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Machines that go Ping! Pete Marchetto brings sensors to Real Scientists – Real Scientists

Machines that go Ping! Pete Marchetto brings sensors to Real Scientists

Meet our next curator, Dr Pete Marchetto (@petmar0), Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota, USA.

Pete Marchetto is still not quite certain how he got where he is today. He started out doing research on the physics of biomedical devices, swerved into clinical research, then magnetostrictive materials, and finally a BS from Ramapo College of New Jersey in physics. After doing a story-laden stint for an equipment PeteM1calibration firm, a genomics software company, and a piezoelectric polymer lab at Penn State, he joined the engineering team of the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where, while working on recording devices for biologists, he got an MS and PhD. A postdoc in the Cornell Soil and Water Lab set him up to interact with citizen science groups on the topics of sensing and instrumentation. Now he’s at the University of Minnesota, teaching instrumentation and fluid dynamics while trying to figure out how to make the least. Expensive. Sensors. Ever. Want to know more about these sensors? Read about them here. Here’s Pete’s story.


When I was four and a half, I was walking down the street with my parents; I turned to them and said, “Mom, Dad, it’s my destiny to be a scientist.” After being encouraged by them and helped along through extracurricular activities (what with scientific education for the lower grades being drastically underemphasized here in the US) and going to a science-focused magnet school for high school, I got my BS in physics, and continued on into the calibration and metrology industry for a couple of years. I got back into academia as a lab tech in the materials research lab at Penn State, then as an engineer in the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell, where I got my MS and PhD. Long story short, I ended up in science because I’ve always wanted to, and because I have an insatiable curiosity about the way things work.


My journey to my current field of Biological/Environmental/Biosystems/Bioproducts/Agricultural Engineering is due to the caprice of the several professors that I approached in other departments during my time at Cornell. For example, I might have had a PhD in physics, but the professor doing acoustic work was of the opinion that I was too old at 24 to do anything of great enough importance to be associated with his lab. My PhD advisor, Todd Walter, was gracious enough to take me in, saying, “You’re an instrument maker? Well, I’m an instrument user! I’m sure this will work out fine.” He was right. I’ve found that people in the life sciences often aren’t trained to make the highly specialized equipment that they need, but, either because it doesn’t exist on the commercial market or is priced out of accessibility for no good reason other than greed, cannot acquire. So, I use my skills to help them by making the equipment and instrumentation that they can’t. It’s extremely rewarding collaborative work that allows me to use my skills as a generalist in physical science and engineering to help a part of the scientific community that needs them. Also, being married to an ecologist certainly helps to keep up my communication skills in biology.


I make, break, fix, document, test, and find use cases for instrumentation in the life sciences. I also try to make this instrumentation as inexpensively as possible so that anyone can replicate it.


Here’s one example: the US Geological Survey pays about $15,000 for a gauging station that will tell them only water level on a stream, creek, or river, and which then needs about $10,000 per year for installation and maintenance. Working with my students and colleagues, we’ve made a gauging station that can tell depth, temperature, turbidity, and conductivity, as well as having room to expand to other parameters, for $400 each, and about $100 a year, maximum, in data plan charges. The depth measurements from both systems are comparable. My work is focused on figuring out what’s worth sensing, and how to do it with the least wasted money possible, as well as involving everyone who might be interested in either the sensing systems themselves or their output data.


As a pre-tenure faculty member, I don’t get to have too much time for extracurriculars, but I used to be in wilderness search and rescue, and am looking forward to getting back into it with a SAR team here in Minnesota. I’m an avid birder, as well as an amateur radio operator. My ideal day off would involve hiking and/or canoeing/kayaking with my wife.


Please welcome Pete to Real Scientists!



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