Gary Johnson: He Lends a Hand to Research

January 29, 2014

In his 47 years at CUMC, Gary Johnson may have had a hand in more of CUMC’s research breakthroughs than anyone else on campus. As the head of the Machine and Instrument Shop in the Department of Radiation Oncology, he takes scientists’ ideas for unique research equipment they need and turns them into reality. He has worked with nearly every department across the medical center. Although he says he prefers to keep a low profile, his cover was blown last week when he was awarded one of the 2013 P&S Awards for Excellence

Tell us about how you got your start at Columbia.

I started here in September 1966.  I was working on custom, high-speed industrial sewing machines when I got a call from the head of my department from college who told me he knew of a job opening here and he wanted me to apply. I said no, I’m happy where I am, but he convinced me.

When I took the job, I told my wife I’d stay here for maybe a year or two. But here I am! I like the work. The more you’re in this business, the more you learn.  

What do you do?

I design and build research instruments for investigators in the Center for Radiological Research in the Department of Radiation Oncology in Vanderbilt Clinic. But I also work with almost every other department and center at P&S and other schools. Name a department and I’ve probably done work for them.

When I first came here, there were seven machine shops. Now there is just my shop and one over at the Eye Institute.

How do projects start?

People come to me and tell me what they need. Usually I tell them to bring me a design on a one-to-one scale, but sometimes they’ll come with a general idea or a sketch. Right now, we are working on a project for a physicist who brought us his ideas jotted down on a napkin. When I get a request, I sit down with the researcher and we kick the ideas around and draw some sketches. 

Then once I have an idea of what they want, I’ll develop a design in a computer-aided design program, and we’ll go back and forth on that. I always make sure we get all the details worked out before I start building. Paper is cheap, compared with shop time and materials.         

FIVE in FIVE: Gary Johnson

A 2011 interview with Gary Johnson

What is the most interesting aspect of your job?

You never know what you’re going to get involved with, or what problem you’re going to be asked to solve. I am working on five different projects today, and this is a slow day.   

Just to give you a few examples, I’ve got one project for spinning blood cells. Others are for the particle accelerator at Nevis Laboratories, to modify the machine for specific experiments. Another is for the physics department on the Morningside campus.

What makes you good at this job?

That I like it. I’ve got a one-ton crane inside my machine shop. And I can also drill holes down to one thousandth of an inch in diameter. There’s no limit to what we will try to do.

You have designed and built many thousands of pieces of research equipment, including for some of Columbia’s most recognized faculty, including Nobel laureates Eric Kandel and Richard Axel. Do any projects stay with you as the most exciting, or ones that you are especially proud of?

I don’t really go around waving flags over what I’ve done. I just like doing the work. But an interesting thing that used to happen from time to time many years ago was, I’d get a knock on the door, and someone would come in from the operating room in scrubs,  holding a prosthetic device like a knee or hip. They would say they’ve got the patient on the table, but the stem on the device is too long.

So I’d chop off the stem of the prosthetic device, redress it, and send it back down to the operating room. That hasn’t happened in a long time, but like I said, you never know what’s going to walk through that door.

What do you do in your spare time?

My wife likes to joke that I live here. But she and I have done a number of cruises—we’ve done the Caribbean a number of times, the Panama Canal, the Mediterranean once, and Alaska. I also dabble in photography. I had a boat once, but I gave up on that, because it wound up turning into work.  

I also spend time with my family. I have two sons and two granddaughters. The younger granddaughter is six and she’s adventurous. She is willing to try anything once and maybe even a second time. The older one is 13 and she’s into golf. She’s good—she competed in two international tournaments in the last two years. 

Do you ever think about retiring?

I think about it on and off. My wife thinks about it a lot. Maybe I’ll back down to three days a week. But I like it here. That’s the only way I can explain it. Like I say, you never know what you’ll wind up doing each day.