Ed A. Macomber strides down the hospital-white halls of Harvard’s Center for Nanoscale Systems, his heavy black work boots barely making a sound. Behind a glass panel to his left, scientists in full-body white suits toil on enormous machines.“I wouldn’t want to have a job where I’d have to sit at a desk all day,” says Macomber, bending slightly at the waist as he stares directly into a glass panel. The system recognizes his iris, and the door to the laboratory unlocks. “It’s just too boring to me.”
Stepping inside the changing room, Macomber pulls a mask over his silver goatee and climbs into a jumpsuit. Macomber specializes in creating very thin films of material, only a handful of atoms thick, used in everything from circuit boards to solar cells. His elaborate costume is not designed to protect people from the experiments, he explains, but to protect the experiments from people. Specks of dust are so large that they can destroy the complex materials that scientists work hard to create. The lab is called a clean room because it is designed to remove as many particles from the air as possible.
Dressed completely in white except for the yellow safety glasses, Macomber walks over to his row of machines. He is the technician in charge of the physical vapor deposition equipment in the clean room, which is used to make the films. PVD machines are so powerful that they can evaporate metal. Scientists deposit this evaporated material on an object of their choice — like dew gathering on leaves in the early morning — creating a substance with new properties, like increased strength or conductivity. Macomber holds up a piece of smoky gray glass, discarded by someone who used his machine, and the light streams through. The titanium film is so thin it’s transparent, like a pair of sunglasses, but the metal keeps the glass safe from wear and scratches.
Macomber has always loved complicated machines. His dad was a mechanic, and Macomber grew up fiddling with engines in the garage. After high school, he bounced between odd jobs and did a combination of technical drawing and mechanical work. Eventually, in his thirties, he enrolled part time at Bristol Community College. One of his professors encouraged him to apply for the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, which places students in labs across the country. Macomber wasn’t so sure. “I think she had to remind me at least half a dozen times to [apply],” he says. “In my mind, they want somebody young that has their life ahead of them.”
But Macomber’s unusual skills with all kinds of machines impressed the Harvard disease biophysics group, which jumped at the chance to hire him. “You never know what's gonna happen in this damn life sometimes,” he says with a laugh.
Macomber impressed his labmates, who encouraged him to stay at Harvard and keep up his growing interest in nanotechnology — the disease biophysics group uses tools like PVD to make new medical equipment. For Macomber, the transition was natural. All machines need parts, even fancy ones, and repairing a vacuum pump isn’t all that different from tinkering with cars. Macomber still exercises his skill in fiddling with engines: He has four motorcycles at home, which he keeps running on his own and rides to work almost every day. Always curious, he attended night school for 10 years while working full time at Harvard, eventually earning a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Northeastern.
Macomber’s expertise has helped thousands of scientists over the years — about 500 people at a time are registered on his machines. But of all the projects he has worked on, he is particularly proud of helping a team of scientists pioneer a new way of repairing hearts.
Some people are born with potentially life-threatening holes on the inside wall of their heart. Scientists wanted to repair these holes with less invasive methods than open heart surgery, so a team designed a patch that could be attached to the heart with special glue activated by ultraviolet light. But they needed a way to shine light on the patch so the glue could work. The scientists had an unusual solution: If they could inflate a tiny, shiny balloon, they could reflect light inside the heart and direct it toward the patch. All they needed was someone to layer a tiny bit of metal inside a balloon — just enough to make it reflective, but not so much that it would prevent it from inflating. But balloons are bendy, and PVD normally works with solid, flat objects like glass or silicon. Macomber was able to push the limits of his machines, and he covered the balloons in a very thin layer of aluminum — just what the scientists needed. Their method is posed to radically improve heart treatment.
As Macomber gets ready to leave the clean room, he presses a series of buttons on one of the machines. The front of the machine slowly folds down. In the center, like an old CD rotary, a spinning pallet of six different metals emerges, each ready to be eviscerated by a beam of electrons. Macomber refills the machine with chunks of gold, platinum, and chromium, explaining in detail how each would be useful for scientists and engineers. “I love my job,” Macomber says with a smile. “There’s always something new to learn about.”
—Magazine writer Drew C. Pendergrass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pendergrassdrew. This is the second installment of his column about invisible labor in science.