Staff Spotlight: Tom Donaldson

I’ve been at this for about 45 years and have had the opportunity to work on very diverse projects across a variety of fields from the bone marrow transplant equipment at UW, to the Passive Vaccine Storage Device, to malaria diagnostic tools like the Autoscope, to manufacturing and testing for TerraPower’s traveling wave reactor.

Q: What is your background and what led you to where you are now? 

A: Before coming to IV Lab, I spent 37 years at the University of Washington in the Scientific Instrument Division. Initially, I was recruited while a student at Seattle Community College to apprentice under the seven or eight people in their shop. Over the years, I worked my way up to the machine and optical division shop supervisor, where I designed, manufactured and repaired medical and scientific instruments. 

While at the UW Scientific Instrument Division, I had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects, including designing and building bone marrow transplant tools developed in conjunction with transplant pioneer and Nobel Prize winner Dr. E. Donnall Thomas of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The initial set of bone marrow tools had already been developed by the time I arrived, however I modified and refined the prototypes throughout my years at UW and even helped work through the FDA registration process. I simplified the designs and made the tools more user friendly. One of the tools was a complicated stainless steel bone and fat filter, which I redesigned into a larger plastic device to process the marrow more quickly. The tools we created for the bone marrow project were sold worldwide. In 1986, many bone marrow tools were donated to doctors helping patients from the Chernobyl disaster, as one way to treat high-level radiation exposure.   

Q: What do you do at IV Lab? 

A: Currently, I manage the Scientific Instrument Manufacturing and Testing Group’s (SIMTG) Design and Procurement division. In the time since I started at IV Lab about five years ago, the shop has grown from 4 to over 25 full-time employees. Prior to growth in our shop, I worked on almost all of the projects at IV Lab. At times there has been a shortage of mechanical engineers in the Lab and the shop has played an important role in design and engineering as well as the hands on manufacturing. I have been happy to be involved in those efforts and enjoy designing and engineering to help resolve challenges for designing and building prototypes.

Today, our scope has grown beyond just design and manufacturing to include testing, quality assurance, and technical writing. In order to better manage resources, we divided our group into three sections: Design and Procurement, Machine Shop, and Testing. The Design and Procurement division works on project planning and determines what processes, materials, resources, and time are required for each project. We are currently working toward a better system for planning and scheduling workflow, while accommodating regularly changing scopes of work.  

Q: Who was an important influence along your path? 

A: All of my mentors at the UW Scientific Instrument Division have influenced my career and life. I worked early on with a handful of people who had been there for twenty or thirty years. These guys were young men when they started in the post WWII medical community and things were really expanding. Many of them had minimal or informal education and found themselves in a situation where they were designing and building world-changing instruments. They knew how to problem solve and collaborate to achieve incredible things. Among many other projects, they were involved in designing and building the world’s first heart/lung machine, the first kidney dialysis machine and the tools necessary to perform the world’s first bone marrow transplant. Being exposed to this kind of ground breaking work and these creative people really helped to teach me that all kinds of amazing things are possible, even if you are not highly educated.

Q: What inspires you most about what you do? 

A: I love the process of working through the challenges, looking for the possibilities, solving the problems and seeing a project through to completion. It’s a very satisfying process.

Q: What do you bring to the IV Lab team that is unique or different than the rest of the team? 

A: I’ve been at this for about 45 years and have had the opportunity to work on very diverse projects across a variety of fields from the bone marrow transplant equipment at UW, to the Passive Vaccine Storage Device, to malaria diagnostic tools like the Autoscope, to manufacturing and testing for TerraPower’s traveling wave reactor. Until recently, I had always worked in a small shop with only a handful of people, so we had to rely on each other to solve challenges in design and manufacturing. Over the entirety of my career, I’ve made a lot of mistakes and hope I have learned from each one.  I particularly like Niels Bohr’s quote about mistakes, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes, which can be made in a very narrow field.”

Q: What makes working at IV Lab unique? 

A: Unlike most manufacturing companies, IV Lab allows for a great deal of creativity, collaboration and involvement in the entire process. I can be a cog in the wheel in one situation or the entire wheel in another. I love the diversity and variety. The SIMTG shop has tons of capability; the amount and scope of tools is unlike most shops. While none of us know all there is to know about all of these tools, with ten to fifteen people in the shop you can always find someone who knows more than you do. Together we can do amazing things when we combine our talents on even the toughest problem.

Q: Who is your favorite scientist/inventor? Why? 

A: I have always loved to sketch and when I start to work through an idea, sketching is always one of the first things I do. Leonardo Da Vinci’s art and inventions have always intrigued me, but in particular I enjoy his sketches and drawings. I’m amazed at the wide range of areas he was interested in and skilled at. And in recent years all the Dan Brown stories (true or not) have just added to the intrigue.

Q: Anything else you want to share? 

A: I love to share my passion for IV Lab and my work. Both here and at the UW, I have been very fortunate to work in situations where efforts were made to change the world in a positive way. Being even a small part of those efforts has made me proud and made it possible to enjoy going to work every day. I can’t wait to see what we do next.