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Tube technician wins O'Neill Award for supporting research enterprise

STANFORD ­ Behind every successful scientific experiment are the technicians who build and fix the equipment. Manuel Gutierrez, the tube technician at Stanford University's Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory, helps turn scientists' dreams into reality.

His exceptional and enduring contributions in support of Stanford's research enterprise have been formally recognized by the faculty with the third annual Marshall D. O'Neill award.

The award ­ a plaque and $2,000 ­ is presented to a staff member nominated by faculty members and finally selected by a faculty committee. President Gerhard Casper and Dean of Research Robert Byer presented the award at a ceremony Dec. 1 at Hoover House.

The award is named for its first winner, in 1990, Marshall O'Neill, former associate director of Hansen Labs. Last year, two staffers ­ Wolfgang Jung of the physics department machine shop and Rita Kuhn, manager of research administration in the School of Engineering ­ shared the award.

Gutierrez provides services ranging from simple soldering and leak checking to electron-beam welding and vacuum-oven brazing. He also is responsible for designing, building and assembling subsystems for the experimental apparatus, as well as maintaining the specialized equipment.

"He has immense practical knowledge of various materials and the ways they can interact with each other," said Todd Smith, research professor of physics.

Because the specialized services he provides are not widely available, Gutierrez often does work for many other Stanford departments, including geology and biological sciences, and repairs klystrons (a microwave generator invented at Stanford) for the Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

Though he works with equipment to be used in complex scientific experiments, Gutierrez said that he just sees himself as a "trouble-shooter running a repair shop."

Growing up in Mountain View, Gutierrez dropped out of high school to help out on his father's mushroom farm, which he believed he would someday run. When his father's share was bought out, Gutierrez looked for an alternative career.

"My uncle was working here (at the Hansen Lab) and he said to come in and he'd put me to work," Gutierrez said. That was in 1960, and the new assistant tube technician began from scratch.

"When I first got here, I didn't even know how I was supposed to hold a micrometer," he said. "They showed me everything here."

Gutierrez was promoted to the Principal Science and Engineering Technician series in 1970, and now runs the Tube Lab in Hansen. In that position, he often is consulted by researchers to help design their equipment.

According to his former supervisor, John P. Turneaure, Gutierrez has made "absolutely critical contributions" to the Mark II electron accelerator, the Gravity Probe B project and the free electron laser program.

"He has made it possible to construct equipment that would not be possible or convenient otherwise," wrote Robert Hammond, senior research associate at the Ginzton Labs, in nominating Gutierrez.

Physics Research Professor John Lipa, while recently working on a project aboard the space shuttle Columbia, took time out to send in a nomination for Gutierrez from the Marshall Flight Center in Alabama. Many times, Lipa wrote, he had "given up all hope" of using certain equipment for experiments, only to find that Gutierrez would "work ceaselessly" until he was successful in fixing the equipment.

Lipa wrote: "This is just the kind of support a research group needs to reduce the time between an idea and its realization."

Gutierrez said: "A lot of times they [researchers] come to me and tell me to do this and that, and I have to tell them, 'No, you can't do that.' Then they ask me, 'How can you do it?' "

Described by nominators as "quiet and unassuming" and having an "unflappable personality," Gutierrez said that the award came as a "big surprise" and that he did not even think that he was qualified to be among the 60 nominees.

"I thought that you had to be a supervisor or something," he said. "I really don't know how I got nominated, because a lot of the work I do is for students."

Physics Professor Mason Yearian once was one of those students Gutierrez helped. Yearian wrote that he first worked with "Manny" as a doctoral student 33 years ago.

"He attacks the problems of an undergraduate or graduate student with the same thoroughness and energy that he would give a Nobel Prize winner," Yearian wrote.

Though he enjoys working with all different types of metals, Gutierrez's first love is working with wood. On vacations he goes to the Santa Cruz Mountains to "cut down and split some trees" to use to "make small stuff" such as shelves and jewelry boxes for his 11-year-old daughter, Amanda. The $2,000 award might help him take a more relaxing family vacation, he said.

"My wife wants to go to Hawaii," he said, and, "I realize that I'm getting old; splitting wood is hard work."