David Stoppkotte has been an instrument and measurement technician with the College of Veterinary Medicine for 11 years, moving earlier this year from the pathobiology department to the college’s facilities division. He held a similar position for seven years with the former School of Life Sciences, working out of the electronics shop in Burrill Hall.
HOW DO YOU LIKE WORKING AT VET MED?
I’ve just fallen in love with this place. This place is a playground for a guy who likes equipment. I could retire in a couple of years, but if they want me, I’ll stay around longer. As long as I like it, I want to keep doing it. I’m lucky I’ve found a niche in life – I’d do it all again if I was reborn tomorrow.
WHAT DOES YOUR JOB ENTAIL?
My job includes working on medical instrumentation, lab equipment, and calibration and microscope support. For the first 10 years I worked in pathobiology, but now I’m with the facilities group, which is basically taking care of the whole building. I get to work on a lot of different equipment, which adds a challenge that I like. I’m also involved with the ESCO (Energy Services Co.) project going on here at Vet Med, which is helping convert the building to be more energy efficient.
WHAT DID YOU DO PROFESSIONALLY BEFORE COMING TO THE UI?
I was in the Navy for 20 years and was a maintenance chief working on jets. I made the jump from tactical jets to microscopes. I left the Navy in 1991, then went to Parkland for two years to study electronics. One of the professors there recommended me to my future boss in Life Sciences.
AT WHAT PART OF YOUR JOB DO YOU EXCEL?
My specialty is microscopes. I found I have a knack for working with them and I love doing it. When I was with Life Sciences I worked with more classrooms directly – I would probably work on 1,000 or 1,500 microscopes a year. The new ones are more complicated, but I like that because it’s a challenge. A few years ago I was asked to make a video for students on how to properly use a microscope. The students have had to concentrate on so many other things that they really haven’t received proper scope training. They made it required viewing, so I guess it helps.
I’ve asked myself the same question and I’m not sure if I have an answer. Even though I have big hands I have an aptitude for working on small and delicate items. For microscopes, I like the challenge of putting the mechanics with the optics and then making it all work.
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN YOUR LINE OF WORK?
The big, wonderful challenge is some of the equipment is very old, so there’s a lot of mystery and troubleshooting. There aren’t a lot of schematics available, so when I first started (at the UI) I was totally clueless. I had seen a microscope in pictures but had never worked on one. After working on so many, you pick things up over the years. There is some equipment, like MRIs, that I don’t even endeavor to repair. I’m lucky because I know my limitations. If you mess something up (at Vet Med) it can be highly expensive to replace.
WHAT’S THE MOST COMMON OCCURRENCE IN MICROSCOPE REPAIR?
In certain portions of the pathobiology classes, students have to use immersion oil, which increases resolution. There’s a knack to using it and the students don’t really have the time to get that knack; they’ve got lots of other pressure and things to worry about. Let’s just say it can be messy and it’s hard to clean off.
HOW DO YOU APPROACH A PROBLEM YOU’VE NOT PREVIOUSLY ENCOUNTERED?
I usually just go to where the problem has been reported and observe. Some problems are so ultra-simple that it’s best just to rule those things out before getting to the more complicated possibilities. As a Navy maintenance chief I had to kind of know all the systems and it’s a lot like that here. But even today, some of the equipment at Vet Med I have no idea what it is or what it does. If I have a problem, a lot of times I’ll get up at 2 or 3 a.m., grab a cup of coffee and mull things over. I’ve even resolved things in my sleep.
HOW OFTEN DO YOU GIVE IN AND CALL FOR HELP ON A COMPLICATED PROBLEM?
A lot of the companies will not repair older equipment so I’ve developed an extensive database of who I can call for help or to get parts. Most companies have a manual that you can download. When in doubt, read the manual. The problem is, some user manuals are obsolete in just a few years. On some of this equipment I have to look online for the parts. It’s all part of the fun.
IS YOUR ELECTRONICS APTITUDE INNATE OR LEARNED?
My father was probably the best repair guy I’ve ever seen. He was able to fix everything. I started getting interested in fixing things around 10. My first experience was taking the lawn mower apart. My dad said I did a real good job taking it apart, then he showed me how to put it back together. After that, I started working on cars. I had an old ’52 Chevy and I didn’t have money to take it to a mechanic.
HOW DO TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGES AFFECT YOUR WORK?
I’ve watched it evolve at almost an alarming rate and I do a lot of reading and research. I think I’ve got an advantage because the young guys today don’t get that experience of working on the old equipment. I’ve gained a lot of respect for Ph.D.s since I’ve been here. While they have a lot of book learning and little mechanical training, they can take a completely new and complex piece of equipment, and in a weekend they learn how it works.
IT SOUNDS LIKE REPAIR ISSUES TAKE UP A GOOD PORTION OF YOUR WORK AND PRIVATE LIFE. WHAT RELAXES YOU?
My wife, Debi, and I have a little place out in the country and we have a huge garden that just got bigger this year. I also have a couple of projects – a 1986 Pontiac Fiero and a 1977 MGB. I love two-seaters and these two are odd little ducks to work on, thus the challenge.