One scientist’s trash is another school’s treasure

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- As the old proverb goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. More simply put, what one person may consider worthless, another may consider quite valuable.

That seems to be the case between two scientific entities here in Central Florida. Recently, an anonymous Central Florida donor reached out to George Kenney Jr., a retired Eastman Kodak chemist who currently teaches organic chemistry at Eastern Florida State College in Melbourne, Fla., about some gently used laboratory analysis equipment he no longer needed and thought the college could benefit from. Kenney was thrilled with the donor’s generosity, and quickly took him up on his offer.

Kenney was in the throes of growing a fledgling chemistry program at the college and thought the equipment could provide real-world experience to his students. But he didn’t know much about the type of equipment the donor had, nor did he know if he’d be able to set it up and get it running in his lab.

While serving as a judge at the Brevard County Intracoastal Science Fair, he struck up a conversation with Dr. Dan Mackney, a senior chemist at the Air Force Technical Applications Center here, who was also serving as a judge at the event. The two immediately found common ground in both their personal and professional backgrounds. As they were reviewing the students’ projects and the depth of their scientific insightfulness, Kenney asked Mackney an off-handed question: “Do you know anything about mass spectrometers?”

When Mackney answered his question with a resounding, “yes,” Kenney realized he struck gold and asked the nuclear treaty monitoring scientist for his help and expertise.

“AFTAC has a very high commitment to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and the center is always looking for ways to conduct community outreach as often as possible,” said Mackney. “When George asked me about mass specs, I don’t think he was quite prepared to learn about just how well-versed we are in the field of spectrometry. It seemed like a ‘no-brainer’ to volunteer our time and expertise when he asked.”

Mackney assembled a group of volunteers to help transfer the equipment from its Central Florida location to the Melbourne campus. On March 17, a team of six AFTAC Airmen rallied together in trucks to make the 70 mile drive to procure the repurposed machinery. Once the team arrived, Dr. Richard Reich, lead data analyst, and an expert in mass spectrometry, along with fellow AFTACers Maria Fraley, Jim Murphy, Pete Oliveri, and Brett Mapston, sifted through the various instruments to ensure functionality and applicability in the EFSC lab.

“There was a ton of analytical instruments from the 80s and 90s,” said Reich, “gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, atomic absorption spectrometers, elemental analyzers, etc. It was like walking through a toy store and being told you can have whatever you can carry out for free. I can’t wait to start helping the school fix the instrumentation. It’s going to be a lot fun and very challenging at the same time.”

After the cursory review of the donor’s equipment and nod of approval from Reich, the technicians loaded it onto their trucks and headed back to the college, where they were met by Kenney, Scott Herber, EFSC biology instructor, and other members of the school’s science division. Both groups pitched in to transfer the equipment – some of it quite large and cumbersome – from the trucks to the science lab. Other smaller pieces were placed in a storage room.

Brett Mapston, an AFTAC data analyst, enlisted the help of his friend Bart Scarbro, who assisted in the ‘bucket brigade’ of mass spec equipment.

“Don’t worry, I train to lift heavy objects like this every day,” joked Mapston, as he hauled a large spectrometer from the truck to the storage area. “It allowed me to use my natural born talents in the work place!”

In total, the group procured more than a dozen pieces of analytical equipment estimated to be worth in excess of $100K in today’s dollars. Kenney and his team plan to clean, assemble and test the instruments prior to showcasing their capabilities to the students. They plan to contact Mackney and his team should questions arise during the set up.

“I’d like to thank the members of AFTAC for truly going the distance for Eastern Florida State,” said Kenney. “Without their expertise, advice, experience and help, we would not have been able to acquire this invaluable equipment. Their knowledge will help us recertify it and make it useable in our lab for purposes of educating our students at virtually no cost. It doesn’t get much better than that!”

While the crew was bidding its farewells, Mackney said, “Maybe it was a stroke of luck that two Irishmen came together – on St. Patrick’s Day no less – at the right moment with the common goal of helping students learn more about chemistry and science in general. The ultimate winners of this proverbial pot of gold are the young STEM minds of Brevard County. It was our pleasure to be a part of it.”