Aug. 1, 2017

The Science Workshop: UCalgary's techs who turn ideas into reality

UCalgary has designed and built instruments deployed on more than 20 space missions. These are the people who make it happen.

At the University of Calgary’s Science Workshop, if you can dream it, they can build it. “People bring us anything from a napkin with a scribble of an idea on it, to full CAD (computer-assisted drawings) files,” says workshop manager Darren Gisby.

“I don’t think we’ve ever turned anybody away, unless it’s for a piece of equipment or tool or instrument that they can buy,” says long-time technician Todd Willis.

Located in the basement of the Science A building, the 2,000-square-metre (once current renovations are completed) Science Workshop employs five highly skilled technicians.

The workshop’s official mission is “To advance the quality of teaching and research in the Faculty of Science by providing affordable and timely state-of-the-art mechanical support.”

“We’re here to help move along research that might not be done if we weren’t here, ” Gisby says.

On average, the facility handles over 250 projects a year. Nearly 90 per cent of that business is with is the Faculty of Science, although work is also done for Facilities Management, Information Technologies, the Faculty of Kinesiology’s Human Performance Lab, and the Schulich School of Engineering, among others.

“We do everything, from repairing a chair for a teaching laboratory, all the way up to instruments for the space physicists. And everything in between,” Gisby says.

Some of their projects have flown to the upper atmosphere by balloon, gone to the top of mountains and the bottom of the sea, and travelled to space on sounding rockets and satellites.

Workshop technicians built the sophisticated instruments still flying on satellites in the ePOP and SWARM missions to measure the aurora borealis, or northern lights.


Willis worked on many of the 60 instruments that UCalgary has deployed on the ground across Canada to capture images of the aurora.

Technicians are now building miniature plasma instruments for Johnathan Burchill, a researcher in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Designed to measure winds and temperatures of charged particles in plasma in the near-Earth environment, the instruments will fly on small “nanosatellites.”

The Science Workshop is equipped with a state-of-the-art, 5-axis CNC (computer numerically controlled) milling machine. Essentially a human-interfaced robot, the tool cuts materials in all three dimensions and rotates on two axes, to approach the workpiece from any direction.

The workshop also has 3-axis milling machines and a 3D printer that prints in carbon fibre, Kevlar, fiberglass and nylon substrate materials. A technical stores area is stocked with bolts and other hardware, as well as tools that faculty members can borrow.

The 1.8 meter A.R.Cross telescope (ARCT) at the UCalgary Rothney Astrophysical Observatory (RAO), was designed and built by the Science Workshop’s technicians in the early 1980s.  With its sophisticated chopping secondary mirror, the ARCT is Canada’s largest infrared telescope.  In the 1990s, the Workshop took a hefty, forty-year-old telescope donated to the RAO by the Canadian Air Force, and reengineered it into its sleek, compact, equatorial form.  The Baker-Nunn Telescope is the envy of researchers worldwide who scan the heavens for interesting specs of light that could be asteroids or quarknovae.  Today the Science Workshop masterfully keeps telescopes and detectors operating at peak efficiency.

Other projects have ranged from pressure vessels for sulphur research and a variety of spectroscopes, microscopes and telescopes, to treadmills for a wide variety of critters (including mice, moose and crabs) – even a “flight mill” to which flying beetles could be attached.

Jokes Willis: “If they had the Dragons’ Den outside of our front door, probably a lot of the projects wouldn’t get through.”

Fortunately for UCalgary’s researchers and instructors, the Science Workshop’s door is always open.

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Darren Gisby is the manager of the Science Workshop at the University of Calgary. As part of the Workshop, Darren provides leadership, management, and technical support to many researchers and teachers in the Faculty of Science, in addition to other university units.

Todd Willis is a technician in the Science Workshop. Todd helps advance the quality of teaching and research in the Faculty of Science by providing affordable and timely state-of-the-art mechanical and technical support.

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