation Specialist Scott DeRigne
A motorcycle crash caused his career to take a turn from working on giant mirror lenses to maintaining mass spectrometers.
Position: Instrumentation specialist
Number of years at the UA: 20
Favorite thing about working at the UA: The variety of projects I get involved with ... and assisting the research that is going on in a wide variety of areas.
Favorite outdoor place to visit in Southern Arizona: I like to ride motorcycles, and this is just a superb area for that .... One of my typical rides, if I am just doing a short one, is to go over to the (Arizona-Sonora) Desert Museum .... But there is the ride up to Mount Lemmon, down to Patagonia-Sonoita area, back way to Arivaca – there are just so many good rides around here.
Scott DeRigne began working at the University in 1989 as an engineer in the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. During his time there, he ran the technical division for about 10 years, and he was the lead engineer on some projects.
In 2006, he took an unexpected three-year hiatus from work after a motorcycle crash. He lost his right leg and endured 10 surgeries in 30 months.
He describes the wreck as "a little bit of sand in the road, and a curve and a curb."
By the time he was able to work again, the mirror lab had filled his position after holding it for him as long as they could, DeRigne said.
But he was able to get in at the College of Science, where he maintains and repairs lab equipment to keep many research projects running smoothly.
DeRigne still rides motorcycles, as he has for about 40 years, and he recently took time to talk with Lo Que Pasa about his work.
What does your job entail?
Basically I am Mr. Fix-It. If something breaks, I am the one that gets called. I maintain the lab equipment, computers associated with it, stuff like that. (There are) nine different labs that I tend to work with: two in this building (Chemistry), one in CSB (the Chemical Sciences Building), two in Bio Sciences, BIO5. So I get around.
What kind of equipment is it?
Primarily it's mass spectrometers and the associated equipment with that. But basically anything in the labs that they use – the vacuum pumps, the HPLC systems, so anything associated with it. ... (HPLC is) a pump for the mass specs; it delivers the samples to the mass specs. It is a high-pressure liquid chromatography device.
Do these things break down frequently?
Yeah, there are about 30 mass specs that I take care of. Some of them are better-used than others, and so the priorities tend to be the well-used instruments; if those need attention, we get on those right away. ... They are highly complex, highly accurate scientific instruments, so they do need attention on occasion. It’s kind of interesting; I am an electrical engineer by training. And I worked in the astronomy department for a long time. But all of their mirrors were the optical variety. Whereas the mass specs use mirror and lenses, too, but they are of the electrical variety because they are controlling ions, the charged particle. So what I am doing now makes more sense to my chosen field than the astronomy stuff, because the lenses are actually voltage-controlled devices and that’s how you manipulate the ions. So if a computer has a problem, I get a call. If a stirrer has a problem, I get a call. If anything goes wrong, I am the one they shout for.
How did you come into this line of work?
My career has kind of been random; I’ve been all over the place, actually. I started out working on strip-mining equipment, control systems for that. So I started out with really big stuff. Then I got into motor controllers ... designing those, and that led into a position where we did something called hybrid electronics, which is basically taking the guts of the electronics that are in a plastic package, taking the silicone piece out of that and utilizing the small silicone piece and designing a circuit with that. So it took a very large electronic circuit and shrunk it down into a very small size. Then I got into the astronomy, doing the large mirror castings at the mirror lab. I was in charge of the rotating furnace down there for a number of years – and the mirrors are up to 8 and 1/2 half meters in diameter – and then the control systems for controlling them on the telescope. … I was out of work for a long time. Once I was better it was 2008, when the economy kind of went down the tubes. So I was looking for a job for quite a long time, and no offers, and this came up and one thing led to another. I wish I had a clear-cut career path planned but it’s gone all over the place. So now I am back down to the really small stuff; we are looking at ions. I have gone really big, really small, really big and now I am really small again.
What kind of learning curve did you have when you returned to work after three years, considering how quickly technology changes?
It was pretty huge. A joke I have is, I didn’t know how to spell "mass spec" when I came into this position. I had no experience with mass spectrometry other than the fact that it is an electrical device – that helped me out. The learning curve was very steep for this position. ... Being out of work for three years, all the computers and hardware changed. And mass spectrometry is a relatively new field; it is very dynamic right now. It's sort of like computers – if you have a 5-year-old mass spec unit, it is fairly old. There has been a lot of development in the field and advances in the instrumentation, stuff like that. I had a lot of catching up to do just to learn the basics of the field, and then as I am going along I have to run pretty hard to keep up with all the changes. It was a bit of a challenge.
How did you figure it out?
I work with a really good group of people, which is the proteomics group over at BIO5, and then there is some carryover with people in the chemistry department, and the mass spec facility in the chemistry department, the people I work with there. The researchers have been really, really helpful to me .... So it has been the researchers, and research on my own, and the biggest way I have learned is trying to fix the problems. To fix the problems you need to be able to understand how it operates and what it's supposed to do and stuff like that, and that helps you understand the general operations of the instrument as well. It has kind of been learning particular areas based upon failures. ... Trial and error. And because of my job, I am all over the place. And the biggest fire gets the most attention. ... The biggest trick for me in this is to understand what it (an instrument) does when it is working right. Because I don’t get a lot of opportunity to see that. I usually get the call when it is not working right. So, that has been the biggest challenge for me: "OK, it is broken, I know what it is not doing, but what is it supposed to do?" A lot of the companies are quite helpful in it, especially when they find out what I am up against, how many mass specs I take care of, how many different companies I deal with, different instruments from different manufacturers. ... It has been an interesting introduction for me to get involved with the general community and it is amazing what the instruments can do.
What is your favorite task you get called to do?
In general, I don’t think there is a favorite task. I know there are some I don’t particularly care for. But basically it is understanding the instrument and getting the research back online to where they are up and running ... and then getting the instruments to operate in the best fashion they can. So just allowing the researchers to do their work is where I derive a lot of the gratification from the job.