December 6, 2007
Herb Kramer and the Scientific Instruments Department: Making problems ‘go away’
A team of scientists working with people who were profoundly disabled and unable to communicate in the usual way wanted to find out if some of them could learn to perform simple tasks using adaptive technology. The team needed a device that would allow their research subjects to, for example, turn on a light by pressing a button with their head. And they wanted the device to log each time subjects did this and download the data to a computer.
The team presented its needs to the staff in the Scientific Instruments Department in the UW Health Sciences Center, and the technicians built the scientists something generic enough that it could be used to control a variety of things (lights, TVs, etc.) using a variety of means (push buttons, sip and puff systems, etc.). As a result the scientists were able to demonstrate, using this device, that some profoundly disabled people can learn to perform simple tasks and therefore might be candidates for additional adaptive technology.
This project is just one example of the kind of things Herb Kramer and his colleagues in the Scientific Instruments Department do. As Kramer puts it, “The health care workers take care of the patients; we take care of the equipment.”
Q: What book has been influential for you and why?
A: What Matters Most, by Hyrum W. Smith. In the crazy world we live in, there is never enough time to do everything I would like to do. This book has helped me prioritize my life so I can spend more time doing what is really important, and spend less time with the trivia.
Q: Which well known person, living or dead, would you like to meet and why?
A: Ben Franklin — I think we could have had a lot of fun tinkering with things.
Q: Which scientific device developed in the last 20 years has been the most useful?
A: Diagnostic ultrasound. It’s been longer than that in development, but it’s really taken off in the last 10 years or so. Modern micro processors and software have made it possible to measure flow, compute volumes and cardiac output, and create ever higher resolution images.
Q: Name a scientific device you wish existed but doesn’t.
A: Tough question. Every time I think something hasn’t been invented, someone brings one into our shop and wants it fixed.
Q: What do you like to do to relax?
A: Listen to classical music and go on long walks with my family.
It’s a little-known field that Kramer says has many names — biomedical engineering, clinical engineering, medical instrument repair. Like many people, he came to it indirectly, after his early plans for medical school and a career as a medical researcher fell through. “I was taking pre-med and electrical engineering and had a little trouble with calculus,” he says.
He wound up at Walla Walla College in the biomedical electronics program, where he took courses in both medical science and electronics, with the focus on medical electronics rather than consumer electronics. Although he earned a bachelor’s degree, Kramer says many in his field have four years of training at a community college but get an associate’s degree.
He started his career at Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles, where he was a one-man shop. “They put me in a room not much bigger than my current office that had broken equipment stacked all over the place and said ‘Fix it.’ It was a brutal learning curve,” Kramer says.
He managed to survive somehow, and learned a lot in the process. Five years later he arrived at the UW, where, he says, the next most recent hire had been there seven years. “He’d been a biomedical electronics technician longer than I’d been alive.”
Again, Kramer found himself with a lot to learn. Whereas the Port Angeles job had been almost all clinical equipment, the bulk of the UW work turned out to be laboratory equipment. But over a 14-year period, he’s worked his way up, picking up a master’s in medical engineering from the UW along the way.
The job has never stopped being challenging, which is one of the reasons Kramer likes it. “You have to be able to speak many languages,” he says, “You have to be able to talk with doctors and nurses, financial people, engineers from the companies that make the equipment, information technology people. It requires a lot of flexibility and a lot of knowledge.”
What’s satisfying about it, he says, is that it involves solving problems, “usually faster and more cost effectively than outside vendors.” Of course, not everything is repairable. “Occasionally the answer is, ‘This thing can’t be fixed. You have to get a new one; we’ll help you find a new one.’ But we make people’s problems go away. That’s our unwritten motto.”