|Aero Club Lab Room: They use a laser intended for cutting model planes to cut micro-scale channels in the polymer coating the disc.
Rows of twisted metal, two rusty motorcycles, chunks of marble countertop, machine tools, plywood, and a smoldering welder surround three fat chicken breasts that have been sitting on a grill, injected with soy sauce and Sam Adams.
“There is no clock in the Maker House,” says Chris Tomkins-Tinch, a fourth year Bioinformatics major, suggesting he’s been in the workshop for longer than he can remember.
The architects behind this seemingly chaotic scene, Tomkins-Tinch and third year Biotechnology major Nathan McCorkle, seem to bring energy to anything they lay their hands on. The current object of their affection is a 1978 Kawasaki KZ 200, whose brake lights are being repaired after being resuscitated from rust one year ago. This type of mechanical salvation is play for the makers, RIT students who have a passion for taking things apart, making things work, and learning something along the way. Led by Tomkins-Tinch and McCorkle, these undergrads have their sights set high — changing your life through their work.
Connected Through Curiosity
Meeting people like Tomkins-Tinch and McCorkle — two fast-paced, feverishly occupied college students — is funny. Funnier still is the odds of these characters meeting each other in the first place. Since childhood, Tomkins-Tinch has been interested in dissecting household objects. His webpage, “Take it Apart dot net”, is an online meeting place for tinkerers around the world, showing step—by-step pictures of his latest explorations. Cell phones, game controllers and laptops fall victim to his prying hands; they are then shared with an online community.
It was after building a photographic light meter from scratch that Tomkins-Tinch began to think that his passion lay elsewhere from his original major of Imaging Science. It was the encouraging words of the “infinitely capable” Bob Kremens, senior research scientist and professor at RIT, that pushed him in a new direction. “He gave me a chance to learn on my own,” said Tomkins-Tinch. The ability is almost invaluable to his work today.
McCorkle was equally interested in taking things apart as a child and remembers his first moment of ecstasy: fixing a CD-ROM drive for his somewhat unaffected father. After dropping out of high school, McCorkle joined the Student Conservation Association, working on habitat restoration in California. He spent much of his time juggling seemingly divergent talents, from photography, to volunteerism, to science and research. Drifting from various odd jobs, McCorkle became certified to teach English in foreign countries and traveled to Thailand, still unsure of what he wanted to do. When hiking through Nepal, he witnessed people making do with a lot less than the privilege he was exposed to: Men hauling entire chicken coops on their back and climbing mountains to feed villages, while he struggled to keep his breath during an afternoon stroll.
It may not have been a completely life-changing-mountaintop-moment, but soon, McCorkle began to feel a pull in an educational direction to try and sort out his competing interests. After a meeting with Jon Schull, current interim director of the Center for Student Innovation, he became enamored with the possibility of finding a purpose at RIT, where there were enough degree programs to keep him endlessly trying new things.
For the two, it’s unbridled, almost-foolish curiosity that drives them to experiment with their surroundings. Even opening a beer is an opportunity to diverge from the beaten path, as an argument swells about the efficiency of two competing technologies: a key-chain-mounted bottle opener or a wrench. In the end, both methods were tried under rigorous tests and control groups. The conclusion, like all major scientific discoveries, diverged from the original hypothesis: “Beer is good.”
The Status Quo Strikes Back
|College of Science Molecular Bio Lab: They fill the channels with electrophoresis gel containing DNA. When they connect both ends of the channel to a 3000 volt power supply it excites the DNA so you can see where it is in the channel.
“RIT is very structured and straightforward,” says McCorkle. Indeed, their questioning in the lab doesn’t always jive with following a series of prescribed steps and occasionally earns them the animosity of other students. “One student told me to stop asking questions because I was taking too long,” recalls McCorkle. “She said, ‘I came here to get a degree and get a job, not waste time!’” McCorkle was dumbfounded with this objective: “I came here to learn,” he says.
This kind of flippant dismissal could have led the duo to isolate their interests, but rather, the two have expanded their network of makers by forming the MAKE club in 2008. The MAKE club, inspired by publications that espouse a do-it-yourself approach to technology and craftwork, is made up of dozens of students from a variety of backgrounds and fields of study. Together, they work on projects that involve hacking apart household objects to make them work better.
Fixing The World
There are a lot of scary problems out there, and the makers don’t pretend to have the answers. What they do have is a desire to make systems better. They are constantly looking for an “overlap,” when fields of study intertwine to solve problems. An example of this is a recent endeavor to create a low-cost DNA sequencer.
DNA sequencing, or reading the active genetic sequences [RNA] found in DNA, allows researchers to understand the specific differences between coexisting cells in the body, or to understand how our cells differ from those of other plants and animals. A low-cost version of a currently existing technology would allow those in developing countries to conduct their own medical diagnostics or research. The actual process — pushing a jellied strand of DNA through a channel to separate it in a pattern — takes specialized equipment and is currently somewhat expensive. Localizing this ability to a device the size of an iPhone could result in new HIV treatments or morphine created in hard to reach areas.
Tomkins-Tinch and McCorkle enlisted the help of fellow maker Sasha Yevstifeev, a third year Electrical Engineering major, who came on board to help build custom electronic equipment. Fashioning homemade devices is a priority for this team, as it helps them cut costs. A lack of resources, in this situation, actually encourages creativity and thinking outside the box.
These kinds of multidisciplinary endeavors are what the makers, and much of the RIT community, hope will become more common in the years ahead. Now, Tomkins-Tinch and McCorkle’s interests are directed towards trying to understand and manipulate the blueprints to living things. Entertaining these crazy, even naïve ideas, and setting a course to accomplish them, is the basis for the hundreds of hacks and projects attempted by the makers.
“Why can’t we grow a house?” wonders McCorkle out loud. “Why do I have to get a warranty? … What if I want to fix this myself?” His thoughts betray a wandering mind, like any member of our generation’s easily-distracted consciousness. This tinkering, or competing multiple intelligences, has caused him and his friends to make connections where none previously existed. Together in the Maker House, among the stacks of clutter and eccentricity, the makers make mistakes, discoveries and most notably: relationships between people and ideas that are wholly invested in making things better.
You can find the maker community online at http://makeclub.org.