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Updated 10:30 AM October 8, 2004




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Spotlight: It is rocket science

To some, Tom Griffin's workday reads like a page out of a high-tech thriller: install new shock tubes, make sure the helicopter-blade testing site is up to OSHA code, tweak the fittings on the supersonic wind tunnel. But he's no mad scientist or top-secret NASA employee; Griffin's just living another day as Supervisor of Laboratory Services for Aerospace Engineering.

(Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)

Griffin, a 20-year employee of the department, keeps busy with plenty of unusual tasks, which make his days interesting. With responsibilities that include building and repairing research experiments in roughly 40 labs, maintaining OSHA safety standards and managing the computing sites and networks, he and his three technicians are always on their feet.

"It keeps four men pretty busy, but there's not a boring day that goes by," he says.

Also, the job poses some interesting challenges. For example, Griffin recently had to install a $160,000, 8,000-pound machine in a room with an entryway too small to fit it. "The machine just showed up on the loading dock, and it was my job to put it somewhere. It was tricky, but we made it happen," he says.

But Griffin doesn't mind. He thrives on challenges.

"The best part is being able to solve everyone's problems. I define what the problem is, and my staff and I get together and determine what we need to do to fix it. Sometimes it's the best part of my day," he says.

And every day's job seems to be radically different from the last. Take, for instance, his time spent with researchers who were studying grain-dust combustion in an effort to eradicate problems with grain elevator explosions.

"Every time we blew something up, the car alarms would go off in the parking lots. It was funny, but it was pretty annoying, too," Griffin says with a laugh.

If grain-dust combustion doesn't make for great dinner-party conversation, try the research on satellite LASAR reception or supersonic wind tunnel experiments that Griffin has witnessed. He says it's fun learning more than the average technician.

"There's been a ton of cool research experiments that have come through here," he says. "You really do become a jack of all trades."

On one occasion, Griffin says he watched as researchers tested an Olympic bobsled—and team—in one of the 12 wind tunnels in the François-Xavier Bagnoud Building."I wasn't scared, because we only got it up to about 80 or 90 mph. If they had taken it up to Mach 1, though..." he says, laughing.

His name and number are on every door to every lab in the aerospace engineering building, because Griffin's the man you call when you need your combustion chamber moved, your stress gauges reconnected or your vacuum tightened up.

Says Griffin, "Oh yeah, I guess I'm pretty famous around here. That's the number you call when something goes wrong. But they know I'll get it done, every time."

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