The University Record, September 9, 1998

Translating vision to substance is Cunningham's forte

By Rebecca A. Doyle

"They have the ideas; they want you to engineer it," says Patrick J. Cunningham, service supervisor and builder of a number of prototype scientific devices at the Biological Station in Pellston.

Transportation costs, time and limited availability of materials have made Cunningham's talents a welcome commodity for researchers at the Biological Station. When you live in the North, you find ways to do things with available materials, and Cunningham is a native of the area.

With Richard Spray, also a service supervisor, and Charles A. (Tony) Sutterley, assistant manager, facilities, Cunningham has executed designs such as a flow separator at the Maple River Stream Research facility. Approximately a million gallons of water daily are pumped from the river and split into 200--300 streams, where researchers check nutrients and temperature in the water and study the effects of sunlight and structure on fish and other water dwellers. The water is then cooled to its original temperature and returned to the river.

The problem researchers faced at Maple River was--as most are--something unexpected that happened when they first began pulling water from the river. A direct pipeline that was split into small streams often was clogged by debris from the water. When Cunningham saw the problem, he and the team came up with a solution that would keep the flow even and constant, a necessity for accurate measurements.

He devised a system of drums that would hold the water and set pipes high on the side of the drums so that anything large enough to decrease the flow gathered at the bottom of the drums. The next step was to find 55-gallon plastic drums at a cost the station could afford--not an easy prospect nearly 300 miles away from the bulk bargaining power of the University. But Cunningham found a company that used soap in 55-gallon drums and with a little scrubbing, he had the base for his new system.

Now up and running, the maze of plastic pipe, pumps, plastic drums and nylon stockings that researchers use to filter the water yields data for many projects.

"All of our facilities are inventions," says Jim Teeri, director of the Biological Station. Most research conducted there is new and so specific that many times there is a need for invention and resourcefulness that creates prototype designs later shared with other research facilities, he notes.

"We try to find inexpensive ways around expensive parts," Cunningham agrees. Cable trays, for instance, that would have cost the facility nearly $1,000 were manufactured from plastic pipe and fitted to the PROPHET tower, which supplies atmospheric data on the supply and impact of ozone.

Pellston, for years in the news only as the coldest spot in Michigan, is remote and isolated from large urban areas, ideal for the research carried out on the 10,000-acre Biological Station. But being so far north has its own set of problems.

The research building at the PROPHET tower, for instance, houses equipment that is hooked to sensors on the tower. A profusion of cables that carry the air samples to that equipment enter the building through holes that were drilled last year before monitoring began. Instead of feeding each cable through a single hole, Cunningham bored several large holes in the walls. He fitted each one with a plastic cylinder that could be capped to prevent small animals from using the building for shelter in the winter, and to protect the interior from cold and damp weather.

Another project required that a glass tube be fed into the ground at exactly a 45 degree angle so that a remote camera could be fed down the tube and record data about root growth. The researchers asked Cunningham to help them find a way to auger the hole at a consistent angle, and he devised a jig that held the auger in place. The Biological Station now has 150 holes to record plant root growth that may be associated with increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).

Like a small city, the Biological Station maintains tiny fleet of vehicles, cabins for students and researchers to use in the summer, a cafeteria, computers to communicate with the University and other researchers, classrooms, several rowboats and a pontoon boat. Keeping up with the needs of as many as 300 residents keeps Cunningham, Spray and Sutterley busy throughout the year. They work not only together on some projects, but help each other out when there is a big project to complete.

"It's almost like a family," Cunningham says.


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